There are a lot of things that expats need to get used to when they move to a new country, and for expats preparing to live in the USA, the risk of an earthquake is one such thing. What makes living in an earthquake zone difficult to adjust to is that the threat is rarely visible or realized, so it doesn’t quite become a part of your life the way year-round rainy weather or the risk of crime do.Of course, this is also a good thing, because when an earthquake does happen, it can have devastating effects. This is also why, even though most expats are probably going to be lucky enough to never actually experience an earthquake, it’s important for them to be prepared for one, in terms of awareness as well as actual measures.
California, with its San Andreas fault line, tends to be the most famous earthquake zone on the North American continent, but there are many other regions that are also earthquake prone and are yet relatively unknown. Recent research over the past few years has shown that almost the entire western region of the US has risk levels ranging from moderate to very high, and in addition, considerable portions of the east coast as well as the middle of the country are also prone to earthquakes. In terms of the possible magnitude of earthquakes, the Pacific Northwest is the region most at risk, even more than California. Other earthquake-prone regions include Salt Lake City and New Madrid, which are susceptible to higher intensity earthquakes than was previously believed.
Many of these regions are densely populated and highly developed, and also have large expat populations. According to some estimates, nearly half of all Americans live in parts of the country that are earthquake-prone. If you’re an expat in the US, there’s a high chance that you too are located in one of these regions. If living in an earthquake zone is new for you, here are a few things you should know about it.
What to expect in an earthquake
If you’ve never in your life experienced an earthquake or even mild tremors, the first experience can be extremely unsettling. Unfortunately, predicting earthquakes is very difficult, even with all the technology we have today. Some traditional indicators include changes in water levels and unusual behavior by animals, especially local wildlife. However, none of these indicators are ever 100% certain, and your first warning is likely to be when the earthquake itself hits.
Depending on the intensity of the earthquake and other factors, you may hear a rumbling that can gradually build up to a loud roar. You may feel the room or your surroundings move in a disorienting, almost dizzy way, and this movement may build up to a more intense rolling and shaking. Due to this, you may find it difficult to walk or even stand up, and it is therefore recommended that you avoid doing so. Windows, doors, furniture, and household items may also move, and things that aren’t secured may fall off shelves or out of cupboards.
If you’re far enough from the epicenter of the earthquake you may only experience mild tremors. These are often fleeting and easy to miss, and you may simply have a moment where you wonder if you’re dizzy.
In most parts of the US, houses are well constructed, and the risk of a collapse is low (but not non-existent). Most of the risk in an earthquake is of injuries from falling over yourself or from furniture and household items falling on you, especially cupboards, window panes, and kitchenware or crockery.
What you should do to prepare for an earthquake
A large part of living in an earthquake zone is simply about awareness and planning, with a little bit of practice. The first thing you need to do is of course find out whether you live in a place that is susceptible to earthquakes and how severe the risk is. Depending on the severity of the risk, these are a few of the preparations you need to make.
Earthquake-proof your house: If you are building your own house, you will have more control over this, but even if you’re buying or renting, choose a house that is sturdy and can withstand the force of an earthquake. However, earthquake-proofing goes beyond the structure of the house, to include the things that are in it.
Most earthquake-related injuries in developed countries are from furniture falling over or from items falling out of cabinets and shelves. Make sure that you secure your furniture to prevent it from moving around or falling over in an earthquake. Tall pieces of furniture like bookcases, crockery cabinets, and cupboards should be secured at the top too. Preferably, keep glassware and heavy items in closed cabinets that can be latched. Carefully consider where and how you locate things like stoves, mirrors, paintings, and light fixtures.
Put together an emergency kit: You should have an emergency kit in your house, and everyone should know where to access it. The kit should contain first aid supplies as well as survival supplies, including food and water. The food should be non-perishable, and both should be adequate for at least three days. If you have a pet, ensure that you have supplies for them too. Remember to include a portable, battery-operated radio in the kit. Other essentials include dust masks, goggles, flashlights, toiletries, spare batteries, and a few basic tools.
Create lists of phone numbers and other information: These lists need to be on paper, and should be part of your emergency kit. If you are trapped due to an earthquake, your phones may run out of battery, and while you may be able to use someone else’s phone, you won’t have access to your phone’s address book. List the names and phone numbers of neighbors, insurance agents, local police and fire departments, your bank, close family, and anyone else you might need to contact. Also create a list of insurance policy numbers, bank account numbers, and medical information such as allergies and ongoing conditions for every family member.
Create a priority list: In order of priority, create a list of things that need to be done in case of an earthquake evacuation, such as turning off the water and electricity. You should also create a list of important things that need to be rescued from the house, including important documents and items of personal importance. Focus on small items that can be removed from the house by hand by you and your family (including your earthquake kit), but also consider larger items that you would like to save if you have access to a car, van or truck.
Find out how to turn off utilities: Ensure that you and everyone in the family knows where the switches are for all your utilities, such as gas, water, electricity, and heat. In a severe earthquake, these lines can be damaged and can pose a huge risk.
Formulate an earthquake response plan: Your plan should specify the safe places in your house and the exits. Establish a family meeting place outside the house, so that if you get separated, you know where to find each other.
Practice earthquake drills: When an earthquake actually strikes, it can be extremely terrifying and disorienting, so unless you’ve practiced enough and can respond automatically, it will be difficult to think straight and do the right thing.
What you should do during an earthquake
If you’re indoors, stay indoors: People often make the mistake of leaving their houses during an earthquake. However, this only increases the risk of injury – the area right outside your house or building is where you’re most likely to be hit by falling debris. Severe shaking during an earthquake can also make it difficult to walk, once again increasing the risk of hurting yourself in a fall.
If you’re outdoors, get to an open area: If you’re outdoors, remain outdoors – don’t try to get inside a building. Instead, if you can, get to a clear, open space where you’re unlikely to have things falling on you. Buildings, as we just explained, are dangerous to be around. In addition, stay away from trees, power lines, light posts, walls, bridges, and any other structures that could topple or collapse. If you’re driving, find a similarly safe spot, and stop there, but preferably remain in the vehicle.
Drop and take cover: This is the most important thing you need to do in an earthquake – drop to your hands and knees (this position gives you the most stability while also allowing you to move around), get under a sturdy table or desk, and hold onto its legs to keep it from moving. If it does move, move with it so that you remain sheltered from falling objects. Stay away from the kitchen, because this is where you are mostly likely to be hit by glass, sharp objects, and heavy pots and pans falling out of cabinets. Keep away from windows and cupboards too.
Keep pets confined: Pets often run away during an earthquake, so the most important thing you need to do is keep them in a secure room or crate. This will not be reassuring of course, and you may be tempted to hold or stroke them to calm them down; however, do not do this unless you’re sure that they can’t bolt from the room.
What you should do after an earthquake
Watch out for falling debris and aftershocks: Once the shaking has stopped, count to one hundred before you start moving. This will give most things time to settle and fall if they need to. Even after this, watch out for falling debris, and brace yourself for aftershocks. These tremors are usually not as severe as the earthquake itself, but they can still do some damage.
Check for injuries: First check yourself, then your family, and then neighbors. If anyone is injured, administer first aid and call for help. Don’t move injured people unless you’re sure that their condition is stable. If someone is seriously injured, wait for emergency services to move them, unless they’re in immediate danger.
Be careful when exploring and examining your house: There will probably be a few spills and leaks, and items are likely to tumble out of your cupboards and cabinets when you open them. Stay away from damaged areas of your house. If you notice cracks and other damage to the structure of your house, stay away from these areas until a professional has examined them and vouched for their stability. Also beware of gas leaks, damaged electrical lines, and broken sewer lines. You will usually be able to smell a gas leak, and if you do so, do not light any matches or touch any electrical switches. Switch off the gas supply if you can if you haven’t already done so, and evacuate the premises. Watch out for damage to the other utility lines too.
Stay away from low-lying coastal areas: If you live near the coast, stay away from the waterfront and from other low-lying areas. An earthquake may be followed by a tsunami, which can cause severe damage to these areas. If you know you live in an area that has a high risk of being hit by tsunamis, evacuate as soon as the earthquake stops.
Turn on a portable radio: Almost all other means of communication are highly likely to be affected by an earthquake, either by direct damage or by overload from all the people trying to reach each other. Radio services are most likely to continue functioning, and a portable radio (which you should ideally have included in your earthquake kit) will help you to receive official updates, warnings, and other useful information.