Earthquakes are some of Mother Nature’s more violent shows of power, but there are still things you can do to protect yourself and your family. When you feel the ground shaking, follow these rules.
If You’re at Home
Most earthquakes only last for a few seconds, and even strong ones only go for up to 30 seconds. That means you have to act fast to protect yourself. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov website, the first thing you should do is drop to the ground, not run outside. This makes it so the earthquake can’t knock you over, and you become a smaller target for falling or flying objects (both of which are what cause most earthquake injuries).
Once on the ground, cover your head and neck with one arm as you move to get under something for shelter. As you move, avoid windows, hanging decor, tall furniture and appliances, mirrors, and cabinets filled with glass. Move along interior walls instead of exterior walls. Once you’ve found shelter, curl into a ball and use both your arms to protect your head and neck. If you use a wheelchair or similar mobility device, lock your wheels, bend over, protect your head and neck with your arms, and wait until the shaking stops. If you’re awoken to an earthquake while you’re in bed, stay in bed and cover your head and neck with your pillow. Trying to run through falling debris in the dark is a very bad idea.
Also, do not stand in a doorway! That is a widely spread myth started by a famous post-California earthquake photo, says Mark Benthien, the Director for Communication, Education and Outreach for the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC). Doorways are only reinforced in old adobe-style homes. Modern home doorways are no stronger than the rest of the building, and standing in them actually makes it more likely you’ll get hurt—either by the door swinging wildly or debris flying into you.
When the shaking finally does stop, wait for a few moments before moving. Look around and above you to make sure there’s nothing that can harm you. Then the State of California Department of Conservation says you should see if you smell gas, check for electrical wiring damage, and other fire hazards. As you look around, check for cracks and damage to your roof or home foundation. Don’t leave your home unless you absolutely have to, and avoid calling people unless it’s an emergency. You want to keep the roads and phone lines clear for emergency personnel.
If You’re at Work
Being at work isn’t that much different than being at home when an earthquake strikes. You should get down, protect your head and neck, and find shelter under your desk or what have you. The only difference is that you may be evacuated after the quake so inspectors can take a look at the building.
But what if you’re in a tall office building? Benthien suggests higher floors may actually be safer in older, pre-1970s buildings. Those buildings may partially collapse, but the high floors usually stay intact. That said, you have very little time to move, so you’re probably still better off finding shelter immediately. Tall modern buildings are built to sway with the earthquake’s motion, so definitely stay put.
If you’re in a crowded work environment it’s even more important you do not block doorways. Doorways don’t protect you there either, and you could cause a dangerous traffic jam. Whatever happens after the earthquake, try to avoid driving away from work, even if they shut down for the day. Again, you want to keep streets clear for emergency vehicles.
If You’re in Your Car
Driving during an earthquake can be very dangerous since the seismic waves can cause you to loose control. Once you feel the motion, move your vehicle out of traffic, come to a complete stop, and set your parking brake. Do not park under any bridges, overpasses, trees, light posts, signs, or power lines. After you park, stay in your vehicle until the shaking stops completely.
If something happens to fall on your car while you’re inside, stay put until a trained person can come remove it, especially if it’s an electrical wire. Otherwise, resume driving to your destination normally. Just be sure to watch for unexpected road hazards, and steer clear of any bridges, old roads, or ramps that may have just been damaged in the quake.