6 tips to properly prepare for an earthquake

Between 1918 and 2004 there were 20 magnitude 6.0+ earthquakes in Southern California, on average one every 4.3 years. Over that 86 year period, the longest gap between 6.0+ earthquakes was 12 years. It’s been 12 years since 2004, the year of our last 6.0+ magnitude earthquake. That makes me nervous.

I’ve covered earthquake risk and earthquake insurance before. In summary, earthquake insurance is expensive and comes with a 15% deductible because the risk is very real. The decision to buy it is a balance between risk tolerance and premium expense that should be made with real numbers in the context of your overall insurance program. For those who want earthquake insurance at a manageable cost, you should consider covering the structure but not the contents, since the contents are partially recoverable in all but the most severe scenarios. Call me today if you want to talk about earthquake insurance.

In this post, I want to address something more important: your personal safety. If you live on the West Coast you’ve been told what to do in an earthquake (get away from things that fall, and cover your head) and what to have in your earthquake kit (water, food, flashlights, radio, first aid kit, some cash). The same goes for my Midwestern clients in tornado country. Join me for a not-so-imaginary scenario and six new tips for you to think about:

Picture yourself alone at home around 8pm one evening cooking some pasta on your gas stove. The water has just started boiling so you’re using a spoon to push the noodles under so they’ll cook evenly. Suddenly you hear what appears to be a large truck approaching followed by 15 seconds of your whole world shaking violently from side to side. You hear dishes and glasses crashing to the floor.

Then silence. You find yourself sitting on the floor in complete blackness. You feel something wet on the floor and notice water pouring out from somewhere under the kitchen island. Then through the dusty air you see a blue flickering light. You stand up and see there are blue flames coming up from behind your stove.

You have some problems.

But you don’t need to panic if you are prepared:

1. You should always have a flashlight and fire extinguisher in your kitchen. You use the flashlight to find the fire extinguisher and put out the fire.
2. You need to turn off the gas. It’s not enough to know where the gas turnoff is, you need to know how to turn it off which for SoCal Gas typically involves turning a square-shaped nut with a special wrench that is almost always missing. You can use an adjustable wrench, but you should always have that wrench near that valve.
3. You need to turn off the water. If you have an all-house valve you can turn it off “at the house” which will keep your irrigation system flowing (including possible breaks). Or you can turn it off “at the street” which will turn off everything, but it’s frequently very hard to lift the cement cover over your street water valve without a tool such as a large screwdriver. You should try it once to be prepared.

You’ve successfully put out the fire and turned off the gas and water. You turn on the radio in your earthquake kit and they report travel is for essential traffic only but that includes people who have uninhabitable homes moving to temporary lodging. You try calling your sister for a place to stay and get “no cell service currently available”. You decide to drive over but there is no electricity to open your garage door.

Again, no need to panic if you are prepared:

4. Electric garage doors have little red knobs hanging from ropes that are for emergency release/manual use. Once pulled the door can be manually lifted, but it is quite heavy. It’s a good idea to see if you can do it before you really need to.
5. You should prearrange a meeting place (such as your sister’s) to go if your house is uninhabitable. Your house will be rendered uninhabitable (regardless of your opinion) if the civil defense authority “red tags” it due to gas leak, foundation cracks, etc. You can assume no nearby hotels will be available.
6. Other residents of your house should all agree to the common meeting place so if you’re not together when the earthquake hits you’ll have a way to meet up without the use of phone/internet.

You’re at your sister’s with your family watching the mess on the TV news. You’re thinking, whew, that could have been much worse, I’m glad I read Carrie’s post.