How to Prepare for an Earthquake: A Guide + Checklist

earthquake preparedness

Earthquakes are some of the most unpredictable natural disasters. If you live near fault lines, you should definitely expect to experience one at some point or another, however the timing is not something technology has yet been able to accurately anticipate.

Even though technology has advanced greatly, there’s still nothing available for us to determine when the next “big one” will strike, so being prepared is an absolute must.

There is no way to tell what impact a future earthquake will have on our homes, lives, and well-being, but I can assure you that having some prerequisite knowledge and a few supplies WILL make a huge difference in how you react to it when that day comes.

[This is a long article about becoming prepared for an earthquake, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here.]

Interesting earthquake facts

  • Each year, natural disasters affect approximately 160 million people and kill around 90,000 people worldwide. The majority of these deaths are liked to the collapse of infrastructure after earthquakes.

  • On a world scale, there are about 55 earthquakes every day and approximately 20,000 earthquakes every year.

  • The US states where earthquakes occur the most are Alaska, California, and Oklahoma. California experiences the most damaging quakes, however, because of its population and infrastructure.

  • The US states where the least amount of earthquakes occur are North Dakota and Florida.

  • The largest earthquake ever recorded occurred on May 22, 1960, in Chile. It had a magnitude of 9.5. The second-largest occurred on March 28, 1964, in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It had a magnitude of 9.2. (USGS)

  • The deadliest earthquake to be recorded was the one that struck the Shensi province of China on January 23, 1556. This powerful quake, otherwise known as the Jiajing Great Earthquake, killed approximately 830,000 people.

  • The costliest quake in United States history was the Northridge Earthquake. This 6.7 magnitude earthquake occurred on January 17, 1994, and resulted in at least 57 deaths as well as over 20 billion dollars worth of damage.

Earthquake terms you should know

Earthquake: An earthquake is when the Earth’s crust moves and thereby produces a slipping of the Earth’s surface. 

Megaquake: The media defines a mega-quake as an earthquake that reached a magnitude of 7.0 or higher on the Richter scale. The United States Geological Survey, on the other hand, only considers it a mega-quake if the earthquake were to reach a magnitude of 10.0 or higher. Luckily, there are no known faults capable of generating such large earthquakes. 

Fault: This is a fracture between a section of the crust of the Earth that may cause a slow or sudden shift as force is built up. There are different types of faults: a normal fault, a thrust fault, a strike-slip fault, and a right/left-lateral strike-slip fault. Each kind of fault is relative to its type of movement.

Subduction zone: When one tectonic plate slides beneath the other during an earthquake.

Hypocenter: The hypocenter, also known as the focus, is where the rupture of the earthquake begins. This point is located below the surface of the earth.

Epicenter: The location on the surface of the earth directly above the hypocenter where the earthquake is felt the strongest.

Magnitude: This is the amount of energy released during an earthquake. The magnitude is measured by the Richter scale which reads everything between micro-sized quakes (1.0+) all the way up to great quakes (9.0 and greater).

Foreshock: These are the shocks that precede the main shock.

Main shock: This is the strongest felt, or main, earthquake.

Aftershock: The shocks, or vibrations, that follow the main shock. This is the “adjustment” phase of plate tectonics, so to speak. These shocks may continue to cause damage if the main shock was powerful enough, but they’re not stronger in magnitude than the main shock. Aftershocks may continue to occur for weeks, months, or even years!

Seismicity: This is a measure that analyzes the seismic activity for any particular region. It refers to how often an earthquake occurs in a given area.

Soil liquefaction: This is when a solid surface loses its strength, either by water saturation or stress, making it behave like a liquid. This may occur after an earthquake and may result in buildings collapsing or debris flow because of structural instability.

Current live map of earthquakes

The main resource for live earthquake data is the US Geological Survey website. You can find their current earthquake map right here.

Another cool resource you can look into is the USGS interactive map of faults. You can zoom into any area you want, or input an address or coordinates, and it will show you the data on nearby faults.

FEMA has several earthquake hazard maps broken up into different sections of the United States. Even though those maps are not interactive, they give you good insight in determining the potential risk of earthquake damage in your region. Find the earthquake hazard map here.

earthquake preparedness

What to expect during an earthquake

Earthquakes are scary, especially if you've never experienced one before. 

To put your mind at ease, we gathered a list of the most common earthquake questions and answered them for you here.

How to mitigate earthquakes

Earthquakes may catch us off guard. Preparing for them can save us a lot of money and give us peace of mind.

The following simple steps will help you put together your earthquake emergency plan and put it into practice long before an earthquake hits.

  1. If you live in an earthquake prone-zone, you should go the extra mile to secure items and protect your home. You must anchor your valuables to a sturdy table, the walls, the floor, or what have you. 

    Start with one room of your home at a time. Secure heavy items with grips or move them to lower shelves to prevent them from becoming heavy falling objects. Properly hang and secure light fixtures.

    It would be a good idea to secure furniture, especially tall furniture like china cabinets, to the floor. Secure water heaters to the floor and wall.

    FEMA provides excellent how-to guides on restraining appliances, water heaters, and desktop computers, bolting items to the wall and foundation, securing heavy furniture, mirrors, framed pictures, and cabinet doors, using the appropriate flexible connections for your water and gas lines, and much more. You can access all of these guides right here.

  2. Don’t forget to secure paint cans and heavy equipment in your garage. This way you can prevent HAZMAT spills and damage to your vehicle.

  3. Keep your emergency kit near the most-used entrance/exit door to your home.

  4. Don’t go to sleep with your bedroom door shut all the way. Even a minor earthquake can alter the shape of the door frame, causing your door to get jammed. If you keep the door cracked open, you’ll be able to get out of your room without a problem, instead of having to force your way out through a window.

  5. Keep a sturdy pair of shoes, work gloves, and a headlamp or flashlight next to your bed. If an earthquake occurs at night, you should put on sturdy shoes to prevent injuries to your feet from debris or broken glass.

  6. Learn how to turn off the utilities (specifically the main gas valve) and teach others in your household as well. If the earthquake ruptures gas or power lines, you’re at a greater risk of a fire. After the earthquake has passed, you should determine whether or not it’s necessary to turn off the utilities to prevent further damage.

  7. Consider earthquake insurance if your home is located in an area with a high risk of earthquakes- your homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover quakes!

  8. Discuss an evacuation plan with your family- this is not only helpful for earthquakes but for other emergency situations too. Practice different ways to evacuate your home. Involve your kids and loved ones in the process so they learn the best ways to get to safety.

  9. Develop a family plan which includes a communication and reunification plan, in case the earthquake happens at a time when you’re not all together. Remember to update your list of emergency phone numbers as necessary.

    As part of your reunification plan, you should identify a secure location for everyone to meet that is in your neighborhood. This place may be different from the safe location you've chosen to evacuate to. 

  10. Practice drop, cover, and hold on with your entire family. Make appropriate adjustments for older adults in your household who have limited mobility. 

    Participate in the nationwide Great ShakeOut earthquake drills that happen every year on the 3rd Thursday of October. For more information visit

  11. If you live in California, download the app: MyShake. This app is intended to help scientists improve earthquake-prediction technology. It provides users with real-time information on approaching earthquakes of a minimum 4.5 magnitude, and gives them opportunities to communicate with other users. You can become part of the network here.

    The Earthquake Country Alliance also has information and resources to improve earthquake resiliency. 

Earthquake safety tips

During an earthquake DO:

  • The moment the shaking starts, stay put wherever you are.
    • If indoors, drop to your knees and take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture with your back to the windows. Otherwise, get down next to low-lying furniture or near an interior wall.

    • If outdoors, drop to your knees and crawl to an open area far from structures.

    • If you're driving, slow down and move your car as far out of traffic as possible. The safest place may be on the side of the road, however, try to stay away from light posts, signs, power lines, bridges, and overpasses. Turn off the car and use the parking brake. Stay inside the car until the shaking stops. Once you resume driving, do so with extreme caution.
  • Curl up in a fetal position to protect your vital organs. Remain in this position until the shaking stops.

  • Cover your neck with your arm to prevent injury to your upper spinal cord.

  • Remain as calm as possible. A damaging earthquake can break windows and glass doors, disrupt electrical lines, activate sprinkler systems and fire alarms, cause heavy objects to fall and break, etc.

  • Pay attention to any emergency alerts sent to your mobile phone. FEMA, the FCC, and your wireless provider work together to get these alert messages out to you as soon as possible to improve public safety.

During an earthquake DON’T:

  • Do not take refuge under a doorway. There’s a misconception that doorways are a safe place to hold on to while the earth is shaking, but no…the truth is that the door will be moving too, and if the quake is strong enough, you can get slammed by the door. Also, the frame provides no protection whatsoever to your neck or vital organs, so you expose yourself to receive more physical injuries.

  • Do not take cover next to anything that might break or fall over, such as bookshelves, windows, glass tables, or chandeliers. Make sure to get under a sturdy table that is unlikely to collapse over you.

  • Do not run to grab your pets. Your pets will be just as shocked and nervous as you, but you can’t communicate safety protocols to them. Go get your pets and comfort them after the earthquake has passed.

After an earthquake DO:

  • If your property experienced significant damage, inspect your water, gas, and electric lines. If you suspect damage was done to any of these, shut them off. Contact a professional to inspect your utilities and plumbing system to prevent water leaks or short circuits. Meanwhile, unplug all electronic equipment, appliances, and devices from the wall socket.

  • Do a quick walk-through of your home. If you notice any damage to the structure of your home or fireplace, evacuate immediately. Open windows to ventilate the house in case there’s a gas leak.

  • Contact your loved ones (via text only) to notify them of your status. Text messages should get sent out faster since they take up less bandwidth than phone calls do. After an earthquake the phone lines might be disrupted or saturated.   

  • Only travel if necessary and with extreme caution. Consider fallen structures, bridges, cracked roads, debris, and liquefaction. Opt for traveling on foot, since there might be heavy traffic, the traffic lights might not be working, and you may be more susceptible to accidents and aftershocks.

  • Be prepared for aftershocks of a similar magnitude.

  • Take photos to document the damage that was done to your home. Ask your insurance provider if these images can serve as proof to submit a claim.

After an earthquake DON’T:

  • Do not go to the beach. Earthquakes can cause tsunamis.

  • Do not get in an elevator. Always use the stairs after an earthquake.

  • Do not light a match indoors or near buildings. If there’s a gas leak present, you might cause an explosion.

Earthquake kit must-haves

Earthquakes, much like any other natural disaster, can be handled much easier if you have several supplies on hand.

There’s no guarantee that you will find any of these supplies if you purchase them last minute, and if you do, the demand will be so high that you will end up paying ridiculous prices for them.

Prepare yourself with the essential supplies to overcome some of the common challenges faced after earthquakes and improve your chances of survival.

These are some emergency supplies that you should have in the event of an earthquake:

  • Long-term water storage: Water is vital for survival. An earthquake may cause serious damage to water and sewage pipes, so you can’t trust that water from the tap will be safe to drink.

    Keep enough potable water and water supplies (i.e. portable containers and storage barrels). Ideally, you should have enough water to last each person in your household a minimum of 72 hours.

  • Water purification kit, tablets, or straw. Having the ability to purify water is very practical, especially once your emergency water supply runs out.

    For one, it means that you don’t have to keep 12 or more gallons of water in storage if you don’t have space for it. More importantly, though, it gives you the ability to purify all the impurities and contaminants from your water supply, whether it’s coming from the tap or somewhere else.

    The Lifestraw is convenient because it’s small, easy to carry in your backpack, and can filter up to 1,000 gallons of water! If you used it every day, you wouldn’t have to worry about unclean water for the next four years.

  • Long-term food storage: Food is an essential part of the preparedness equation. Your food storage can consist of canned and dried goods but those are oftentimes bulky and sometimes take too long to cook.

    These food storage solutions provide you with hearty meals that are known to be family comfort meals rich in nutritious ingredients. Since they can last 25 years in storage, you can rest assured that your food won’t expire for a long time.

    Preparation takes approximately 20 minutes, so you’ll fill your belly before you know it.

  • Stove and fuel source: These stove and fuel kits are amazing because they can be safely used indoors and outdoors. The fuel doesn’t provide toxic fumes and heats up water quickly. Prepare yourself a hot meal or cup of tea in just minutes!

  • Plasticware, including utensils, cups, plates, and several large trash bags to dispose of everything. Since water might not be easily accessible at first, use paper or plasticware to make cleanup much easier.

  • A complete first aid kit: Depending on the magnitude of the earthquake, emergency personnel may take several days to come out and assist you.

    If you or someone you love experiences a minor injury, a first aid kit should have the supplies to clean and sanitize the wound, as well as provide some bandage support to prevent it from getting worse until you’re able to see a doctor.

  • A complete but-out kit: A but-out kit should have all the items you need to survive for 72 hours if you have to evacuate your home.

    If the earthquake causes enough damage, evacuation might be necessary so make sure to keep your backpack fully stocked and updated. Store it near the entrance door you use the most for fast access.

  • Headlamps, flashlights, and glow sticks: If an earthquake happens at night, you may need to get to safety quickly but there might be debris or broken items on the ground.

    I recommend you keep a headlamp and extra batteries close to the side of your bed. A headlamp is preferred because it keeps your hands free so you can use them for other things.

  • A sturdy pair of shoes next to (or under) the bed. Again, if an earthquake happens at night, you’ll want to put on sturdy shoes to prevent cuts on your feet from broken glass and debris.

    Make sure the rubber soles are heavy-duty and keep them just under or on the side of your bed for immediate access.

  • Protective clothing: Keep a pair of long pants and a long-sleeved shirt in your emergency kit to protect your entire body, as well as other protective gear like goggles. Have one set of clothes for each of your family members.

  • Work gloves: Keep these with your shoes and headlamp by the bed. If you need to move fallen debris, you want to keep your hands protected from getting cuts.

  • A toilet and sanitation kit: We tend to forget how convenient it is to flush a toilet. If an earthquake causes significant damage to the sewage pipes, you may not be able to flush the toilet until that gets repaired.

    Improper disposal of waste can cause a myriad of problems, so get yourself a sanitation kit to prevent illness.

  • Moisture wet wipes: I take wet wipes practically everywhere because they’re easy for maintaining proper hygiene.

    In the event that an earthquake leaves you without access to water for a few days, you can substitute a shower with a few wet wipes and call it good. If you have a limited amount of water, you’ll want to save it for drinking and cooking purposes.

  • Additional items for babies, toddlers, the elderly, those with disabilities, and pets.

    Remember to include all the people living in your household in your emergency plans. Some may have dietary restrictions, medications, or other basic needs. Make sure to add all the additional necessary items that might not be listed here.

  • Important documents folder: If there’s one thing you should prioritize on this list, other than water and food, it’s keeping copies of your important documents!

    There are many documents that are needed to begin rebuilding your life after a major earthquake has damaged your home. Some of these documents include insurance papers, papers that verify your identity, homeowner paperwork, etc.

    Having all the documents you need in one easy-to-access place will help you begin the recovery process quickly and efficiently. In this post, you can print a checklist with all the important documents you need and how to properly store them.

  • Portable radio: This will come in handy for receiving real-time updates on the current situation.

  • Fire extinguisher: There's a risk of gas pipes cracking if the magnitude of the earthquake is significant. To prevent fires or explosions as a result of gas leaks, keep a fire extinguisher in an accessible location.

Keep this information in your emergency kit so it's handy when you need it the most. Print the earthquake supplies checklist and safety tips below.

Recommended supplies for earthquake preparednessClick to download checklist

Earthquake safety tipsClick to download checklist

More resources

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