How to Prepare for and Survive a Big Earthquake in Los Angeles

1994 earthquake

It’s Throwback Thursday, and I’m throwing it back to 1994.

But first, I’ve noticed a pattern. My anxiety over Los Angeles disaster scenarios has lead to my most thorough and useful blog posts so far. For example, see my posts about the California drought, or the possibility of a nuclear attack in Long Beach. I didn’t intend my personal blog to be a Los Angeles disaster blog, but I suppose Los Angeles disasters have been an interesting topic to me ever since I was nine years old Monday, January 17th 1994 when the Northridge earthquake did 20 billion dollars of damage and knocked my city down.

Los Angeles Earthquake

And you thought traffic was bad BEFORE an earthquake. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Northridge earthquake was a 6.7 tumbler that luckily hit around 4:30am, so no one was using the malls that collapsed or freeway overpasses that fell. It could have been a lot worse. Unlike how you might imagine earthquakes, the shaking in ’94 didn’t start subtly and then gradually become more intense — instead the quake wave hit all at once, very powerfully, and then gradually diminished.

The night before, I happened to fall asleep in my Mom’s room. We usually watched the Discovery Channel together on Sunday nights.

When the first quake wave hit I woke up about a foot in the air above my Mom’s bed.

My Mom was woken up first and didn’t waste a second launching me up with one arm locked around my waist pulling me onto my feet toward the bathroom door frame next to her bed while tables fell over and the ceiling and walls cracked above us. The shaking lasted for just under a minute. There were two more 6.0 aftershocks that followed. These were less forceful, and more prolonged. It felt like the house was “rolling on rails” if you can imagine that. When daylight came an hour or two later, I learned why brick and cinderblock structures are bad ideas in earthquake-prone areas like Los Angeles. Every chimney on my block became a pile of bricks on the ground. Even the wooden houses at minimum had visible cracking.

Here’s some insurance footage from later that morning of some damage to my house:

So, I don’t think there’s such thing as “over preparing” when it comes to earthquakes.

I’ve lived through a big one and no one can convince me it’s not worth being prepared. You can’t predict when big earthquakes will hit. What you can do is prepare. It’s been 21 years since the Northridge earthquake. Below are the steps I, a SoCal native, have personally taken in my home to prepare for the next “big one.”

What to do before the shaking starts:

Keep all of your emergency supplies in a single, easily accessible place, near your bed. A duffle bag or small cardboard box should work. You don’t want to be searching for these items when you need them, especially since the contents of drawers and cabinets might be strewn on the floor after a quake.

Earthquake Kit Contents:

  • Flashlight + extra batteries (If it’s nighttime when the shaking starts, this will be your only source of light until morning. Do not use candles because of gas leaks. LED’s are cheap, bright, and use the least battery life)
  • Sneakers/Boots + socks (There will be debris on the ground, and you might not otherwise have sturdy shoes at the ready. I shove the socks inside the shoes for space savings)
  • Battery/Crank/Solar radio + extra batteries (Terrestrial radio will be broadcasting emergency information, in LA during emergencies I use AM1070, AM640, and FM89.3)
  • Basic first aid kit (anything with a Red Cross logo will do, you can also make this yourself)
  • 12 inch Adjustable Wrench (You’ll need to shut off your gas line immediately after a quake because you probably have a gas leak. Even if you are renting an apartment, if you don’t want to deal with a gas fire in your building you need to know how to shut off your building’s gas line.)
  • Multi-tool (I prefer Leatherman’s but Swiss army knives work too).
  • Digital camera + batteries (You’ll need to take photos of all quake damage for your insurance company. Yes, everyone has a camera on their phone now, but who knows what your phone battery will be like at the moment of a quake when the power goes out.)
  • At least one gallon of water, per person (Your tap might not work for up to a couple of days)
  • Protein/granola bars (Hunger doesn’t help anything)

I don’t recommend buying a pre-made earthquake kit. Outside of first aid kits (which are usually comprehensive), kits are usually overpriced and understocked so I recommend making this earthquake kit yourself instead because it’s cheaper and more useful. Also, the ritual itself of hand-preparing an earthquake kit will ensure you know what’s inside of it, and hopefully give you a psychological feeling of calmed readiness.

Securing Your Home

  • Anchor the tops of bookcases, file cabinets and entertainment centers to one or more wall studs with flexible fasteners to prevent them from tipping over.
  • Secure china, collectibles, trophies and other shelf items with museum putty.
  • Install a lip or blocking device to prevent books or other articles from falling off shelves.
  • Secure televisions, computers and stereos with buckles and safety straps that also allow easy removal and relocation.
  • Install latches on cabinet doors to prevent them from opening and spilling out their contents.
  • Hang mirrors, pictures and plants using closed hooks to prevent items from falling.

What to do when the shaking starts:

Stop everything you’re doing immediately and take cover by crouching low and clasping your hands together behind your neck to protect your vertebrae. In order of most safe to least safe, here are places where you can take cover:

  • In a door frame
  • The “triangle” of space along the long side of a bed or couch
  • Under a sturdy table

Don’t run outside, it’s less safe due to power lines and other hazards. Stay under cover until the shaking completely stops. This may last several minutes, but probably will only be a few seconds. You should expect things to fall over if they are not secured in advance. This includes TV’s, computers, lighting, and anything on table tops, shelves, or unsecured cabinets.

What to do immediately after the shaking stops:

Remember, when earthquakes happen, a very important timeline immediately begins. Aftershocks (smaller, secondary earthquakes) are coming, and the good news is, this time they won’t take you by surprise. You want to do the following items, in this order, the moment everything stops shaking from the initial quake.

  1. Put shoes and pants on, there will be broken debris around you.
  2. Access your emergency kit.
  3. Confirm the well-being and safety of everyone in your house, including pets. Everyone will be in “high adrenaline” mode, so injuries may not be obvious at first. Do a head count, and quickly confirm no one is injured nor trapped.
  4. Use your 12 inch Adjustable Wrench to turn off your gas line.
  5. It’s very likely that phone service and electricity (let alone internet) will be down for at least a few hours. If you do have a connection, use social media and text messaging, not phone calls, to confirm that you are “ok”. Phone lines will be jammed with emergency calls, so it’s important to keep phone lines clear while also informing your people of your status.
  6. Turn on your radio to monitor emergency broadcasts, and if you still have mobile internet connection, check Twitter for #earthquake and related hashtags.
  7. Safely take photos of all earthquake damage for your insurance company.
  8. Check on your neighbors.
  9. Start cleaning up. Begin by cleaning broken glass on the floor, and then throw away as much debris as possible. Your kitchen will be the biggest mess.

So, that’s my plan for the next big one. Did I miss anything? Add it in the comments, or tell me on Twitter.

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One Comment on “How to Prepare for and Survive a Big Earthquake in Los Angeles

  1. Pingback: ANOTHER QUAKE: How to help earthquake victims in Nepal - Max Goldberg | Max Goldberg

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