7 Ways to Prepare for and Survive an Earthquake

earthquake-survival tips

by Janet Spencer, Catastropharian Extraordinaire

In 1994 a friend of mine was in the Northridge earthquake. She was awakened in the middle of the night by her apartment collapsing around her. She crawled out of the wreckage wearing nothing but her nighty. She met her neighbors in the street. Most were cut, like she was, from scrambling through broken glass on their way out of ruined buildings. Some were missing. Most were found. Several were dead. It was a long time until dawn.

Hearing her recount the story of surviving an earthquake in the middle of the night made me think about surviving an earthquake in the middle of the night. I’m a thousand miles away from California, but I live on a fault line too. My town has a track record. We’re overdue.

Could what happened to her happen to me? What would I do if it did?

There’s one important difference between California and my home Montana. When she was thrown out of bed, it was a warm night, even though it was January 17. Everyone was standing around barefoot in their pajamas. Nobody was cold. Nobody froze to death.

But Montana has a nasty tendency to get very bitterly frigid on a fairly frequent basis, especially in January. If I get bounced out of bed by an earthquake, it might be below zero outside. And people who experience sub-zero on a regular basis know how bad it would be to stand around in the street wearing nothing but pajamas with bleeding feet and shock coming on when it’s ten or twenty below zero.

She is my friend, and I still hear the fear in her voice when she remembers that night. It was harrowing and horrifying and hard. And I knew that if it happened to me on one of those nasty mid-winter nights, it could be a whole lot harder. It might be a very very long time until dawn.

And that’s what made me think, ‘What can I do now that would make it less terrible then?’

I made a list. Then I checked off everything on that list. And if you’ve ever wondered, ‘What if….’ then maybe you should look at this list too.

If you check off everything on the list, then if you’re ever bounced out of bed on a sub-zero night, things might be easier for you.

Take a look. Here’s the list.

After seeing pictures of the wreckage of her apartment, I imagined trying to find my glasses in the middle of that mess. If my glasses fly off the nightstand, fall to the floor, and disappear down some dark and dusty crevice, then I am immediately handicapped. I am hopeless and helpless without my glasses.

So I bought a glasses case on a string, of the type worn around the neck. I tied it to my bedpost. Every night for a thousand nights when I’ve gone to bed, I’ve placed my glasses in that case. They’re never on the nightstand any more. I reach for them automatically in the morning. I always know where they are. They are always within arm’s reach.

Nothing can shake them loose.

That glasses case cost me a buck and it bought me a whole lot of peace of mind. If I’m going to be coping with a quake in the middle of the night, I don’t have to go into the chaos blind. For a dollar, I can always find my glasses.

That is the first thing on the list.

Of course, the electricity went out in Northridge, and it was night, so it was dark. And if the same thing happened to me, I would want light immediately available. Normally I keep flashlights in the junk drawer in the kitchen, and in the basement on the tool bench, and in the car under the seat, but I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to find a flashlight in order to find a flashlight. I didn’t want to waste any time at all fumbling around in the darkness and confusion searching for it.

So I bought a flashlight with a wrist strap attached, and I gave it fresh batteries, and I hung it from my bedpost along with my glasses. Then I wondered, what would happen if the batteries went dead? No light, no more! So I bought a package of extra batteries and put them in the draw in my nightstand.

I also bought a hand-cranked wind-up flashlight/radio/siren/phone charger. I tuned the radio to the station that’s designated emergency broadcast channel in case of emergency. I hung it by its wrist strap from the bedpost as well. The flashlight cost me a buck, the batteries cost me two, the wind-up one cost me twenty. What will they be worth? Plenty.

That’s the second thing on the list. Got eyes, got light. Good to go.

Where am I going? How am I going to get there?

My friend wanted to get into her car and go somewhere safe, but her car was in the garage and the garage was askew and the garage door would not open. She couldn’t even sit in her car because the doors were locked. The keys were in her purse and her purse was probably on the dining room table, or maybe the kitchen counter and both places were buried under so many splinters.

There was a magnetic key under the bumper but it was dark and she didn’t have a light. She was barefoot and the garage windows had shattered all over the ground. She thought she had a flashlight, but it was in the locked car. (Later it turned out the batteries were dead anyway.) So she just stood around in the street and waited for someone to help her to the hospital.

I don’t want to stand around and wait for someone to show up to help me. If it’s ten below zero, waiting around isn’t an option.

So I had a set of spare car keys made up. I added copies of keys of all the places most important to me—the places I’ll want to check first after a disaster, like my office, and my husband’s business. I clipped the keyring to the wristband of the flashlight hanging on my bedpost.

So now, if I’m bleeding and frightened and cold, I can sit in my car and have heat and light and a radio. I’m glad I don’t have a garage, because it will never collapse, trapping my car. I might be able to get to the hospital without waiting for help.

It cost me four dollars to have the keys copied. Keys are third on the list.

If these three things are all you ever do, you will be so much better off when that night arrives than if you never looked at this list at all.

But if you agree that there are many things you can do now that will help you later, then read the rest of the list.

When my friend jumped out of bed, she did it instinctively, without thinking, and without looking before she leaped. She discovered the hard way that every framed family photo had fallen off her dresser top. Every picture on the wall fell. Every window in her apartment shattered.

Every mirror broke. The floor was covered with shards of glass. Her injuries came not from the quake, but from cutting her feet while making her way out of the wreckage. In fact, 80% of the injuries treated in area hospitals were for cuts from the knees down.

So I took an old pair of sturdy tennis shoes that I don’t wear anymore and I put them underneath my bed.  In one shoe I stuffed a pair of socks, and in the other shoe, I stuffed a clean pair of underwear (because if I need ‘em, I’ll be glad they’re there) and also a big bandana. If I’m going to be doing any crying or bleeding or screaming or throwing up, a hanky could come in handy.

To make sure that shards of glass didn’t fall into the shoes, I stuffed them into an old pillowcase. Then, thinking about the sub-zero scenario, I added a few more things to that pillowcase: a pair of jeans (with their pockets stuffed with useful items), a warm shirt, a sweatshirt, a hat, and sturdy leather gloves. There was still room left in the pillowcase and plenty of space under the bed, so I added a couple bottles of water – again, very useful if crying, bleeding, screaming, and throwing up is happening.

In Northridge, it was a long time before water service was restored. In the pockets of the jeans I placed another hanky, a packet of tissues, some hair ties because I hate having my long hair in my face, a chapstick just for comfort, a whistle because it’s so much easier than shouting, and a few mints to suck on just in case there’s throwing up going on.

I added another copy of my car key just in case, and I tucked some folding money in the pockets too because the ATMs and credit card machines aren’t going to work as long as the electricity is down. I might need to buy something, and who knows where my purse will be or how much money I’ll have on hand. If I depended on medication, I would stick extra meds in the pocket too.

I stuffed all that into a pink pillowcase, and then I made up an identical kit for my husband and packed it in a blue pillowcase. In my mind’s eye, I rehearsed the scene a few times in which I practiced NOT jumping out of bed but instead reaching under the bed for the emergency pillowcase first. This way I can at least put on shoes to get out of the house and have clothes to put on while standing around in the street.

Clothing is fourth on the list.

In Northridge, as in most earthquakes, the shaking broke natural gas lines, water pipes, and electrical lines. Water heaters tipped over, and gas and water poured into basements. Explosions and fires popped up all over. The overwhelmed fire department couldn’t put out the fires because the water mains were broken.

So under my bed went two fire extinguishers – one for my husband, one for me – which cost me $10 each. I learned how to shut off the water, electricity, and natural gas to my home. Shutting off the natural gas requires a wrench, so I put a wrench under my bed, and for good measure, I tied another wrench to the gas valve.

The fire extinguisher and wrench may well end up saving my house from complete destruction while others burn down around me. In my imagination, I rehearsed putting on my shoes, grabbing the flashlight, and running outside to turn the utilities off before the house blows up.

Then I even spoke with my neighbors and found out where the utilities are located, so if they are trapped in their house, or if they can’t find their glasses or their shoes or a flashlight or a wrench, I can turn their gas lines off before their homes blew up. This was partly altruistic and partly selfish because if their houses burn down, the fire department isn’t going to be able to do anything about it – and if their houses burn, my house may well burn down too.

The Fire Prevention Kit is fifth on the list.

Next, I assembled an emergency tool kit with a variety of miscellaneous items that might come in handy.

Communications will be difficult or non-existent, so to hedge my bets I added a telephone that does not require electricity but can be plugged directly into the phone jack. I also added a set of walkie-talkies, along with spare batteries for them.

One for my husband, one for me. I put in a battery operated AM/FM radio that clips to my belt. I found out where to tune it for emergency broadcast information and wrote that in magic marker on the radio itself and marked it on the dial.

I stuck in a really good Swiss Army knife (what’s the best Swiss Army Knife for EDC), along with pliers and a hammer in case I have to help pull people out of wreckage through shattered windows. I also included some extra flashlights and more batteries because I expect working flashlights will be in short supply. This tool kit went into a draw-string bag under my bed next to the pillowcases.

The tool kit and all its contents are the sixth item.

Then I assembled a 72-hour kit using the guidelines at www.Ready.gov. I collected ready-to-eat food, bottled water, a first aid kit, toilet paper, pet food and other items, packing it into a Rubbermaid tub with a locking lid that I stored in my garden shed in case the entire house collapses.

If you have made it to this seventh item on the list, you will be in better shape than about 99% of your friends and neighbors.

At this point, I became very interested in learning more about emergency preparedness, so I took emergency response classes, joined the Red Cross, studied FEMA procedures, and teamed up with other people in my community interested in disaster preparedness.

I expanded my emergency kit to include everything I might possibly need: dust masks, goggles, knee pads, elbow pads, and hardhats with headlamps; tents and tarps; floodlights, a generator, Coleman lanterns, and emergency stoves and heaters; bandages and soup; duct tape, plastic sheeting, and spare lumber for covering shattered windows; down coats and sleeping bags; crow bars and car jacks and plenty more fire extinguishers.

I don’t expect people to go to such lengths as I did, but if they did – it would sure make things easier for everyone when that day arrives.

FEMA statistics show that the average American will suffer three disasters over the course of a typical lifespan, with ‘disaster’ defined as any event that disrupts an entire community simultaneously.

When it comes to disasters, there are only two variables, one of which we can control, and the other of which we cannot: There will either be a disaster or there won’t; and we can either be prepared for a disaster, or not.  When combining these two variables, there are four potential outcomes:

  1. There will be no disaster and I will NOT be prepared. (neutral outcome)
  2. There will be no disaster and I WILL be prepared (neutral outcome)
  3. There WILL be a disaster and I will NOT be prepared (negative outcome)
  4. There WILL be a disaster and I WILL be prepared (positive outcome)

We have two choices. We can either wait around for someone to come help us, or we can be prepared to help ourselves. The failure to consciously choose option #2 means choosing option #1 by default. The post-disaster misery index of both an individual and the community as a whole correlates exactly to the proportion of people who choose option #2.

What’s your choice?

Choose wisely.


  1. Excellent article with doable suggestions. Especially important for me was how you went step-by-step saying: : Okay I have this already, now what is necessarily expected after that…It led me THINKING and not my EMOTION! Great article! Thank You!

  2. MORNING A DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS HERE IN SEATTLE! I live though a very strong “Earthquake” here in SEATTLE and in CALIF. NOT fun I even LIVED though “MAN MADE Earthquake” GROWING up IN LAS VEGAS in the 50s so YES I got a good ID about Earthquakes at the time they are happing you fell very hopeless ! ! I know SEATTLE is way over dew for one ! HOPE everyone had a LOVELY MARRY CHRISTMAS

  3. I’ve lived most of my life in earthquake country in N. CA & found some great tips in this article. I have a container of extra clothes ,shoes ,large 1st aid ,extra glasses, fire ext. ,sleeping bag, heavy blanket, large tarp ,poncho & tools etc in my vehicle parked far enough away from the house. The large tarp is big enough to cover my roof if it is badly damaged in rainy weather. I have a small container buried outside with extra keys ,cash & I’m adding a spare pair of glasses after reading this article.

    This was a excellent article with lots of important tips. Its to bad that the majority will ignore preparing for a earthquake & be completely helpless victims someday waiting for someone else to help them.

  4. Good list and walk through.

    I’ve heard of the broken glass on the bedroom floor issue before, and it is no joke. One can get very severely cut feet before one is even out of the bedroom, so the shoes and socks in a glass resistant container like the pillowcase are really important.

    A related issue is window glass falling directly onto the bed, so putting the bed under a window is asking for trouble in an earthquake zone. That is especially so in an older house with plate glass windows or louvers as broken plate glass landing on one can end all one’s other concerns in a hurry.

    Tall cabinets and armoirs also need to be tied to the walls, especially if falling means they would dump heavy or dangerous contents on the bed. Ditto, of course, heavy objects on shelves over the bed: bad place for one’s cherished collection of antique anvils!

    Keeping supplies in the garden shed is also a really good idea for those who can. We have some friends who used to live south of San Francisco who bought a plastic shed for exactly that because they, too, were worried the house might collapse and trap their supplies if they were in the garage or elsewhere.

    Keeping plenty of winter clothes, blankets, and fire making gear in each vehicle during the winter can be a life saver in any event which which forces one out of the house in winter weather.

    Thanks for the article!

  5. Nice article…. sounds like it came from the heart and your fear of being unaware and unprepared gave you motivation to get yourself ready.

    Just a thought, you could get a shoulder bag and/or a plastic bucket, ammo box or container to hold your emergency items.You grab a flashlight, shoes, socks, cell phone, etc., and just get the Hell out with everything else in your bag or box.

    I like that you thought to have more supplies in your garage and c

  6. Having lived in California for most of my life I have been lucky enough not to be injured or suffered a loss from a earth quake. It is not good to push your luck . This was a good article and relevent for these days.

  7. MD has been very busy posting articles while we were vacationing in Cambodia! This one truly hits home. I understood that earthquakes were our biggest potential disaster threat the day I stepped off the aircraft when I made my move to the Philippines. We have a decent warning system for typhoons but quakes are surely a different kind of beast. Here in the Phils, schools will be closed and the kids stay home to ride out a storm. They may be stuck at school after a flood but most certainly, the danger of a quake that strike with zero warning is a top priority for preparations. Thank you for this article. While I have a good quantity of supplies in stock, I will definitely be repositioning/relocating some items for the very same reasons the author has written this detailed plan of action.

  8. Hi everyone, yes not only do we live in earthquake zone, but we also have two Volcanoes Mt. Rainier, in the Seattle area and Mr. Baker, up in the Skagit/ Whatcom areas and Mt. Saint Helen’s, down at the bottom of Washington State. It’s scary to think if we rumble it might wake up one of these massage Volcanoes, I was 11 when St. Helen’s blew. We also living near water, even though we have the Island, to take the brunt of the water we have tsunami to worry about too. I really like the pillow case idea and that seems easy enough to put together. Time to pull out pillowcases, I’m not using. I keep supplies, in our car, and in my purse even meds, that the kid’s take. We have chargers in the car, and extra change and dollar bills. This is a great time to go through and replace and add to my list. We can’t control the weather but we can help ourselves to not be a victim…

  9. Good article, need to re-adjust our edc from time to time and grab and go bags also.
    lived through a small one when living on Illinois side of east st .louis when a teenager.
    now have a daughter and her husband, son and his girl living in middle of missouri,
    just so I can think of new madrid. Saw the 4.4 southwest of knoxville couple weeks ago.
    Does make one wonder about nuclear plants and possibly the aquifers and their direction
    of flow. All the best

  10. The best time to prepare for an earthquake is yesterday since you never know when they will happen. November 30, 2018 at 08:29 we had a 7.0 quake that shook for 90 seconds. It was the longest 90 seconds I have been through in Many years. A lot of what was discussed I never thought of but I have unknowingly done. 2 sets of eye glasses in two different locations, food, fire protection, lights also in several locations some out of the house, food and water preps, generators, yes more than one, rescue gear and other items at several locations.
    Here building codes require water heaters to be anchored to the home wall studs. It is prudent to anchor your china cabinets to the walls also and tie the doors shut. Book cases need to be anchored also. Here in Anchorage it has been estimated that around 30% of the population has RV’s. Mine has nonperishable food, clothing, full gas tanks and supplies year-round.
    Since November 30 we have had over 6,000 after shocks some in the 4 and 5 range. For some people (my wife) it is nerve wracking and for others (me) well there is nothing, I can do so ok. Our damage, sheetrock cracked on 2 different walls, none of my canned vegetables fell since I have a wooden strip on each shelf but we lost 2 bottles of liquor and some glassware. So far for us about $200.00 in damage BUT 4 blocks away a house was totally destroyed by fire and over 700 houses are damaged and over 1,000 houses and counting need inspecting ours included.
    An interesting note all my shelves running east/west nothing fell off but shelves running north/south had the shelves emptied. The USGS people said instead of a rolling (like a ship on a wave) earthquake it was a sliding earthquake where the land slid back and forth like on ice.
    Besides earthquakes we have Mt. Spur and Mt. Iliamna both semi active volcanos and Spur is waking up again. On 27 June, 1992, the Crater Peak vent on the south side of Mt. Spurr awoke from 39 years of dormancy and burst into sub-plinian eruption after 10 months of elevated seismicity. Two more eruptions followed in August and September. The volcano lies 125 km west of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and an important international hub for air travel. The Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) was able to warn communities and the aviation industry well in advance of these eruptions.
    Volcanos have a different set of items to prepare for, mostly air & oil filters for your vehicles, face masks to breath and plastic and duct tape to seal windows and doors from the ash. Large and small animals need special care in the ash cloud and afterward. The sulfur in the cloud when it hits moisture, your skin, eyes or mucus in your nose, makes sulfuric acid. Animals must be put inside during this time of ash fallout.

  11. A good website to follow Alaskan earthquakes is earthquake.alaska.edu/earthquakes
    then click on earthquakes and recent earthquake map and wait. it is updated whenever an earthquake happens.