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Earthquakes can happen at any time. You may be sitting down to your first bleary-eyed cup of coffee in the morning, slicing veggies in the kitchen or commuting to work on the freeway. Earthquakes strike without warning or mercy, and you never know where you or your family will be when one hits. Earthquakes may be an unavoidable, albeit frightening, fact of life in your geographic area, but there are steps you can take beforehand to mitigate damage and keep your family safe. "Earthquakes are destructive events which can disrupt your lifestyle, community and supply chain," says natural disaster preparedness trainer and author of "Disaster Prep 101," Paul Purcell. Trained in teaching earthquake reactions to first responders and their families, Purcell stresses the two choices people may be faced with when facing an earthquake – sheltering in place or evacuating. These are his tips for each.
Preparing to Stay Put
"The most important thing you can do is prep your home," urges Purcell, who recommends thinking about the steps you would take to child-proof your home and using those as the bones of your earthquake-proofing strategy. Must-do action items include:
- Anchor heavy stuff to the wall – Appliances like the water heater, refrigerator, washer/dryer and oven may come with anchor kits you can use, but you can also buy kits at any hardware store. Anchoring appliances, wall units and bookcases to the wall not only keeps them from sliding around or falling during an earthquake, it also enhances your home's physical structure via mutual stabilization. The wall holds the appliances or units in place, which in turn hold the wall in place.
- Install cabinet latches – Safety locks and grip mats will keep your breakables in, protecting both the possessions you value and your safety. If the latches pose a problem for arthritic or hurried hands, opt for those which activate when an earthquake's motion is felt.
- Reinforce shelving and paintings – Anything that hangs on your wall can fall off during an earthquake. Measure the size and weight of each item prior to hanging so you can choose the right drill bit, anchor and screw sizes. This will help to keep wall hangings, shelving and paintings up on the wall where they belong. Industrial-grade earthquake gel or putty can also supply an added layer of hidden protection. Even if you have taken the utmost precautions, don't seek shelter under any object which might loosen or fly loose when an earthquake hits.
- Enhance roof structure – Part of your roof's job is to keep the entire structure of your home intact. As your roof reaches the 10- to 15-year mark, have it evaluated by a professional contractor every two years to identify fragile areas in the sheathing, covering and frame and to identify any potential problems which could make it, and your entire home, vulnerable to an earthquake.
- Storm proof glass windows and doors – Storm proof any glass surfaces with protective film that is at least 4 mils thick to avoid the glass shattering.
- Assess Electronic Devices and Lighting Sources – Televisions, computers and other electronics which rest on furniture surfaces should be fastened and secured down. Also assess your ceiling and lighting fixtures to determine if they should be secured with safety cables or chain straps. Install plastic sleeving over fluorescent lighting to stop the glass from shattering.
- Create a safe room – "Creating a safe room is an additional major step towards securing your family's safety during an earthquake," says Purcell, who suggests using a lower floor closet or interior, enclosed room which is enhanced by ripping off the sheet rock, putting in 2x4 uprights and replacing walls with marine plywood. "If you resurface the area, you can't tell the work has been done. This type of retrofit creates a stable, heavy box in the middle of your house," he adds. If you wish to use the bathroom instead of a closet, make sure it has a heavy tub and solid copper pipes and is situated in a central, interior location of your home.
- Create a safe space in every room – Every room should have a place of easily identifiable protection and your family should know ahead of time where to duck and cover in each room. This should be away from any objects which might dislodge or shatter and under a heavy piece of furniture, like a dining room table. Teach your family not to run for the exits, as door frames do not typically supply added protection or support.
If your budget allows, you should also have a contractor assess your entire home for an earthquake retrofit. Other areas of focus should be the chimney, particularly if it is un-reinforced, cripple and wood-framed walls, your floor system and any room additions added to the original structure.
Preparing to Evacuate
- Create a plan – "There are four distinct time periods you should plan for," says Purcell. "These are daytime, when you are at work or school; evenings at home, when the family is mostly together and relaxed; leisure time, when everyone may be scattered in various locations; and night time, when you are home but unaware. A solid evacuation plan takes each time period into account and is centered upon specific rendezvous points and your plan for connecting and meeting up."
- Teach Your Family Situational Awareness – The entire family should be taught to duck and cover and wait for any aftershocks to subside. Your evacuation plan should also include common sense tips, like staying off of elevators and away from glass windows, doors or other structures. Cracked pipes and gas lines as well as dangling electrical wires are easily ignitable so also make sure that everyone knows not to utilize candles or any type of illumination device that is not battery powered after the earthquake.
- Have an emergency kit prepared and easily accessible – Your home may shift during an earthquake, prohibiting you from getting to your go bag if you stow it in the back of a closet or a hidden cubby hole. Store a well-stocked emergency kit in as open an area as possible so you can still get to it if your home is severely damaged.
- U.S. Geological Society Earthquake Hazards Program
- State of California Seismic Safety Commission
- Earthquake Safety at Home: FEMA
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.
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