After the Quake

Shock and/or disorientation are common. Disasters place enormous stress on those affected, in addition to the physical hazards. The return to normal will take time. Preparing in advance not only improves safety, but helps keep the situation manageable by laying out what to do and how, and establishing priorities. Emergency responders prioritize by:

  1. Life safety
  2. Scene stabilization (dealing with immediate hazards)
  3. Property conservation (actions to prevent further damage)

Keeping those priorities in mind, when there is so much to do, can help identify what must be done now and what can or should come later, and help prevent the process from becoming overwhelming.

House after an earth quake; Photo from the U.S. Geological Survey Photo Library

Immediately Afterwards

Immediately afterwards, establish your own condition and situation, and your family members.

  • Check yourself for injuries. Often people tend others without checking themselves first. Like airline emergency instructions to put on your oxygen mask first, then assist others, you will be better able to assist others if you have dealt with your own injuries.
  • If trapped, don't move and stir up dust; don't shout. (Shouting increases the amount of dust you will inhale.) Tap on walls or pipes to draw attention to your position.
  • If safe, assist with locating others. Check them for injuries and administer first aid. Do not move seriously injured persons unless there is immediate danger of additional injury.
  • Expect aftershocks.
  • No open flames, electrical or mechanical devices that create sparks should be used until you confirm that there are no gas leaks.
  • Listen to battery-powered radios or a TV for instructions and information.
  • Use a phone only for life-threatening emergencies. Phone line capacity can be overwhelmed otherwise. Keep phone lines clear, so other emergency calls can get through.
  • Put on protective clothing. Sturdy shoes, long-sleeve shirts, pants, and work gloves will help you protect from further injury.
  • If you are in a multistory building, do not use the elevators.

Check for Damage

Once immediate needs have been addressed, check for damage. The priority is safety; protecting yourself, and identifying and dealing with potential hazards.

  • Assume downed power lines are live. Avoid contact with them, and anything that is touching them.
  • Extinguish small fires while they're still small. Fire is the most common hazard following an earthquake. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 3 days of uncontrolled fires caused more damage than the quake itself.
  • Check for gas leaks. Do not shut off the gas unless you smell gas or hear hissing or blowing sounds. If you suspect a gas leak, shut it off at the main valve. Do not open the valve. It must be turned back on by a professional.
  • Check for electrical damage. If you see sparks, broken or frayed wires, or smell burning insulation, shut the power off at the main circuit breaker.
  • Be extremely careful around masonry. It is susceptible to quake damage and may be dangerously unstable.
  • Open cabinet and closet doors carefully. The contents may have shifted.
  • Unplug broken lights and appliances. If there is still power, or power is restored, they may be an additional fire hazard.
  • Carefully clean up spilled medications and chemicals. Some common household chemicals are hazardous, especially if they mix with others. They should be cleaned up, isolated, or covered with absorbent such as kitty litter or dirt to reduce chemical hazard exposure.
  • If you determine that your home is unsafe to occupy, go to a shelter. Return to your home only when the authorities determine that it is safe.
  • If you evacuate:
    • Tell neighbors / emergency contacts.
    • Take personal supplies with you, if possible.

First Days Afterwards

The first days afterwards, with you and your family's immediate needs addressed, continue with your disaster plan.

  • Manage your food and water.
    • If there is no power, use refrigerated / frozen foods first. Avoid opening refrigerator doors. Contents will stay cold longer.
    • If water is off or unsafe, use water from heater, melted ice cubes, or fluid from canned fruits / vegetables to hydrate.
  • Stay out of damaged areas.
  • Use care when driving. Debris and traffic light outages should be expected. Watch for emergency responder and repair crew traffic.
  • Thoroughly check the entire chimney.
  • Check water and sewage lines. Don't use toilets or water if the lines are damaged. Portable camp toilets, RV toilets, porta-potties, etc., can be used. High occupancy complexes such as apartments, condominiums, and office buildings should consider making arrangements to obtain commercial chemical toilets. Large extra-strength trash bags (double bags) may be placed in tight plastic or metal containers, with tight fitting lids, or used as liners in toilets. Household disinfectant can be used for odor control.
  • Check your phones and cradle them.
  • Check in with your emergency contact, then stay off the phone.
  • Continue to check on your neighbors.
  • Watch animals. Pet behavior can become unpredictable. Normally friendly animals can become aggressive and/or defensive.

The Weeks After

  • First week (getting home, family routines re established):
    • Confirm that your home is safe for occupancy.
    • If remaining or returning home, arrange for gas restoration, if shut off.
    • If electricity failed, check appliances / electronics for damage.
    • Look for indicators of water damage from broken / leaking pipes.
    • Search for and list important documents.
    • Photograph and document damage for insurance claims.
    • Shelters may be overcrowded; if home is structurally sound, consider staying. It may not be necessary to leave just because utilities are out or contents are damaged.
  • Once recovery has progressed and the situation has stabilized, redo these steps more thoroughly and plan for the next time.