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How To Make Sure You Are Ready And Safe In Case A Major Earthquake Hits

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Time to stock up on earthquake supplies (Photo by freid via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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By the time you read this, us Southern Californians will have nearly exited the period of 'elevated risk' surrounding last week's earthquake swarm. The warning came and went, and we are all still here alive, apparently, on solid ground. That being said, there's never been a better time to make sure you're adequately prepared for the earthquakes that will inevitably shake up the southland in the future. We live in a very seismically active part of the world, even if we haven't had a major quake since 1994.

Of course, foresight can go a long way. Thanks to rigorous building codes, us Angelenos can rest assured that many of our buildings will not simply crumble like matchsticks when the shaking starts. While we still have some work cut out for us (notably "dingbat" apartments and buildings with what's called a soft first story) it's highly unlikely the building you're in right now will collapse in an earthquake.

That being said, a lot of bad things can still happen even without the building collapsing. After an earthquake, electrical power and telecommunications equipment will almost certainly stop working. Water service will likely become unreliable, and the risk of fire (sparked from broken gas lines) is very high. While L.A.'s emergency responders have well developed and well rehearsed plans for what to do when the ground stops shaking, even some basic preparedness and knowledge among the city's residents will go a long way.

This guide is broken up into three major sections: preparing your home, building a kit, and what to do after an earthquake.

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A portion of the 5 freeway collapsed in Gavin Canyon. (Photo by Robert A. Eplett via FEMA)
Prepare Your Home:

Like we said, above, it's very unlikely that the building you live in will simply collapse during an earthquake. At the same time, many of the injuries suffered during earthquakes come from falling furniture or thrown belongings. Aside from making cleanup easier, securing furniture and cupboards means you're less likely to get hit with potentially heavy objects during the shaking.

  • Examine your home for anything that isn't secured, and could potentially move around during violent shaking. Things like bookcases, media stands, televisions, office equipment, hanging mirrors or pictures, etc. should all be fastened down. Luckily none of this is too challenging, and a trip to the hardware store will yield easy to install straps and bolts that can keep bookcases and televisions from falling over. The company Quakehold stocks products in most major hardware stores designed specifically for securing heavy furniture.
  • Installing latches or fasteners to kitchen cabinets can go a long way to keeping your dishes and kitchenware out of a shattered pile of glass and porcelain on he kitchen floor.
  • Make sure the pipe connecting gas lines to the appliances are flexible. Appliances like dryers, stoves and water heaters can move, and you definetly do not want any of the gas lines to break. While doing so, make sure those heavy appliances are fastened and won't fall down (especially the water heater, if it's a tank).
  • Locate your building's gas main and make sure you know how to turn it off. Usually this can be accomplished by twisting the main shutoff valve with a regular adjustable wrench. SoCalGas has some easy to understand diagrams show how. Make sure to keep a wrench (or a shutoff tool) right next to the gas main. You don't want to be caught looking for a wrench while gas is leaking into your home. For extra credit, install an automatic shut-off valve.
  • Make sure that anything hanging from the walls or ceiling is either lightweight or is firmly secured to the building's frame. This recommendation is as true of chandeliers and ceiling fans as it is of hanging plants and picture frames.
  • Secure knick-knacks and other freestanding objects with museum putty.
  • If you live in a house on an elevated foundation, double check to actually make sure it's actually bolted to to the foundation. You can do this yourself, but often it's best if you check with an earthquake contractor.
  • Having a couple fire extinguishers around is never a bad idea.
  • Make sure both shoes and a flashlight are within easy reach of your bedside. Statistically we spend most of our time at home in bed. The flashlight can help you see if the power is out, and the shoes are crucial to making sure your feet aren't cut up by any broken glass on the ground.

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A collapsed music store after the Northridge Quake (Photo via the California State Northridge Geology Department)
Build A Kit:

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The role of a kit is simple: to keep you alive and safe during the hours and days immediately following a major earthquake. Things like water, food and medical supplies will likely be challenging to obtain in an earthquake's immediate aftermath.

  • Store at least three days worth of water per person beforehand. A good rule of thumb is one gallon of water per person per day. Water should be stored, ideally, in a cool dry place. Your best bet is likely to purchase water in one or five gallon jugs from a grocery store. If you have pets, take their needs into consideration as well.
  • Store at least three days worth of food per person as well. Canned foods are best here, but obviously you have a lot of options. Energy bars, jerky, and other packaged foods are good too.
  • Stock a first-aid kit.
  • Include any medications you regularly need. Though this advice is specifically for prescription medications, please bear in mind that a trip to the drugstore might be much harder just after a quake.
  • Have cash on hand. If the power's out, those credit cards aren't any good. Try to stock at least some cash on hand that you could use to buy, say, gasoline or food in the aftermath.
  • Include some work gloves, tools and duct tape While it's not every day you use a crowbar, they're good tools to have after an earthquake. Gloves will be super important during the clean-up, mostly to avoid broken glass and sharp edges. Duct tape is always good to have around.
  • Toiletries and hygiene supplies are good to have, just in case you happen to be running low when an earthquake hits.
  • Make sure your important documents are kept safe. Fireproof safes are usually the best option here.
  • Include extra glasses if you wear them.
  • Blankets, batteries and flashlights are important too.
  • It's a very good idea to include some notebooks, pens, paper and drawing supplies, especially if you have children. People process trauma in different ways, and for a young child drawing or writing might be very important.

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Unreinforced brickwork is very prone to earthquake damage. (Photo by Sundogg via the LAist Featured Photos pool)
What To Do After:

A lot of what happens once the shaking stops will happen without this guide, like treating serious injuries. At the same time, it's important to keep any more people from getting injured, as well as to make sure no large fires break out. Fire is the biggest danger immediately following an earthquake.

  • Check your home (or building if you live in an apartment) for leaking gas. If smell gas, you're probably going to want to turn off the building's gas main, or a valve that stops flow of gas to the leak (like if the stove separated from the wall). Get your neighbors to do the same.
  • If there is fire, try to put it out immediately. The fire department will be overwhelmed with calls in the first few minutes, assuming the phones work. If there is a fire, do not wait for the fire department to come and put it out. Try to do it yourself using an extinguisher, or flame retardant blanket. If you aren't able to, or the smoke is too strong, evacuate the building.
  • When gathering outside, bear in mind that there will likely be aftershocks.You'll want gather away from things (especially masonry chimneys) that could potentially fall or crumble during an aftershock. Look out for power lines as well, and avoid anything that could be live wire.
  • Unplug any damaged light bulbs or damaged electrical appliances. These can cause fires when power is restored.

What's above is a basic outline. There are obviously dozens more things you can do to prepare. For more information, there are several guides put together by public authorities on this topic. One of the most comprehensive is Putting Down Roots In Earthquake Country, authored, in part, by Dr. Lucy Jones. Ready L.A> (the city's Emergency Management Department), County Department of Public Health, and even the L.A. Times have put together similar guides too.