Disaster Prep: Earthquakes

This is the most disruptive natural threat that we face.  Such a disaster can hit anytime during the day or night, year around. Our area is between the Hayward and San Andreas faults. A major quake on either of these faults will have a significant impact on us. Many of our homes are on unstable land, whether it is flat bay fill (possible liquefaction) or relatively loose slag from erosion of the hills (slope instability).

If a major earthquake occurs, we can expect that roads may be impassable and emergency personnel may not be available or reachable. Water and gas are likely to be disrupted. FEMA recommends that neighborhoods need to be self-sufficient for 72 hours.  Individual households should have emergency kits, food, and water for a minimum of three days.  Some individuals may elect to have enough supplies to last one week or more.

Part of planning for an earthquake is to look for ways to protect homes and items in them from damage caused by shaking. Also, earthquakes can trigger fires and landslides, so landscape design is important.


There is a huge amount of information on earthquake preparedness. The U. S. Geological Survey website includes numerous links to sites covering background material, planning resources, preparation, and response. Among many links on this site are:

  • The brochure, “Living on Shaky Ground – How to Survive Earthquakes and Tsunamis in Northern California” is one of the series, “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country”, developed by 12 organizations, including the Red Cross, USGS, California Earthquake Authority, and U.C. Berkeley. It can be read online or downloaded as a pdf file. This brochure leads you through the “Seven Steps to Earthquake Safety”:

    STEP 1. Identify and fix potential hazards in your home.
    STEP 2. Create a disaster-preparedness plan.
    STEP 3. Create disaster kits.
    STEP 4. Identify and fix your building’s potential weaknesses.
    STEP 5. Protect yourself during earthquake shaking.
    STEP 6. After the quake, check for injuries and damage.
    STEP 7. When safe, continue your disaster-preparedness plan.

  • The American Red Cross disaster website provides information about 21 types of emergencies: chemical, drought, earthquake, fire, flood, flu, food safety, heat wave, highway safety, hurricane, landslide, pet safety, poisoning, power outage, terrorism, thunderstorm, tornado, tsunami, volcano, water safety wildfire, and winter storm. There is a link to a “Disaster and Safety Library,” with checklists for each type of emergency. The link, “Prepare Your Home and Family,” has a video on “Make a Kit, Get a Plan, Be Informed,” as well as dealing with children, people with disabilities, seniors, and pets.

Following are some of the more common concerns:

  • Have your foundation inspected for suitable bolting of the structure to the concrete base. The information found at http://www.cert-la.com/BAS-How-You-Can-Strengthen-Your-Home.pdf was developed for the Los Angeles area but is equally applicable here. For professional help with this issue, look in the Yellow Pages of the phone book under the heading, “Earthquake Products & Services.”
  • Secure your water heater to the wall so it doesn’t pull loose from water connections. The hot water tank provides a backup fresh water supply.
  • If you have a propane tank, this should be located at least 30 feet from the house and bolted down.
  • Know how to shut off utilities:
    • Water: Know where the main valve to the house is and how to turn it off. As a backup if this valve is damaged, know how to turn off water at the meter.
    • Gas: Near your gas meter is a special valve which is turned by a wrench with a rectangular hole in the head. Have one of these wrenches near the meter (an adjustable crescent wrench can also be used). However, if the meter is not moving, then there is no leak. In that case, don’t turn it off!
    • Electricity: Be familiar with your circuit breaker box or fuse box. You may need to shut off selected circuits, or the main breaker / fuse. It’s useful to have the various circuits in the box labeled so you know what each one controls. Caution: if gas is leaking near a live broken wire, sparking could cause an explosion.
  • Bolt heavy storage units and shelves to the wall to prevent them from tipping over. Lips on the edge of bookshelves will help prevent books from shaking onto the floor. Check each storage location for heavy objects that may need to be secured. Velcro makes a good anchor for lighter items. Cabinet drawers and doors can be held in place with childproof stops.
  • Store flammable liquids, especially gasoline, in safety containers, and store on the ground away from heaters and appliances. Don’t store acids, bases, or other reactive chemicals near each other, especially if they are in glass containers. Store them in deep trays. Dispose of unneeded chemicals (including cleaning products, insecticides and fungicides, waste oil) at the Marin Sanitary Service hazardous waste site at 565 Jacoby Street, San Rafael (485-6806) (there is no charge for this).
  • Keep a 7-day supply of bottled water. A common measure is 1 gallon of water / person / day (2 quarts for drinking, 2 quarts for hygiene and cooking). Replace this yearly. Other sources of water in an emergency are the hot water heater (turn it off before draining!) and the pipes in your house (open the tap at the highest point in the house, and drain water from the lowest tap). If you are uncertain of the quality of the water, purify it before drinking. Use 5.25% sodium hypochlorite unscented household bleach (16 drops per gallon) or iodine tablets (REI in Town Square, Corte Madera, or other camping supply stores sell kits for this).
  • Keep a 7-day supply of non-perishable food. Preferred foods require no refrigeration, minimal preparation or cooking, and little water. You can use a stand-alone barbecue, fireplace, or camp stove for heating (keep matches and starter fluid). You should have a selection of the following foods:
    • Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, and vegetables
    • Canned juices, milk, soup (if powdered store extra water)
    • Staples – sugar, salt, pepper
    • High-energy foods – peanut butter, jelly, crackers, granola bars, trail  mix
    • Foods for infants, elderly persons, or persons on special diets
    • Comfort / stress foods – cookies, hard candy, sweetened cereals, lollipops, instant coffee, tea bags
  • Kitchen items for your kit should include:
    1. Manual can opener / bottle opener (store with the food)
    2. Mess kits or paper cups, plates, and plastic utensils
    3. All-purpose knife
    4. Household bleach to treat drinking water (see above)
    5. Aluminum foil and plastic wrap
    6. Re-sealing plastic bags
  • Have an action plan.

Emergency Kits: Have an emergency kit for your home, and also for each car. We are fortunate to have the Earthquake Supply Center, a comprehensive emergency supply center, at 3095 Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael (459-5500). Items may be ordered online or at the store.

The contents of an emergency kit are potentially numerous, and will vary from person to person. Care should be given to decide the contents of a kit. Car kits should include water, walking shoes, a portable radio, some food items, lighting, a cell phone, work gloves, tissues or toilet paper and some first aid items. Home kits will, of necessity, be more inclusive, with special attention paid to first aid, communication, and sanitation.

Among items to be considered for a disaster supply kit are (list is courtesy of the DART manual):

First Aid
  • Adhesive bandages in assorted sizes
  • 2- and 4-inch sterile gauze pads
  • Adhesive tape
  • Moistened towlettes
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Tongue depressors
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Safety pins
  • Soap or cleaning agent
  • Sunscreen
  • 2- and 3-inch bandage rolls
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Pain reliever
  • Antacid
  • Diarrhea medication
  • Vitamins
  • Personal medicines
Tools and Supplies
  • Radio and extra batteries
  • Flashlight(s) and extra batteries
  • Duct tape
  • Matches (in waterproof container)
  • Paper and pencil(s)
  • Needles, thread
  • Work gloves
  • Medicine dropper
  • Shutoff wrench for gas, water
  • Whistle
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Toilet paper
  • Paper towels
  • Soap, liquid detergent
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Plastic garbage bags, ties
  • Disinfectant
  • Plastic bucket with lid
  • Household bleach
Clothing and Bedding
  • At least one complete change of clothing and footwear per person
  • Sturdy shoes or work boots
  • Rain gear
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
Household Documents and Contact Numbers
  • Personal identification
  • Cash and credit card
  • Emergency contact list and phone numbers
  • Bank account numbers
  • Credit card numbers and contacts
  • Map of the area
  • Set of car keys and house keys
  • Inventory of valuable household items
  • Important family documents
Special Items
  • For baby: formula, diapers, bottles, medications
  • Extra eye glasses or contact lenses
  • Entertainment – games, books



When the earthquake strikes, shelter beside (not under) something substantial like a desk or bed or car. (This protects you from being crushed if something heavy falls on the object next to you.)

Take care of yourself first, then your immediate family. Assess your health and apply first aid as possible. Don’t try to do something you don’t know how to do.

Assess the structural damage and safety of the building. Look for damage to utilities. Shut off utilities if needed.

Execute your plan.