Preparedness  Basic –  Earthquake Proof Your Home!

If you live in earthquake territory (which to some extent is everywhere), a key part of emergency preparedness is making your home as earthquake proof as possible. I grew up waiting for “the big one” in California – the famous San Andreas Fault. Luckily the big one never happened, but living in Northridge, I had plenty of experience with “smaller” quakes. The Pacific Northwest is also waiting for a “big one” – a subduction zone earthquake of predicted magnitude 9.0, with 4-5 minutes of shaking, affecting coast and inland from Northern California to Vancouver Island (check out Scary Fact #2 – The Cascadia Earthquake to learn more about this terror). How do you prepare your house for something this big? The answer  – the same way you prepare for smaller earthquakes!

Earthquake proof your house could prevent this!

My parents’ kitchen after the Northridge earthquake. Latched cabinets could prevent this.

Basic mantra for earthquake preparedness – if it can break, fall out, or fall over, it will! Imagine every item in your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator broken and mixed together on the floor. That was my parents’ kitchen in Northridge, 1994. There was only one unbroken dish – not fun to wander around in, particularly in bare feet. I suppose an earthquake could be an opportunity to clean out your cupboards and buy new dishes. But if that’s not in your budget, things can be done now to decrease damage, and more importantly, the risk of injury or death. Some are so simple, you could do them this weekend.

What Can Fall Out?

Tour your house, and imagine a whole lot of shaking. A good place to start is latches on cupboards and drawers – child proof and earthquake proof are similar.  Unfortunately, if you care about appearance, attractive easy to use cabinet latches are difficult to find and expensive (confession – the reason I haven’t latched everything yet), but basic child latches work and are cheap. There are also latches made specifically for earthquakes. Officially, breakable objects should be stored in low cupboards, but if you don’t want dishes and glasses near the floor, at least make it hard for things to fall out. For breakable collectibles on display, use earthquake putty to help secure them.

Antique Cabinet Latch. Photo by House of Antique Hardware.

Antique Cabinet Latch. Photo by House of Antique Hardware.

Earthquake Latch

Earthquake Latch

The inexpensive but effective childproof latch.

The inexpensive but effective childproof latch.

What Can Fall Down?

Do not hang heavy items  or glass (pictures and mirrors), over beds, couches, or places people sit or sleep (another conflict between safety and aesthetics). Secure hanging objects to wall studs. Furniture poses an even greater risk. Tall or top-heavy furniture topples easily. When it falls, someone could be injured or trapped. Make sure you fasten tall or top-heavy furniture to walls with brackets – a pretty simple hardware project.  Consider safety film on windows and mirrors to prevent broken glass adding to the litter on the floor.

What Can Start Fires?

Secured water heater

Secured (and insulated) Water Heater. Photo by ShoZu.

Water heaters are a major risk. They tear off the wall, rupturing water and gas connections – leaving you without water (providing city water lines are intact), and more importantly, leaking gas. Add a flame, and suddenly your house is burning. Secure your water heater by strapping it to wall studs and bolting it to the floor. The Dare To Prepare Water Heater page has detailed up-to-date information on securing your water heater – recent enough that rules have changed since we secured our heater 9 years ago (another thing to put on my to-do list!).  Use appliance straps to secure your refrigerator and other appliances to prevent falling or migration around the room, but also to avoid rupturing lines. Know how to turn off your gas, and keep any necessary wrenches easily accessible.

What Can Poison You?

Odds are high that you store dangerous chemicals in your home or garage, things like bleach, ammonia, gasoline, and garden products. Store chemical and flammable products on low shelves, away from people (garage or utility room), and away from flame sources (such as gas water heaters). Secure if possible with latched closed doors, or nylon webbing on open shelves. Read labels to ensure chemicals that interact are not stored together (ammonia +bleach = deadly chlorine gas). Secure large propane tanks with the advice of a supplier or structural engineer.

Will Your House Fall Down?

Many homes were built before updated seismic codes. Problems include homes with weak or inadequately bolted foundations, homes with unreinforced masonry walls or chimneys, and homes built on slopes.If you build or remodel, use the opportunity to assess your home for seismic stability. If you live in a high risk area, consider consulting a contractor or engineer just to reinforce your home.  The good news is that if you live in a modern wood frame house built according to current code, there is minimal risk of structural collapse, even in a 9.0 earthquake.

Christchurch earthquake

Christchurch chimney post-earthquake. Photo by Greg O’Beirne.

Can You Afford Recovery?

Don’t forget earthquake insurance if you live in earthquake country. Most homeowner insurance policies do not include earthquake coverage – it must be purchased separately! It amazes me how many people do not realize this. Insurance should cover personal property and structural damage, plus living expenses if you need to move out during repairs.

Additional Resources – The Details You Need

My post can tell you generally what to do, but unless you are a home fixer-upper by nature, it probably still seems overwhelming. Dare to Prepare, a Southern California earthquake preparedness site, has excellent instructions on securing just about everything in your home. The Institute of Business and Home Safety has a downloadable document called Earthquake Risks around the U.S. – How to Protect Your Property. It includes general earthquake information, what earthquakes actually do to your home, and both structural and non-structural earthquake proofing projects.

In Case Of Earthquake

DROP to the ground; take COVER under a sturdy table or other furniture; and HOLD ON until the shaking stops. If no tables or desks near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner. Doorways and the “triangle of life” are not safe, despite common lore. Stay away from glass, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall. If in bed, stay there unless under a heavy fixture. Protect your head with a pillow. Do not run outside! And remember – even if it is the longest 30 seconds, minute, or 5 minutes of your life, this too shall pass. If you have taken the time to earthquake proof your home, you may actually come out of it in pretty good shape!

Drop Cover Hold

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

  1. Thanks for the good info. At our annual Maui County Disaster Expo, the folks from UH Sea-Grant present information on strengthening homes. A link to their book is at our website

    • disasterdoc says:

      The Sea Grant book is awesome. I will do an article later on preparing homes for hurricane and wind, and this has great information about this as well! (And the disaster geek in me can’t wait to read the pages about Hawaii’s hazards. I know in general about them, but this has a lot more detail.)

  2. […] with your planning, check out some earlier posts on Map Your Neighborhood, CERT training, and Earthquake Proofing Your Home. Let me know whether you liked this exercise and whether you’d like more in the […]

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