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Earthquakes happen all over the world. Here's how to start preparing for one

Illustration of emergency preparedness supplies like water, gasoline, canned food, money, flashlights and medicine.
LA Johnson/NPR

Deadly earthquakes rocked southeastern Turkey and northern Syria this week, killing more than 11,000 people. The devastation has made clear just how dangerous — and unpredictable — earthquakes can be.

Unlike other natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes are nearly impossible to see coming, even for scientists. Early detection systems can only give seconds of warning.

Specific best practices for earthquake preparedness may differ somewhat based on your country and region, says Christine Goulet, director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Science Center.

She says how and where buildings are constructed, the population density and the nature of the shaking itself all influence how destructive individual earthquakes can be.

Additionally, "it's important to note that some areas have building types for which there is no real safe option," says Mark Benthien, director for communication, education and outreach at the Southern California Earthquake Center.

For this story, we spoke with U.S.-based experts, but many of the tips are generally applicable.

Here are seven steps you can take to prepare yourself in advance, according to emergency and disaster preparedness experts. For more safety tips, head to Earthquake Country Alliance, a partnership of people, organizations and regional alliances that work to improve earthquake and tsunami preparedness.

Remember: Drop, cover and hold

Make sure you know what to do when an earthquake strikes. If you feel the ground start to shake: Drop, take cover under a stable piece of furniture, and hold on, says Crisanta Gonzalez, an emergency management coordinator for the City of Los Angeles Emergency Management Department.

You're safest under something like a desk or table, with one arm holding onto a leg of the table and your other arm protecting your neck and head.

Whatever you do, do not stand in a door frame, says Gonzalez. "In modern homes, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house" and will not protect you from injury, according to guidance from Earthquake Country Alliance.

Third grade students in Mrs. Jordan's class participate in the Great Shakeout annual earthquake drill at Pacific Elementary School in Manhattan Beach on Thursday, October 21, 2021.
/ MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press/Getty Images
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MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press/Getty Images
Third grade students in Mrs. Jordan's class participate in the Great Shakeout annual earthquake drill at Pacific Elementary School in Manhattan Beach on Thursday, October 21, 2021.

Make a family plan

Next, make sure your household has a plan of action.

Let's say there's an earthquake in the middle of the night and your house is damaged. "Where are you going to go?" says Alyssa Provencio, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma who teaches emergency and disaster management. "Do you have a friend or a family member who you can stay with?"

And what will you do if a quake strikes while you and your partner are at work, your kids are at school — and no one can get a hold of each other?

Create a meeting point, says Provencio — somewhere easy for everyone in your household to remember under stress, like the post office near your house.

You could also meet at home if that's a convenient location, says Benthien. Even "if [it's] damaged, you still could [meet] right in the front yard."

Whatever plan you decide on, don't rely on your phone as your main form of communication, says Provencio. "Technology fails all the time in disasters," she says. A major earthquake in California, for example, may damage cell towers and knock out communication services for days, according to a 2021 estimate from the United States Geological Survey.

Secure your furniture

Those hanging shelves above your bed could be a hazard during an earthquake. People often get injured from "flying or falling objects" like furniture or glass during earthquakes, says Benthien. So examine your home and ask yourself: What could be a potential hazard to your safety?

The experts we spoke to say to remove or secure heavy objects such as shelves, mirrors and picture frames above areas where you spend a lot of time, such as your bed or desk.

You should also bolt larger furniture like shelving units and TVs to the wall. These items often come with straps and anchors, but some people don't make the effort to install them "because they feel like it's an inconvenience," says Marcus Coleman, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Center for Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.

Take that "additional 15 to 20 minutes" to secure your furniture to the wall, he adds — it's worth it.

Make digital copies of important documents

Important documents may get destroyed during an earthquake. They're also not something people remember to grab in a disaster, says Gonzalez. "People run out of their homes and don't bring their birth certificates or insurance papers."

Make digital copies of important documents like your ID, birth certificate and insurance information.
/ LA Johnson/NPR
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LA Johnson/NPR
Make digital copies of important documents like your ID, birth certificate and insurance information.

Scan or take photos of your important documents — such as your license, financial records, insurance policy information and even a list of medical prescriptions — and store them in the cloud, says Gonzalez. You can add them to your Google Drive or iCloud, for example.

This can help ensure your documents will be available even if your computer or hard drive is lost in a quake.

Stock up on water ...

Access to water during an earthquake isn't a guarantee. Utilities can get shut off for repair or to mitigate further damage after an earthquake, such as flooding from broken pipes or water mains, or fires from downed power lines, says Provencio. Even if you have water coming into your house, it might be unsafe to drink, says Gonzalez. The water could be contaminated due to a water line break.

With that in mind, stock up on water at home if you can. FEMA recommends storing at least one gallon of water per person for 72 hours. If you live alone, that means you need a total of three gallons stored in your home. That might not sound like much, but "if you start adding that up, particularly for four to six [family] members, that's many, many gallons of water," says Provencio.

It's not an alternative to storing consumable water, but a great additional tip: Gonzalez says to fill your bathtub and sinks with water immediately after the quake. She says you can use that water for washing, cooking and flushing the toilet — or you can boil it and use it as drinking water.

... and food

The same goes for food. FEMA recommends storing at least 72 hours' worth of food for everyone in your family.

Look for nonperishables like canned food or power bars, as well as vacuum-sealed meals like those sold for camping, says Provencio.

You want food that is easily transportable, like dehydrated fruit or granola bars, and you'll want to be cautious of expiration dates, she says. Go through your supplies every six months or so and remove expired items.

Start prepping your go bag

Pack a bag of necessities that you can grab on your way out of the house if you have to evacuate. Everyone at home should have one, and it should contain enough food, clothing and supplies to last about three days, according to guidance from the Earthquake Country Alliance.

Think of it as packing as "if you were to go camping," Benthien says — that is, without access to water or power, which might be unavailable in the aftermath of an earthquake. Provencio says a flashlight is good to have in case the power goes out, and heavy-duty gloves can help if you need to clear debris like glass.

Then think about specific things that you might need. For example, if you wear glasses, consider keeping an extra pair in your go bag. If you menstruate, pack pads or tampons. If you have a dog, pack some kibble.

But try to pack relatively lightly, says Provencio. "I've heard of people making these very elaborate go bags that have all the recommended items in them. But they can't carry it and it sort of doesn't do you any good."

These tips are just a starting point — for more information check out Earthquake Country Alliance's seven steps to earthquake safety.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Clare Marie Schneider
Clare Marie Schneider is an associate producer for Life Kit.