How to Prepare for the So-Cal Earthquake

Every 20 years or so, Southern California (namely, Los Angeles) falls victim to some of the largest earthquakes in the world. The last major one, on January 17th, 1994, was the costliest in U.S. history, and broke records on the North American continent. If you weren’t in the area at that time, just take a look at these photos, which show the intense devastation the earthquake did to the San Fernando Valley and Sylmar areas (among many others). That was almost 24 years ago. If you didn’t already do the math, we’re four years overdue. 

That catastrophic quake allowed us to learn a lot more than we knew previously. But even with advancements in technology, we can only predict an earthquake a few minutes before (if we’re lucky). Today, September 6th, 2017, the Sun unleashed its strongest flare in a decade- predicted to cause a geomagnetic storm (and possibly other natural disasters) on September 8th. While there is no concrete evidence to provide a definitive answer, many studies have pointed to the correlation (if not causation) of earthquakes by solar flares. This is not to make you believe that doomsday has finally arrived (though better safe than sorry, right? Haha). It’s just to help Californians understand that any day we could be expecting one of the bigger earthquakes in California history.


That’s why it’s so important that everyone in Southern California does 2 things: get smart, and get prepared.


Getting Smart

If you weren’t raised in California, earthquakes were probably a foreign topic that were discussed in passing. Maybe they were on that one science test. But even if you did grow up in California, it’s not always easy to understand what causes earthquakes (which helps us predict them). So, if you already know, you can skip this (even though it’s about to blow your mind). Here’s the science behind it, in the most simple, easy to understand form ever written:


Let’s start with an experiment: this is a fun one to do with family, but you’ll get the point just by reading. Let’s say you take a normal, red brick, and attach a bungee cord to it. Then, you take a strip of sandpaper and glue it to a surface that won’t move (like a table or the floor). Set the brick on top of the sandpaper. As you pull the bungee cord slowly, you’ll notice that the brick isn’t just going to slide along gracefully. What will happen is, the energy of your continuous pulling will keep building up. And then, all at once, the brick/bungee cord will use all that built up energy to jerk forward. If you continue to pull the bungee cord, you’ll see this happen over and over- sometimes in smaller bursts and sometimes in bigger ones. Sound familiar? You can see a rough example below.

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The surface of the Earth is covered in tectonic plates (see the picture below), which shift over millions of years. But it’s the way they shift that’s important. It’s not some smooth, quiet movement. It’s exactly like what you just saw with the brick and sandpaper- the movement occurs all at once. It’s a sudden release of all of the built up energy.

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As you can see in the photo above, part of California sits right on the edge of the Pacific Plate; the rest of the state (and continent, for that matter) lies on the North American plate. The image below shows in greater detail the tiny portion of the state that is caught up in it. (Note that Los Angeles is included).

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That line that separates the Pacific Plate from the North American Plate is called a fault. To be specific, the San Andreas Fault. Basically, in a million years or so, with the movement of the plates, Los Angeles will be up by San Jose (crazy right?!). The image below has two blue arrows that represent which way each plate is traveling.

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Basically, the longer that energy accumulates, the more intense the earthquake will be. And it’s been accumulating. Since 1857, the movement along the San Andreas Fault has averaged more than an inch. That might not sound crazy, but when it comes to an entire continent shifting over an inch a year, that’s a big deal. While Los Angeles typically follows a pattern of roughly twenty-year intervals, the San Andreas Fault has a serious one roughly every 100 years– and it’s been 160. Just so you understand how serious it is: the shaking could last for minutes (versus the Northridge quake’s 15-seconds), and could displace land by roughly 9 feet– if it’s a 7.5 as expected. If the quake hits with a 7.9 magnitude, as much as 20 feet could shift. It’s the stuff of folklore. The movie “San Andreas” was created as a dramatization of the possibilities of the quake, but if an 8.2 magnitude quake struck Los Angeles, the energy it would produce would equal far more than that exerted by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.


Getting Prepared

Alright so hopefully you’ve now recognized just how critical it is that we prepare, as a community and as individuals, for what is coming. We may not know when, but we know a massive quake is on its way- and if you’re prepared, the amount of suffering you and those around you will experience will be minimized. Here are some simple ideas for making your home “earth-quake proof”. Even if you conquer the list one thing at a time, within a few months you’ll be able to sleep with much more peace of mind (unless, of course, it happens before then. In which case, we tried).

  • Put together what we like to call an “Earthquake Kit” (a.k.a. all of the things you would need- below). Be prepared to be on your own for three days, or even a week. In emergency situations, the fire and police departments often take a while to get to you. The best place to store your kit is usually the garage (which has a concrete floor so it’s likely the sturdiest place) or in an area you’re likely to be in when it happens. Keeping your kit locked away or somewhere not easily accessible kind of defeats the whole purpose. Include things like:
    • Enough non-perishable food and bottled water to last you and/or your family and/or your friends a week (in the worst-case scenario). If you’re going to have cans, put a can opener in there too.
    • First-aid kits (or two- again, for worst-case scenario).
    • A fire extinguisher (we recommend multiple, for different kinds of fires- which are likely to break out after disasters).
    • Flashlights (and don’t forget the batteries if you’re going to need them to operate the flashlights).
    • A portable radio (super old-fashioned, but you’ll want to hear any news about rescues).
    • Blankets. Space blankets (the thin silver ones) are a great way to save space, but not that comfortable, so be aware.
    • Clothes. Obviously you don’t need to put your best outfits in your kit, but we recommend buying a few cheap, basic staples to keep in your kit in case your clothes get wet, burned, scraped, etc.
    • Shoes. DO NOT forget the socks.
    • Money (ATMs may not work in the immediate aftermath)
    • Medications (ask your doctor for an extra month’s supply just to ensure that you’ll have what you’ll need).
    • A wrench for turning off water and gas.
    • Baby and/or pet food
    • An extra phone charging cable and portable battery.
    • Lighter(s) and a camp stove.
  • Go to a hardware store and strap heavy furniture to the walls– things like bookshelves, microwaves, and televisions can cause severe injury and/or death if they fall on you during the emergency.
  • Install safety latches on kitchen cabinets- very similar to what you might see used around toddlers and infants.
  • Use earthquake putty or museum wax to affix your pictures to the wall and decor onto shelves. If you want to be really proactive, don’t use glass in your picture frames, or use a plastic acrylic instead- so that if someone has to come looking for you in the night, they don’t have to step over glass in the dark to do it.
  • Move your bed away from hazards. These include windows. You can also apply a safety film to windows to keep the glass out in the case that it does shatter. Remove any bookshelves, heavy furniture, or lighting fixtures that would cause injury in the case of an earthquake.
  • Make sure your gas heater is secured to the wall.
  • Consider installing an automatic valve that will shut off your gas when shaking is first felt. In the very least, learn how to turn your gas off manually. If you’re ahead of your time, tie the tool that you’ll need (i.e. a wrench) to the heater so you won’t have to go hunting for it in the dark.
  • Get emergency plug-in lights that turn on automatically in the event of a power outage. Keep them by your bed, in the hallways, etc.
  • Tie or tuck some old shoes or slippers near your bed- so that if the lights go off and you don’t to get stabbed in the foot, you won’t have to worry.
  • If you wear contacts or glasses, place an old pair of glasses, your contact case, and/or a new pair of contacts by your bed just in case.
  • See if your home needs a retrofit. Basically, you hire someone to analyze your home’s foundation- making sure it’s sturdy enough to survive the incident. If need be, they can bolt the home to its foundation, so it doesn’t slide off.
  • Check on your chimney. These are considered one of the most dangerous parts of the home during an earthquake. The bricks come flying off, and the chimney might even split in half and fall on someone.
  • If you live in an apartment, make sure that the parking structure below is stable enough, or demand that your city retrofits it with steel beams to avoid crushing people on the first floor or their cars.
  • See what you’re getting yourself into. The free website allows you to look up your address and assess your risk based on government-compiled data.



During the Quake:

  • DO NOT run outside. Outside is actually more dangerous in most cases, because exterior parts of the building are prone to fall.
  • Honestly, don’t run anywhere unless you have things around you that could fall on you. recommends:
    • In a bed: Hold on and stay there, protecting your head with a pillow. Running is a bad idea — it’s easy to get cut on broken glass on the floor.
    • In a high-rise: Drop, cover, hold on. Avoid windows. Don’t use elevators.
    • In a theater or stadium: Stay in your seat or drop to the floor between rows, and protect your head, neck and arms. Don’t try to leave until the shaking is over.
    • In a store: Drop and take cover under anything that can provide protection, like a shopping cart or inside clothing racks. If you need to move away from heavy items on high shelves, drop to the ground first and crawl the shortest distance away. Whenever you enter a retail store, take a moment to see what could fall on you during an earthquake. Also, stay calm. 
    • Outdoors: Move to a clear area if you can safely do it. Avoid power lines, trees, signs, buildings and vehicles. If you’re near mountains, watch out for land and rock slides.
    • Near the shore: If severe shaking lasts 20 seconds or more, head to high ground in case a tsunami has been generated. Move inland two miles or to land that is 100 feet above sea level. Don’t wait for a warning, start walking. And don’t drive, to avoid traffic.
    • Driving. Get yourself and your car out of traffic and stop. Avoid stopping under or on any bridges, trees, signs, and power lines. When you resume driving, be careful of hazards on the road. One Los Angeles police officer lost his life when reporting for duty the day after the Northridge earthquake of 1994. He didn’t see a collapsed bridge on the freeway, and fell. Go slow, and be very cautious.



After the Dust Settles:

  • Stay covered. Aftershocks usually accompany huge quakes- are and almost capable of the same amount of destruction. Be careful about staying away from things that could fall on you if one does occur.
  • Check yourself, and those around you, for injuries. First aid should be your first priority.
  • Check water, gas, and electric lines for damage. If any are damaged, (and honestly just to be safe you might as well) shut off the valves. If you smell gas (even faintly), open all the windows and doors, and leave immediately.
  • Turn your phone on low battery mode, and DO NOT touch it unless it’s an emergency. You never know when you’ll need it.
  • Stay out of damaged buildings.
  • Be careful around broken glass and debris. Wear sturdy shoes and be careful of where you step.
  • Keep away from chimneys. They can fall, remember?
  • Don’t take a spontaneous drive to the beach. Though they’re more rare in California, tsunamis are still a possibility.
  • If you’re at school or work, follow the emergency plan or instructions of the person in charge.
  • Unplug lights and appliances, as they may start fires when electricity is restored.