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Earthquakes: What You Need to Know


Understanding Earthquakes

Earthquakes recently occurring around the world have been devastating. The USGS notes that 14 significant earthquakes have occurred in just the last thirty days.

In the past week alone, three earthquakes have caused deaths, devastation, and destruction - two in Japan, and one in Ecuador. The death toll is still rising in Ecuador, the most recent earthquake, as the search for victims and survivors continues.

According to the USGS, an earthquake occurs when a sudden slip occurs on a fault. A fault is caused by the continuous and slow movement that causes tectonic plates to grind and scrape together. Outer layers of the earth are pushed together by stresses, causing the sudden slip and subsequent earthquake.

Quakes not limited to certain locations

Earthquakes are not limited to certain locations, and the Ready.gov site indicates that all 50 states and 5 U.S. territories currently face some type of risk from an earthquake. And earthquakes are currently unpredictable, so there is no warning like with other natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes.

Earthquakes occur suddenly, typically last less than one minute, and involve rolling or shaking motions. Occurring along fault lines - cracks in the earths surface - they can be felt over a large area and deep inside the earth, or near the surface, which is more common. Aftershocks often occur as readjustment around the fault takes place.

Prepare for an earthquake

So how do individuals prepare for and protect themselves from an earthquake? Ready.gov outlines actions to take before, during, and after an earthquake.

Before an earthquake occurs:

  • Identify areas in frequently visited locations that may offer safety in the event of an earthquake - a sturdy desk, a remote corner (away from glass or loose articles), or a large open location outside, away from trees, buildings, utility poles or other potential items that may fall.
  • Practice Drop, Cover, and Hold On! - when shaking starts, drop to the ground, cover your head and neck with your arms.  When possible, crawl to a safer location that offers cover and hold on until the shaking stops.
  • Make sure anything that is likely to topple over or fall during an earthquake is anchored to the wall or secured to prevent it falling and causing injuries.
  • Create and maintain an emergency kit that includes first aids supplies, water, and medications.  Be sure to include important documents that may be needed after an event.
  • Design a family emergency plan - including alternate methods of communication should an earthquake occur.

During an earthquake:

  • Inside:
    • Drop, Cover, and Hold On! until the shaking stops.  Be prepared to do the same if an aftershock occurs.
    • To protect from falling debris, cover your head an neck with your arms, or if possible crawl to a safer location.
    • If possible, avoid locations where falling debris is likely.
    • Persons in wheelchairs should lock their wheels and remain seated until the shaking stops.
  • In Bed:
    • Stay in the bed until the shaking stops, unless at high risk of falling debris.
  • Outside:
    • Be sure to get quickly away from buildings, trees, utility poles, or other items that are likely to fall.
    • Stay as close to the ground as possible
    • Once in an open area, Drop, Cover, and Hold On!
  • In a Vehicle:
    • Stop the car and remain inside, avoiding bridges, utility poles, trees, and buildings.
    • It is advised that once the earthquake is over, drivers should not travel across ramps, bridges, or roads that could have collapsed or been damaged by the earthquake.

After an earthquake:

  • After the shaking has stopped, if possible and safe to do so, move outside and into an open space.
  • Remain still if trapped, using a whistle or beating on a pipe to alert rescuers to the location.
  • If communications are working, use a cell phone to alert rescuers that help is needed.
  • Monitor local news, emergency alerts, and social media for official instructions

Most importantly, at all times:

Follow instructions/warnings/alerts issued by emergency personnel, who are trained to respond to such disasters.  Your life may depend on it!


Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.