9 Ways To Be Earthquake-Ready, Because You Actually Shouldn't Stand In A Doorway

The first earthquake I remember hit when I was four years old. The shaking began in the dead of night but didn’t wake me up, so my dad scooped me out of bed and carried me to the doorway of the Las Vegas hotel room where our family was staying during our vacation. My parents and sisters tell me you could feel the entire building swaying, but what stuck with me was how everyone gathered in the hall in their pajamas. The reality of an earthquake wasn’t so much scary as a novelty.

In the years since my first quake, I've developed a healthy awareness and fear of these natural disasters, which isn't surprising given that I grew up in the Ring of Fire and went to college near the infamous San Andreas fault (featured in the not-so scientifically accurate San Andreas). I’ve known for a long time that my beloved Pacific Northwest is due for a massive one and that it’s supposed to occur during our lifetime. Even so, the recent New Yorker article teasing “the really big one” was terrifying. Reading it, a quote for a FEMA representative jumped out at me: “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” Guess what? I live west of I-5.

I felt marginally better after the Washington state seismologist (what a job title) called the scenario "a little 'Hollywood,'” but overall, he and other experts also agreed that the article is a great reminder of the havoc an earthquake could wreak on North America's Pacific coast — and how vital it is to be prepared.

With this very real risk in mind, I went digging, looking at a variety of resources from sources such as the CDC, FEMA, and National Geographic. In between my reading and scaring myself with YouTube videos of tremors and tsunamis, I realized that my earthquake knowledge is woefully outdated. Standing in the doorway, it turns out, is so passé.

To make sure you’re prepared, whether you live on the West Coast or not, here are nine ways to become more earthquake-ready:

1. Practice “Drop, cover, and hold.”

Despite what you might have heard, standing in a doorway usually isn’t your best bet. It can leave you unprotected and potentially put you in the path of falling items or debris. Instead, you’ll want to drop to the ground, (preferably under a sturdy table or desk, but if not, near an interior wall or low piece of furniture that won’t fall), and then either protect your head and neck with your arms or hold onto your shelter and wait the earthquake out.

“Drop, cover, and hold” works best if you’re in a safe place — ideally away from windows that may shatter and shower you with glass, shelves that may collapse, lamps that may topple over, etc. Look around your home and decide on a safe place now so that you won’t be scrambling to find one if an earthquake hits. If you’re in a dangerous spot when a quake hits, you should still drop, and then seek cover, crawling on your hands and knees to keep your center of gravity low.

2. Secure items in your living space.

Unfortunately, most homes are full of items that can be dangerous during an earthquake. To minimize your risk of being hit by falling items, make sure that you shelves are securely fastened to the walls and that wall units like bookcases are attached using steel brackets. You should also store flammable and breakable items in cabinets or cupboards that latch closed and are low to the ground. Avoid hanging heavy light fixtures, pictures, and mirrors over beds and couches, and consider putting non-slip mats under heavy objects like fishbowls, vases, and statues. If you get really ambitious, use putty to stick knickknacks to your desk, mantle, coffee table, and so on.

And if that sounds too complicated, maybe it’s time to de-clutter.

3. Make an earthquake kit.

Having a supply of emergency items could make a world of difference. Put together an earthquake kit with canned food, a first aid kit, a battery-operated radio, and flashlights. You may want to include dust masks and goggles, and you should definitely store three gallons of water per person. Be sure to put a hardcopy of important emergency information in the kit, too. The frequency of the emergency radio station, the location of the nearest emergency shelter, and phone numbers of family and friends are all important to have.

4. Learn how to turn off your water and gas.

In the wake of a quake, you should quickly turn off your water, gas, and electric. The shaking could damage lines, wires, and pumps, and then instigate still more problems (as if an earthquake doesn’t cause enough on its own). Gas leaks and wiring issues could lead to fires, while damage to water pipes could contaminate your tap water. (Yuck.) It’s essential that you know how to turn each off and that you don't waste precious time doing so.

5. Plan and test your evacuation route.

Tsunamis can be an unfortunate, not to mention terrifying, byproduct of earthquakes. In the immediate aftermath, it’s important to be able to get quickly to higher ground. Since speed is key, learning your evacuation route beforehand could make all the difference. (Your state should have this information available online. Here are tsunami resources for Washington, Oregon, and California.) Keep in mind that once you get to a safe area, you should remain there until you're given the all-clear to return to lower ground; there are typically long gaps between tsunami waves washing ashore.

6. Set a plan with loved ones.

Phone service would likely be a nightmare after a major quake, so establish a meeting point with loved ones. (Your local emergency shelter, for example, may be a good one.) If you can get to a working phone, you may have better luck reaching someone out of the affected region than in it, so you and your friends and family may want to designate a faraway loved one as a common point of contact, should you not be able to reach each other.

7. Save important documents in a fireproof safe.

It’s smart to keep any important information, like bank documents, birth certificates, insurance paperwork, your car VINs, and more in a fireproof safe. You wouldn’t be remiss in putting an extra emergency contact list in here, either.

8. Keep a whistle & flashlight by your bed.

A flashlight and a whistle could come in handy during an emergency. The flashlight would, of course, be used to see better in the dark, whereas the whistle could practically be a Godsend if you were to get trapped under a pile of debris. (Knock on wood.) Rescuers listen for noise, so a whistle could potentially help them find you faster.

9. Take a first aid & CPR class.

A first aid and CPR class would more than pay for itself if you or a loved one was ever hurt in a serious earthquake. You’d hopefully be able to swoop in and tend to any wounds. As scary as it is to think about, hospitals might be inaccessible or closed, so it might be up to you to save the day.

Images: Stephanie Topacio Long; Washington DNR/flickr; Global X/flickr; Jeff Wheeler/flickr; Washington DNR/flickr; Joel/flickr