What to Do During and After an Earthquake, and How to Prepare for the Next One

Earthquakes can happen anywhere and at any time. Being prepared and knowing what to do when an earthquake starts could save your life.

Mandy Sleight Contributor
Mandy Sleight is a freelance writer and has been an insurance agent since 2005. She creates informative, engaging, and easy-to-understand content on the topics of insurance, personal finance, sustainability, and health and wellness. Her work has been featured in Kiplinger, MoneyGeek and other major publications.
Mandy Sleight
5 min read
Aerial view of a city with illustrated cracks and crevices from an earthquake.

A little preparedness goes a long way when you're dealing with an earthquake.

John Lund/Getty Images

Earthquakes are more common in some parts of the world, but as many in the northeast US found out today, they can happen anywhere. When tectonic plates get grumpy and shift, it creates seismic waves from the sudden energy release -- also known as an earthquake.

During the Earth's history, tectonic plate movements have created oceans and shifted continents, shaping the world we see today. Earthquakes occur all over the world, but they're more frequent and intense near fault lines. In the US, 16 states are at the highest risk of natural earthquakes: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Even if you've never experienced an earthquake and live in a low-risk state, being prepared can reduce your family's risk of injury during other natural disasters -- or if you're visiting more earthquake-prone areas.

Before an earthquake...

An earthquake can happen anytime, and usually comes without warning. By preparing yourself and your family before an earthquake happens, you can minimize the risk of injury and damage to your home. 

Create an earthquake plan

Having an earthquake preparedness plan and safety guide in place is one of the best things you can do to ensure your family is protected if seismic activity occurs.

An earthquake preparedness plan can include:

  • Talking about earthquakes with your family. Fear of the unknown can cause people of any age to freeze or run, which can be dangerous during an earthquake. Discuss what an earthquake is and what to do if there is one -- and if you have children, answer any questions they may have to help them prepare for the possibility of an earthquake.
  • Creating an emergency kit. Make an emergency kit for your family (think about your pets, too) and put it in a location that everyone can access. If you have to leave, you can quickly grab the kit on your way out the door.
  • Asking about earthquake emergency plans. Find out what the plan is for an earthquake at your work and your child's daycare or school. These plans can be used to help your children with evacuation and procedures in the event of an earthquake -- and can help families connect more quickly after a disaster occurs.
  • Mapping out your home plan. Pick a safe place in each room of your home for family members to use if an earthquake occurs, such as against interior walls with nothing heavy nearby and away from windows, or under a piece of sturdy furniture.
  • Practicing the plan. Now that you have a plan in place at home, school and work, practice it. Have your children and other family members go to a designated spot and drop, take cover and hold on.
close up of a crack on the outside wall of a house

Earthquakes can cause serious structural damage to buildings.

Getty Images

Protect your home

People aren't the only ones at risk during an earthquake; homes can also be seriously damaged. By strategically placing items and using safety equipment to secure items before a disaster, you can minimize the damage to your home and reduce the risk of injury to your family.

  • Brace home appliances like water heaters and gas appliances to the wall. Bolt them to the studs for extra security. 
  • Teach family members how to shut off gas and water valves.
  • Anchor all freestanding or top-heavy furniture to wall studs to prevent toppling.
  • Avoid hanging heavy objects such as mirrors or large art pieces over places where people sit or sleep.
  • Use strong latches to secure cabinets and their contents.
  • Store breakables and large or heavy items on lower shelves.
  • Have a professional check your foundation, porches, decks and other exterior features for security. You may need to install anchors and other supports to strengthen the structure in the event of an earthquake.

During an earthquake...

With an earthquake preparedness plan in place, you and your family should be ready if a natural disaster strikes. During an earthquake, however, the first priority is immediate safety. To start, drop to your hands and knees so you don't fall. Cover as much of your body as possible under a sturdy piece of furniture and protect your head and neck. Hold on to your head or the furniture you've taken shelter under until the earthquake stops. If your cover moves, be prepared to move to a safer location.

large cracks in a road

Whether you're indoors or out may change the way you need to respond to an earthquake -- along with a number of other factors, like if you're near water or in a crowded place.

Getty Images

Consider where you are

If you've been practicing your earthquake preparedness plan, you should have designated places to go if an earthquake occurs. But what if you're not in any of those places? If an earthquake happens in another location, use these tips for safety:

  • Inside a crowded building. Avoid rushing for the doorways, as others may do so as well. Instead, take cover away from display shelves, windows and falling objects, using something to protect your head and neck from debris.
  • Outside. Move away from potential hazards such as utility wires, buildings, trees and telephone poles. Stick with an open area and get down low, covering your head and neck, until the earthquake passes.
  • A moving vehicle. Move the car to a curb or shoulder, trying to avoid potential hazards, including overpasses, bridges and overhead wires. Remain in the car and pull the parking brake. When the shaking has stopped, travel slowly and be aware of pavement cracks, downed poles or wires and collapsed bridges or overpasses. If it's not safe to leave the car, remain there until help arrives.
  • Near the ocean. Walk, don't drive, away from the water, being mindful of debris and potential hazards. If you experience a severe earthquake, try to get 100 feet above sea level or two miles inland in case of a tsunami.
  • Seated, unable to move to the ground. If you are seated, either at an event or in a wheelchair, lock your wheels if needed and remain seated. If you cannot shelter under a sturdy piece of furniture, use whatever is near to protect your head and neck from falling objects.
  • In a high-rise building. Avoid windows, inside walls and standing or sheltering near heavy objects and glass. Do not leave the building or use the elevators in case the electricity goes out. Remain calm if you are trapped. Bang on nearby metal or other hard structural pieces or objects to get rescuers' attention.

Preparing for the next earthquake

Though it may seem earthquakes are happening more frequently, we have only exceeded the long-term average of 16 major earthquakes annually roughly a dozen times in the last 50 years.

There is still much to learn about earthquakes and, rather than focus on predicting them, the US Geological Survey is more focused on improving structure safety and mitigating harm from earthquake hazards. Most states in the US are at some risk of earthquakes, and a few -- like California and Alaska -- see the disaster relatively frequently. Regardless of where you live or plan to visit, being prepared is the best defense.

For more information about earthquakes and available resources: