American journalist Charles Kuralt once said, “It takes an earthquake to remind us that we walk on the crust of an unfinished earth.”
The surface of our planet has 20 plates that are constantly moving--and inevitably, the resulting pressure from these shifting plates causes the crust to break. But when something as massive as the earth’s crust ruptures, it releases energy that moves through the earth in waves.
...And it’s doesn’t happen without consequences for life on earth.
Practically speaking, the danger from earthquakes typically doesn’t come from the ground shaking. It comes from the resulting damage of man-made structures--office buildings, homes, bridges, and highways--as well as associated natural disasters such as tsunamis and landslides.
Although millions of earthquakes occur every year around the world, most are too weak to be recorded. Of those recorded, the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) records an average of 50 earthquakes a day.
Read on. I’ll provide a glimpse into what happened during and after earthquakes in Haiti in 2010, Mexico City in 2017, and Alaska in November of 2018. And within each case study, I’ll highlight practical survival tips to implement in your own preparedness plan.
But first, let’s review areas of the United States that are most susceptible to earthquakes in the near future.
Areas at Risk for Earthquakes
When it comes to earthquakes within the United States, places like California or other parts of the west coast may come to mind first.
The west coast is highly susceptible because it’s located within the Pacific Ring of Fire. Almost 80% of all the planet's earthquakes occur along this ring, a region that encircles the Pacific Ocean and is home to 452 volcanoes.
- Alaska is the most earthquake-prone state in the United States, and the area experiences a magnitude 7.0 earthquake almost every year.
- There is a 7% chance a magnitude 6.7 quake or larger will strike California in the next 30 years. Though scientists still cannot predict exactly when and where in the state such a quake will occur, it’s definitely a good reminder for residents to prepare accordingly.
- In 2015 The New Yorker reported that a massive earthquake is due to rock the Pacific Northwest, and referred to it as potentially “the worst natural disaster in the history of North America,” impacting a projected seven million people.
That said, states in the midwest and southeast are also at risk. As CNN recently reported, “The New Madrid earthquake zone in the central United States has more potential for a larger quake than previous estimates suggested. The zone could have a devastating earthquake that would be felt in nearly a dozen states, researchers say, threatening large cities such as St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta.”
Keeping all this in mind, what can we learn from major earthquakes of the recent past?
2010 Earthquake in Haiti
In January of 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck 15 miles away from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Aftershocks followed and the country was--quite literally--rocked to its core. Relatively speaking, the quake was quite shallow. This meant that the degree of shaking at the earth’s surface was higher than normal, and resulted in more devastation.
The country already lacked proper infrastructure and emergency services and was still recovering from various tropical storms and hurricanes from previous years. This was the perfect recipe for disaster, and the lack of building codes meant extensive damage.
Aid efforts were hampered by a failed electrical system (which was already unreliable), loss of communication lines, and roads blocked with debris.
Out of this scenario, there are several learnings we can apply to future situations we may face, such as…
Rely on computer networks for communication: Most communication lines failed. However, the country’s computer network was largely unaffected, and electronic media became a valuable resource for relief efforts and connecting with loved ones. Make sure you stock up on portable battery charge packs to keep your phone and computers charged, even if the electricity goes out for several days.
Beware of looting: As time went on, looting became more common in the absence of sufficient supplies. Make sure you’re stocked up so you can avoid dangerous situations at your local store, and have a plan to ward off looters from breaking into your home.
Stock up on medical supplies and learn basic first aid skills: First aid kits will come in handy when treating minor injuries. Don’t rely on your ability to access supplies and doctors after a major quake.
Stock up on nonperishable food supplies: As the BBC reported, one young Haitian man survived by diving under a desk when the building collapsed around him and subsisted on a diet of Coca-Cola and biscuits. "I would eat anything I could find," he shared. Additionally, several Americans were trapped in a hotel for two days, and lived on Orbitz gum and Tootsie Roll lollipops they had. Always have a supply of nutritious nonperishable foods, whether at home or on the go.
Don’t rely on the government or relief organizations for supplies: Because the physical destruction was so great, it was difficult for relief workers to get food, water, and other equipment to certain areas. Take it upon yourself to ensure you have enough supplies stored in the case help isn’t able to get to you for an extended period of time.
2017 Earthquake Mexico City
In September 2017, a magnitude 8.1 quake hit Mexico City, killing at least 369 people and toppling 40 buildings.
Ironically, this quake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of a larger quake that struck the capital in 1985 and killed more than 10,000.
Mexico City is particularly vulnerable because it is built on the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which was an island in the middle of a lake. The dry lakebed amplifies shaking from earthquakes.
From this, we can learn…
Be prepared for loss of electricity: Nearly one million people were left without power for days and even weeks following the Mexico City quake. If this happens in your area following a quake, it always helps to have a backup generator on hand to power essential electronics. Additionally, stock up on rechargeable battery- or solar-powered items such as radios. You’ll be able to monitor local news reports this way.
Have water purification methods on hand: About 4 million people lost their water supply for a period of time after the Mexico City quake. Make sure you’re stocked with several gallons of drinking water, as well as gravity-powered water purification solutions, germicidal tablets, and purification straws.
Always have a whistle on hand: Thanks to volunteers and official emergency crews, 52 people in Mexico City were rescued from the rubble. If you find yourself trapped, it’s always good to have a whistle so rescuers can locate you.
2018 Earthquake in Alaska
The most recent major example of a major quake in the United States was the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in late November of 2018 in Alaska. Fortunately, there were no deaths associated with the quake, and overall, infrastructure wasn’t severely compromised.
Bridges and roads were the most affected aspect of infrastructure--many routes in the Anchorage area were impassable after the earthquake left deep cracks in the concrete. The governor said at a news conference that it would take more than a week or two to repair roads damaged by the quake.
This is significant in the sense that transportation and access to supplies are affected. If you live in a rural area, you might not be able to drive on certain roads to access your closest grocery store, pharmacy, and other valuable spots.
There are a few additional tips we can glean from this recent example, such as...
Beware of gas leaks: After the quake, the major gas company in Anchorage, ENSTAR Natural Gas, received more than 600 reports of gas leaks due to damaged gas pipes. If you smell gas or hear the hissing of a leak, turn your gas meter off, and do not turn on gas or appliances, or light a fire until you get someone from the gas company to repair it.
Select homes and apartments that are up to code: As Curbed reported, the reason this quake was not more destructive “can be attributed to one major factor: updated building requirements which properly reflect the severity of risk.” In 1964, a 9.2 earthquake struck the state, killing over 100 people. (We will save the story of the Great Alaskan Earthquake for a future Survival Scout.) Since that time, building codes have been updated. When selecting your place of residence, make a point to find something that is up to code. The International Building Code is the basic construction blueprint enforced by many states and cities and is updated every year.
Purchase earthquake insurance: Last but not least, consider obtaining an earthquake insurance policy, since standard homeowners insurance does not cover earthquake damage.
Though scientists have given us warnings that certain parts of the United States are at risk for major earthquakes soon or within the next several decades, we still can’t predict what will happen or where we will be.
But when one hits, it will be too late to prepare.
Take the time now to stock up on supplies, learn basic skills, purchase insurance, etc., before it’s too late.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply