Debunking (A Few) Earthquake Myths: Protecting Your Home and Family Before, During and After an Earthquake

2020 has proven to be an active  wildfire and hurricane season across the country, a subject that has dominated the news cycle the past few months. Unlike these natural (and sometime man-made) disasters, earthquakes have no season. They erupt on an unpredictable basis with no advance warning.

Fortunately, there are several precautions that can be taken in advance to ensure families are safe and property damage is minimized. Unfortunately, some of these oft-stated risk management tactics are not just untrue, they’re downright dangerous.  

Take the recommendation to rush and stand under a doorway or run outside to avoid the collapse of the structure. The first remedy overlooks the possibility that the doorway may not be located in a weight-bearing wall. The second fails to account for downed trees and power lines, ruptured roads, and careening cars and trucks challenging the most agile among us to dodge to safety.  

Thankfully, seismologists, government agencies and scientists have taken note of these knowledge gaps and offer proven solutions. The California Department of Public Health, for instance, provides a comprehensive set of instructions about what to do when an earthquake occurs. At Chubb, we also have accumulated a wealth of insights from earthquake claims data and our team of experts.

I’ve put together a few ideas from these sources on how to stay safe and reduce property damages before, during, and after an earthquake while keeping your family safe. The most important advice is this: Preparation is everything.

Before an Earthquake

Start by reducing hazard risks. Contact a qualified contractor who specializes in earthquake seismic retrofitting such as house and foundation bolting, cripple wall bracing, and any other modification to create a continuous load path to minimize damage from an earthquake. It is also recommended to install a seismic gas shutoff device. Additionally, store heavy items and glassware in lower cabinets, secure heavy bookcases and potted plants to walls with high-gauge steel wires to prevent them falling over and secure your water heater(s) with approved water heater strappings.

Next, create an evacuation plan with regular earthquake drills performed by family members. Additionally, since there is the possibility that power will be lost, and grocery stores may be closed, pack an earthquake kit with a large container of water, ample non-perishable foods, battery packs, and a first aid kit. Also, with COVID-19, make sure your kit includes hand sanitizer and extra masks for everyone.

During an Earthquake

During the earthquake, remain calm and immediately seek a safe location away from windows, glass tables and chandeliers that will swing like a pendulum before they may come loose and crash to the floor. It is no longer advisable to stand under a doorway; rather get under a sturdy table, desk or other piece of heavy furniture and hold on until the shaking abates.

If cooking at the time of the temblor, immediately turn off the heating elements. If outdoors when the ground starts pitching and rolling, carefully move to an open area away from buildings, downed power lines and trees, and other potential hazards.  

After an Earthquake

After the earthquake subsides, prepare for aftershocks, which can be stronger than the initial quake (another myth resolved). Once there is no imminent threat of aftershocks, slowly and calmly inspect the damage inside the house. If you suspect a gas leak, avoid starting a fire of any kind, such as lighting the kitchen stove or firing up the gas water heater. Do not use electrical equipment or appliances.

Now do the same inspection outside the home. Be careful, as there may be a range of hazards lurking outside, such as fires, downed tree limbs and power lines, shards of broken window glass, gas leaks, oil spills, and fallen objects. If the house has a chimney, cautiously inspect it at a distance for damage, as it could come tumbling down. 

After this initial interior/exterior assessment, contact a repair contractor specializing in earthquake-related damage. If you have earthquake insurance, now’s a good time to contact your insurance agent to file a claim. Insurers in every state provide standalone policies to insure property and content damage from earthquake risks.

Although it is impossible to foresee the specific range of hazards emerging in the “next big one,” taking these varied steps ensures families are kept as safe as possible and possessions are insured. Don’t put off these plans either. Every season is earthquake season.

Baer Philipbar is assistant vice president and risk consulting technical manager.

The opinions and positions expressed are the authors’ own and not those of Chubb. The information and/ or data provided herein is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Insurance coverage is subject to the language of the policies as issued.