Three Phases of Earthquake Response

When you’re a novice at preparedness there are a lot of things to discuss and think about and plan, so let’s start by getting organized. I find it helpful to first divide the subject of “coping with an earthquake and its aftermath” into the three phases described below. They’re somewhat arbitrary, but they do help keep things manageable.


This is the earthquake itself, when the ground is physically shaking, and it usually lasts for only a minute or less.

“Aw, come on”, I can hear someone saying. “A whole minute?” Yes, 10-20 seconds is more typical but sometimes an earthquake can last a whole minute, and on rare occasions much longer (the record is over 8 minutes in 2004). Forget about the mild, short, tremors you’ve probably experienced. Those are just baby quakes, too small to do much if any damage, though they do sometimes serve to remind you to review your plans and supplies. There’s no point in preparing for anything that small. What we’re talking about on this blog is getting ready for “The Big One”, an earthquake large enough so that the ground really can go on heaving and lurching for up to a minute or more (as in San Francisco in 1906, Alaska in 1964, and Japan in 2010). It will probably feel even longer.

In this phase, you need to have all your heavy furniture stabilized, and you need to have the “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” drill memorized. The goal here is simply to survive to the next phase, which mostly means you must avoid being injured or killed by falling objects. In the fantasy world of Hollywood the ground opens up to swallow people and skyscrapers topple to crush hundreds of victims, but in the real world of empirical science and good building codes, you are far more likely to be trapped under a toppled refrigerator or get a concussion from a flower pot falling off your second-floor balcony. (Unfortunately a collapsing freeway worthy of Hollywood really did happen in Oakland in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, but even those tragic deaths were caused by falling man-made objects.)


This phase encompasses the first few minutes after things stop moving, up to perhaps the first couple of hours following it, when you’ll be focusing on things that have to be done right now.

Examples are quickly scouting for fires so you can put them out while they’re still small, checking for injuries or anyone who needs rescuing, rendering first aid, identifying and dealing with any hazards like leaking gas pipes, downed electrical wires, or broken chimneys that might fall in an aftershock, and so on. The goal here is to stabilize your situation so that things don’t get any worse, giving yourself some breathing room to begin actual recovery in the third phase.


This phase starts once the immediate crisis is under control and lives are no longer at immediate risk, up until the time when relief arrives from outside. It’s hard to know exactly how long this will last because sometimes that relief takes a lot longer to arrive than we expected (witness Hurricane Katrina in 2005), and it will certainly vary a lot from location to location and from one earthquake to another. My recommendation is to be prepared for self-sufficiency for about two weeks.

Everything related to things like storage of water and food and shelter from the elements falls into this category. You will very likely want to start salvage and clean-up work during this phase, but that’s only possible if you have a place to eat and sleep.

Obviously you’ll need to do some work ahead of time to be ready to handle these three phases. Each phase is far too big to cover in a single blog post, but dividing things up this way will provide us with a frame of reference as we identify and discuss individual topics within each phase. It will also help us to set priorities, since the early phases are the most important: An ample supply of stored food will be small consolation if your kids get taken out by a giant flat-screen TV falling on them when the earthquake first strikes.

Plodding through everything in chronological order like a textbook would get boring though, so we’ll jump around among lots of topics to keep things interesting. Next week we’ll get much more concrete when we look at “bedside kits”, a collection of the most important things you need in the first few minutes after an earthquake. I hope you’ll join us again then.

2 thoughts on “Three Phases of Earthquake Response

  1. I do trust all of the concepts you’ve introduced to your post. They are really convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are very short for novices. May just you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

    • Don’t worry, these first couple of posts were just a warm-up to get the new blog going. The next one will supply detailed instructions (and even a few pictures) for a project which is big enough to be useful but small enough to be completed in a reasonable time. Each week I’ll try to follow the classic guideline of “short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the subject”, and I have enough topics planned to keep new material coming each week for months.

Leave a Reply