Earthquake Hazards

Electric shutoff

Image of a main electric service box.
An electrical "service entrance".

If you suspect that the wiring in your home may be damaged, you should turn off your electricity at the "service entrance." This is where the wires enter your house from the utility poles, and it is typically near the electric meter. There will usually be lots of little breakers (or in older homes, perhaps fuses) and one big one. Throwing the main switch (or pulling the main fuse) will be sufficient to cut off all power into your house.

If you later realize that your wiring is not damaged after all, you are allowed to turn your own power back on. It's OK to practice turning these on or off, and you should know how to reset your individual circuit breakers anyway.

Each circuit breaker works almost like a light switch: one side is "on" and the other side is "off". There is also a middle position which indicates that the breaker tripped due to an overload. If a breaker trips, figure out what overloaded it (perhaps you had a vacuum cleaner and a blow dryer plugged into the same circuit), remove the overload, and flip the switch back to the "on" position to restore power. If it trips again for no apparent reason, leave it alone and have an electrician look at it because there might be something wrong with your wiring.

Water shutoff

Image of
a street-side water meter.
A water meter buried near the street.

If there is a water leak inside your home, you'll need to turn off the main water supply to your house. If you're lucky there will be a main valve in the house, but if you're not so lucky you might have to use the city-owned valve out by the street. Either way, you should practice finding this ahead of time (and make sure you have the right kind of wrench or tool if one is needed). It is safe to turn this off and on yourself.

Gas shutoff

Image of a natural gas meter.   Image of a natural gas meter.
A gas meter, with shutoff valve. The valve, with a special tool to turn it.

If you smell or hear a gas leak inside your home, you must evacuate the building immediately and then turn off the gas as soon as possible. Do not turn any lights or flashlights on or off while doing this, as it could cause a spark and ignite a gas explosion. (NightStar flashlights are safe to use.)

Find your gas meter, and look for the valve attached to it (see photos). These are designed to be pretty stiff, and you'll need a wrench to get it turned off. We keep a special tool hanging near the meter for just this purpose. If you suspect a leak, you are allowed to turn the gas off by yourself by turning the valve until the straight piece moves from "aligned with the pipe" to "right angles to the pipe".

Once it is turned off, you are not allowed to turn it back on by yourself. Bad things can happen (like your house blowing up) if you turn gas on without special training, so never do that. Call the gas company and wait for them to send somebody who knows how to do it safely.

Gas appliances

Image of the straps securing a water heater.
Heavy straps secure this water heater.

Gas appliances are usually attached to the gas pipes in your home with a flexible metal pipe that looks like a bit like a hose. If the appliance falls over or shifts position dramatically during an earthquake, it can stress that connection so much that it breaks or develops a leak. This will release flammable gas into your house and can create a serious fire and explosion hazard.

Therefore, any gas appliance that is vulnerable to this must be secured, for example with straps that are screwed to the wall studs. In most homes, the water heater is the big concern; because it is so tall it has a great tendency to tip over when shaken severely. Make sure that yours is strapped securely — and remember that the thing can have hundreds of pounds of water in it so the straps have to be very strong to hold it vertical when it wants to tip over.

Falling objects

Image of a piece of tall furniture.   Image of a piece of tall furniture.
Tall furniture should be strapped. Cabinet latches are a must.

Forget all those movie scenes about the earth opening and swallowing you up. That's about as likely as winning the lottery, but a lot of people do get badly hurt from falling objects: improperly mounted light fixtures, heavy books on high shelves, big televisions, even the furniture itself. You can prevent these kinds of injury by taking preventive measures:

A special case of this occurs if you're outdoors near a building, where pieces of the building or roofing materials can break loose and fall on you. In this case, the trick is to stay well clear of any buildings (or if that isn't' possible, try to get into a recessed doorway).

Broken glass

Image of a pair of heavy shoes.
Keep a pair of heavy shoes tied to your bed.

Even if a structure is not seriously damaged, the glass in exterior windows and the glass that may be inside the house often break, and when the pieces fall to the ground they shatter into hundreds of little shards. Most of this glass is not tempered, so the pieces are sharp. One of the most common injuries right after an earthquake occurs when people walk on this without adequate footwear and seriously cut their feet.

The answer seems absurdly simple: Don't walk on broken glass. That sounds obvious, but in an emergency situation you may have to walk over it to escape from a house or to rescue somebody, or you may not be able to see it in the dark. Simply being aware of the hazard is a good start, but it is also a tremendous help if you keep a pair of shoes with heavy soles handy and put those on as soon as the shaking stops. The best place is physically tied to the bed, so they won't go bouncing away from you when the floor starts shaking.