Earthquake casualties
People are killed and injured in earthquakes from falling furniture, collapsed walls, pancaked buildings, railway and traffic accidents, landslides, mudslides, tsunamis, floods and dam bursts. Earthquakes send boulders tumbling down on highways. Brick structure are shaken apart. Injuries from earthquakes can be reduced by having furniture secured to the walls. Diagonal beams help hold walls in place and keep roofs from collapsing during an earthquake.

Fire is a serious concern. Deaths and damage at the time of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan were often attributed to fires after the quake rather than the earthquake itself. It is estimated that a large quake in Los Angeles will produce 1,600 fires large enough to warrant 911 calls. Amy Wallace wrote in Smithsonian magazine: But some will start small, meaning that if residents keep fire extinguishers at the ready and know how to use them, much damage can be avoided. Similarly, 95 percent of those rescued will be aided not by emergency response teams but by friends and neighbors. So if people can be persuaded now to make their homes and offices safe (retrofit unreinforced masonry, attach heavy bookshelves to the wall to keep them from toppling), they’ll be in a better position to aid others. “The earthquake is inevitable and disruption is inevitable,” Jones says, her shoes off and her bare feet tucked underneath her, “but the damage doesn’t have to be.” [Source: Amy Wallace, Smithsonian magazine, February 2012]

After some earthquakes it can take days to bring emergency supplies, weeks to restore food distribution and months to restore water, gas and electricity. In preparation of an earthquake residents should have plenty of water and emergency food on hand as well as a flashlight, essential medicines, warm clothes, tissues, a fire extinguisher, a portable battery-powered radio, strong shoes, a helmet, sheets of plastic. If possible it also good to have a small electric generator and an emergency toilet. Nobue Kunizaki, a housewife who has written a book om earthquakes preparation, has put whistles and radios in rooms of her house to call for help in the event of a quake and has emergency backpacks for her children with essentials such as water, food and warm clothes as well as stuffed toys to release stress.

Good Websites and Sources: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center ; Wikipedia article on Earthquakes Wikipedia ; Earthquake severity ; Collection of Images from Historic Earthquakes Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, Jan Kozak Collection ; World Earthquake Map Most Recent Earthquakes ; Earthquake Pamphlet ; USGS Earthquakes for Kids ; Earthquake Preparedness and Safety Surviving an Earthquake ; Earthquake Preparedness Guide ; Earthquake Safety Site

What to Do If an Earthquake Occurs

If you are in a building during an earthquake you should stay away from windows or anything heavy like a bookcase that can fall on you, and get under a desk, table or the frame of a door. If you are at home you should do the same and wrap your body in a blanket for additional protection. Small rooms and bathrooms are considered safe. Stay away from refrigerators or dressers. Don't try to turn off the gas during a quake but do so immediately after it stops.

The highest floor in a building tend to be the safest. Building rarely topple over but often the bottom floors collapse. If you hear a warning, ideally you should get outside. If you don’t have enough time you should stay away from large pieces of furniture and seek shelter under a table. If a stove is on turn it off. If you are in a store or office it is better to seek shelter inside rather than dash for an exit and get caught in a panicking crowds. If you are in an elevator get out as soon as possible. New elevators stop automatically when there is large earthquake and open their doors. If you are in an old elevator press all the buttons and get out on the nearest floor.

If you are outside keep looking above you and stay away from falling glass, roofing tiles and signboards, and head quickly to the nearest open area. If you are in a shopping area and the lights go out stay calm wait for the emergency light to come on and head to the nearer exit. If you are on train stay put until you are given instructions. Trains stop automatically in strong earthquakes. Don't try to break a window and step outside. A shock from a high-voltage cable can be fatal. If you are in a car slowly turn off the side of the road and stay in the car until the quake is over.

Ten Things to Do When an Earthquake Hits

1) When you feel an earthquake protect yourself immediately by seeking shelters, such as under a table. [Source: Tokyo Fire Department]

2) After the shaking stops turn off any heat or gas sources and calmly put out any fires.

3) Be aware of broken glass and debris.

4) Find a clear way out of the building.

5) Don’t rush out in a panic; watch for falling objects.

6) Keep away from brick or block walls, as they may fall over.

7) Seek official information and instructions from radio, TV and local authorities.

8) Check on your family and neighbors.

9) Work with neighbors to free people from debris.

10) Before evacuating turn off electricity and gas.

Higher Floors of Apartments Experience More Swaying

1977 Biserica earthquake
A survey by the Tokyo Fire Department found that furniture and electrical appliances fell over in nearly half of the Tokyo apartments located 11 floors up or higher during the Great East Japan Earthquake. The department believes this was the result of the "long-period earthquake ground motion" during the March 11 quake, which heightened the swaying of buildings' higher floors. If residents on higher floors rush to extinguish flames in such a case, they could be trapped under falling furniture, it said. [Source: January 21, 2012]

The fire department is calling on people who live on higher floors to first get to safer places, such as under desks, and put out flames later. Conducted last July on 1,206 households living in apartments and 1,224 offices in Tokyo, the survey found that furniture and electrical appliances fell down or moved widely in the apartments of 47 percent of respondents living on the 11th floor or higher. However, only 17 percent of respondents living on first and second floors had such experiences.

Similar results were obtained for commercial buildings. Thirteen percent of respondents working on the 11th floor or higher said office appliances, such as copiers, moved more than 60 centimeters due to the earthquake. Only 4.6 percent of respondents working on first and second floors said they moved this much.

In cases of long-period earthquake ground motion, the intensity of the quake does not weaken as it moves away from its original location. When quake cycles are combined with the motion of buildings, their swaying is amplified.

Don't Rush to Put out Flames During Quake

If you live in an apartment on a high floor, it's safer to first take cover during a strong earthquake than to immediately extinguish a gas stove or kerosene heater, according to a survey by the Tokyo Fire Department. [Source: January 21, 2012]

In 2007, the department revised its safety rules for residents during earthquakes. Previously it encouraged residents to extinguish flames quickly, but the revised version calls for people to wait until a quake has stopped. Tokyo Gas Co. stops gas supplies in response to an earthquake measuring around 5 or more on the Japanese intensity scale of 7. Modern oil stoves also extinguish their flames automatically when they fall down.

According to the department, fires related to gas appliances rarely occur even if residents do not immediately put out flames. There were 32 fires in Tokyo during the Great East Japan Earthquake, but most were small and caused by such things as short-circuiting electric transformers.

According to a different survey conducted by the department in April 2011 among Tokyo residents, 74 percent of respondents said they put out flames in their kitchens as soon as they felt the Great East Japan Earthquake. Only 12 percent said they extinguished flames after the quake stopped.

Preparing for an Earthquake

To prepare for an earthquake create an earthquake safety plan for you and loved ones which includes your stay-in -place safety kit. Be sure to identify safe places in each room of your home. Practice Drop, Cover and Hold On with each member of your household. Make or purchase an earthquake safety kit. Make sure to have water and snacks available in each room of your home. Discuss with your family what to do, where to meet if separated, and how you will communicate when an earthquake strikes. Check work, childcare, and school emergency plans. [Source: California Earthquake Authority, October 30, 2019]

Don’t rely on doorways for protection. During an earthquake, get under a table or desk. Hold on until shaking stops. Pick safe places in each room of your home. Secure water heaters according to California law, and major appliances and tall, heavy furniture to prevent them from toppling. Keep sturdy shoes near your bed. The most frequent injuries from earthquakes come from stepping on broken glass.

Be mindful that roads, electricity, cell, police, and fire services will be impacted and most likely interrupted. Identify an out-of-the-area friend or relative that family members can check in with. Text messages often go through when regular phone calls won’t work, so don’t give up if you can’t make a call.

Understand geologic and structural risks to your house. The violent shaking from earthquakes can: 1) rupture the earth, trigger landslides, and turn the surface of the earth to liquid. If your home was built before 1980, it may also be vulnerable to serious structural damage. Fires can start, chimneys can collapse and water mains and gas lines can break.

When disaster strikes, power sources are one of the first things to go, and they can often stay off for weeks at a time. Make available in every room of your home a pack of glow sticks and simple flashlights, which are easy to carry and store. Be sure to include extra batteries for the flashlights! Once the power goes out, radio waves may be your only connection with the outside world. Any battery-powered AM-FM radio is crucial during an emergency, but many models now include solar panels and hand cranks to power their rechargeable batteries. Cellphones and tablets are great survival tools, because you can download all kinds of useful information and use it for reference in times of need. But those devices are useless once they run out of power. Power packs can provide multiple charges to prolong the life of your devices, until you find a place to recharge.

72 Hour Earthquake Emergency Kit

The Red Cross recommends that you and your family have enough food, water and supplies to be self-sufficient for 72 hours. A 72 Hour Earthquake Emergency Kit should contain: 1) Three days’ water supply for each member of your family (at least 1 gallon per person, per day); 2) Three days’ supply of nonperishable food, plus a can opener; 3) First aid kits for your home and autos; 4) Three days’ supply of food and water for your pets; 5) Flashlights in every room with extra batteries; 6) Cell phones and power packs for phones; 7) Prescription medications; 8) Whistle; 9) Swiss Army knife, can opener, wrench, pliers and scissors; 10) Copies of your personal documents; 11) Extra pair of glasses; 12) Cash, small bills are best; 13) a battery-powered or hand crank radio. 14) Remember to refresh water and food items every six months.[Source: California Earthquake Authority, October 30, 2019]

Having flashlights in every room of your house with extra batteries is a good idea. Any battery-powered AM-FM radio is crucial during an emergency, but many models now include solar panels and hand cranks to power their rechargeable batteries. Foods should be in durable, easy-to-open or serve packaging. You should be prepared to turn off the water or gas, mend broken appliances, and heat water.

The best foods to have on hand incase of an earthquake are: 1) Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, veggies; 2) ) Canned juices, milk, soup; 3) Sweetened cereals; 4) Salt, pepper, sugar; 5) Peanut butter, jelly, crackers; 6) Granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit; 7) Cookies, hard candy, instant coffee, tea Refrigerated foods are safe to eat if the power hasn’t been out for more than four hours. Try to keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to avoid spoilage.

A First Aid Kit should contain: 1) bandages, in all sizes; 2) Butterfly closures, in all sizes; 3) Tape roll; 4) Gauze pad and gauze roll; 5) Scissors; 6) Foil blankets; 7) Examination gloves; 8) Flashlight/glow sticks; 9) Instant cold pack; 10) Hot pack (body warmer); 11) Antiseptic cream; 12) Aspirin or Acetaminophen; 13) Allergy medication; 14) Tweezer; 15) Burn cream; 16) Alcohol pads; 17) Antiseptic towelettes; 18) Finger splints/tongue depressors; 19) Cotton swabs; 20) Eye wash; 21 ) List of family member's medical history, medications, doctors, insurance company, and contact persons should be readily available.

Tools, appliances and other items useful in the event of an earthquake includes: 1) Flashlight with extra batteries in every room; 2) Fire extinguisher; 3) Duct tape; 4) Work gloves; 5) Lighters or matches in a waterproof container; 6) Knife, pliers and scissors; 7) Local maps (paper); 8) Manual can opener; 9) Dust mask; 10 ) Water purification tablets; 12) Sterno. 13) A water-resistant or waterproof tarp, which may be needed for shelter, or to protect property from the elements or contain debris after an earthquake.

Supplies recommended for your car include: 1) Keep your tank at least half full; 2) Water supply for 3 days; 3) Nonperishable food supply for 3 days; 4) Extra clothing and shoes; 5) Small first-aid kit; 6) Solar blanket or sleeping bag; 7) Flashlights and batteries; 8) Toilet tissue and trash bags; 9) Swiss Army knife; 10) Fire extinguisher

Emergency Supplies for Your Pets: 1) Sturdy leashes, harnesses and carriers for transport; 2) Food and drinking water for 10 days; 3) Cat litter/pan, scooper and trash bag; 4) Doggie disposal bags and disposable gloves; 5) Bowls, treats, toys, blankets; 6) Medications and copies of medical records; 7) Current photos of you with your pets/s in case they get lost; 8) Information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavior problems and contact information of your vet in case pets have to be fostered/boarded Make sure your pets are microchipped and outfitted with current ID tags. Pets should be current on their vaccines in case they end up in a shelter. Also, decide which friends, relatives, boarding facilities, animal shelters or vets can take care of your animals in an emergency. Have contact names and numbers printed out and kept in your kit.

Seismic Hazard Maps

Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post: Seismic hazard maps typically show where earthquakes are most likely to occur over a certain period of time, and the expected maximum intensity. But critics say these maps merely describe what has happened before and have virtually no predictive value. They call it “Texas sharpshooting” — shooting the side of a barn and then drawing a bull’s-eye around the bullet hole. [Source: Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, March 9 2012]

“Defenders of the maps argue that they are better than nothing. Policymakers have to decide where to put resources. Which locations have older buildings that are most in need of seismic retrofitting? How high should a tsunami wall be? Public officials may say, in effect, we know this map is probably wrong, but we still need it for planning purposes. “It’s almost impossible to make a sensible earthquake hazard map,” Northwestern University geophysicist Seth Stein (no relation to Ross) told the Washington Post. “The onus is on Ross to prove that his complicated maps work better than the old maps — and that they work better than random.”

“Robert Geller, a University of Tokyo geophysicist, said the standard maps “are simply wrong” and are based on the false premise that earthquakes repeat themselves at more or less regular intervals. “We call this the ‘whack-a-mole model’ of earthquake hazard mapping. The mole will come up the same hole that it went down,” Seth Stein said. And that’s rarely the case. Geller and Seth Stein contend that the seismic hazard maps —haven’t shown themselves to offer information about potential earthquake location and intensity that’s better than a random guess.

“The U.S. government disagrees. David Applegate, associate director for natural hazards at the USGS, said the hazard maps in this country are incorporating data going back thousands of years in some cases. And Art Frankel, a USGS geophysicist who led the National Seismic Hazard maps program from 1993 to 2004, said the maps are useful for designing building codes. “I don’t buy this idea that we don’t know anything and every place is the same hazard. We know a lot,” Frankel said.”

Earthquake Rescue Teams

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After an earthquake the survivors in single family homes are rescued primarily by friends and relatives. Rescue teams concentrate on large buildings where their efforts can be used more efficiently to save lives.

The first emergency people on the scene are members of the search team who use dogs and electronic devices to locate survivors. Before bodies can be removed a technical team assess the damage and tries to figure where survivors might be located by determining how the building looked when it was standing, where the people are likely to have been, and what way they might have tried to flee. The technical team monitors the removal of debris and deals with problems that may arise with explosives of hazardous material.

The Rescue team, consisting primarily of rescue personnel from the police and fire departments, carefully remove the debris. They often cut it away and rarely use heavy machinery out of fear of causing further injury. The Medical team can provide care even before the victim is removed. If possible victims are given water and if necessary an injection. Doctors have to be especially careful if a complication known as crush syndrome — in which toxins build up in crushed muscle tissue — occurs. When the object pinning the victim is removed toxin can enter the blood stream, causing liver failure or even death within moments. [Source: New York Times]

Earthquake Survival — the First 72 Hours is Critical

The first 72 hours after an earthquake are often focuses of the rescue operations that aim to rescue people trapped in collapsed buildings or rubble. After the first three days, the chances of finding survivors decreases. Garrett Ingoglia, vice president of emergency programs at AmeriCares, told CNN after the Nepal earthquake in 2015: "There are cases (in which) people survive under rubble," Ingoglia said, but it's dependent on oxygen supply and water. Even if they are rescued they sometimes die anyway. Many rescued survivors suffer from crush syndrome, a serous medical condition in which muscle tissues subject to crushing pressure for a long period of time break down, causing protein to flow into the blood and eventually leading to kidney failure. [Source: Madison Park, CNN, April 26, 2015]

Madison Park of CNN wrote: “The leading injuries and causes of death after an earthquake are crush injuries, blunt trauma and infected wounds. The aftershocks and unstable structures are making rescue efforts extremely risky for emergency medical workers, he said. In the Haiti earthquake in 2010, one of the major medical emergencies were deaths from a condition associated with crush injuries called rhabdomyolysis. This occurs when muscles have been crushed and ruptures, leading to kidney failure. There's also the risk that with so many people with massive, traumatic injuries, "sometimes relatively minor injuries don't get attention and become more serious," Ingoglia said.

Access to food, water and shelter is often a challenge. Residents of damaged homes often have nowhere to go and resort to sleeping outdoors. Stores run out of food and especially water. The number of people with infectious diseases increases after the second or third days because of water shortages. Malnutrition, harsh living conditions and respiratory diseases also become a major concern. About a week after big quake rates of pneumonia are very high. The problem is exacerbating by large numbers of people living together in close quarters in evacue camps. If sanitation remains poor outbreaks of cholera and other infectious water-borne diseases become more likely.

Image Sources: Disaster Prevention Research Institute, University of Kyoto, USGS, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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