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Once the Shaking Stops: Do You Know How to Survive After an Earthquake?

During a widespread disaster, such as an earthquake, rescue workers will be extremely busy. You could be on your own until they arrive- possibly cut off from communication sources, without power or running water. Many experts believe 72 hours is a likely period before help is readily available if a large quake hit. Depending on the area and the damages sustained, your survival and those of family members may be determined by how organized you are in that crucial interim.

Earthquakes pose a different set of challenges from other emergencies. Shaky ground, falling objects, flooding and even soil changes make for a unique set of circumstances. Understanding these potential dangers will aid in your ability to minimize or prevent them.

Surfaces: Earthquakes cause objects to be pitched to the floor. Broken glass and fallen debris can be treacherous for walking. Keep flashlights and batteries in each bedroom. Because these items can be tossed about and lost during a quake, consider stashing them together in small boxes, with a pair of thick soled shoes or work boots. Wear a dust mask if there is excessive dust in the air.

Falling Objects: Be aware that items can tumble out of cupboards or closets when opened.

Aftershocks: These are a constant threat following an earthquake and can cause further, even more extensive damage. Once the initial quake has ended, move to an area free of falling debris as quickly as possible.

Injuries: Do a head count of family members and check for injuries. Use first aid kit to treat minor injuries. Don’t move seriously injured people unless a grave danger is present (fire, gas leak, collapsing building, etc). Administer CPR to those not breathing. Watch for shock or hypothermia. Cover wounded with clothing or blankets. Elevate feet if injured are cold, clammy, pale or exhibiting other signs of shock. Apply direct pressure for bleeding wounds. Talk reassuringly to those who are injured. Stay calm. Obtain medical assistance if possible for life threatening injuries.

Gas Leaks: Listen for hissing noises or the smell of gas. Open a window and exit promptly if you suspect a gas leak. If possible, turn off main gas valve (usually outside near meter). Most frequently, you’ll need a crescent wrench for this. Don’t re-enter until gas is turned off and the house is aired out sufficiently. Be aware, once you’ve shut off the gas, a professional must turn it back on. Never use open flame, (matches, lighters, kitchen stove) or do anything to create a spark (such as flipping light switches) in the presence of gas leaks. In urban areas, even close neighbors’ gas leaks pose a threat. Contact authorities to let them know of possible dangers.

Fires: Extinguish small, incipient fires with ABC fire extinguishers or blankets (preferably water soaked). Incipient fires are minor flames that can easily be put out with one or two extinguishers. When fighting any fire, keep the exit behind you, so you aren’t boxed in and trapped. Never attempt large fires. Evacuate if fire spreads, isn’t easily contained or is an explosion hazard (if it travels to an area with flammables).

Electrical Hazards: Sparks are an easily identifiable concern. Less obvious threats are frayed cords, broken wires, warm walls, appliances that shock, and hot insulation. Check for any of these after a quake. Shut electricity off at the main fuse box or throw the circuit breaker if hazards are present. As always, don’t mix water and electricity. Never stand in water to throw breakers or check frayed cords. Snapped or downed power lines are deadly situations following an earthquake. Keep far away from these.

Damaged Buildings: Never go into buildings that suffered obvious damage unless cleared by rescuers or professionals.

Chemicals: Spilled household products, such as bleach and toilet bowl cleaner, can produce deadly fumes. Be cautious when cleaning up any chemical. Ventilate the area well prior to clean-up. Fumes, a “smoky” look to the air, lightheadedness or changes in behavior are signs to evacuate promptly.

Food: If you have no power, start consuming refrigerator contents and work your way to the freezer. If there are no gas leak hazards, you could attempt heating items with a charcoal grill outside or using a sterno can to warm food. Pre-planning for this by having a well stocked emergency kit is essential. Never use any food that has been in cracked glass containers or has been exposed to broken glass.

Water: Place ice or popsicles from freezer in containers to use for additional drinking water as they melt. Drinking water could be your biggest challenge. With this in mind, ration water stores. In an emergency, water can be obtained from canned vegetables or fruit, soups, draining the hot water tank or even a pan placed outside to catch rain water. If you have a water source and a means to heat it, boil for one minute and store in containers with lids. Or use 8 drops of bleach (unscented) to 1 gallon of water. Let stand 30 minutes before drinking. (Remember, bleach will kill most germs, but not all.)  Always let murky or cloudy water settle, then filter by straining through clean cloths before disinfecting.

Shelter: If your building is safe, stay put. Keep your family in areas where hanging objects don’t present a hazard in case of aftershocks. Homes that aren’t secure require evacuation.  If roads aren’t passable to get to a deemed shelter, options are neighbors homes, vehicles, (make sure these are not parked near buildings or objects that can fall) or constructing a lean-to out of garbage bags or waterproof tarps and duct tape.

Sewage: It’s very likely sewer lines will not work or become backed up. Don’t attempt to flush the toilet as sewage may overflow into your home. Put plastic bags over the toilet seat and remove bags when full of waste.  You can also use five gallon buckets or outdoor trenches as a makeshift latrine. There is nothing worse than sitting out a disaster for three or four days with raw sewage, so think ahead about this factor.

Flooding: Following an earthquake, there is flooding potential due to ground alterations, broken water lines or dams and strong waves. Listen to the radio (if you have one) for updates, as well as watching for sudden changes. Those in low lying or coastal areas should know safe places of refuge, (such as high points around them) and be ready to evacuate instantly if necessary. In the event of abrupt flooding, grab anything that floats- wooden table, box springs, wooden doors, etc. Try to paddle to a more secure spot and hold on till rescued. Don’t wade into even shallow seeming water.

Tsunami: The sole reliable life-saving method to avoid killer tsunami waves that may come after an earthquake is to proceed immediately to high ground. However, only if you can’t get there, go to the highest spot available, such as a roof or a tall tree. Not all earthquakes generate tsunamis, but stay alert for the possibility.

For information on creating an emergency kit, see- “Preparing for an Earthquake”.

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