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How Does It Feel To Live Through a Major Earthquake?

Kamee Collins | APR 27, 2018

One of the most common questions we are asked is: “How long should I be prepared for after an earthquake?”

Every emergency agency advises preparing to be without services for at least three to seven days. When the next major quake occurs, its effects can be wide-ranging. Your community’s infrastructure may be majorly affected.

We’ve broken down the aftermath of a major earthquake into a timeline, so you can see the massive impact a quake can have beyond your home.

But first, check out one story of what is feels like to go through a (relatively) small quake (5.9) in the 80s:

"It was early morning, I was getting ready to leave the house for work. SLAMMMMM, RUMBLE, RUMBLE, RUMBLE...it lasted only 20 seconds, but it seemed like forever… A freight train slamming into the house [that] just kept coming… We thought, ‘Wow, that was big, wonder where the epicenter was?’ Only to find out a few hours later, we were the epicenter... My neighbor and I assessed our families and immediately [began] checking on others. Some we had to help [get] out through windows because their doors were jammed shut… We were safe… After a few hours we found out our family members were all safe. But downtown Whittier had had severe damage... The parking structure at the local mall collapsed… 8 people dead. Over 30 years have passed, and I have grown complacent..." - David Peavy -Survivor of the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake

David experienced a relatively moderate 5.9 magnitude earthquake nearly 30 years ago. The foundation, walls, and roof of his home were destroyed. About 200 people in his community were injured, and damages were estimated between $213—358 million.

An earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2 would release 2,818 times the force of a magnitude 5.9 earthquake.

So, with geologists estimating an 8.2 earthquake in the near future, we decided to examine what that might look like for you.

Hour-By-Hour: Life After A Major Quake

It’s 6:30 in the morning. Your children are eating breakfast and getting ready for school while you prepare for the day.

It starts with a jolt.

It only takes a moment for you to recognize what is happening: this is an earthquake. And it is a big one.

You shout for your kids to duck under the table, while you stand in the doorway. Around you cabinets fly open, dishes and cans clatter to the floor. From the other room, there’s a loud crack followed by a crashing sound. Are those your family photos? Your television? You wish you’d gotten around to strapping things down.

Your children are quiet, huddled together under the table. It’s only been 10 or 20 seconds, but it feels like it’s been an hour already. As soon as they began, the tremors stop.

MINUTES

After checking on your children, you realize it’s time to assess the damage and make a plan.

Your home will likely lose power, water, sewer, phones, and gas immediately.

After grabbing a flashlight, you take a preliminary walk through and around your home. You notice cracks in the walls and the ceilings. Outside you see that the foundation has shifted, so you rush back inside.

Because your foundation has separated, you must disconnect your gas lines, or your home is at risk for fires and explosions. You’ve already lost enough to the earthquake. A fire would be devastating.

This level of damage means you may not have access to electricity, heat, drinking water, or telecommunications for days.

You won’t be able to check in on relatives unless your cell phone has access to phone or internet.

Major damage to the water pipelines in your neighborhood could cause outages that last weeks to months before repairs are made. Older sewer pipes may crack, contaminating the water supply.

How will your children access clean water for that length of time?

Your community will also experience damage to the infrastructure. Roads and freeways may collapse, as they did during the Northridge Earthquake and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.

This will make it difficult for important vehicles to reach their destinations. Emergency services, utilities vehicles, even food and supply deliveries will experience delays.

Do your children have injuries? Did a fire start at your neighbor’s house? How will the people you care about access services when they are most needed?

1 HOUR

After an earthquake, the first thing most people will do is call their loved ones.

You are no different.

After checking on you children and your home, you help out with the neighbors. Some of them fared worse, and they need help exiting the home.

By the time you grab your cell phone to check in with your family, the lines are jammed. You realize that, in addition to damage caused by the quake itself, cell phone towers may be jammed with excessive use. Internet access may also be spotty, and locations that still have Wi-Fi will quickly become overwhelmed with users.

If you had a hand-crank radio, you could receive important communications regarding aftershocks, emergency services, and potential threats.

Thankfully you remembered to shut off your gas line, but not everyone was so lucky.

Some houses are already on fire, and there is at least one office building in your neighborhood that has suffered the same fate. Broken gas lines, structural damage, and downed electric power poles may cause fires that cannot be quickly suppressed due to the jammed phone lines and road damage.

In 2008, the ShakeOut Scenario was conducted to determine what a magnitude 7.8 earthquake along the southernmost San Andreas fault might look like. Fires accounted for roughly half of the scenario’s casualties and losses. Earthquakes greater than a magnitude of 4.0 are also much more likely to trigger massive landslides.

This is something you worry about. One of your relatives lives in an area that could be devastated by landslides. Another study was published by the USGS in 2016 that showed just how much damage could be caused by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

6 HOURS

You’re worried.

By this time, hospitals have become overwhelmed with injured people. Your family is safe, but one of your friends has a head injury that needs urgent care.

Because of potential road, utility, or structural damage, some hospitals may have to send patients to other locations. Will your friend be able to handle being transported?

Emergency evacuation alerts may be issued to areas most at risk for landslides, flooding, or potential catastrophic dam failure. Without your radio or a backup power source, you might not receive them.

12 HOURS

After a major seismic event, those without well-stocked earthquake bags will rush to local grocery and supply stores. But damage to roads and freeways will make it difficult or impossible for trucks carrying supplies to reach their destinations. It can take weeks for roads to be repaired.

You have an earthquake bag, with a three-day supply of food. When you stocked your bag that sounded more than reasonable. But some neighbors have heard that it could be up to two weeks before utilities are restored! By then, the food in your bag will be gone and everything in your refrigerator will have gone bad. This is why so many people choose to add extra food and water to their earthquake bags; it is always better to have more than enough for your family. In times like these, your preparation can make all the difference.

With no food at home, and no food available in stores, you may have to rely on the generosity of strangers and disaster relief groups to provide you with enough food and clean water for your children. The best way to combat this scarcity is to have a supply of safe water and shelf-stable food on hand.

1 DAY

It’s been 24 hours and you have only been able to check in with half of your family members. You’ve marked yourself as “safe” on social media, but your grandparents don’t know how to do that and you haven’t heard from them.

Fortunately, telecommunications are typically restored within a day or so. You’re able to visit a local business that still has power and make some phone calls.

The Red Cross, FEMA, and other organizations are on site to provide food, warmth, and shelter to those most impacted.

FEMA gives you some information regarding federal disaster loans, assistance, and how to make insurance claims.

3 DAYS

Due to the Field Act, public schools and hospitals are required to adhere to a higher standard of building safety. Though the buildings may be intact, it could take some time to restore utilities to public schools. You spend your days calling your insurance companies, home inspectors, and contractors. Without the routine of school, your children are out of sorts and stressed.

LONG-TERM

1 WEEK

After a week, some areas can expect to see electricity restored while others may still be without power.

Those that are without access to fresh water, or living in areas damaged by fires, landslides, or flooding, are more likely to contract diseases from standing water.

You are one of the lucky ones. Your power is restored, and the building inspector said that, despite the damage, your house is safe enough to stay in.

2 WEEKS

You finally back from your insurance companies and FEMA about financial assistance and filing claims.

The neighborhoods around yours are finally getting their power restored as well.

BEYOND

In the most damaged areas, it could be many months before the infrastructure is back to normal. While power may be restored, areas with significant damage to water pipes may not have safe drinking water for many weeks or months.

But things are not back to normal. The death toll for this quake is already in the hundreds. Everywhere around you there is destruction and rubble. Though your family and home were safe, many of your neighbors did not have a home to return to.

It's Not If, It's When

This timeline is not a worst-case scenario.

This is the most likely timeline of events that will occur when The Big One hits.

We know that this earthquake is coming, we know that it will be within the next few years, and we know that the best way to stay safe is to stay prepared.