California Earthquakes: What to Do If You're In An Earthquake

Two large earthquakes struck parts of Southern California in July over a two-day time span. On Thursday, July 4, 2019, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit followed by a larger magnitude 7.1 earthquake the following day near the centre of Ridgecrest. Several fires broke out in the northeast section of Ridgecrest and there have been hundreds of aftershocks. Seismologists recorded at least 1,289 different earthquakes in California that had 2.5 magnitudes or higher. There were about 4,500 aftershocks and a larger earthquake still might hit the area.

The concern is that few people know what to do in the event of an earthquake and if you’re travelling in California on vacation or stationed there for work-related projects how do you evacuate if there’s an earthquake? You might also have questions about how your insurance will cover damage to your belongings from an earthquake or subsequent fire.

How to Prepare for an Earthquake

The earthquakes that hit Southern California were felt as far away as Las Vegas and Arizona. Because the 7.1 and 6.4 quakes were the largest to strike in twenty years, it’s important for people in California to know what to do if an earthquake strikes. Having a plan can prevent injuries and fatalities.

Earthquakes are unlike hurricanes or tornadoes. They can strike without any advanced warning. Hence, you should keep these points in mind.

Before an Earthquake

  • Find a safe place: Inspect your home or apartment for places to stay safe where you can wait out an earthquake that’s not near any glass. Sitting under a large, sturdy table is one option.
  • Stay in contact: Have an emergency contact that’s out of the immediate area if you need someone who can share updates with friends and family. Phone and internet service might be down.
  • Plan where to meet: In your plan, designate a place where you will meet family or friends. Choose an area away from the damage and any falling debris. Remember, the area where an earthquake hits might experience subsequent aftershocks or smaller and sometimes larger earthquakes. You want to stay clear of this area.
  • Prepare with “Drop, Cover and Hold On”: If you have small children, teach them how to “Drop, Cover and Hold On.” 1. Take cover under a large, sturdy table or desk and drop to your knees. 2. Cover your head with one hand and the back of your neck with the other. 3. Hold on until the shaking stops.
  • Have an emergency preparedness kit: Your kit should include bottles of water (10L for each person), non-perishable food like granola bars, peanut butter, canned tuna and a can opener. Include food and water for any pets you have with you. You should also have your smartphone, an extra charged battery, your phone charger and a whistle. Don't forget to include a small first aid kit, a radio, any medications for up to three-days and a flashlight with fresh batteries.
  • Prevent fires: An earthquake can bring down power lines which can start sudden fires. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby and make sure your family knows where they are located in your home or apartment building. Never light candles at night as these can cause a sudden fire if debris accidentally lands on the candle.
  • Secure heavy items: Secure all shelves and TVs with hanging straps. Put heavy books or fragile items like glass on a lower shelf.
  • Retrofit it: Contact a specialist about retrofitting your home or adding reinforcements. It might save you from costly repairs after a major earthquake.

During an Earthquake

  • If an earthquake starts, grab your emergency preparedness kit and remember, “Drop, cover and hold on.” Get down on the ground under a table or desk so you’re not knocked over. Keep your emergency preparedness kit beside you so you'll have the supplies you need.
  • Don’t stand under the archway from one room to the next as these may not be sufficiently supported.
  • Don’t stand near windows as these can shatter. People are curious and want to look outside after an earthquake but glass can still shatter in your windows.
  • Never stand under objects that can fall on top of you or topple over onto you like a chandelier or large bookcase.
  • If you’re home, don’t leave. Get under your dining room table. If you’re in bed, protect your head and neck with pillows. Don’t go outside.
  • If you’re outside get away from buildings which can collapse. You want to stay in an open area like a field where there are no trees, buildings or power lines.
  • If you’re driving when an earthquake strikes, pull over to a large open area that’s not under trees or power lines. Don’t drive during an earthquake. Building walls can topple over and bridges can buckle. Stay off the roads.
  • If you’re at school, work or any area with an elevator, don’t take the elevator. The power might go out. Stairs are safer.

After an Earthquake

  • If you have access to a radio or TV, turn on the news and listen for instructions. The authorities will make announcements and provide updates so listen for any evacuation announcements. These may be on TV, the radio or outside if the power is down.
  • Immediately after an earthquake, don't go outside where there might be falling debris from buildings. Power lines might also be down.
  • Wait for any aftershocks after an initial quake. After a large quake, smaller quakes or aftershocks can go on for several hours.
  • If you’re in a building that has damage, try to get outside and away from the building as more debris might fall.
  • If you find yourself stuck or covered in any debris, keep your mouth closed and slowly try to cover your nose and mouth with your shirt so you don’t breathe in dust. Don’t move fast because you’ll create more dust. Blow a whistle if you have one from your emergency preparedness kit. But, don't strain yourself and use up all your air. If there’s anything near you like metal, hit the metal with another piece of metal so first responders can find you. S.O.S. is three short taps, three long taps and then three more short taps. Stay patient and wait for search and rescue. Save your air and don’t panic. If you can reach your phone, call 911. If you can’t yell to responders, set your phone’s ring tones to loud so responders can find you.
  • Phone service might be down. Send a text message or email if calls don’t go through.

Do You Automatically Have Earthquake Coverage?

When the 7.1 quake hit, several fires started and there were a few breaks in water mains. This came the day after the 6.4 quake affected the same area. Despite the record number of earthquakes that hit California, California’s Department of Insurance stated that only about thirteen percent of Californians are prepared with earthquake insurance.

For those that have tenants or renters insurance, they assume their policies will protect them in an earthquake, but policies don’t always include earthquake coverage.

Home insurance policies and tenant insurance won’t automatically include earthquake coverage. The homeowner or renter needs a separate rider or specific earthquake policy to cover damages from an earthquake. Renters and homeowners need to ask their insurers if they specifically sell earthquake insurance or shop with another insurance carrier.

California’s Department of Insurance stated that if an insurer sells earthquake insurance, they must offer it to you by sending the request in writing. You would then have 30 days to accept or decline the coverage. If you ignore the request, you’re declining and rejecting this type of coverage.

What does home insurance or tenant insurance cover?

These policies usually include coverage for direct damage that's as a result of an explosion or if glass breaks after an earthquake. They might also cover looting if there’s a break-in after an earthquake. To be certain of your specific coverage, read your policy and contact your insurer. And, it’s important to know that not all of your belongings may be replaced.

"There are limits on what earthquake insurance pays. The purpose of earthquake insurance is to help put a roof back over your head. For example, your homeowner's policy covers fire damage, even if an earthquake causes the fire. Therefore, your earthquake policy does not cover fire damage,” explained the California Department of Insurance.

Earthquake insurance won’t likely cover anything included in your home or tenant insurance policy. If your vehicle is damaged, for example, you have to file a claim with your auto insurer. Damage from sewer and drain back-ups or flooding are also not included with earthquake insurance. However, if there’s a fire caused by an earthquake, home and tenant insurance may pay for the damages.

How to Set Up Earthquake Insurance and Other Insurance Policies

For Canadians living in California interested in starting an earthquake policy, here's a little advice:

Start a home insurance policy or tenant insurance policy first. The insurer can then sell you earthquake insurance which is offered through the California Earthquake Authority (CEA). Your insurer should be a member of the CEA.

To help reduce damage to your home, have it retrofitted to protect it if there’s an earthquake. The California Department of Insurance found that older homes have higher insurance claims. Repair costs might also be higher for homes that aren’t on a single level, homes that don’t meet code or homes built on clay, rock or soil that’s grainy.

Next, ensure you don't have a lapse in auto insurance coverage. This can help if you have any vehicle damage as the result of an earthquake. If you find premiums are too high, shop online for auto insurance to find a more affordable plan.

Lastly, it's recommended that Canadians visiting California should consider purchasing travel insurance. This can help with any flight delays or cancellations. It also protects you if you need to visit a doctor or have to go to the emergency room. Medical costs are much higher in the U.S. and tourists and snowbirds need protection from any exorbitant hospital, ambulance or physician fees.

Preparing for An Earthquake Can Help You Stay Safe

While no one can predict an earthquake, there are several ways to prepare for one. Set up your earthquake preparedness plan with friends and family so everyone stays in the loop. Having your earthquake preparedness kit and earthquake insurance can help if another earthquake strikes suddenly.