On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area as I was driving along San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. My trusty 1966 Dodge Dart shook violently. Thinking I’d blown a tire, I pulled over. Finding all four tires fully inflated, I got back on the road, wondering what was causing the columns of smoke I saw rising from buildings in the downtown area.

In those pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days, it was a couple of hours before I learned that a magnitude-6.9 earthquake had torn apart buildings from San Francisco to Santa Cruz and beyond, ruptured the Bay Bridge and caused a double-decker highway in Oakland to collapse like a pancake. I was one of the lucky ones; others were not as fortunate. In the Loma Prieta quake, 63 people died, 3,757 were injured and property damage reached an estimated $6 billion.

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Preparing for a big one

“Earthquakes strike suddenly, without warning,” says Jana Sweeny of the American Red Cross. “And they can occur at any time and in any region of the country.” So even if you don’t live in a part of the United States where quakes are common, you may encounter one while traveling. Wherever you are, here’s what to do if the ground starts to shake under your feet (or your tires).

Don’t stand in a doorway. It’s a myth that this will protect you. Says Sweeny, “Doorways are no stronger than any other part of the structure in a building."

Practice drop-hold-and-cover. This means drop under something sturdy like a table or desk, hold onto it and cover your eyes by pressing your face into your arm. Stay put and try to protect your head and torso. Teach kids to do this, too.

Put together an emergency supplies kit. It will come in handy for any type of disaster, whether you have to hunker down at home or evacuate. The kit should include medical supplies and flashlights, enough food, water, batteries and cash to last for three days and an NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio. A solar-powered device charger is handy to have as well: After a major earthquake it’s likely the grid will be down, but chances are the sun will be shining.

Know how to turn off the electricity, water and gas. This is important to practice before an emergency, in case pipes or wires are broken.

Make a family plan about how to reunite. A quake may strike while you’re at work or the kids are at school, so figure out how you can find each other.

Related: Get the Facts About Earthquakes

Special precautions for quake-prone areas

If you live in a part of the country where earthquakes tend to shake things up often, there are things you can do to protect your home and your loved ones. According to the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), people often are injured or even killed during earthquakes by “unsecured building contents,” such as toppling bookcases.  

Secure anything heavy enough to hurt you if it lands on you or fragile or expensive enough to be a significant loss if it falls,” SCEC officials advise.

Check out the Center’s handy guide to identifying potential hazards and fixing them before a quake. Do the same in your garage to prevent hazardous-material spills or car damage. And needless to say, don’t hang anything heavy above the head of your bed.

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Experts also advise making sure your home is retrofitted for an earthquake. “Earthquakes shake a building in all directions ­­— up and down, but most of all, sideways,” according to the SCEC. Retrofitting your home may help prevent it from being torn off its concrete foundation and even avoid structural damage entirely.

An earthquake app for real-time info

The Red Cross has a new Emergency App for dealing with all sorts of disasters, including earthquakes, that’s free for iPhone, Android smart phone and tablet users. It’s available in English and Spanish, and provides real time information on what to do before, during and after a disaster.

The app also features:

  • a toolkit with a flashlight, strobe light and an audible alarm
  • locations of open Red Cross shelters
  • preloaded content available even without mobile connectivity
  • information about related dangers, such as fires or tsunamis
  • an “I’m Safe” button that you can tap to post a message to your social media accounts

Oh, and I learned that I actually did the right thing while driving during the ’89 quake when I pulled over and stopped. Thanks to the California state government, I now know not to park under a bridge or overpass during an earthquake, and to steer clear of trees, light posts, signs and (especially) power lines.

Luke James is a freelance writer and musician who writes about music, soccer, kids, pets and life with his family in northern California.