What to Do After an Earthquake
Dealing with aftershocks, injuries, home damage and more
The earthquake is over, but you’re still shaking. Quakes with a magnitude of 6.0 or above are one of the most terrifying natural disasters imaginable. But if you learn ahead of time what to do once the ground comes to a standstill, weathering the aftermath of an earthquake should be a bit less stressful.
The American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other health and safety agencies give this advice for what to do after an earthquake.
Related: How to Prepare For an Earthquake
The greatest hazard after a quake is aftershocks, or tremors, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Tremors can cause further damage, including the collapse of homes and buildings compromised during the quake. If there’s obvious damage to your home, get out and move to a safe area, away from other buildings, power lines and trees.
Face the fires
Fires are common after an earthquake. Put out any small ones that you can extinguish safely. Report large ones to the fire department.
Prevent fires by shutting off the water, electricity and natural gas in your home if you notice any broken pipes or damaged wiring that could cause a fire. Leaking gas will give off a distinctive odor of rotten eggs, possibly accompanied by a hissing sound. If you can’t reach the shut-off valves for the gas and water lines, get out of the building right away (propping the door open to let gas escape) and call the utility company for help. Do not light matches or anything else that’s flammable after a quake, even if you don’t smell or hear gas.
Help injured and trapped people
Are your kids and other family members all right? Deal with minor injuries; use your cell phone to get emergency help for anyone who’s seriously injured.
Check on your neighbors as well, especially any who may need special assistance — families with infants, older people or those with mobility issues. If you hear sounds of life underneath rubble, tap on a nearby pipe or other object to let the person know you’ve heard.
Related: What to Do During an Earthquake
Get to a safe place
Don’t look for trouble by surveying the damage to your neighborhood or a loved one's neighborhood. Roads could be unsafe to drive on and you may be at risk of being hit by falling debris. It’s also important to keep streets clear for emergency vehicles. If you need to find a missing loved one, contact the Red Cross for help. Don’t tie up emergency lines by calling the police or fire department.
If you’re in a coastal area, stay off the beach. Tsunamis often follow earthquakes on the coast, so if you hear a safety warning, assume dangerous waves will arrive soon.
If you need to find shelter, use a battery-powered radio or your smart phone to monitor news alerts from local authorities and FEMA. You can text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area. You also can look for shelter on Red Cross’s emergency app.
After you return home
Here’s what to do when the immediate danger is past and local officials say it’s safe to go home.
Have your home inspected. Even if you see only minor damage — or no damage — it’s wise to have a building inspector check over your property. Damage to a building’s foundation or structural problems may not be visible to the untrained eye. In some regions, an inspection may be required by law before people are allowed to move back into their homes.
You’ll also need a professional to check for leaks in underground water lines, which can be both dangerous and costly: Underground water leaks can cause another kind of aftershock — sticker shock on your next utility bill.
Related: Get the Facts About Earthquakes
If your home is damaged, contact your insurance company to file a claim, following these tips:
- Have a copy of your homeowner’s policy at hand.
- Take notes during the call. Ask for any statements or promises in writing from the insurance company.
- Schedule a time for an adjuster to inspect your home. Take notes during the visit.
- Take photos of all damage to your house and personal property.
- Itemize the replacement cost of damaged or destroyed personal property.
- Get written repair estimates from building contractors.
- Fill out a Proof of Loss form, a legal document that includes a sworn statement supporting your claim for compensation. You can get one from the adjuster. Deliver this form to your insurance company. Most companies will not pay on an insurance claim without it.
If you don’t have earthquake insurance, your regular insurance policy probably will not cover all the damage to your house, or even most of it.
“Earthquakes can cause a great deal of damage that won’t be covered under your homeowners, renters or condominium insurance policy,” according the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Few policies cover damage from earthquakes, floods or landslides, so your home will likely be insured only if you’ve added an earthquake endorsement to your policy or bought a separate earthquake policy.
If you have extensive damage to your property, you may need to hire a contractor with an earth mover or backhoe to remove debris and rubble. Before you do, find out what you insurance policy will cover, and be sure to keep copies of all receipts, as you will need them to get reimbursed.
Contact FEMA about a low-interest loan. If the United States President issues a Major Disaster Declaration, you may be eligible for a low-interest Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to repair your home or business, along with other assistance such as temporary housing, cost of living expenses and counseling for post-traumatic stress.