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Institute Offers Ways to Prepare for Earthquakes

Wednesday, August 24, 2011  
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Yesterday’s earthquake, which was felt all along the East Coast, has many people who never before experienced an earthquake wondering what to do when an earthquake occurs and how to prepare for the next one. The National Institute of Building Sciences, whose Building Seismic Safety Council develops the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Recommended Seismic Provisions for New Buildings and Other Structures sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), offers these suggestions:

During an earthquake, evacuating the building is not necessarily the best option. Falling debris outside is more likely to cause injury. Instead, "Stop Drop and Hold.” Stay inside. Move away from windows that could shatter and heavy furniture, such as bookcases, that could fall over. Get under a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a desk or table, that will protect against falling debris and hold on until the trembling ceases. If already outside, stay clear of buildings, trees, telephone poles or overhead structures, such as overpasses, that could potentially collapse. Instead stand in an open area.

"Many people thought first about a terrorist event during the first few seconds of yesterday’s earthquake and instinctively evacuated their buildings,” said Henry L. Green, Hon. AIA, President of the National Institute of Building Sciences. "This put them at risk from falling hazards, especially since many stood on the sidewalks just outside. When evacuating, people need to stand clear of buildings and other potential falling objects.”

Once the earthquake is over, upon arriving at home:

  • Take a look at the house or apartment building. Look for cracks in the foundation, walls, chimneys and fireplaces. Look at porches and balconies to see if they have become detached from the main structure. If problems exist, contact a licensed professional.
  • Smell for potential gas leaks. If detected, leave the premises immediately and call 911 and the gas company. Look for any signs of water leaks near pipes and plumbing fixtures. If found, turn off the water until the problem is corrected.
  • Photograph any damage and contact your insurance company before cleaning up but be aware that homeowners’ insurance may not cover earthquake-caused damage.
  • Be sure to address any damage before using fireplaces, gas appliances and plumbing.

"Although single family homes tend to perform relatively well in a moderate earthquake, masonry walls and chimneys and piping can suffer damage and cause serious problems if not repaired properly,” said Green. "If left unresolved, these problems may cause major complications later, such as carbon monoxide poisoning from cracked chimneys, explosions from gas leaks or mold from water infiltration. Keep in mind that outdoor propane tanks also can topple over and rupture.”

Check for damage that could breach the building at corners or intersections of a wall and roof area. It may not be an imminent structural threat, but people should be looking at their buildings to assess if movements may have damaged these areas to allow leaks and long-term moisture-related damage to occur. Brick veneers may not have peeled off, but moved enough to allow water leaks around windows or doors.

Once immediate risks have been addressed, and especially with the threat of Hurricane Irene on the way, it is important to prepare for a future event:

  • Establish a family emergency plan so people know where to go and who to contact in case of an event.
  • Prepare a disaster kit with necessary supplies.
  • For older homes, consider retrofitting unreinforced brick walls and chimneys. Hurricane winds can cause damage similar to that of an earthquake.
  • Fix any cracks in foundations and walls where hurricane winds can cause water to seep in.

"With the earthquake fresh on everyone’s minds and newscasters reporting on the threat of Hurricane Irene hitting the East Coast later this week, now is a good time to prepare home and family for a potential disaster,” said Jim. W. Sealy, FAIA, NCARB, HFES, Hon. ICC, Chairman of the Institute’s Board of Directors. "Natural disasters can strike at any time. The National Institute of Building Sciences works with both the public and private sectors to continually improve the resiliency of our nation’s buildings and communities.”

FEMA has a number of resources to help prepare for earthquakes:

The Earthquake Safety Guide for Homeowners (FEMA Report 530)briefly describes the most common weaknesses in houses exploited by earthquake ground shaking and what a homeowner can do about them.

The Homebuilders’ Guide to Earthquake-Resistant Design and Construction(FEMA Report 232) explains earthquake-resistant building code requirements designed to protect life by preventing collapse. It also includes a series of "above-code recommendations" and low-cost measures that can improve the performance of a house and help keep it functional after an earthquake.

"What to Do During an Earthquake” This page on the FEMA website is an easy primer for what to do when the earth starts to tremble.

"What to Do Before an Earthquake” This FEMA web page addresses emergency communication plans, disaster supply kits and steps to take around the house to prepare for an earthquake.

To learn more about the National Institute of Building Sciences and its Building Seismic Safety Council, visit

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