WSU Energy Program

Earthquake Preparation
Written by Tom Kliewer and Bill Younger

For most people, the major focus following a serious earthquake will be personal safety, assessing Injuries, and removing people from hazardous situations. Publications that can help you deal with these and other concerns are listed at the end of this factsheet. Commonly forgotten, however, is potential danger from quake-vulnerable utilities and heating systems.

This factsheet will provide a checklist to help you avoid injury or damage to your home in the event of an earthquake due to problems with these systems. It will also point out actions you can take if an earthquake occurs.

Preparing for an Earthquake
The best way to prevent quake-related injuries to you and your family, or damage to your home, is to prepare ahead of time.

In the case of heating, electric, and water systems, the first step is to know where all gas, electric, and water shutoff valves and switches are located. You may have to use them in the event of an earthquake, and it's easier to locate than when you are calm then when you are in the midst of an emergency situation. The checklist on the following page can help you prepare.

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  • Gas meters are usually outside, but are occasionally located in basements or crawlspaces. Most often the main shutoff valve is on the inlet pipe and the first fitting out of the ground. A quarter-turn either direction (using a long-handled adjustable wrench) will turn the valve off.
  • Propane systems require a shutoff valve in the home near the propane heater and can be turned off by hand. The main valve is in the storage tank under the access lid to the tank. It may need to be turned off if the quake has disturbed the tank, propane line, or heater.
  • For electrical shutoff, locate your service entrance and fuse box or breaker panel and mark the main fuse, breaker, or shutoff easy for easy identification.
  • Locate and know how to turn off your main water inlet. The water meter is generally located in the ground outside your home near the street or in the driveway. All water meters have a valve conning into the material, although a special "T" type wrench may be required to turn the valve in the small space. Some water mains have a hand valve located immediately after the water meter. If you don't have a hand valve at the meter, an inlet valve may be located in your crawlspace, basement, or utility room where the water main enters the building.
  • Keep tools required to turn off utilities in a convenient place.
  • Inspect appliances and water heaters that can move and rupture gas lines or cause electric shorts. Use flexible connectors to appliances where possible and secure the water heater tank to studs or solid parts of the structure using 2" wide sheet metal strapping (obtained from a local sheet metal shop) and lag screws with oversized washers.
  • Inspect all sheet metal flues connecting the furnace and water heater to the main chimney. All joints should be secured with a minimum of two sheet metal screws per joint to prevent separation.
  • Inspect all masonry chimneys to identify and repair any cracks or deteriorating mortar between bricks.
  • Keep a functional fire extinguisher on hand and know how to use it safely. Fire extinguishers are particularly important during and after a quake when water may not be available "
  • If you live in an apartment house you may have less control over the heating and utility systems. In any case, know how to evacuate the building.

Be careful to share these preparations with all members of the household. Although children are best not held responsible for precautions listed above, they will be better able to understand (and cooperate) when and if an earthquake emergency arises.

Electricity Shut-off
This shows how to shut off electricity in emergencies. The example shows the most common types of shut off switches; your system may be different.

Water Shut-off
Water shut-off valve where water enters building. Label for quick identification this shows how to shut off water In emergencies. The example shows the most common type of shut off valve; your system may be different.

Handling Immediate Danger After a Quake
Here are some tips to deal with potential problems after a quake due to combustible fuels, electric wiring, water and sewer pipes.

Combustible Fuels
Natural gas, oil, and propane gas are combustible and may present immediate dangers after a quake.

Natural gas or propane leaks may result from an earthquake. If you smell gas or hear gas escaping, don't do anything that may create a spark. This includes turning on light switches or other electrical devices, using the telephone (except in extreme emergencies), striking a match to light a candle or lantern, and starting your car if it is in or near a gas cloud.

Open windows, evacuate the house, and shut off the main gas valve outside. If you have a gas leak at the meter do not attempt to shut the valve. Evacuate the area and call the gas company from a phone located safely away from the leak.

If you have turned off gas service to your home, do not turn the gas back on yourself. Call your gas utility and do not re-enter the building until utility officials say it is safe.

If you do not smell gas or hear a gas leak after a quake, do not turn off your gas. Turning your gas service off without cause could leave you without heat or hot water for an extended period of time.

With oil systems, if the oil line appears kinked, twisted, or separated, turn the oil valve off at the tank. If the tank is below ground, the oil will usually siphon back into the tank.

Natural Gas Shut-Off
To shut off gas service at the meter, turn the shutoff valve a quarter turn in either direction, so the lever is crosswise to the pipe and in a closed position.

Evacuation Routes
Draw a floor plan of your house. Plan evacuation routes and practice them with your family.

  • Normal exit Route
  • Emergency exit Routes
  • Fire Extinguisher
  • Smoke Detectors
  • Disaster Supplies Kit
  • Doors
  • Collapsible Ladder
  • Reunion Location (Outside)
  • Stairways
  • Utility Shut Off
  • Windows
  • First Aid Kit

Electrical Wiring
A quake may also disturb your home electrical system causing exposed wires and wire connections, and damaging fixtures and appliances. To prevent fires and shocks you may need to turn off your electricity at the main breaker or service entrance.

Water and Sewer Pipes
Broken water and sewer pipes can contaminate drinking water, and damage insulation, interior finishes, and furnishings. If you can see or hear running water, turn off the main water valve.

If you do turn off your main water valve, be sure to turn off the breaker or natural gas to your water heater also. Electric heating elements are designed to be immersed at all times and may burn out if operated dry. Gas water heaters operated dry are a potential fire hazard.

For emergency water when the main is turned off, use water from melted ice cubes, hot water tanks, and toilet tanks (if they do not contain chemical cleaners). If water service is left on or service is restored after a quake, boil all drinking water as a safety precaution until the water is tested and found to be safe.

Assessing Other Potential Hazards After a Quake
Before putting your heating system back into service after an earthquake, it is important to inspect the entire system.

Cracked flues and damaged mortar between bricks can allow hot gases to pass through and ignite surrounding flammable materials such as insulation, framing, and roofing.

During a quake, a masonry chimney may physically collapse, or be damaged to the point of physical instability, creating the possibility of bodily injury if it falls on someone.

After a quake, mortar or chimney material may clog combustion heating system exhaust flues. Do not operate the heating system (natural gas, oil, propane, or wood) unless you are sure the flue is sound and clear. Brick chimneys and tile flues should be assumed damaged until they have been inspected by a qualified professional. Metal chimneys and liners usually fare better, but should be inspected to ensure they haven't separated at the joints. This can usually be done by the homeowner. If for any reason you do not feel qualified to inspect the flue, contact a qualified chimney sweep.

If you examine the home after the quake yourself, do so from outside the structure. Extreme caution should be exercised during this exam to avoid injury due to unsafe conditions caused by the quake. You will be looking for damaged foundations and masonry, wiring, water systems, appliances, and visible structural problems such as damaged walls and roofs.

Emergency Kit


  • 1 gallon per person per day
  • Purifying agents.


  • 3 day supply of non-perishable food.
  • Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables.
  • Dried or canned juices and soups.
  • Staples - Sugar, salt and pepper.
  • Candy, peanut butter, nuts, and jelly.
  • Vitamins

First Aid:

  • Sterile adhesive bandages and gauze pads.
  • Scissors, tweezers, and needle.
  • Soap and moistened toweletts.
  • Antiseptic spray.
  • Safety pins and a safety razor blade.
  • Prescription drugs needed for family members.


  • Sturdy shoes or boots.
  • Rain gear.
  • Hat, gloves, and thermal underwear.
  • Sleeping bags or blankets.


  • Food, water and medication
  • Leash and/or rope.
  • Make sure your pet is current on all vaccinations.
  • Attach identification tags to your pet's collar. List an emergency number out-of-state as well as a local number.

Suggested Reading

Earthquake Safety Checklist: A list of things to have on hand in any emergency.

27 Things To Help You Survive An Earthquake - - "What to do" during and after an earthquake.

Family Earthquake Safety Home Hazard Hunt and Drill:
This booklet identifies common home hazards, and gives guidance in correcting them, plus tips on what to do during an earthquake.

The three publications listed above are available through the American Red Cross. (For other Red Cross publications, contact the local American Red Cross Office and ask for emergency services.)

Preparedness in Apartments and Mobile Homes:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has helpful information about how to best prepare for and survive an earthquake. FEMA, 130 228th St. S.W., Bothell, WA 98021.

This publication concentrates on what to do before, during, and after an earthquake. For a copy of this pamphlet call (206) 4599191, or write the Department of Community Development, Division of Emergency Management 4220 E. MartinWay Olympia WA 98504.

Washington State University Cooperative Extension publications contain material written and produced for public distribution. You may reprint material, provided you do not use it to endorse a commercial product. Please reference by title and credit Washington State University Cooperative Extension.

Alternate formats of our educational materials are available upon request for persons with disabilities. Please contact the Information Department, College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

Issued by Washington State University Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in furtherance of the Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Cooperative Extension programs and policies are consistent with federal and state laws and regulations on nondiscrimination regarding race, color, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability, and sexual orientation. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Cooperative Extension office. Trade names have been used to simplify information; no endorsement is intended.

Published June 1997.
Subject Code 370

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Electricity Shut-off

This shows how to shut off electricity in emergencies. The example shows the most common types of shut off switches; your system may be different.

Water Shut-off

Water Shut-Off

This shows how to shut off water in emergencies. The example shows the most common type of shut off valve; your system may be different.