Organizing for Earthquake-Prone Spaces

"Office after the Tokyo earthquake, March 11, 2011." Photo by hawken king. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

When the recent Virginia earthquake occurred, we were caught unprepared.  As I mentioned earlier, from my vantage point inside the house in a room with the curtains drawn, I did not actually identify it as an earthquake at the time, thought it was a freak tornado or hurricane and headed to the basement!

After this experience, I wanted to review my earthquake preparedness knowledge.  I grew up in the earthquake-prone state of Utah and the knowledge I remembered was to get in a doorway or under a desk or other sturdy object.  It turns out this is sort-of correct.  Based on current information from, here are a few pointers we should remember about earthquakes.

#1: Running Outside May Not Be the Best Strategy

Our greatest risk of death during an earthquake is generally not from structures collapsing but from falling debris.  However, perhaps with images from Haiti fresh in mind, many people in the east coast quake felt that the best thing to do was to run outside!  My visual-spatial husband explained to me that in Haiti most buildings collapsed because of the way they are inexpensively constructed with cinderblocks and heavy, concrete roofs.  When a roof is heavier than the walls of a structure, it will tend to collapse.  For modern U.S. construction, this rarely happens.  We can note that in Japan’s 9.0 earthquake, there were very few reports of building collapses and in the east coast earthquake, even the historic homes from the 1800’s survived the quake with minimal damage.

“The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls.   Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls.” Earthquakes

#2: Watch Out for Brick and Stone

Most people know to avoid glass and windows during an earthquake but the same applies to brick and stone.  Brick and stone don’t seem to handle earthquakes quite as well as wood.  In the Fredericksburg area, during the recent quake, most damage was to brick structures like chimneys.  Washington National Cathedral in DC saw several of the decorative stone carvings on one of its towers fall.  In my neighborhood, for example, we definitely felt our wood-framed house shake like it was in a washing machine during the earthquake but we saw pretty much zero damage (so far).  We don’t recall anything falling over or falling off of shelves.  A neighbor one block away in a brick house saw her dining room chairs fall over and some pictures fall off the wall.

During an earthquake you need to be alert for any overhead stone or brick structures and avoid them.  Stay away from the fireplace, or, if outside, the chimney.  After an earthquake, inspect your chimney for damage to the bricks and mortar, preferably hiring a professional to do this.  This was a helpful flier from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management on chimney inspection.

Here is the post-earthquake inspection process for the Washington Monument.

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#3: Stay Away from Tall, Heavy or Hazardous Stuff That Falls

Inside a building, probably our greatest risk during an earthquake is that we will be crushed by our stuff.  A heavy bookcase, curio cabinet or entertainment center could fall over and crush us.  Heavy mirrors, light fixtures or framed objects could fall off the wall and crush or injure us.  If you live in an earthquake prone region you should probably avoid putting heavy or hazardous objects overhead.  If you use tall shelves for storage, make sure you bolt them to the wall.    If you can, use ground-level storage solutions instead.

Earthquake Storage Tip: If you have tall bookcases like this one, make sure they are bolted to the wall and consider moving heavy objects to the bottom shelves.
Earthquake Storage Tip: If you have the space, consider floor cabinets, storage benches and other close-to-the-ground storage. Put small, lightweight objects on the walls.

#4: The new mantra is “Drop to the Ground, Take Cover and Hold On”

I have to say this mantra doesn’t entirely make sense to me.  If you happen to be standing or sitting right near a heavy, sturdy object that you can get under when the earthquake hits, you are lucky.  Most of us could be next to a window or a heavy bookcase.  In that case, the mantra might be “Take a quick look around (and up!), avoid the biggest dangers, run/crawl to the safest nearby spot, then drop to the ground, take cover and hold on.”  Also, the “Hold On” portion is confusing.  Sometimes there is nothing to hold on to!  But I suppose you could reinterpret this to be a mental “Hold on! It will be over soon!”

There are many other tips at for earthquake preparedness that I encourage you to read.  From an organizing perspective, the biggest lesson is to be thoughtful about our stuff and where we put it.  Take a moment in the spaces you most frequently inhabit and:

Look up.  What is overhead that could fall?

Look around.  Is there anything heavy like a bookcase that could tip over?  Could you reorganize these spaces so they are more sturdy with the heavier objects on the bottom shelves?

Look for glass, brick or stone.  Where could you go to avoid these areas?

What sturdy furniture could you duck under?  Is there a load-bearing doorframe could you stand under?

As you are organizing your spaces, keep these ideas in mind so that hopefully you have at least one minimally safe zone in each room.

What do you think of the new earthquake guidance?  Does it answer or raise more questions for you?  Please share in the comments.