What to Do If Your House is Damaged in an Earthquake
The unthinkable happened in January. My sister and their family were on their way to Canada when they received a call from their alarm company notifying them of an alarm. Shortly after that the calls from their neighbors began to stream in.
Their house was on fire.
A surge of electricity in a faulty power line caused a spark in the wiring, which quickly spread through the top half of their home.
By the time they made it home several hours later, the entire house was destroyed.
While that night had felt like the longest their lives, the following weeks would be even more painful, difficult, and exhausting.
Looters ransacked their home before it was even cleared by the Fire Marshall, stealing whatever valuables my family hadn’t been able to grab. Because the fire marshall only allowed them a few short minutes to gather their possessions, items like electronics and jewelry were left behind in favor of personal, sentimental items. But those electronics were stolen within 24 hours. The looters even stole the washer, dryer, and dishwasher only days after the fire! Squatters arrived shortly after, destroying the remains.
Unable to return to their home, my family was temporarily housed in a hotel. A staff there stole paperwork for their storage unit and attempted to empty it.
My sister had never considered the possibility of an emergency, and could only react to this devastating situation. She was in survival mode, as she had no plan for what her family would do in the aftermath.
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Watching my sister experience this heartbreak was incredibly difficult. My toddler nephew didn’t understand why he could not return to the only home he’d ever know. My 17-year-old niece, a talented athlete and scholar, started having trouble in school because she had nowhere to study.
I hope that you can learn from my family’s struggles. If we can help more families prevent this devastation to their own homes it will ease our pain.
What to do if your house is damaged in an earthquake?
The first thing you should do is make sure your home is safe enough to enter.
Examine the outside of the structure for obvious damage
FEMA suggests you watch out for:
- Cracks in walls or ceilings
- Damaged wall siding
- Spongy, bouncy, or otherwise compromised flooring
- Cracked or broken windows
- Cracks in the foundation
- Doors no longer shut due to a twisted or damaged door frame
Document the damage
Go through your home and take photos of the damage. It’s important to have a visual record for potential insurance claims. If your home is not safe enough to stay in, gather up your valuables.
If there is enough damage to warrant a claim, your insurance may require a professional inspection on the property. Some insurance companies will send out their own inspectors, while others need you to contract an outside party.
Even if you don’t think there’s major damage, it’s still a good idea to hire a professional inspector. There is the possibility of damage to your foundation, structural, or wiring that might not be visible. Get an expert decision before attempting any minor repairs yourself.
Notify third parties.
Notify your insurers that your home has been damaged. This includes homeowners, fire, flood insurance, and earthquake insurance.
You may also need to notify your utilities providers if there is damage to water, power, phone, or gas lines. While there may be no damage to the lines you may still want to let the providers know that your home is currently unoccupied or unlivable.
Don’t forget to let your alarm company know that your home is damaged, as broken windows or shifted foundations might cause an alarm to go off.
Secure your home
It is a good idea to board up or otherwise secure your home if it appears unlivable, at least until you can get a professional inspection. Criminals have no qualms about stealing from those already down on their luck.
How to earthquake-proof your home
A great way to make sure your home is earthquake-ready is to remember the acronym S.H.A.K.E.: Secure, Hire, Attach, Know, Examine.
Secure expensive and heavy items in your home using straps, anchors, latches, and braces. This includes your hot water heater, televisions, refrigerators, and other expensive or heavy items. Secure top-heavy furniture like dressers should to the wall also. Secure cabinets and cupboards with latches, and never hang heavy pictures or art above beds. Small, valuable items can be secured with putty.
Hire professionals to complete structural inspections and any necessary repairs.
Attach your appliances using flexible connections so they won’t break and cause more hazards like gas leaks or fires.
Pro Tip: Zip-tie the gas shut off tool to the shut-off valve. You’ll never have to wonder where it is in an emergency.
Examine the outside of your home for potential hazards, like old trees and power lines, that may fall on the house.
If you live on or near a fault line, remember to get earthquake insurance! If your home is damaged by an earthquake, insurance can help cover much of the cost of repairs or purchasing a new house.
Tips for the worst-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is that your home is destroyed by an earthquake. The likelihood of this is low, but you should still be prepared.
Scan your most important documents
Fires, floods, and landslides are often side effects of earthquakes. This can damage important documents like insurance policies and other data. Use a scanner app on your phone to scan the most important documents and upload them to a secure cloud storage space. Make photocopies of important items like identification and insurance cards to keep in your earthquake bag.
Contact local resources for help
You are not alone after a disaster! In addition to your insurance, there are a ton of resources that you can contact for help.
Get a storage unit
Secure all salvaged items in a storage unit, as you will not have a safe space to keep them while you are in temporary housing provided by your insurance company.
In the span of just a few days, my sister lost her home and nearly all her possessions. The house that burnt down was the same one we grew up in together, the one she raised her children in. It was filled with more than just stuff; there were 35 years of memories and photographs lining its walls.
Losing the home was difficult, but losing a sense of control was worse. We can’t go back in time to create a plan, make copies, or secure the home. But you still have time.
Keep your loved ones safe. Take these simple steps today, and rest well tonight.
- Kamee Collins