Earthquakes may occur without warning. Aside from the possible property damage, they’re also life-threatening. In the United States, more than 94,000 earthquakes were recorded in 2021. While 45 states risk experiencing earthquakes, California is the most prone to them.
Preparedness is crucial in protecting one’s family and property from any potential hazards. This can include knowing how close your city is to fault lines, preparing an emergency kit, ensuring your home insurance includes earthquake coverage and safeguarding areas of your home. Learn more about assessing your earthquake risks and explore ways to protect your home and finances.
Assessing the Earthquake Risk of Your Home
While it may be challenging to determine when a disaster may strike, properly assessing risks can help prepare your home. Understanding earthquake risks involves more than knowing the location of fault lines — it’s essential to be aware of the seismic risk or the probability of an area incurring loss or damage due to any seismic hazard. A property is considered at high seismic risk if it’s vulnerable to damage.
Find out what risk factors you need to take note of to best measure your home’s earthquake risk.
Mapping Out Your Seismic Hazard
Seismic hazard generally refers to any natural phenomenon that may cause loss or damage to humans and properties. Examples are fault rupture, ground shaking or soil liquefaction generated by earthquakes. Seismic hazard is used for seismic risk assessment. However, a high seismic hazard doesn’t necessarily equate to a high seismic risk. It’s necessary to consider your level of vulnerability.
Knowing seismic hazards helps determine whether your home is in an earthquake-prone area. Therefore, you can know what safety precautions you need to take.
You can use the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) earthquake hazard map to get started.
Understand the Risk Factors
There are three main risk factors you need to consider when determining your seismic risk: seismic hazard level, exposure to said hazard and vulnerability of the population and property. Understanding these factors can help reduce the chances of injuries, property damage and financial distress.
This refers to a potentially destructive phenomenon, such as an earthquake. Depending on where you live, the seismic hazard level may vary. The USGS earthquake hazard map can help you see your area’s hazard level.
Exposure to seismic hazards varies per geographical location and the population in the area. The quantity and quality of important assets and infrastructure that may be affected are also considered.
A property’s level of vulnerability depends on the likelihood of damage or destruction upon exposure to a hazard. For instance, buildings compliant with regulations and have earthquake-resistance construction are deemed less vulnerable.
Measuring the Risk
Risk factors may vary greatly by geographical location. That’s because certain states tend to be more prone to experience seismic activities. Additionally, property stability and damageability may also differ.
Homeowners may use hazard maps to check exposure and hazard levels. Reviewing historical data may also help. That said, working with an expert may be necessary for proper seismic risk assessment, including probable damage and losses.
Earthquake Weakness and How to Strengthen Your Home
Many houses may not be as safe as they appear. Some problems can lead to severe property damage or bodily injury if left unfixed. Thorough inspections can help identify issues that may require immediate correction, which can help homeowners prevent significant and costly earthquake damages.
Below are some of the most common earthquake weaknesses you should look for.
1. Unbraced Water Heaters
Many forget to check the condition of their water heaters. It’s important to ensure they’re properly braced to prevent issues. Otherwise, they may end up toppling or moving during an earthquake, which could break your water or gas lines and cause water or fire damage.
Learn how to identify and solve this type of earthquake weakness below.
How to Identify & Solve for Unbraced Water Heaters
- Look for any type of restraints. Typically, these are metal braces or straps wrapped around the water heater.
- Check the screws or bolts. Make sure they’re securely attached to the concrete wall.
- Pull on the braces or straps to check if they’re well-secured.
- Inspect the water and gas pipes connected to the heater. Determine if they’re flexible, as these are safer than rigid ones.
- Make sure you’re using a certified strap or bracing kit. You may find these in hardware stores.
- If you’re unsure what to do, consider hiring a licensed plumber to strap the water heater. They can make sure the brace is up to code.
- Check the braces or straps at least once a year to see if they’ve become loose.
- Replace rigid pipes with flexible pipes.
2. Foundations Not Anchored
Foundations are among the most crucial parts of a home. If your home isn’t properly anchored to the foundation, there’s a higher chance of it sliding off during an earthquake. This can break your utility lines or damage the other structural parts of your home like the floors, walls and the foundation itself.
The table below enumerates tips to identify and solve this issue.
How to Identify & Solve for Unanchored Foundations
- If you have a crawl space, go into it and check that your house is bolted to the foundation.
- Find out if the bolts are well-fastened. Typically, you’d see bolts with large nuts and washers installed along the sill plate. If you don’t see any, your home likely has inadequate bolting.
- Check for any unfinished framing at your walls’ base.
- If you don’t have a crawl space, check if your home is bolted to concrete slabs.
- If your home isn’t bolted, install anchor bolts. You can do this by drilling holes through the sill plate.
- If it’s not possible to drill holes, consider attaching steel plates to keep the sill plate attached to your home’s foundation.
- Check regulations in your area. Find out if you need to secure a permit to work on anchoring your home’s foundation.
3. Weak Cripple Walls
In some cases, wooden floors and stud walls are installed on top of a home’s exterior foundation. These are called cripple walls. They’re used to create a crawl space between a house’s first floor and foundation.
Additionally, cripple walls carry the weight of the home. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure they’re strong enough to support the whole structure. Otherwise, they may collapse during an earthquake.
Find out how you can identify and solve this earthquake weakness.
How to Identify & Solve for Weak Cripple Walls
- Go into your home’s crawl space and see if there are wood stud walls. If you find any, then you have cripple walls.
- Check if the cripple walls are braced. Usually, plywood panels are nailed to studs to brace the walls.
- Wood sidings should be installed diagonally to brace the walls properly. If the wood siding is horizontal or vertical, your cripple walls may not have the right support.
- Use plywood or any wood product that’s compliant with building codes.
- Check if there are specific permits you need to secure before working on your cripple walls.
- Nail wood between the studs. Add diagonal wood sheathing to strengthen the cripple walls.
4. Pier-and-Post Foundation
Some houses are supported by large wood posts resting on concrete piers. These are called pier-and-post foundations. This foundation makes your home more vulnerable to earthquake damage if they’re unbraced. They can fail and cause your home to move or collapse in the event of an earthquake.
Learn how to determine if your home has this earthquake weakness and how you can best solve this problem.
How to Identify & Solve for Pier-and-Post Foundations
- Find out what foundation supports your home’s exterior walls. You can do this by going into the crawl space.
- Look for a continuous foundation. Your home may not be properly supported if you don’t see any.
- Check if the wood posts are only resting on and aren’t connected to the concrete piers. If that’s the case, your home has an earthquake weakness.
- Contact a licensed architect or engineer. Ask them for advice. You may also need to find a contractor specializing in foundations.
- Consider bracing the posts to make your home’s foundation stronger and safer.
- Determine if adding a new foundation and wooden walls in your crawl space is necessary.
5. Unreinforced Masonry Foundation
There are also homes supported by masonry foundations. While these materials may seem more substantial, leaving them unreinforced makes your home vulnerable to earthquake damage. Masonry foundations need adequate reinforcement to prevent the house from sliding off, which could damage walls, floors and utility lines.
Below are some tips to help you determine and solve unreinforced masonry foundations.
How to Identify & Solve for Unreinforced Masonry Foundations
- Determine the material used for your home’s foundations. Bricks, stones or concrete blocks are often masonry foundations.
- If the exterior of your home’s foundation is covered, go into the crawl space to check.
- If you have a brick foundation, check to see if the space between the inner and outer faces is filled with grout. If so, the foundation may be reinforced.
- If the foundation is concrete blocks, check to see if the blocks connected at the sill plate have concrete. If they don’t, your home’s foundation may likely be unreinforced.
- Consult an architect or engineer. Consider hiring a licensed contractor as well.
- Find out if you need to replace a part or the whole foundation. If you do, consider poured reinforced concrete foundation.
- If you don’t want to replace the foundation, ask for alternative solutions that can help strengthen the unreinforced masonry foundation.
Preventing vs. Repairing Earthquake: A Cost Comparison
Preventing earthquake damage by determining and addressing weaknesses early on can help you save a lot of money. Below is a cost comparison to show you how much you can save.
Note that the following figures are only estimates. Actual costs may vary.
Home Strengthening Project
Unbraced water heaters
Foundations not anchored
$25,000–home’s total value
Weak cripple walls
$25,000–home’s total value
$20,000–home’s total value
$15,000– home’s total value
Reviewing Your Earthquake Insurance Coverage
You’ve determined your earthquake risk, now it’s time to find ways to protect your home. A homeowner’s policy with the right hazard insurance may be one solution that covers your home’s structure.
Depending on your seismic risk level, you may also need to purchase earthquake insurance. As the name suggests, it covers damages caused by earthquakes. It’s a rider or endorsement added to standard home insurance to help mitigate possible loss due to earthquakes.
How Much Does Earthquake Insurance Cost?
Generally, the best homeowners insurance varies per person. The same can be said when it comes to cost. In calculating the cost of earthquake insurance, insurers assess individualized factors. The location also affects insurance prices.
For instance, in California, the average rate for earthquake insurance is $1.75 per $1,000 in coverage. That said, the best way to get an accurate calculation is to get personalized quotes.
What Does Earthquake Insurance Cover?
Typically, standard homeowners and renters insurance policies don’t cover earthquake damage. To get coverage, you’ll have to buy a separate endorsement.
Before purchasing earthquake coverage, it’s essential to understand what it does and doesn’t cover. This way, you know what to expect from your policy in the event of an earthquake.
What Earthquake Insurance Covers & Doesn't Cover
- Repairs to the covered home and any attached structures
- Personal belongings, such as furniture and clothes, kept in the insured home
- Additional living expenses should the insured home becomes uninhabitable due to an earthquake
- Garage, lawn, pool or any outdoor fixtures
- Damages to vehicles
- Fires, even those caused by earthquakes, are typically covered by homeowners insurance and not earthquake insurance
- Flooding, even if caused by an earthquake
- Sinkholes may require separate coverage; state mandates may vary
Should You Buy Earthquake Insurance?
While earthquake insurance protects against possible financial burdens that may come with certain damages, it may not always be a necessary purchase. For instance, if your earthquake risk is low, you may opt not to buy this coverage. However, if you live close to active faults, it may be wise to have this insurance.
Here are some situations in which homeowners are highly encouraged to get earthquake insurance.
You live close to active faults
Individuals who reside in areas with active earthquake fault lines nearby may benefit from earthquake insurance.
Your area experiences earthquakes frequently
If you live where earthquakes often occur, even in low magnitudes, it may be best to have insurance. It would also help to check how much time has passed since your area experienced an earthquake.
You have a high-value home
Homeowners with expensive homes and valuable belongings living in earthquake-prone areas may have to buy earthquake insurance to mitigate possible losses.
What to Do Before, During and After an Earthquake
Earthquake preparedness is more than just knowing what to expect and how to assess risks. You need to develop a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones in an earthquake. You should also know what to do before, during and after an earthquake. Additionally, you need to be financially prepared for any possible emergency.
Safety Tips Before an Earthquake
Taking preventive measures and having a safety plan can help ensure that you’re well-protected when an earthquake strikes. Below are some tips that may help you secure your home and prepare your household.
Learn the signs
The best way to prepare for an earthquake is to be informed. Be on the lookout for alerts and public warnings. You should also be aware of what signs to be wary of, such as earthquake lights, mysterious booming or rumbling noises, multicolored clouds, foreshocks or slight tremors and strange animal behavior.
Determine safe spots
Identify areas in each room where you and your family can take cover in an earthquake. You may determine which pieces of furniture are sturdy enough to protect you against debris or falling objects.
Create an escape plan
Come up with a household emergency plan. Take note of exit points. Plan how you can quickly turn off gas, water and electricity. Decide on a safe meeting point after an earthquake.
Prepare an emergency kit
It’s possible to get stuck in an area without food or electricity for days after an earthquake. Make sure you have an earthquake kit prepared with food, water, medications, first-aid kits, flashlights, extra batteries, a radio and blankets.
Practice what to do
Each household member should know what to do when an earthquake strikes. You can practice “drop, cover and hold on.”
Safety Tips During an Earthquake
An earthquake can cause confusion and panic. Knowing what you must do to stay safe can help you fight the feeling of being overwhelmed by the incident.
Having an emergency plan at home is important. However, there’s no assurance that you’ll be in your home when an earthquake strikes. Below are some things you should do depending on where you are.
Your Position and Situation
What You Should Do
Inside a crowded building
Stay inside during the earthquake. Don’t rush to get in the doorway. Instead, drop down to the ground to avoid losing your balance. Make sure you keep your head and neck covered with your arms.
Hide under a sturdy table or piece of furniture and hold on.
If you’re outside, look for a safe location near you. Stay away from buildings and street lights. Avoid utility wires and glass windows.
Avoid potential hazards by moving to a curb or shoulder. Stay in the car with the parking brake engaged. Don’t travel until the shaking stops.
Assess your situation. If you think it’s not safe to go out of your vehicle, stay until help arrives.
Near the ocean
If you’re near the ocean, it’s best to walk away instead of driving. Be wary of your surroundings. Avoid debris and potential hazards.
If possible, move to an area 100 feet above sea level or go two miles inland. A tsunami may follow an earthquake.
In a high-rise building
Stay away from windows and inside walls that may fall. Do “drop, cover and hold on” and don’t attempt to leave the building. Avoid using elevators because the electricity may go out.
If you’re trapped, look for anything you can bank on to get the attention of rescuers.
Safety Tips After an Earthquake
The aftermath of an earthquake can be severe. It’s important to stay vigilant and be mindful of potential hazards. Don’t panic. Stay calm and focus on keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.
Here are some safety tips you may find helpful after an earthquake.
Check for injuries
Care of wounds or injuries that occurred during the earthquake. Get first aid as soon as possible to prevent inspection. If you’re trapped, try to attract attention by banging on metal objects, using a whistle or signaling through a flashlight.
It’s possible to experience aftershocks, the smaller tremors following large earthquakes. If you feel one, remember to drop, cover and hold on.
Stay away from potential hazards
Move to higher ground inland if you’re in an area at risk for tsunamis. Stay updated about public announcements and warnings. Listen to local authorities and follow their instructions. You should also stay away from power lines and damaged buildings.
Evaluate the damages
Check your home for any damages. If you think it’s safe to enter, check your utility lines. If there are signs of damage, shut them off immediately. If you think your gas line is broken, report it to authorities.
Avoid using candles or open flames inside your home because you may accidentally set your home on fire. As much as possible, use battery-powered devices.
Make sure your food is safe to eat
If there’s a power outage, it may be best to throw away perishable food in your refrigerator. If the food has a strange color or odor, it’s best to throw it away.
Check reports and advice on water precautions. Be wary of contaminated water. The best option is to use bottled, treated or boiled water.
Expert Insight on Earthquake Preparedness
Preparing and protecting your home from potential earthquake damage can be overwhelming. MoneyGeek asked industry experts to share insights that you may find helpful.
- How can homeowners best protect their homes against earthquakes?
- How can a homeowner tell if earthquake insurance is right for them?
- What money-saving tips can you share with homeowners seeking earthquake insurance coverage?
Wellness Design Consultant and Author
Insurance Agent & Financial Representative at COUNTRY Financial
Owner & CEO of Denver Home Buyer
CEO of iPropertyManagement Leasing
Resources for Earthquake Preparedness & Response
Knowing what support services are available, how to best prepare and what to do during an earthquake is your best defense. The following resources can help you mitigate risks and financial pitfalls to keep you and your home safe.
- American Red Cross: Learn what to do when an earthquake hits and how you can strengthen your home to keep it safe.
- California Residential Mitigation Program (CRMP): This program provides grants, incentives and assistance to California homeowners who want to retrofit their homes to mitigate potential earthquake damage.
- Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC): Learn about earthquake risk and find useful tips for earthquake safety in this educational nonprofit organization funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
- Earthquake Country Alliance (ECA): ECA is a state-wide group formed through a public-private partnership among California organizations and people. Access different resources for earthquake preparedness.
- National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP): Four agencies — FEMA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey — work together for the NEHRP to improve understanding of earthquake hazards. Find useful resources to help you better prepare for earthquakes.
- Ready.gov: Find safety and disaster preparedness tips through this government public service campaign website.
- Western States Seismic Policy Council (WSSPC): This regional consortium is a nonprofit organization developing seismic policies. It also shares valuable information about programs that can help reduce earthquake-related losses.
About Nathan Paulus
- California Earthquake Authority. "California Earthquake Risk Map & Faults by County." Accessed July 8, 2022.
- DisasterAssistance.gov. "Disaster Types – Earthquake." Accessed July 8, 2022.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Earthquake Insurance." Accessed July 8, 2022.
- Insurance Information Institute. "Facts + Statistics: Earthquakes and Tsunamis." Accessed July 8, 2022.
- U.S. Geological Survey. "Faults." Accessed July 11, 2022.
- Volcano Discovery. "Past Earthquakes in the USA: 2021 – List, Stats and Map." Accessed July 8, 2022.