Many of us don’t prepare for earthquakes, but why?

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A road is fractured on California highway 178, after a pair of big earthquakes hit the town of Ridgecrest in July of 2019. Photo by Shutterstock.

The cycle happens every time there are earthquakes in another country like the recent devastating ones in Turkey and Syria, or even a minor temblor in California: Earthquake dread, followed by anxiety about the big one coming, then worries about personal preparedness. Unfortunately for many people, those worries don’t often translate into action.

“Just because someone's knowledgeable or [has] awareness of a situation doesn't mean they're necessarily going to take action to mitigate or reduce the harm from that risk,” laments Sara K. McBride, a social scientist who works for the U.S. Geological Survey’s ShakeAlert. “So we call that issue the knowledge behavior gap. That people know, but they don't do anything about it.”

The reasons people don’t take action has been studied. The most common explanation, says McBride, is people are busy mitigating and assessing risks for many other, and more immediate, threats. Beyond that, a sense of fatalism also exists when people see images of others suffering through the ravages of an earthquake somewhere else.

“They go, ‘There's nothing I can do to improve my behavior. It's going to be terrible. So I'm just going to live my life the way it is, and I'll deal with it when it happens,’” says McBride.

Californians may also feel confident that the state, which improved its building codes after earthquakes in the 20th century, is better prepared than other parts of the world for a massive earthquake. McBride, who worked in New Zealand during the 2011 earthquakes centered in Christchurch, points to that experience as an example of confidence not being enough to prevent destruction and casualties.

“When it comes to earthquakes, I would never get too smug … in terms of building codes,” McBride warns. “We do have really good building codes in California. But I don't think that that should make us … go, ‘Okay, well, we don't have to prepare personally, or we don't have to consider insurance or other things.’”

Aside from prepping in advance for an earthquake, McBride and others have also studied the best practices for when the ground actually starts shaking. For one, an individual is twice as likely to be injured during shaking if they are moving around, so staying put is often the best way to stay safe. McBride also advises practicing how one would act, to the point where it becomes instinct.

“You don't want to have to do a lot of thinking because you have such a short period of time to take actions to improve your situation during shaking,” explains McBride.

Having some advanced warning of a major earthquake is possible now too, thanks to the USGS’ ShakeAlert (also available as a smartphone app or through Twitter). Though there are thresholds for which temblors you may receive an alert for, the vital seconds of warning from ShakeAlert may help you take immediate steps to reduce your risk.



  • Sara K. McBride - Social Science Coordinator for the US Geological Survey’s ShakeAlert