Earthquake aftermath: Prepare now for the steps you’ll take

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How will your business handle an earthquake aftermath?

This article is a compilation of two Zurich articles, An earthquake has struck. It’s time to act. and Seven steps to help your business recover from an earthquake. The content is used with permission from Zurich. View more many more risk topics and information on Zurich’s Future of Risk

  1. Learn steps to take immediately after an earthquake, from administering first aid to checking water, gas and electric lines for damage.
  2. Fires are a frequent risk in an earthquake aftermath. Here’s how to deter a fire after a quake.
  3. Learn 7 ways to aid your recovery after a quake.


Until science can develop ways to anticipate the timing of potential earthquakes similar to the accuracy meteorologists can achieve when predicting severe weather, quakes will continue to occur without warning. During the first critical seconds and minutes of a serious quake and in the earthquake aftermath, no priority is greater than the safety and well-being of your employees and others in and around your facility.

View our Earthquake Hub for more articles on how to prepare for and what to do during and after a quake.

Coping with the immediate aftermath

Keep in mind that many injuries occur after an earthquake. In addition, aftershocks following the main quake can amplify the risks of additional damage to unstable structures and the potential for injuries. The following are some immediate earthquake survival recommendations to consider in the hours after a quake:

  • Check yourself and others for injuries. Provide first aid for anyone who needs it.
  • Follow your organization’s emergency plan and the instructions of persons in charge.
  • Check water, gas, and electric lines for damage. If any are damaged, shut off the valves.
  • Check for the smell of gas. If you smell it, open all the windows and doors, leave immediately, and report it to the authorities.
  • Turn on the radio. Try not to use your phone unless it’s an emergency. Local cellphone capacity will be maxed out.
  • Stay out of damaged buildings.
  • Be careful around broken glass and debris. Wear boots or sturdy shoes.
  • Be careful of chimneys; they may be structurally weakened and may fall.
  • Expect aftershocks.
Related:  How to minimize earthquake damage and injury


Earthquake aftermath: Fires are a frequent risk

As if the potential for physical damage and mass casualties due to a major earthquake was not bad enough, fires following a seismic event can be the most devastating secondary effects of a quake. The conflagration following the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake resulted in the largest urban fire in U.S. history, dwarfing even the Great Chicago Fire 35 years earlier.

Be aware of the following fire risk factors in an earthquake aftermath:

  • Systems containing flammable and combustible liquids and gases may be damaged by seismic shaking or the failure of other utility systems or building features. The damage may allow spills or leaks that may ignite. Hazardous chemical interactions in industrial facilities may occur that lead to fires.
  • Automatic fire protection systems may be damaged by the seismic shaking or the failure of other utility systems or building features upon which fire protection systems depend. Such damage may impair fire protection when it is needed most.
  • Automatic fire detection systems depend upon the public telephone network to transmit alarm signals and promptly notify the public fire service. Damage to telephone lines, high demand for the available telephone service, and excessive signal being received by the public fire service may compromise the effectiveness of alarm signal delivery or the action on any signal that is received.
  • The public fire service may be severely overtaxed by an earthquake event. It is anticipated that normal response practices will quickly transition to emergency response protocols. All requests for emergency aid will be prioritized with resources directed to life safety concerns first.
  • Normal routes of travel for the responding public fire service may be obstructed by debris, fallen power lines, damaged bridges and overpasses and other impediments. Response may be significantly delayed or impossible.
  • Water mains may experience breaks that reduce available water pressure, flow and capacity, or which render water service completely interrupted. Fire systems such as automatic sprinklers may have no water supply, and once the public fire service arrives, they may find public fire hydrants impaired as well.
  • Fire-rated construction that would normally provide fire confinement or protection from neighbors may be compromised by the earthquake such that fire can readily spread past damaged fire wall or inoperative fire doors.
Related: Earthquake preparation and mitigation


7 ways to aid your recovery in an earthquake aftermath

Keep in mind that aftershocks may continue for several weeks and with them, risks to people and property. All recovery efforts should be undertaken with safety as the top priority. Here, then, are some helpful tips:

  1. Heed advisories from federal, state and local agencies.

Access the most recent safety updates and information from federal, state and local government authorities. Listen to television and radio reports. (Depending on the severity of the event’s impact on communication systems, a portable, battery-operated radio may be useful.) Also, ensure you know which regulatory agencies are responsible in your area for post-earthquake inspection and evaluation, and which authority grants clearance/permission to restart operations.

If a disaster has been declared, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is among the first agencies onsite. FEMA’s mobile app can help you keep tabs on changing conditions of the earthquake aftermath and provide access to important resources for a variety of emergency and disaster scenarios.

  1. Maintain communications with your internal and external stakeholders.

Depending on the severity of the earthquake and your region’s readiness/ability to respond, businesses may need to shut down operations for an extended period. It’s important to maintain internal and external lines of communication, and update your messaging as needed. The greater the variety of communication channels, the better, because earthquakes can disable utilities and communication services.

Consider your different audiences:

  • Your employees: Share updates to displaced workers via your company website, text messages, social media and/or phone messages.
  • Your insurance distributor and carrier: If you have earthquake insurance, call your insurance representatives to begin the claims process. Follow their guidance in terms of recording and reporting damages. If you do not have earthquake insurance, your insurance carrier and/or broker may be able to help with resources to support recovery and rehabilitation of your business. (Do you need earthquake insurance? The Insurance Information Institute offers a helpful Q&A for businesses.)
  • Your customers and vendors: Update your website’s homepage or blog to communicate with them. Social media and text messaging can help you keep your business connected. You may also want to record daily updates on your general phone line.
  • Corporate management: As the recovery process continues, provide periodic updates on conditions and progress.
  1. Take proper precautions when visiting your property in the earthquake aftermath.

When authorities have assessed your site and allowed you access, you’ll be able to begin the recovery and rehabilitation process. Let caution rule. You must first establish that your building is safe. Earthquakes can severely damage structures, e.g., buildings, bridges and dams. After an earthquake, have a registered professional engineer or architect inspect and certify that not only is your building stable and safe, but so are its stairs, floors and roofs.

Earthquakes create a variety of risks, including water system breaks that cause flooding; exposure to toxins from broken sanitary sewage systems; exposed and energized electrical systems; exposure to airborne smoke and dust, such as asbestos and silica; natural gas leaks; structural instability; slip, trip and fall hazards and much more.

Dress properly, including work boots, durable gloves, hard hats and safety goggles, to protect you from broken glass, nails and other debris, as well as potentially toxic material spills. Even areas that appear safe could have been compromised by the earthquake. Carefully open doors and cabinets: Shifting contents can present a risk. Be aware of unstable ground or flooring that could give way. Also, avoid walking near or beneath chimneys; they can be weakened after an earthquake and may tumble. Should an aftershock occur during your visit, practice “drop, cover and hold on” — the same practice advised during the initial earthquake. Most importantly, if you hear unusual sounds, evacuate immediately; the building could be about to collapse.

  1. Assess and document damage to your property.

First, perform a proper shutdown of your property. You should already have established clear shutdown procedures as part of an earthquake scenario. These procedures should include actions such as shutting all piping valves, draining pipelines, securing hazardous material, containing leaking materials, etc.

Bring a camera, as well as portable chargers, to photograph and/or shoot video of damages in the earthquake aftermath, before any cleanup or restoration work is initiated. Document damage to physical structures as well as inventory, supplies, furniture, contents, equipment and business losses. Remember to keep track of your expenses. Some priorities include:

  • Check water, gas and electric lines.
  • Check, and regularly recheck, your fire protection systems. This includes confirming that all sprinkler and hydrant valves are open and your fire water supply is operative. Damaged fire protection systems need to be restored and working as soon as possible.
  • Look for cracks and/or damage to the roof and foundation of your property.
  • Check all electric appliances and electronic equipment for damage.
  • If water lines broke, look for water damage.
  • Locate any critical documents you may need and store them in a safe place.

During your damage assessment, if you identify potential structural, electrical and/or gas leak hazards that may have been overlooked by authorities, report them to the proper agencies as soon as possible.

  1. Contact contractors and vendors to initiate repairs to your commercial property.

Once you’ve analyzed the status of your facility, prioritize repairs and start-up with qualified contractors and maintenance personnel. Remember that the severity of the quake may make it difficult to initiate repairs. Also, the pandemic has created many challenges for companies across the U.S., including your vendors. Scheduling repairs may be more difficult due to reduced staffing and/or supply shortages. You may need to prioritize based on urgency and available resources. The contingency plan should contain:

  • Procedures to contact internal and external resources to organize recovery
  • Prioritized damage assessment targets, each with assigned responsibility
  • Prioritized operational recovery targets based on a realistic assessment of the organization’s current resources and supporting infrastructure
  • Contact protocols for suppliers (to determine availability of supplies) and customers (to keep them informed of current delivery capabilities)
  • Basic utility assessment process to determine the available resources: What utilities exist, what can be restored and expected downtime. Identify if alternatives are available.
  • Up-to-date contracts or agreements should be available with external contractors who are critical for repairs, salvage and reinstatement. After an earthquake, regional demand for key technical and repair personnel often outstrips supply (e.g., professionals for sprinkler systems, utilities or specialists for heavy machinery or equipment).
  • Maintain a thorough record, include written receipts, for anyone you talk to and/or do business with.
  • Always prioritize the protection of your recovery staff and maintain communication with them throughout cleanup and recovery operations. Consider these disaster-site management tips from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  1. Prohibit hot work until fire protection is restored.

In addition to prohibiting hot work until your fire protection is restored, you also should not use open flames (e.g., matches, lighters) or operate any electrical or mechanical device that can create a spark. This includes light switches, generators, motor vehicles, etc. In addition, never use gas generators, gas or charcoal grills, gas lanterns or camp stoves indoors; they can release deadly carbon monoxide and/or be a fire hazard during an aftershock. Needless to say (but we’ll say it, anyway): No smoking!

  1. Review your response.

When your business is operating again, set aside time for a thoughtful review of your response and recovery processes. Where did you succeed and where was there room for improvement? Ask these questions in terms of your own preparation, the vendors you contracted with and any critical tasks you may have overlooked.

Related: How can your business plan for an earthquake?


During earthquake aftermath recovery operations, companies should guard against an overly fast recovery. Although it’s understandable to want to get back to business, choosing speed over thoroughness can result in neglecting key structural repairs and compromise future earthquake resilience.

Agents, take a look at our Residential Earthquake Program to add to your portfolio of insurance solutions.