This article was posted on Friday, Apr 01, 2016

When the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 struck, my great-grandfather was 14 years old living with his family at Pine and Van Ness.  The property had suffered little more apparent damage than a downed chimney.  So his father, seeing many other downed brick chimneys in the neighborhood, hastened him to the brick mason for an appointment before he was all booked.  At the time, this must have seemed like the smart thing to do.  It didn’t occur to him or to most other San Franciscans at the time, that the worst was yet to come, and that the fires that destroyed much of the city and their home completely, should have been their immediate focus, not calling the brick mason.

Faced with a major, damaging earthquake, would you know what to do in the first hour or two?  In writing this article, I surveyed property managers, insurance agents, other industry contacts, and did an internet search.  I was pleased to discover many excellent resources on “preparing for an earthquake, what to do during an earthquake and what to do after an earthquake”.

The article addresses the third situation and summarizes into 10 key points what you should do right after a major tremblor in order to protect lives and property. 

Be Alert to Aftershocks and Threat of Tsunami

Aftershocks are likely and can turn initial damage into catastrophic damage.  If the structure appears to be compromised, leave the building immediately.  In the case of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, a full hour after the quake residents were shocked again by huge tsunami waves that hit the coast.  The waves, up to 30 feet high, swept away everything in their path from cars and trucks to large boats, causing buildings that had survived the earthquake to collapse killing many in the tsunami wash zone.

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If you live or work in San Francisco’s many low-lying areas (Marina, Outer Sunset, Outer Richmond), be particularly alert to tsunami warnings right after a major quake and seek higher ground. 

Check for Injuries and Trappings

If the building appears to have sustained major damage, check to see if anyone is injured or trapped.  If you’re trapped, don’t light a match or stir up dust.  Cover your mouth with a handkerchief/clothing and yell/signal/tap on a pipe or walls, if you can, to alert rescue personnel. 

Beware of Glass Shards and Other Hazards

Depending on the extent of damage to the building, you may be exposed to broken glass, nails, splintered wood and falling debris.  Wear good shoes to protect your feet, a hard hat for head protection (have one in your emergency kit) and long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect the rest of you. 

Avoid the Elevator

If there’s an elevator in your building, don’t use it.  Tape it off so one else uses it.  The key concern with elevators is the risk that the emergency brake could be misapplied, resulting in residents getting trapped mid-floor.  The safest egress is via the stairs, assuming they are sound and clear. 

Get the Latest Info

Make sure you have a reliable radio.  Tune into local radio stations for information and danger reports.  With any natural disaster, unfounded rumors and confusion spread quickly.  The Emergency Broadcast System will be your most reliable source of information. 

Check for Immediate Dangers

Check for fire or the smell of gas or smoke in your unit or in the building and for downed power lines on the street.  Live power lines can electrocute; gas leaks can cause explosions.  If any situation you observe appears to be a serious threat, leave the area immediately.  If the only apparent threat is the smell of gas and you can safely turn off the gas main, do so right away.

Check Sewage Lines

Rigid sewage pipes in and outside the building can break with the shaking motion of an earthquake.  If water inflow results, flush with caution as a sewer line break can cause toilets to back p into your living space, quickly making it uninhabitable. 

Access Stored Water and Food

If you’ve prepared well, you and your family will be able to sustain yourselves in a place for several days, at least.  If you have water for only three days and more is needed, more can be found in freezer ice cube trays and in your hot water heater tank.  Take an inventory of the refrigerator and freezer.  Plan on using the most perishable food first.  A BBQ can be used outdoors to prepare food. 

Locate Emergency Lighting

Power will likely be out.  Locate flashlights and candles.  Keep lots of flashlights around the house and don’t forget the batteries. 

Stay Warm

Gather blankets and coats to ensure that you and others stay warm. 

While your first obligation is to yourself and your family, don’t forget about your tenants.  Consider sending this list to them with their annual rent increase, so that they too take the necessary steps to improve their chances of coming out of a major quake in one piece. 

Terrence Jones is an SPOSFI Business Member.  Reprinted with permission of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute (SPOSFI) News.  For more information on becoming a member of SPOSFI or to send a tax-deductible donation, please visit their website at or call (415) 647-2419.