How to tell if your home’s damaged after an earthquake: 5 things to know

Once the shaking stops and everyone’s safe, it’s time to assess the damage following an earthquake. But what do you look for?

Here’s what you need to know.

Safety first

Before you start checking for damage to your home or property, be certain everyone has gotten to a safe place and any injuries have been treated.

If you’re not at home, don’t return until authorities say it’s safe to do so, the American Red Cross advises.

Check yourself for injuries before you try to help others or rescue people trapped in the rubble. Look for small fires and extinguish them if possible — fires are common following a quake.

If you’re indoors, check before going outside for any debris that could fall on you as you exit, the American Red Cross advises. Use stairs to exit, not elevators or escalators.

If you smell gas, exit immediately and move as far away as possible, the Red Cross says. Don’t return until the gas has been shut off. Don’t use matches or candles.

Be prepared for aftershocks, landslides or, if you live on the coast, tsunamis, the Red Cross warns.

Check for gas leaks

Gas leaks from damaged lines or appliances are a common problem following earthquakes, and can ignite dangerous fires, SoCalGas advises.

Shut off your natural gas valve if you smell or hear leaking gas, or otherwise suspect a leak — but only if it’s safe to do so, the utility says.

Don’t turn it back on yourself — call your gas company for an inspection and to turn the gas back on. This might take days or weeks, so don’t turn off the gas unless you suspect a problem.

Also, check your water heater and furnace vents following a quake, SoCalGas suggests.

“If the venting system becomes separated during an earthquake or other event, it could leak hazardous fumes into your home,” the utility advises. Don’t operate appliances with improper venting.

Look for electrical damage

You probably don’t need much help to tell if your power’s out, but there are some other electricity-related issues to check, the California Seismic Safety Commission advises.

Earthquakes can damage your home’s interior electrical wiring or appliances. Look for sparks or broken or frayed wires and check for the smell of burning insulation.

If you find anything amiss, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker if it’s safe to do so, the agency suggests.

Unplug broken lights or appliances that could start fires once power has been restored.

If you’re outside, watch out for fallen power lines, which may still be live.

Check structural damage

If it’s safe to do so, perform a quick visual check for any obvious damage to your home’s walls, ceilings and foundation, suggests.

Look for cracks in drywall, plaster, or stucco, buckling wall siding, uneven or weakened floors, foundation buckling or cracks, and windows or doors that no longer open or close properly.

Also, carefully inspect the entire length of your chimney, the California Seismic Safety Commission advises.

“Unnoticed damage could lead to fire or injury from falling debris during an aftershock,” the agency says. “Cracks in chimneys can be the cause of a fire years later.”

Earthquakes also may damage your home’s water and sewer lines. Avoid using either if you suspect damage, and call a plumber or your sewer company for help.

Stay alert for hazards

Wear sturdy shoes walking through debris and be careful opening closet or cabinet doors to prevent the contents from falling onto you, Allstate advises.

Don’t try to remove heavy debris by yourself, advises. Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants and work gloves.

Clean up spilled medicines, drugs, or other harmful materials, like bleach, the U.S. Geological Survey advises.

Use barbecues or camp stoves outdoors only, the agency suggests, and be wary of contaminated water supplies.

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Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.