How to be Earthquake Savvy

Chile has a lot of earthquakes.

Science tells us we can to thank the subduction fault off of Chile´s coast that is constantly busy.  This sees the Nazca plate pushing against the South American plate, causing wonders (like the Andes mountain range) and unpredictable conditions such as earthquakes.

Personal experience tells us that these jaw-dropping, bone-shaking and arm-clutching  phenomenon are frightening spectacles of Mother Nature´s power.

Here are a couple of facts:

  • There is no proven way to predict an earthquake. This is because there are consistent signs for scientists to measure.  Scientists monitor activity history in order to predict patters, and use sediment samples to gauge when earthquakes have occurred. They then try to track the ´seismic circle´ which is believed to last some 600 years.
  • Earthquakes can be measured in different ways. The Richter Scale was developed in 1934 and is based upon the amplitude of the largest wave (using a seismometer) and the difference between the distance and the seismometer; this scale was specific to California (United States). However, it does not give accurate information for larger quakes. Enter the Moment Magnitude Scale, MW, which measures ´moment´. According to Michigan Technological University, ¨Moment is a product of the distance a fault moved and the force required to move it¨ and this is the only reliable way to measure larger-scale events.
  • ´Earthquake lights´ are a strange phenomenon that are often confused with UFO´s. These strange lights are believed to be emitted from the earth when rocks are under stress.
  • Animals often change behavior right before a quake. Dogs, for example, will often bark and howl seconds before the ground begins to shake while catfish are noted to begin to thrash erratically due to changes in electric fields.
  • An earthquake is no singular event because they come to say hello in groups. Not only can you expect aftershocks, but foreshocks as well.
  • You can track earthquakes using websites and apps which verify recorded earthquakes, seismic activity and can alert you to possible risks.

    Things are going to go topsy turvy. Photo: Trish Shaw

On February 27 2010, Chile experienced the one of the largest quakes in recorded history. This monsterquake struck the coast Chile at 3.34am, 200miles southwest of Santiago and 22 miles below the Pacific Ocean´s surface.  It also triggered a tsunami and the various aftershocks were big, some as much as 6.9 in magnitude. In total some 500 people lost their lives, and around 2.2million were affected. In Santiago, buildings collapsed, whole suburbs lost electricity and water, and a fire in a chemical plant caused many evacuations.  The International Airport suffered damage and was closed for 72 hours, while elsewhere in Chile damage was recorded as extensive, including a major bridge in Concepcion which collapsed.

My friend Felipe remembers this day well.

¨I was driving home from a party when I felt something slight. I recall saying I thought something was about to happen … and then it hit. I was afraid – the ground was moving like the sea, cables were crashing down, everyone was screaming. But it was afterwards when the real chaos began. Cars were crashing into each other as people tried to get home, all public transport stopped, everyone everywhere was terrified for their loved ones. I remember giving people lifts home because there was no other way for them to travel. There was also a lot of fear afterwards because we had no electricity for days and everyone was worried about having their homes robbed. I live in Quilicura and all the streets set up their own neighborhood watches.  We´d light bonfires and patrol the road to make sure no-one was breaking in or hurting anyone.¨

As huge as this earthquake was, it is not the biggest. That accolade goes to Chile as well, when a mindboggling 9.5 magnitude rumble struck Valdivia on May 22 1960. This is the largest earthquake that we know of, since recording began in the early 1900´s.  Although powerful foreshocks (7.0) sent many people outside (it was the afternoon), the Chilean government states that around 2 million people lost their homes.  Deaths from this disaster are disputed, ranging from as low as 490 and rising to 6000, the majority of which were due to the subsequent tsunami.  Tsunamis traveled across the Pacific Ocean at 200mph, causing changes in the sea level all across the Pacific and and damage in California, Easter Island and Samoa, and killing hundreds of people across Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.

As frightening as all this sounds (and I know it does), earthquakes are a way of life in Chile and you get used to them fast. In fact, anything less than a 7 is usually referred to as a temblor because terremoto (earthquake) is only reserved for the big stuff. Although many Chileans remain a little traumatized since the shock of 2010, many others barely bat an eyelid; follow their advice – they know what to do.

What to do


  1. Mobile phone lines will probably go down. Sending messages using an internet service such as WhatsApp is a better way to stay in touch. Having a radio at home is a good way to keep up to date with information. Try to avoid using your phone unless it is an emergency
  2. It is an idea to include a fire extinguisher in your emergency kit, along with all first aid supplies
  3. STAY CALM! Your calmness will help others around you to calm down, especially children
  4. Don´t forget your pets
  5. After an earthquake, be careful of broken glass, faulty gas/water/electrical connections. Check them and if faulty, turn off (learn how to do this in advance). If you smell gas, open windows and doors and consider reporting it to the authorities
  6. Avoid matches and flame – remember there are aftershocks after the main earthquake
  7. If you are driving, stop the car but stay inside until the shaking stops
  8. During the earthquake, your biggest danger is something falling on you so LOOK UP! Be careful of power lines, bridges, scaffolding, tall buildings. Try to get to an open space. If you are inside, take cover under a table or desk or go to a wall near the center of the building. Stay away from windows and open doors.  If you go outside, remember to wedge your door open
  9. Follow the evacuation or emergency procedures of your building, school or workplace
  10. Include in your emergency supplies enough food and non-perishable water for two weeks, along with batteries, hygiene supplies, a torch and blankets.
  11. Avoid coastal areas such as beaches due to the risk of tsunamis. If you are at the coasts, follow the evacuation route shown or take to higher ground

how to beearthquake savvy

If you liked this, you may also like to check out my guide to the Chilean Recluse Spider here.

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