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Earthquakes—before, during and after

An earthquake is a shaking of the Earth's crust. They strike without warning and vary greatly in severity. Earthquakes can be caused by:

  • underground volcanic forces
  • the breaking of rock under the Earth's surface
  • a sudden movement along an existing fault line.

Most earthquake deaths are caused by falling objects.

Other effects of an earthquake can include:

  • damage to electricity and telephone lines
  • rupturing of gas, sewer and water mains
  • landslides, faults and subsidence
  • tsunamis.

Since 1994, all buildings in Australia must be built to resist earthquakes.

Before an earthquake

  • Ask your local council
    • if earthquakes have ever occurred in your area and what damage resulted
    • about ways to make your house safer in the event of an earthquake
  • Find out how and where to turn off power, gas and water
  • Plan with your family (or household) where you will meet if separated
  • Know your safe areas during an earthquake
  • Check your insurance policy to make sure it is adequate and that you are covered for damage caused by earthquakes.

Watch for warning signs

  • Erratic animal behaviour—scared or confused pets, or birdcalls not usually heard at night may indicate that an earthquake is imminent
  • Ground water levels—watch for sudden water level changes in wells or artesian bores.

During an earthquake

  • If indoors—stay there (clear of falling debris outside)
    • Keep clear of windows, chimneys and overhead fittings. Shelter under and hold onto a door frame, strong table or bench
    • In high-rise buildings, stay clear of windows and outer walls. Shelter under a desk near a pillar or internal wall
    • Do not use elevators
    • In crowded buildings, do not rush for doors, but move clear of overhead fittings and shelves
  • If outside—keep well clear of buildings, overhead structures, walls, bridges, powerlines, trees, etc
    • On a city street, shelter from falling debris under strong archways or doorways of buildings. Don't go under awnings as they may collapse
  • If in a vehicle—stop in an open area until the shaking stops
    • Beware of downed powerlines and road damage, including overpasses and bridges.
    • Listen to your car radio for warnings before moving.

After an earthquake

  • Turn off electricity, gas, and water. Do not light matches until after you have checked for gas or fuel leaks
  • Check for injuries and apply first aid. Do not move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger
  • Check for broken water, sewerage or electrical mains
  • Do not use the telephone immediately (to avoid congestion) unless there is a life-threatening situation
  • Check for cracks and damage to your building
  • Evacuate the building if it is badly damaged, and be prepared for aftershocks
  • Do not waste food and water as supplies may be interrupted. Collect emergency water from heaters, ice cubes, toilet tanks and canned foods
  • Listen to your local radio station and heed warnings and advice on damage and service disruptions
  • Try to avoid driving unless in an emergency (to keep the streets free for emergency services)
  • Do not go sightseeing or enter damaged buildings
  • Try to stay calm and help others if possible.

More information about earthquakes

The Richter Scale

The severity of an earthquake is measured using the Richter Scale. This is a 'logarithmic scale', meaning severity rises exponentially—for example, an earthquake measuring 6 on the scale is actually 31 times more powerful than one measuring 5. There is no upper limit to this scale as there is no limit to the amount of energy an earthquake might release. Around the world, the most severe earthquakes recorded so far have not exceeded 9.5.

Did you know?

In Australia:

  • in the last 80 years, there have been 17 earthquakes registering 6 or more on the Richter Scale
  • earthquakes occur approximately once every 5 years, compared to a world average of about 140 each year.

Australia's worst earthquakes

Warooka, SA (1902)
The first recorded (indirect) deaths caused by an earthquake occurred in 1902 at Warooka in South Australia when 2 people died of shock.

Kalgoorlie, WA (1917)
One miner died and 5 were injured in an underground rock fall triggered by an earthquake.

Newcastle, NSW (1989)
At 10.27am on 28 December 1989, Newcastle (Australia's 6th largest city) was hit by an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter Scale.

Newcastle was the first 'lethal' earthquake in Australia, claiming 13 lives and injuring 150 people. It caused extensive damage to about 35,000 homes and another 3000 buildings—70,000 buildings in the region suffered some form of damage.

Insured losses reached $1.124 billion, while the estimated total damage to Newcastle was $4.48 billion.

Newcastle showed that a lethal earthquake can occur in parts of Australia considered to be of low seismic risk. It has resulted in improved building codes and practices, and closer monitoring of seismic activity.

Last updated
11 November 2011
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