San Andreas for Preppers: 12 Earthquake Survival Lessons from the Movie

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By Daisy Luther

Nothing warms my prepper’s heart more than a good disaster movie that supports my hypotheses about a specific event, and the recent movie San Andreas was no exception.

Okay, sure, there was some pretty unrealistic stuff like when The Rock was driving a boat through post-tsunami San Francisco and just happened to find his daughter that he was looking for. The last time I went to San Francisco, my daughter and I had trouble finding each other on the first floor of Forever 21, for crying out loud.

But, when you only have two hours for a movie, you have to be willing to suspend your disbelief somewhat and put that kind of stuff aside.  So. putting that aside, I enthusiastically recommend the movie. We live about 4 hours from San Francisco and go there occasionally for educational outings to the excellent museums, so the setting was quite familiar to us, as was the premise of what would occur if an earthquake happened there. So familiar that my daughter was the frequent recipient of my elbow, as I whispered, “See!!!! I told you this was what would happen if the Big One hit that time we went to the Science Museum!”  Trooper that she is, she said, “Yes, Mom, I know, you were right about that too.” Since she’s a teenager, she probably also rolled her eyes each time, but it was dark and I can’t be absolutely certain of that.

As I’ve said before, you can’t overestimate the value of finding entertainment that enhances your preparedness mindset. A movie is like the prepper version of a sporting event, where we can cheer, jeer, and scheme our ways through some imagined event. It engages our love for critical thinking while allowing us to take a break from our everyday activities. (Here’s my list of 40 prepper movies you can find online.) I know that some folks don’t go to the movies or engage in any form of popular culture, which is certainly a matter of personal choice. It’s not an everyday thing for us to go to the movies, but I’m of the firm belief that a prepared lifestyle doesn’t have to be bereft of fun, especially if you want your children to get involved.  I try to enjoy outings like this with my kids every once in a while.  We really liked the movie, and the special effects were incredible in 3D.

Here are 12 things that interested me, as a prepper, about San Andreas. I’ll try really hard to be vague enough that I don’t spoil the movie.

  1. People panic and behave badly.  In every disaster movie, there’s always someone more concerned with his or her own skin than the skin of a loved one, and this is no exception. Life-threatening terror brings out the worst in many people.  As shown in the movie, some first responders will bail to take care of their own families. The bottom line is, you can’t rely on others to save you. Also, it helps to have some knowledge of engineering and basic physics, too.
  2. People panic and behave stupidly.  During the panic of the aftermath of The Big One, people do the dumbest things.  This is true of real life too, and part of the reason for this is cognitive dissonance. People are so complacent about the stability of their everyday lives that it is difficult for them to function when something horrible and out of the ordinary occurs.  Having a mindset that plays through potential disasters ahead of time makes it far easier to accept it when something terrible happens, which in turn, makes it easier to act in a manner that will aid in survival instead of running around like a chicken without a head. (Check out How to Survive Anything in 3 Easy Steps for more on this.)
  3. Drop, cover, and hold on. The seismologist guy repeated the same information over and over, but most of the time, people failed to listen. When huge chunks of cement are flying at you, running down the road is not always the best course of action.  The very best thing you can do is get down under something big and stable and hold on tightly.  According to the US Department of Labor, the quake itself doesn’t cause injuries, the aftermath of structural damage causes injuries: “Most earthquake-related injuries result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects as a result of the ground shaking, or people trying to move more than a few feet during the shaking.” Structural damage to buildings would be vast in a quake like the one depicted. (Here’s more information on potential structural damage.) PS:  Your car is not a big, stable place to go to for cover. (source) Knowing what to expect in the event of an earthquake is very important.  This is a great article about earthquake survival.
  4. The ability to communicate is vital.  In the aftermath of a major disaster, your cell phone is very unlikely to work. Partly because everyone else will be trying to use their phones at the same time, and partly because local towers may also have been affected by the disaster. If you live in (or are visiting) an earthquake prone area, a secondary communications device is essential.  This article about an earthquake preparedness kit has some excellent suggestions. Remember that landlines often work when the internet and cell phones do not.
  5. Also vital: basic first aid skills.  Remember above, where I quoted how must injuries come about from the destruction of buildings?  After the earthquake in Haiti, the CDC reported that the most common injuries were fractures/dislocations, wound infections, and head, face, and brain injuries. Doctors performed wound debridements, amputations, and treatment for orthopedic trauma from crushing injuries. You need to know how to remove debris that might cause further damage, immobilize an injured limb, stop bleeding, apply a tourniquet, and clean a wound at the very least. It also helps if you have some supplies on hand or know where to find them.
  6. You should always have a plan for the family to meet.  In the movie, the family has a meeting place planned. This is not something that should be left for the day of a horrible event. You should always have a plan for your family in the event that you can’t communicate.  It helps if you can fly (and steal) a helicopter like The Rock, but since most of us don’t have access to that resource, we have to make other plans. My family always sets up meeting places in case we get separated and my kids know to go there and wait. Actually, we did this from the time they were little and my oldest daughter got in the middle of a clothing rack to “surprise mommy” and I couldn’t find her.
  7. You always need a backup plan. In the event that Plan A isn’t going to work, you need to have a Plan B. (And C and D and so on.) It’s really helpful if your family knows what Plan B is so that you are able to meet up and not hope to just randomly find one another. Again, this goes to thinking things through BEFORE a disaster occurs.   You MUST be adaptable to survive.
  8. When one disaster happens, others soon follow.  This is a frequent truth of disasters.  When one thing goes wrong, some other horrible event is often triggered by that. This was true in the movie, with things like looters, instability of structures which collapsed later, rifts in the roads, and oh yeah, a tsunami.
  9. Don’t forget tsunamis. For the love of all things cute and fluffy, if you are anywhere near the coast and an earthquake happens, GO UP. Do not wait until you see the ocean draw outward or you see the gigantic wave approaching. You aren’t going to be able to outrun it, no matter how fit you are. Immediately seek the highest point around if an earthquake occurs when you are near the coast.  We take this a step further when we visit the coast and map out the high points beforehand.  I was gratified that my two San Francisco high points were the ones noted in the movie. There is also some good advice if you just happen to be out boating when a tsunami is approaching.
  10. Don’t take the closest evacuation route, take the safest evacuation route.  Because San Francisco is the point of a peninsula, it’s most directly connected to the rest of the state by long bridges. I’ve always thought it would be a terrible idea to attempt to evacuate over those bridges in the aftermath of a disaster, since a) everyone else will be doing the same thing, resulting in gridlock and b) the structure of the bridges is likely to be weakened or damaged by a huge quake and c) a tsunami coming into the bay would sweep vehicle right off the bridge even if it held up.  Oh – and d – there are sharks in the water below – lots of them, which is why Alcatraz is in the middle of the bay. I’m sure they’d just love an all-you-can-eat bridge collapse buffet. But I digress – my personal evacuation route out of the city is south, to where the peninsula joins the mainland. On foot, in a car, doesn’t matter – that is the safest route, although further. Anytime we go to San Francisco, I set up a rally point south of the city for a friend to come and pick us up should such an event occur.
  11. Bring sensible shoes.  Ladies, no matter how nice we look in heels, fleeing for your life in them doesn’t sound like much fun to me. In the movie, my daughter and I both cringed thinking about how awful it would be to have to climb out of debris in general and how doubly awful it would be to have to do it in non-sensible footwear. If you have to wear heels, at least have something sensible in your bag.
  12. Gather supplies whenever you see them. While everyone else is panicking, if you have your wits about you, you’ll be able to gather up supplies that will help you survive. Look for things like bottled water, communication devices, first aid supplies, tools, knives, lighters, and food.

Have you seen the movie yet? What did you think? Do you have any survival lessons to add?

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Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • You forgot the most important lesson of all: avoid the major metro areas unless you really need to be there. Major earthquakes are much easier to survive away from population centers and major structures that can become major projectiles as they shake apart or collapse. Also: your safest route out of a city is usually surface streets and side roads. Stay off the major arteries no matter what direcation they go.

    • I didn’t forget. The point of this is what to do if you happen to be in a less than ideal situation. 😉

  • Watched it the other night, my thought was, knowing the events of the last 10 years, hundreds of thousands have died already…I thought, we are already living that movie, its all around us.
    That 5.6 off the coast of Oregon, was not a good sign Daisy.

    There are going to be many die, those like you, who THINK, have a great advantage over the sheep, you can survive, your chances are far better than the sheep. its not if, its when a mega quake hits.Or asteroid, or volcanic disaster. “THEY”, do have tricks up their sleeve, ways of relieving pressure, diverting, but I dont think its going to be enough.
    The mantle is still moving, building pressure and releasing it, again and again , without writing a book, simply, since records were kept, never have we had so many events, volcanoes, weather, not ever. If anyone makes it though this, you and your people will. Your mindset is right, those without that mindset, wont last long. Thank you Daisy, for all the years you have put into teaching, caring. This old man has made up his mind, im too dam old, id be in the way, your youth is your hole card, mines gone, no regrets. Nowadays, much of the time, I remember back not too long ago, when our skies were blue, and our oceans clean, I wish the young, could have seen what it looked like , only 40 years ago, then, they would see, the dynamics of this world, has totally changed. Part of me, hopes its just an adjustment, and it will pass, I just hope, for the sake of all life, things don’t escalate much more. 12000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years, our planet became a wasteland, in one day, it happened. With all the trillions spent now, hammering away, we stand a better chance this cycle. What we are speaking of, in truth, few can handle, they don’t want to know, they say its depressing… say. yes it is. OOPS, just now, seriously, a 5.9 just hit AGAIN off the coast of Oregon, looks like that undersea volcano, is movin. Now, if that’s not a sign, lol, I dont know what is. Just now on my quake monitor, a 5.9.
    Be safe, be tough, be ready.1040 am

  • Thanks for reminding everyone about the freeways! Anyone remember the Loma Prieta earthquake? The freeways that pancaked on top of cars? The gas explosions? The same thing happened in the Northridge earthquake. When an earthquake happens, you cannot afford the luxury of being hysterical, crying, lost, or stunned. If ever you need your wits about you, an earthquake is the time to line up your ducks. The same sort of thinking works in about any disaster, and I would rather survive than not survive. The idea of gathering supplies as you go was an excellent one. It’s like not heading for the BigBox stores in a disaster-go to your local drug store instead. They carry water, groceries, over the counter meds, etc. It will be easier access. Can’t wait to see this movie!

  • Thank You Daisy for another great read. We meet you years ago on line and follow all you write. Thanks again. Bob & Linda

  • Just experienced a shocker. Our land line does NOT work when the cell phones are down. The phone companies are now not really “land lines” they go through the same routes as cell phones…a line was cut north of Phoenix and most companies except one were out along with all land lines, most credit card machines (unless it was with the one that worked) as well as all cell phones except one company. Eye opening.

  • I’ve been through 2 major earthquakes in Chile in the last 5 years. First earthquake rule of them all? Even a major earthquake like 9.5 (the biggest registered one) will be nothing like the movie. There will be building collapses but the city will not be flattened. Even adobe buildings survived the large earthquakes of the last 300 years, and adobe is the least earthquake proof material you’ll find. The majority of the city will be standing. So the one rule to rule them all: have realistic fears and expectations, it is NOT the end of the world, and it is over relatively quickly. It will prevent you from panicking and doing stupid things.

    1. Duck and cover (we chileans don’t actually). Don’t run, don’t scream, , be alert and centred, help others remain calm. in a very very strong earthquake if you are in a very old building you should consider evacuating (duck and cover doesn’t really work when a whole bulding comes down as a pancake), otherwise stay put and sit it out.
    2. If at the coast find higher ground ON FOOT (unless you need to go very very far inland for that higher ground). Cars means gridlock means no good. 20-30 meters over ground (something along the lines of 60-100 feet above sea level is considered safe in chile.

    3. You should ensure you have some water saved in case pipes fail and you end up without (fill some buckets and consider that you have water in the flushing tanks of the wc which is pretty much potable). You should boil water, as even straight after the earthquake there may be contamination in the pipes.

    4. Electricity may be missing so make sure to have emergency lighting. Ideally also a functional camping cooker.

    5. Looting? Not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is people hoarding stuff even when they are perfectly fine and have food for at least a week at home. So don’t go beserk. Be considerate with everyone else and buy only sensible amounts and only if you really don’t have foodstores at home. If you do point 3 you also only need sensible amounts of drinking water, no need to haul out gallons.

    6. If at home inspect the building to evaluate damage and risk.

    7. Remain calm in the inevitable aftershocks.

    8. Make sure you know where your firehose/firepowder thing is. Electrical fires are a posibility. Not very likely but posible.

    9. Getting in touch with people may seem like the most desperately necessary thing but it isn’t. Unless someone is completely incompetent (a child or a very elderly person) or has serious health problems you need to resolve for them remain focused on getting yourself back to your “safe hold” (house/hotel/car/cabin/camping/shelter whatnot). They will do the same (it’s instinctive).

    So there. That’s my take on earthquakes. They are scary, yes, but this movie is a gross gross exageration, and if you imagine the earthquake like this it is only likely to make you panic.

  • Another great little article. You rock ! Thanks for the inspiration.

    I saw the movie too, and like you I scrutinized it as well as enjoying it. So many things done right or done wrong, from start to finish.

    One thing I always notice in these kinds of movies is everyone is trying to get somewhere. Makes for an interesting story, but unless it was absolutely necessary, I would try to anchor out somewhere for a few hours or a few days – whatever it took to make it through the worst of the event. Competing with all those other paniced people in their cars – just crazy. If you don’t have to get anywhere, you’ll avoid 75% of the trouble.

    And finally, a girl who acknowledges that sensible shoes are a necessity ! That takes the cake 🙂

  • I nearly laughed out loud during Jurassic World when Opie’s daughter was out running a T-Rex in high heels. Yeah, it was a survival flick.

    • Mike…my family thought it was funny too. But, in her defense, she did end up taking them off. But only when the heel broke. 🙂

  • Yes, I watched for the right and wrong things to do. Most of the same ones as everyone else has except I have one more. After the quake and the Tsunami is on its way, why be stupid and race your boats out of the bay towards the wave? I was born and raised about 125 miles north of Sacramento, served in the USAF and was stationed at Travis AFB for 3 or so years so I am quite familiar with all the bay and land forms between SF and Sacramento. It would be more logical to sail up the bay to the Sacramento river delta outflow between Richmond/Pittsburgh and
    Vallejo and head up through Suisun Bay and up the delta. When that tsunami comes in the bay it is going to expend most of its force on the low area of SF, Treasure Island, Alcatraz and Angel Island before it slams into the East Bay. By heading up the bay, you are getting out of the direct flow of the wave and stand a much better chance of escape.

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