Survival Situations: Earthquakes


There are a virtually infinite number of possible survival situations that one could experience. It can be overwhelming trying to understand and prepare for them. In an effort to index and provide information about the most common survival situations, has prepared a series of articles which are entitled: Survival Situation. Each article provides high level information about a specific, common survival situation, and various ways to prepare and overcome them should they happen to you.

About Earthquakes

Earthquakes are responsible for billions of dollars of damage and hundreds of fatalities throughout the years. Although most earthquakes occur in specific high risk regions such as the West Coast of the US, it’s important to keep in mind that virtually all regions have some slight risk of seismic activity. But before you learn what to do should you find yourself in the middle of an earthquake, it’s important to understand how and why earthquakes occur.

An entire volume of articles could be written about the science of earthquakes around the world. If you’re interested in learning more about the science of earthquakes, click here. To put it as simply as possible, the main cause of earthquakes is the movement of masses of earth along fault lines. There’s a constant pressure on earth’s continental plates to move. But the friction of land masses being pushed together only allows these movements to occur in violent bursts. When these movements finally occur because of the continental pushing, earthquakes happen.

Some of the geological activities are caused by plate tectonics including mountain or island creation, volcanoes, or the phenomenon known as subduction. Subduction occurs when a plate gets pushed beneath another plate. Generally, this involves an oceanic plate getting pushed under a land plate. Typically, subduction zones have the most numerous and severe earthquake activity. A very prominent subduction zone runs along the Pacific Coast of the US which is why California is a hotspot for earthquakes.

What to do

Earthquakes in developed countries such as the US, pose much less of a threat to human life than it does in countries lacking infrastructure and proper preventative architectural safety measures. By far, the leading cause of death in an earthquake is debris and buildings collapsing on people. In recent history, the earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of people as a direct result of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake but because there was little to no national infrastructure, hundreds of thousands of people have since died due to disease, starvation, civil unrest, etc. The vast majority of these deaths could’ve been avoided had simple preparation and a national infrastructure been present to respond to its citizens most basic needs.

Earthquakes strike rapidly with little to no warning. Many earthquakes are in fact foreshocks, and may be followed up by a much larger earthquake. If you should ever find yourself in an earthquake, keep in mind the following points to make it through in one piece.

If You’re Indoors…

  • Drop to the ground and take cover under a sturdy object such as a table or desk to protect yourself from falling debris. Use common sense and avoid glass, windows, outside walls or anything that could potentially come crashing down on you such as light fixtures or furniture. Hold on to any available object if available until the shaking comes to a complete stop.
  • If you’re woken up by an earthquake, just stay in bed and don’t try and exit until the movement stops. Again, cover your head with a pillow and your hands. If you’re bed is situated beneath a heavy light fixture, you should move – exercise common sense.
  • A doorway should only be used for shelter if it’s nearby and is a strongly supported, load bearing doorway.
  • Remain inside until the shaking stops and it’s safe to go outside. By far, most injuries in earthquakes are caused when people in buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave.
  • It’s likely that the earthquake will cause power outages so don’t rely on elevators. Also, you may have to navigate in the dark and deal with the added stress of emergency sprinkler systems, emergency strobe lighting, etc. The main point here is to keep a calm demeanor and keep your emotions and fear in check. Your odds of surviving an earthquake in a developed country are good if you just keep your cool and remember these tips if you ever find yourself in an earthquake.

If You’re Outdoors…

  • If you’re outdoors when a earthquake strikes, remain there. If possible, move away from buildings, power lines, or anything that may pose a threat of falling on you. When you’re outdoors, don’t go inside for any reason until the shaking comes to a complete stop. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom a direct cause of death whereas most earthquake-related deaths occur from collapsing structures, flying glass, and falling objects.
  • Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

If You’re in a Vehicle

  • Stop driving as soon as you can safely do so. Remain in your vehicle until the shaking comes to a complete stop.
  • Exercise extreme caution once the earthquake has stopped. If possible, avoid roads, bridges, or exit ramps that may have been damaged by the earthquake.

If You’re Trapped Under Debris

  • Don’t light a match or lighter in an attempt to illuminate your surroundings. There’s a strong potential for broken gas mains and other natural flammable hazards after an earthquake.
  • While waiting for assistance, try and keep as still as possible to avoid stirring up more dust and debris. If possible cover your mouth with your shirt or other piece of clothing to act as a very crude air filter.
  • Tap on a pipe or wall if available to give rescuers a clue to your location. If you have one, use a whistle (hopefully you will if you’re carrying a pocket survival kit). Shouting should be used as a last resort or if you can hear rescuers because of the risk of inhaling large amounts of potentially dangerous dust.

After an Earthquake

Depending on the severity of the earthquake, basic services such as electricity or access to clean drinking water may be temporarily unavailable. Exercise caution as aftershocks are common and generally follow an earthquake. Although these aftershocks are typically less intense than the actual earthquake, they may further damage already weakened buildings and infrastructure. Aftershocks can happen virtually any time after the main earthquake.

It’s best to avoid areas damaged by the earthquake. Natural gas and other unseen hazards may be present and unless you’re part of a rescue or recovery group, it’s best simply to avoid these areas altogether. Pay attention to local news or radio channels as they’ll inform people when it’s safe to go to their homes.

In coastal areas, tsunamis are a very real threat after an earthquake strikes. The disaster in Indonesia serves as a sobering reminder of the deadly threat tsunamis pose. Avoid beaches or other areas close to the ocean if possible following an earthquake until scientists can be sure a tsunami won’t strike.

Gas leaks or electrical system damage are fairly common after an earthquake. If you’re inside or in your own home, check for gas leaks. Generally you’ll be able to smell if there is any but you may also be able to hear a blowing or hissing sound coming from the broken pipe or main. If you suspect a gas leak, it’s recommended to open some windows and exit the building. Shut off the main valve if you can and notify the gas provider as soon as you’re able to. Also remember to drink only bottled water or boil your water following an earthquake until you’ve received official word that the water is safe to drink.


Although experiencing an earthquake can certainly be a frightening and stressful experience, chances are you’ll survive if you remain calm and remember the tips explained in this article. Remember that the biggest threat from earthquakes comes from collapsing structures (far more common in non-developed countries lacking safety codes) and falling debris. With this in mind, stay away from buildings if possible, if not; protect yourself by getting under a sturdy object such as a desk or table. After the earthquake, check on your neighbors and if you’re able to, consider helping out the recovery effort by talking to rescue workers to see what you can do to help.

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