Surviving an Earthquake – The Ultimate Guide

Everybody knows what an earthquake is, but very few know how devastating and how widespread the effects of an earthquake can be. While they are far more common in some regions than others earthquakes can occur anywhere.

If you are lucky, you might get a little bit of advance warning in the form of tremors or smaller, less-damaging quaking, but as a rule they will occur without warning.

house destroyed after earthquake

It is imperative that you protect yourself as quickly as possible once an earthquake occurs, as the very nature of them will make escape or improving your position almost impossible until they end.

Even once the shaking, rattling and rolling stops you are far from safe; the aftermath of an earthquake can comprise various other disasters all on its own, everything from devastating tsunamis, landslides, widespread fires, crumbling buildings, and a broken sewer and water lines.

Surviving an earthquake is largely a matter of knowing what to do, reacting as quickly as possible, and holding on for dear life. You’ll also need a little bit of luck on your side.

We cannot supply the latter, but we can give you plenty of the former! In today’s article will be covering tips and procedures from the experts that will help you survive the next big quake.

Earthquake Fast Facts

Earthquakes typically occur whenever energy that is built up in earth’s lithosphere is suddenly released, resulting in seismic shock waves that propagate up to and through the soil.

Not all earthquakes are created equal, as you know, and a great many of them cannot even be felt by people, capable only of registering on the most sensitive of scientific instruments.

Others are so ferociously powerful and violent they can topple buildings, change the landscape permanently, and even hurl people and large objects high into the air.

Earthquakes typically occur as a result of the natural phenomenon described above, but every once in a while they, can be triggered by human activity, including nuclear tests, underground mine blasting and other meddlesome behavior.

Aside from the usual rupture of geological faults, some other natural activity can trigger earthquakes as well, volcanoes being chief among them.

While earthquakes can happen anywhere, some regions on Earth are far more likely to endure them, and endure more severe ones at that.

Earthquake prone and high-risk areas include the Pacific Coast of North America, Puerto Rico and many parts of the Caribbean, southeast Asia (especially the Pacific Rim), and the western coast of South America.

Earthquake Damage Potential

Most earthquakes will result only in minor to modest damage, and only occasionally cause fatalities. But every once in a blue moon a truly awesome earthquake will result in cataclysmic, widespread regional damage.

Earthquake intensity is measured on a variety of scientific scales, with the most common and the most well-known in the popular conception being the one named for scientist Charles F. Richter, his eponymous Richter scale.

The Richter Scale, along with many of its cousins, measure seismic intensity in units where each increase represents 32 times more energy for each level you go up on the scale.

It is not linear as most people think! It is for this reason that a magnitude 6.0 earthquake is far, far more powerful than a 5.0 magnitude earthquake.

This is not the most intuitive method for determining the on-ground severity of an earthquake for many people, and so a different scale may be used, the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale or MMIS, named for Italian volcanologist Giuseppe Mecalli. His scale rates an earthquake based on the damage it does and has 12 levels:

  • Level I: An earthquake of this magnitude will very rarely be felt by anyone, unless under the most favorable conditions.
  • Level II: If you are on the upper floor of a building, you might feel this earthquake occurring, or you might not.
  • Level III: Chances are you will feel this earthquake occurring if you are inside any building, and especially on an upper floor. That being said, most people will not realize it is an earthquake! Vibration felt is similar to the passage of a large vehicle.
  • Level IV: Most people indoors will notice this quake, and if you are outdoors a few will. Windows, doors and dishes in cabinets will rattle or be disturbed. Walls may make a creaking or cracking sound. Parked vehicles will noticeably rock on their suspensions.
  • Level V: Almost all people will feel this earthquake. Many people will awake from a sound sleep. Items in cupboards and windows may break. Any item that is unstable or prone to toppling will overturn.
  • Level VI: This is a proper earthquake. Everyone will feel it and it is scary. Heavy furniture will move. Plaster and other fragile masonry will fall. Overall damage is still slight.
  • Level VII: You are dealing with a powerful quake now. Well-made, sturdy buildings have little to fear, but it is possible to see minor to moderate damage in ordinary structures. Any structure that is poorly designed, cheaply built or in poor repair is likely to be badly damaged or even topple. Chimneys may break at this level.
  • Level VIII: Even heavy duty, specially designed buildings may see some damage at this level. Any common play structure will be substantially damaged, or even partially collapsed. A quake of this magnitude is devastating to buildings that are poorly designed or built, or in bad repair. Large columns, factory exhaust stacks and chimneys of all kinds are likely to fall. Monuments and walls may topple. Heavy furniture inside homes will also flip.
  • Level IX: The very ground may crack at this level. No structures will escape earthquakes of this magnitude unscathed, even specially-designed ones that are well-made to a high standard. All ordinary buildings will be severely damaged and collapses likely. Poorly made or we can structures will be wiped out. Buildings of all kinds may shift or pop off of their foundations.
  • Level X: The ground will definitely crack at this level and a great many buildings will be destroyed. Landslides and avalanches will definitely occur. Railroad tracks will be bent.
  • Level XI: Very few buildings will survive an earthquake of this intensity, and even bridges might be destroyed.
  • Level XII: An earthquake of this magnitude is apocalyptic. Total destruction is often the only result. All kinds of objects and people are launched into the air. The ground may distort and warp and ways that were previously unimaginable.

As you can see from the scale above, most earthquakes are nothing to get too worked up over, but that is not to say that they aren’t dangerous. On the far ends of the scale you could be dealing with truly biblical damage, a total threat to the affected area.

Most Devastating Recent Earthquakes

Below are just a few examples of severe earthquakes that have occurred in the first two decades of the 21st century alone:

2010 Haiti Earthquake

A 7.0 moment magnitude earthquake that occurred near Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince. Over three million people were affected, and the death toll, which remains contested to this day, ranges anywhere from 100,000 to 315,000 souls.

Haiti Earthquake Caught on Tape

Nearly one-third of a million buildings collapsed as a result of this earthquake, and the resulting aftermath became a nightmare of disease, lack of sanitation and sporadic violence.

2005 Kashmir Earthquake

Centered in the city of Muzaffarabad, this 7.6 moment magnitude earthquake was noted for a particularly severe upthrust, and is the deadliest earthquake to hit southern Asia since 1935.

Kashmir Earthquake - 2005 | Today In History | 8 Oct 18

Casualties and destruction near the epicenter were severe. Hospitals, emergency medical and police services were stopped in their tracks, worsening the after effects. The estimated death toll was over 100,000, and three and a half million people were rendered homeless.

2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake

This gargantuan earthquake and subsequent tsunami registered between a 9.1 and a 9.3 moment magnitude, resulting from a colossal fault between the Burma and Indian tectonic plates. 100-foot high tsunamis killed over 225,000 people in 14 nations.

This quake holds the distinction of being the third largest ever recorded, and one of the deadliest natural disasters in all of recorded human history.

If these figures don’t get you to sit up and pay attention to earthquakes, nothing will. In the following sections we will get directly into survival procedures.

Surviving an Earthquake: Procedures, Plans and Tips

  • Drop, Get Under Cover and Hold On! Near interior walls are best.
  • If chair- or bedbound, protect your head as best as possible.
  • If outdoors, get away from buildings ASAP. Open spaces are best.
  • Stay away from windows!
  • If driving, pull over, put vehicle in park, set parking brake.
  • Do not try to run or walk during an earthquake!

Surviving an earthquake is largely a matter of taking swift, correct action as soon as you notice the earthquake beginning. Note that you might not get any appreciable notice.

Once the shaking starts it is very difficult to improve your position and this is why it is so important that you know how to maximize your protective posture no matter where you might be and what you might be doing.

All that is just the first part. The second part is surviving the aftermath of an earthquake. Aside from aftershocks, which can be nearly as powerful as the primary earthquake, you’ll be dealing with a landscape that has been radically damaged and is now full of hazards.

We will address all of this step by step in the sections below. Generally speaking, your default and best defense against an earthquake is:

Drop, Get Under Cover and Hold On!

No matter where you are and what kind of structure you were in, no matter what you are doing your first and immediate response upon detecting an earthquake occurring is to get under some solid piece of cover, hang on and cover your head.

You definitely don’t want to follow the old advice of standing in a doorway, as these are not structural hardpoints and a home or other building, and furthermore will leave your head vulnerable.

Your cover point could be any sturdy table or built-in fixture that will provide you some cover from falling building debris or other objects.

Make sure you cover your head with a free hand and hold on to your table or other cover point so it does not bounce or rattle away from you during the quake, leaving you vulnerable.

Despite your best efforts, if your cover point starts to move make sure you move with it to maintain your protection!

If you do not have any sturdy table or other fixture to make use of as cover, you want to get next to an interior wall that is as far away from Windows as you can; breaking glass is always a major hazard in any kind of disaster.

Note that you should move toward better cover only if you are able to do so without going through an area that is already choked with debris or experiencing falling debris. Stay on your knees for stability, and do your best to protect your vital organs and your head.

But not everyone can drop to the ground at a moment’s notice without risking injury. If you are confined to a wheelchair or a bed, you will have to do the best that you can.

If in a wheelchair, lock the chair’s wheels in place, and then cover your head with both hands or any sturdy object you can hold on to. If you are in bed, you want to rotate so you are face down and then cover your head and neck with pillows.

It might sound like a good idea to try to get outside to an open area when an earthquake starts, but this is again going to be nigh on impossible. The carnage that an earthquake in flicks not to mention the heaving and shaking of the ground will make a movement almost impossible.

It is best to do what you can where you are. If you are already outside your priority is to get away from buildings since falling debris and masonry will be the primary threats. If you are already in or near an open area, lucky you. Stay there and try to hold on to something that is firmly anchored so you do not get tossed into the air.

If in a Car or Other Vehicle

If you are in a car or other vehicle don’t get out! Keep your seatbelt on, pull over, put the vehicle in park and then set the parking brake. Try to protect your head as best you can even if your vehicle has a roof.

You’re far more likely to be injured getting out of the vehicle, and even the comparatively thin bodywork of the automobile provides a far greater level of protection than merely your hands will.

Remember, your best bet when it comes to surviving an earthquake is to make the best possible use of your current surroundings as quickly as possible, not risking injury moving around to try to get to a better position while the earthquake is ongoing.

After the Earthquake Stops

You are not safe from an earthquake after the shaking stops! The destruction wrought by the quake itself will be terrible and a major hazard, and you will have other threats to contend with in the immediate aftermath in the form of landslides, tsunamis and aftershocks.

Use the following guidelines, and don’t let your guard down!

  • Always expect aftershocks, which can be powerful on their own.
  • If you or someone else is injured, it will be up to you to provide care.
  • If inside a building that has been damaged, get outside as quickly as possible while watching for falling debris!
  • Never enter a damaged building after an earthquake.
  • Dust and airborne debris will be a major hazard. Use anything that you can in order to protect your mouth.
  • Should you become trapped in any structure or elsewhere, make noise to signal your presence and location to potential rescuers. Bang on metal or stone, or use a whistle. Avoid shouting if you can.
  • If anywhere near a coastline, assume a tsunami is incoming!
  • Take care when moving in the aftermath of a quake as fire, sharp debris, ruptured water/sewer pipes and downed power lines will be everywhere.
  • Try to rely on text messages or email in the aftermath as phone lines of all kinds will be degraded or down; a text has a better chance of getting through.

After the shaking of the primary earthquake has stopped, you need to think and act fast in order to remain safe. First things first, you can never assume that is all you will have to deal with as aftershocks can be quite severe on their own, and persist for some time after the main event.

Always be ready to take cover again at a moment’s notice, and if you move from your initial location start planning where you will go should an aftershock of any severity start up.

When you do move, plan on leaving the building you are in if it is damaged. Minor damage like broken windows and a disrupted interior might not mean that the building has been structurally compromised, but if you have any suspicions you need to get out.

The safest place to be when out-of-doors is away from all buildings and any other features of the landscape that could fall, tumble or give way.

Be especially careful when leaving the building you are in and moving past other buildings as falling glass, building materials and other debris are a major source of casualties after an earthquake. Try to get to a flat, wide open area where nothing can fall on you.

One more thing: never enter a damaged building after an earthquake!

Once the tremors stop, and you have a moment to collect your thoughts and start improving your position, you need to get some type of mask or cover over your mouth and nose as soon as possible.

The architectural destruction wrought by any earthquake that is powerful will result in a tremendous amount of airborne dust, dirt and other particulate matter they can start to seriously impede your breathing as even capable of causing long-term disease and other health effects.

If you don’t have anything else, use a wet bandana or a t-shirt torn into a strip to make a primitive mask. If you have a proper particulate mask or respirator, by all means use it; now is the time!

You must be prepared for the potential outcome after an earthquake that you will be trapped inside a building or inside the rubble of what was once a building.

You might be injured. It will be a bad situation to be sure, but you can greatly increase the chances that you will be rescued by indicating that you are both present and alive to potential rescuers.

You can do this by banging on any metal object or banging something hard against stone, metal or some other conductive surface.

The classic SOS signal (three short bangs followed by three long ones and then three more short ones) is a good option, but anything that is done regularly and rhythmically will work. Resist the urge to shout unless you have no other options.

This will exhaust you, and use valuable oxygen that might be in short supply. You also be sucking in airborne dust and other contaminants at a rapid rate. You definitely don’t want to do that.

Beware Earthquake-caused Tsunamis, Landslides and Avalanches

Earthquakes are notorious for causing tsunamis when the epicenter is out somewhere in the ocean. A particularly powerful earthquake can result in the tremendous displacement of water that results in a series of waves racing toward shore at high speed.

That’s what a tsunami is, and they are phenomenally destructive: a gargantuan mass of water that can travel well inland with incalculable force, destroying absolutely everything in its path, and drowning the remains in murky water.

As bad as that sounds, remember that this is still occurring after a potentially devastating earthquake!

As you might expect, earthquakes are also notorious for causing landslides and avalanches in hilly and mountainous areas. This can result in an accelerating, tumbling mass of soil, rock or snow hurtling down slope, obliterating anything in its path.

As with tsunamis, there is little you can do except get out of the way.

If you live in any coastal area (including large lakes), up to a mile or perhaps a little bit more from the shore, or in any area that is bordered by hills or mountains, you must be prepared to react to either of these eventualities as soon as the earthquake is over.

You definitely won’t have much time, so you have to move fast. No pressure, huh?

If you live near the shore, simply assume that a tsunami is incoming. Definite signs that a tsunami is inbound are a sudden, pronounced and unusual recession of the tide or a strange freight train like roaring or whooshing sound coming from the water.

There is no guarantee, however, that either of these indicators will be present. Get as far inland as quickly and as safely as you can. If that is not possible, you need to get off the ground as high as you can, preferably in a very sturdy building.

Easier said than done in the aftermath of an earthquake. Lacking a building, you can climb a mature, sturdy tree or scale a convenient and nearby hill. Don’t let your guard down once the tsunami has passed; they can strike repeatedly.

Regarding landslides and avalanches, their warning indicators might be more difficult to pick up amidst the noise, chaos and confusion present after an earthquake.

For both avalanches and landslides listen for unusual sounds like loud, hollow cracking, snapping or clacking that indicate rocks, boulders and trees slamming together or being broken.

Avalanches might sound the same if they are encountering debris of that type, but oftentimes the only sound you will hear before an avalanche occurs is a hollow whumpf sound before the snow and ice lets go and starts hurtling downward.

Any of these common side effects caused by earthquakes can be just as deadly as the earthquake itself, if not more so!


Earthquakes are spectacularly powerful disasters that can strike anywhere on Earth without warning, and are liable to completely disrupt all infrastructure and emergency response capability in an affected area.

They’re also known for instigating devastating secondary disasters like landslides, avalanches and tsunamis, each of them deadly in its own right.

Surviving an earthquake is a matter of acting immediately and correctly no matter where you are, and what you are doing. An earthquake kit, preferably one you put together yourself will also help.

Commit these procedures to memory so you are ready to react when the ground starts heaving and shaking.

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