How to Survive an Earthquake (and Its Aftermath)

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Author of Be Ready for Anything and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

If you were caught up in the midst of a massive earthquake – the kind that takes down buildings and buckles roads – would you know what to do?

I’m not talking about a minor temblor that shakes a glass off the counter and sends it to shatter on the floor.

I’m talking about The Big One. The one for which we are long overdue. The one that experts are predicting could happen at any moment.

The United States has several active fault zones, and some of them are capable of producing extremely destructive quakes. While most people think of the West Coast (and for excellent reason), there are massive faults in other places in the US, too.

ALL of these fault lines have ruptured before, and they will rupture again. In fact, according to this map, more than half of the continental US could expect a major quake within the next 50 years.

Photo Credit: National Geographic

And that is just the continental United States. Alaska is at a very high risk of earthquakes and Hawaii is in danger from tsunamis due to earthquakes in other parts of the Pacific.

National Geographic summarizes the risk:

…while all U.S. states have some potential for earthquakes, 42 of the 50 states “have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years,” which is generally considered the typical lifetime of a building. Sixteen of those states have a “relatively high likelihood” of damaging shaking.

With those odds, it’s pretty likely that most of us will experience a significant earthquake in our lifetime.

This article isn’t about the long-term aftermath of an earthquake, during which you’d be unlikely to have power, safe water, or access to the stores for supplies. It’s about surviving the event itself.

For more information on general survival and preparedness, go here to get a free self-reliance library and daily email updates.

Here’s how to survive an earthquake.

The following information is an excerpt from my book, Be Ready for Anything.

So what should you do when the ground starts shaking?

It depends on where you are. We’ll go over three different scenarios. It’s critical to note that sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the situation will be very fluid. Be ready to adapt quickly if plan A doesn’t work. (Check out this article on the three steps to survival.)

Standard advice is to

  • Drop: get as low to the ground as possible
  • Cover: Cover your head, get under something, bend forward to protect your vital organs
  • Hold on: Hold on to your shelter with one hand and move along with it if it shifts

Depending on the severity of the earthquake you may not get emergency announcements advising of evacuation routes or refuge centers. The emergency services themselves may be unable to function, and communications may be down.

You could be on your own for a considerable length of time before rescuers get to you.  It’s vital to think clearly and logically, which is not always easy in an emergency situation. That’s why it’s important to think these things through ahead of time – so that you’ve already made many of the necessary decisions well before the first sign of a tremor.

What to do if you’re outside during an earthquake

If you’re outside the biggest risk is being hit by something that has been structurally damaged by the quake.

  • Move away from building to avoid getting hit by falling masonry.
  • Avoid being near power lines.
  • Move to the most open ground you can find – a park or open space – which will decrease the danger from falling buildings or downed power lines.
  • If you are within 10 miles of the coast, head for higher ground immediately.
  • If you are in your vehicle, stop in as open an area as possible. If you are on a ramp or a bridge, do not stop! Get off of it immediately.
  • Be alert for emergency announcements. If so, follow the advice.
  • If not, start to consider your next move – which will hopefully be following a plan you and your family made well ahead of time for a place to meet up safely.

What to do if you’re at the beach during an earthquake

The biggest danger of experiencing an earthquake when you’re at the beach is during the aftermath. A tsunami can travel as far as 10 miles inland, wiping out everything in its path. You will have no way of knowing where the epicenter of the quake was. The highest risk occurs when the epicenter is at sea. Here’s a quick tsunami primer:

Most tsunamis are caused by earthquakes. As a result, most tsunamis occur near or at fault lines. When a tsunami is generated, it is not only 1 wave. Instead it is a series of waves, known as a wave train. These waves travel together and can be up to 1 hour apart. Tsunami waves travel extremely fast with speeds of up to 500 miles per hour—the speed of a jet.

They can be as wide as 60 miles and cross entire oceans without losing momentum. When a tsunami is traveling, it may be less than a foot in height. This causes it to be unnoticed by sailors who are at sea. As the tsunami approaches land, it hits shallow water and begins to slow down. The top of the wave, however, continues travelling, causing the sea to rise dramatically. Tsunamis are extremely destructive on land. The waves can surge up to 100 feet in height and completely devastate a coastal area. (source)

Tsunami waves travel at hundreds of miles per hour. You must act immediately.

  • Move inland and to higher ground as far and as fast as you can.
  • If there are tsunami evacuation routes marked, follow them.
  • If you see the water recede dramatically, get the heck out of dodge – you have only moments before the tsunami hits.

After the initial wave, it is extremely likely that more will follow. These waves can be up to an hour apart. Do not return to lower ground until officials have given the all-clear.

What to do if you’re indoors during an earthquake

If you are inside when a quake occurs, your priority is to protect yourself until you can escape the building.

  • Move away from the windows immediately. They can shatter.
  • Move away from exterior walls. In a very severe quake, the sides of buildings can give way.
  • Move away from any shelves, cabinets, or other loose items that could fall on you.
  • Take shelter in or under the sturdiest thing you can find. Stairwells can be a good option if you are close to one. Otherwise, duck under a sturdy desk or table. (Not the cruddy fiberboard kind, obviously.)
  • Cover your head as added protection. Grab whatever you can find: large books, a chair, or even a briefcase held over your head can help protect you from falling debris.

If you are at home when disaster strikes, the same rules apply. Don’t let familiarity with your surroundings lull you into a false sense of security.

The danger of aftershocks

Remember that aftershocks can often be as powerful (or even more so) as the initial event. There is no reliable way to predict how soon those shocks will arrive.

What to do immediately after the earthquake

As soon as the shaking stops you need to assess your situation as quickly and calmly as possible.

  • From your sheltered position, survey the area for hanging light fixtures and exposed wires. These could be live and cause electrocution.
  • When you move from your temporary shelter, scan the area ahead of you.  Look for open wiring, broken pipes, holes in floors, and other hazards.
  • DO NOT use the elevators to evacuate from a higher floor, even though it may seem quicker. Not only could the power go off, trapping you, but there could also be damage of which you are unaware. Don’t risk plummetting to your death because you didn’t want to take the stairs.
  • Move slowly and carefully towards the nearest exit, then pause and assess the outlying areas. Are the stairs still intact enough to use? If not, is there another flights of stairs that you can get to from your current position?
  • Be prepared to move laterally to other areas to find the safest escape route if you are trapped on upper floors. Look for “staff only” doors which may lead to service stairs ways and exit doors that may be less damaged.
  • When you reach the ground floor (or if you’re already on it), don’t just rush out of the building. Pause and see if anything is falling in front of you. The risk from falling debris immediately after an earthquake is extremely high.
  • If your exit to the outside is blocked, be very cautious moving debris to escape. Try to assess what that wood, concrete, or metal is holding up before you move it. The slightest shift has the potential to cause a collapse. Before moving the debris, see if other exits might be less risky.

How to safely evacuate after an earthquake

If you need to leave the immediate area, there are a few things to keep in mind to travel safely.

  • Avoid underpasses, overpasses, and bridges. They may be structurally unsound.
  • Stay as far away from building as you can.
  • Be on the lookout for potential hazards such as downed power lines or leaning trees.
  • Crevasses caused by earthquakes can be very deep. Injury or even death could occur if you step or drive into one.
  • Stay as far away as you can from dikes and levees, which may have sustained structural damage. If they rupture, the force of the water will be immense.

Learn more about surviving this and other disasters from my book, Be Ready for Anything

Have you ever been in a major earthquake?

Do you have any tips that should be added to this article? Have you got any stories of your experiences during or after an earthquake? Share them in the comments section below.

More about earthquakes:

Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big One

Cascadia (a novel about a massive earthquake in the PNW – great read!)

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


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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.

Leave a Reply

  • Thanks Daisy. Good summary. As for the “Big One”, I think there will be warning signs before it hits. I like the daily earthquake forecasts provide by “DutchSinse” on Twitch and YouTube. He makes a lot of sense to me.

    • Garry, the only warning signs will be the absence of any warning. We have had a few largish shakes here in NZ the past couple of years, all came with no warning signs. I live approximately 300km from Kaikoura, the last shake we had, 7.8, that had my house shaking for 2 1/2 minutes at midnight. Not the best time to be trying to figure out what was happening.

      Personally, I think that if you are having minor (up to 4) shakes, the chance of a big one tend to diminish as the stress is being released to some extent.

      This does not mean the big one won’t happen anyway.

      Take care

      • Hi Warren: Thank you for your comments. I am very aware of the situation in NZ, and I have been following the earthquakes in NZ via Dutchinse for several months. He accurately predicts 9 out of 10 NZ quakes about 2 – 3 days in advance, and he explains how the NZ quakes start and propagate down the island. I think you may find his YouTube or Twitch channel quite useful. He has a large following in NZ, because he is helping get warnings out to many people a few days before a quake strikes. You won’t hear any of this on the mainstream media. BTW, I love your country. Best wishes, be prepared, and be safe.

  • I survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake. One thing to remember is the after shocks, the leaking gas lines, the broken sewer pipes and no clean water for 3 weeks. Your building could face additional damage from the aftershocks. Buildings were Red Tagged “Do not enter” Yellow Tagged “Resident enter with Caution” or Green Tagged “Safe to enter”. The real danger is the Aftershocks because what could look safe the day after the earthquake could collapse a week later from the continued aftershocks. Always have 2 weeks worth of bottled water for drinking and a pack of Baby Wipes for sanitation. Have warm clothing available. The smart people camped outside. I just remember the cold at night. Remember all the broken glass windows and the broken walls.

  • As the old-timer here, I (vaguely) remember the Tehachapi quake of 1952. It was a 7.7 but I was only 6 yrs old & I thought it was kind of fun! We had only lived in Calif a short while & I remember my mother was very scared. On Feb. 9th, 1971 we were living in the foothills of L.A. & the 6.6 San Fernando earthquake hit. Over 60 people died & I decided I didn’t like Calif all that much anyway. We left in Sept. & I’ve never been back. For lots of reasons, earthquakes being way down the list. Lol

  • I was on the top floor of the library in San Francisco in 1984 when the Coalinga earthquake hit. It was just a mild shaking that went on and on. At least it seemed that way. Nothing happened in the City.

    Then in 1989 I was in a building built on bedrock when the Loma Prieta quake hit. It was a little bit sharper, went on longer than a typical quake so my first reaction was that it was about the same power as the Coalinga quake, only with an epicenter closer to San Francisco.

    Both gas and electricity went out.

    We had enough food and water to last a week or more, so we had no problem as far as eating was concerned. We also had a camping stove for cooking.

    In our house, the only thing that happened besides the shaking was that a camera fell from a top shelf into a full basket of laundry—no damage.

    The biggest problem was communications. We didn’t have a battery powered radio to listen to news. We could see the glow over the darkened city of a major fire, but we didn’t know how close, was it spreading, would we have to evacuate? It turns out that our immediate neighbors were in the same pickle.

    A second problem was again communications—the phone system was down for a week. We couldn’t tell family outside the Bay Area that we were OK.

    A supermarket about a block away had a few broken windows and was shut. Because it was on bedrock, it didn’t have that much knocked off shelves, but was closed because the clerks couldn’t add without their cash registers.

    Lessons learned: the experience backed up the need for enough food and water for a week or more. A second lesson is the need for communications: both a battery powered radio to get local news should they have back-up generators and are on the air, and battery powered short wave communications to notify people outside the area. Also be ready to evacuate if needed.

  • 1. Know how to turn off the gas to your house.
    2. Know how to turn off the water.
    3. Have a contact who lives out of state that you can use as a go-between for communication. During the 1989 quake we couldn’t call within California but we could call out of state. Family in Virginia passed on messages.
    4. Keep hard sole shoes next to your bed.
    5. Don’t hang anything heavy over your bed.
    6. Don’t put your beds under windows.

  • Sometimes the quake can tweak a house just enough to screw up the frames and such. You may not be able to open a closed door and get stuck in a room. Also beware of govt inspectors who are “there to help,” who will condemn your home that seems fine to you. Question everything.

  • Before the Northridge quake (1994; a misnomer, because damage was wide-spread) very little in the house was secured. Had a roll-top desk, whose top separated from the base and was flung 10′ across the room. Dishes ended up all over the kitchen floor, sliding glass door blew out, etc.

    Afterwards, after cleanup and repairs, the first order of business was securing cupboard doors, refrigerator, bookcases, night tables….you get the idea.

    Not paranoid, just prepared.

    Also, have cyalume glow sticks or equivalent, tucked around the house and have added night lights that double as emergency lights if the power goes out. Have to be able to see your way around.

    Solid article, Daisy.

  • Never underestimate the power of smaller quakes. Was 5 miles from the epicenter of the 5.9 Whittier Quake in October, 1987. Three people died: One from a falling brick, another from falling into an electrical high wire and another working underground on a watermain. Two were just doing their job. When it started, I was pulling off my nightgown. Pulled it back down and ran down the long hall to the boys’ room. They had woken up and were sitting up wide-eyed. Gathered them into the long hallway. The quake was still going and kept on for another minute. A glass fell out of the cupboard and broke. Our only loss. But we were not prepared for it’s effect on our 4 year old son. He insisted on sleeping close to us. So we made him a little palette in our bedroom. This went on for four months until we attended a Red Cross Earthquake preparedness class. Once our son heard about what he could do, his anxiety about earthquakes stopped and he went back to his own bed. So, my advice would be to educate children if you live in earthquake country. The LA Natural History museum has an earthquake simulator which was helpful for the boys to review the feelings they had. Experiencing a quake in the LA basin was like being in a boat in choppy water. I understand that the LA basin is seven mile deep silt. It is helpful to know some geology in areas where you move about, bedrock, silt and such have different effects. It helps to secure knickknacks as well as heavy furniture.

  • Great post, Daisy. I am not in an ‘earthquake’ prone area altho we’ve had temblors before. It’s not a topic I focus on, but good solid advice. And the comments have been very educational as well!

  • Great article. However, Alaska IS part of the continental US, as we’re on the same continent. Hawaii is not. Only the lower 48 states are in the CONTIGUOUS US. A pet peeve of this Alaskan, that and maps that show AK as 1/4 it’s comparable size and located in MX or under HI.

    Alaska IS part of the continental US.

  • I know of more than a few preppers whom have BOL in the hills, more than a short drive from their sub-burban home.
    Reading, hearing and seeing pics of the damage from the recent South CA quakes and they were in relatively remote area, imagine if The Big One hits.
    Roads could be damaged to the point they are not usable. Rockslides making some roads impassable without heavy equipment. Bridges could fail.
    Cell towers down. Electrical down.
    Gas mains ruptured, and burning.
    That BOL might as well as be on the moon.

  • If you hear a train approaching you, then five or six and then tens and you think that is strange since the closest railway is miles away …
    If you see waves traveling thru a flat concrete area, not water just concrete waves, and then you’re standing at a fourty-five angle, ninety-degree, one thirty-five degree angle, you’re probably riding seismic waves.
    People are jumping out of second, even third floors of buildings.

    If you’re inside of a building during an earthquake or hurricane your chances are better if you go into the bathroom since there are metal pipes and double wall studs structurally holding the room together. The same for door frames, they’re made with double vertical wood studs and overhead frames.
    The buildings in Japan and Pacific places are made to flex allowing forces, typhoons, etc., to pass thru them rather be rigid and snap. Oversimplified, it’s kinda like a karate punch. It’s not so much the initial force that will break a bone but when the punch is withdrawn quickly. The bone, or building member, will break returning to it’s orginal position without any support, the fist that bend it in the first place. Same for the negative, vaccum force winds of hurricances and explosions.

    It’s said animals and birds can sense an earthquake a day ahead. Could be some subtle vibrations or perhaps electrical charges of tectonic plates moving against each other. Youtube has videos of strange sky behaviors along with sounds before an earthquake.
    Before a harmonic convergent when planets align there could be felt the day ahead a peaceful or anxoius feeling. Go figure, situational awareness for crystal-heads. J

    Flooding inlands ten miles or so during tsunamis is scary since that is the coastal zone alot of people live in nowadays.
    It’s funny to wake up one morning to see a pile of cars washed up in a corner of a seawall from a chance tsunami. Did I sleep thru that?

    • Domes and hurricanes.

      A dome’s leeway areas, those opposite the incoming prevailing winds have less negative pressure point buildup that would cause uplift of the structure itself.

      A continuous structure such as a geodesic dome allows the wind to flow uninterrupted over its surface since there are no sharp points or angles to block or cause wind buildup leading to structural failure.
      For the New Age people think of blocked chakras preventing chi flow. Or cholesterol plaque buildup for fast food eaters.

      The cylindrical form of a teepee allows the wind to flow around it rather than fight it. Colonial barn roofs (gambel) used obtuse angles to lessen the wind’s uplift while the interior triangular wooden trusses gave it strength.

      A triangle structure is stronger and more flexible than a rectangular one.
      A triangular geodesic surface isotropically dissipates a force overall it’s area while it deflects blunt forces.

      Good for hurricane force winds but whatabout earthquakes?
      There the ground is shifting back and forth while the inertial mass weight of the building is staying in one place. The bottom of the building is caught between these two forces and is being sheared apart while the upper floors are whipped around. Try to imagine with your body what that would feel like. Paradigm shift nausea.

      So, a geodesic dome on roller skates?
      Any ideas?

      As an off the wall reference to the Beatles song lyrics “A Day in the Life” Lennon/MacCarthy wrote that it took four thousand holes to fill up the Albert Hall. After a bombing raid metal pipes would be inserted down into the collapsed building rubble for a body count. Ever notice after an earthquake the rescuers walking around with pipes and dogs. Yea, disease is another vector factor to consider.

      For a future article, volcanoes are hot.

  • Hi Daisy, thanks for the info! I experienced a 7.2 and many smaller quakes while living in Vina del Mar, Chile 2 years ago. I was also one block from the ocean, 8th floor. If you have a cat, look for them in the closet afterward. There was a tsunami warning, but of course it was in Spanish, and also we would have had roughly 5 minutes to go to the recommended higher ground. Thus, it was safer to stay put. The quake hit at the end of the work day, and everyone got into their car and were stuck in traffic—I mean, gridlock, bumper to bumper. If we’d had a tsunami, they would have died on the road under water. As it was, the roads twisted and cars crashed into each other. To your advice I’d add—the stuff in your closets will have moved. When you open them, do so very carefully, because everything will fall out. I watched for the tsunami from my balcony—Valparaiso Bay is very deep, and the quake epicenter was offshore, so it would have been a small one. Also, tsunamis are caused by either a big hole opening in the sea floor, or large amounts of material being pushed up. If neither happens, no tsunami.

  • Earthquakes are a big risk in NZ and I have been thru many small ones, and close to big ones. One thing I learned from people in the BIG Christchurch quakes was to have an “earthquake box ” under your bed. There is an equal chance that the quake strikes at night.. which it did for one of the ChCh quakes.
    One thing to have is sturdy boots as you may be walking on broken glass. In my box I have a pinch bar and a small hatchet, in case I have to break out of jammed doors. A warm jacket, with supplies, (candy , flashlite) in the pockets. I have a hardhat and a bike helmet. As you exit your house you could be hit by falling things such as roof tiles (in my case). I always have headlamps on my bed post, and LED lights close by.
    After the quake, all your preps come into play. I am a great believer in having a solid “wall” tent which you could live in beside your wrecked house. You can guard your stuff, salvage your belongings, and be safe in aftershocks in a tent.

  • I was teaching English in Mexico City at Coronet Hall in October 1981. I had gone with my friend Ariel Rico Arce to a dance hall near his home in Ixtapalapa, a poor, working-class area. It was hot in the dance hall and after a while we went outside to an open area above the dance hall with three of Ari’s friends. While we were talking, I suddenly felt faint and dizzy: my first thought was food poisoning. Then I realized that the ground was moving under my feet. All the boys said Temblor! simultaneously. We stood there, shocked, until the ground was still. In one instant, all the millions of lights on below us across a large swath of Mexico City went off, and it was all profound darkness. Then there was another shudder of the earth. I thought at the time that the earthquake had destroyed the power stations but later heard that the electricity was deliberately turned off. The only death was that of a man under a power line which fell on him right before the electricity was turned off. All the boys wanted to go see if their mothers were all right, so we all went to the houses of each of them. One mom was hysterical. That was the Playa Azul earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter Scale, I think.

    In September 1985, I was in Florence, hanging out with the owner of my hotel while she ironed. She was listening to the radio, and I heard that there had been an earthquake in Mexico City, a Big One. I later learned that it had decimated the neighborhood where I had lived, Roma Sur on Leon de los Aldamas. My friend Francisco Fernando Ruiz Torres spent days digging through the rubble looking for survivors. An apartment complex a few blicks from where I lived was completely destroyed. Now the Parque Lopez Velarde is on top of where it was. The sister of a friend was in an early morning class when it happened. The only way they were able to identify her body was by the bracelet on some remains they found. To this day no one knows how many died. Tge government fell apart and no accurate count was made. At least tens of thousands died.
    It was common to wake up and hear things on the walls and dishes in cabinets rattle. I wouldn’t live in Mexico City again for that reason.

  • I remember the 6.3 earthquake in Cape Town in Sept 1969. I was 13 with 2 sisters, one 19 months younger than me, the other 8 months old. The epicentre was in Tulbagh about 120km north-east of us. It was around 10pm when everything started shaking. My father shouted to me and my sister to get outside fast. We hadn’t been outside very long when my mom was dropped off at the house after a Bible Study. First words out of her mouth when she saw us standing outside, “Where’s the baby?” In all the excitement she’d been forgotten!!!

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