How to Survive an Earthquake

Earthquakes are one of the most common natural disasters, and though nearly everyone is familiar with them conceptually comparatively, very few people have experienced one and mercifully fewer still understand how cataclysmic and biblically destructive a severe earthquake really is.

Earthquakes are events that are not encountered evenly around the world, as they occur most often in specific regions where tectonic activity is high and volatile.

house after earthquake

Earthquakes are survivable, but the biggest threat they present is in the literal toppling of society. Only the strongest buildings will make it through a powerful earthquake unharmed, and virtually no structure will make it through one that is of apocalyptic magnitude.

An understated but no less grave danger presented by earthquakes is that the shaking and rippling of the very ground or floor beneath your feet will make escaping to safer terrain or just improving your position inside a building very difficult.

In the aftermath, you’ll have to contend with fires, falling debris, collapsed buildings, downed power lines and countless other problems that will make rescue and clean up difficult.

Nonetheless, like any other disaster, getting through an earthquake with life and limb intact boils down to having a little bit of luck, as well as knowing what procedures you should follow when the ground starts to tremble.

Today I will share with you tips, procedure and information that will help you survive the next big quake.

Earthquake Characteristics

To the layman, and unfortunately to the victims of said event, an earthquake is a shaking, rolling, cracking, and heaving of the very ground under your feet, with all the damage and implications that that entails.

What an earthquake really is and how it propagates is naturally a more complicated question. An earthquake, as we understand it, will typically occur whenever stored energy that is built up deep inside the earth is released in some fashion, generating shockwaves.

These shockwaves move through the earth’s foundations, all the way through the rock and soil to the surface where they are felt by people and animals.

As you doubtless already know, an earthquake can be little more than an errant vibration or it can be a cataclysmic rippling and heaving of the soil, literally splitting open the ground beneath your feet into yawning chasms and leaving a broken, irretrievably scarred landscape behind.

Earthquakes that fit into the former category many times go unnoticed entirely, except by the most sensitive scientific instruments and some animals. Earthquakes that fit into the latter category will quite literally reverberate through history for decades or centuries.

An earthquake is typically a natural occurrence but every once in a blue moon they can actually be triggered by mankind.

A human-triggered earthquake typically only results from either invasive activity deep underground like mining (specifically blast mining) or spectacularly destructive behavior like the detonation of a nuclear warhead.

Earthquakes will also often accompany volcanoes, either triggering them or being triggered by them.

Thankfully, or perhaps unfortunately depending on where you live, earthquakes are far more likely to happen and more likely to be powerful in certain high-risk regions.

These are earthquake prone places include all land masses bordering the Pacific Ocean but in particular the west coast of South America, North America’s Pacific Coast and the majority of southeast Asia.

The Caribbean is another earthquake hotspot, and certain geological fault lines in central North America typically lay dormant but have the potential to unleash ferociously powerful quakes without any warning.

Earthquake Intensity

The vast majority of detected earthquakes today result in no damage, or even any noticeable shaking, and even the ones that are worthy of note cause only minor damage and very little true destruction. Rarer still are earthquakes that cause any fatalities.

Nonetheless, earthquakes are dangerous and powerful earthquakes are extraordinarily dangerous not the least of reasons being that they make rescue efforts exceedingly difficult and will affect a wide area.

Chances are you have heard of the primary metric by which earthquake intensity is measured, the Richter scale. There are other scientific methods of measuring earthquake intensity, or power, but this is the one that is the most well-known and used in the Americas.

Earthquake intensity scales are not typically linear in nature. What this means is that an earthquake measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale is not merely twice as powerful as one that rates a 2.0.

In fact, each full increment that you go up on the Richter scale represents a 32 fold increase in earthquake intensity! That means that things get geometrically worse the higher up on the scale you go.

While the Richter scale is commonly employed for measuring earthquake intensity it does not allow us to easily classify earthquakes today or historically based on how much damage they inflicted.

But have no fear, since for exactly that purpose we have another scale, the (modified) Mercalli intensity scale.

The Mercalli intensity scale has 12 levels expressed as Roman numerals, with a Level 1 being the weakest and least impactful and a level 12 being the most powerful, inflicting cataclysmic damage.

The scale along with brief descriptions of what damage you can expect at each level of intensity is just below:

Level I – Earthquakes of this intensity will only be felt under the rarest of conditions. Hardly noticeable, if at all.

Level II – If you are at the top of a tall structure or the upper floor of a multi-story building you might feel the vibration caused by this earthquake.

Level III – An earthquake of this magnitude is noticeable if you are inside most any building, particularly on an upper story. Causes vibrations equivalent to a large vehicle or train driving by.

Level IV – Almost anybody indoors will notice this earthquake along with a few people out of doors. Outside, vehicles will rock on their suspensions. Loose fixtures and items in cabinets will rattle. Walls and structural members might creak or pop.

Level V – This earthquake will be felt by almost everyone. Shaking is enough to wake up someone who is asleep. Any item that is top-heavy or poorly balanced will fall over and windows may shatter.

Level VI – Potent earthquake. Earthquakes in this category are legitimate and frightening. Plaster and other delicate masonry or wall coverings will break and fall.

Heavy objects including furniture will move as a result of the shaking. Overall damage to buildings and the rest of civilization is typically minor.

Level VII – Powerful earthquake. Buildings constructed to a high standard that are sturdy will probably not be destroyed, but other lesser or ordinary structures will be moderately damaged. Chimneys will crack or topple. Any structure that is flimsy or poorly made might be knocked down or left severely damaged.

Level VIII – Highly powerful earthquake. Even hardened buildings might be damaged. Any common or ordinary structure will be severely damaged or collapse. Any structure made of inadequate materials or poorly built will be destroyed.

Other large installations like factory exhaust stacks, silos and all sorts of columns are likely to fall. Heavy objects inside homes will bounce and flip.

Level IX – Extremely powerful earthquake. No structure of any kind can expect to be undamaged, even purpose-made earthquake resistant structures. Any ordinary structure is likely to be flattened. Any installation might be shifted off of its foundation and the very ground will experience noticeable cracking.

Level X – Devastating earthquake. The ground is likely to split open. Many buildings will be completely destroyed and the situation made worse by induced avalanches and landslides. Even the most durable of fixed structures will be warped or damaged.

Level XI – Titanic earthquake. Conventional structures will be completely destroyed along with many bridges. No installation or structure can expect to escape damage. Noticeable heaving of the ground may occur and large chasms, sinkholes or cracks may appear.

Level XII – Catastrophic earthquake. Capable of completely wiping out a settled area. Extremely heavy objects, entire buildings and people may be thrown into the air. Soil and rock may warp and ripple while the earthquake is ongoing.

Beyond the damage directly caused by the shaking of the ground, earthquakes can also cause secondary events like avalanches and landslides (mentioned above) and even tsunamis, which are more than capable of causing devastation just as bad as the earthquake itself. More on them in a little while.

Most earthquakes that occur, even ones in your area or region, will do so without ever alerting you to their presence. It is the most powerful ones that we must worry about, as the big ones on the far end of the scale can inflict cataclysmic damage.

Examples of Recent Destructive Earthquakes

We don’t have to look back very far in history to find examples of monster quakes that devastated populated regions of the Earth. In fact, a handful have occurred just in the past two decades.

Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Japan, March 11th, 2011

Also known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, this monstrous quake registered a 9.0 on the scale and claimed the infamous crown of being the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful recorded in the world since official records have been kept.

Between the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami it caused $360 billion in damage, killed nearly 16,000 people and to this day over 2,500 hundred remain missing. Unbelievably, it is known today that the earthquake moved the entire main island of Japan over 8 feet, and even shifted the axis of the Earth.

Haiti Earthquake, Haiti, Dominican Republic, January 12th, 2010

A devastating earthquake that measured a maximum 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale. This quake’s epicenter was very near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Haiti’s notoriously flimsy architecture resulted in over 300,000 buildings being completely destroyed and in the resulting chaos anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 people lost their lives.

Rescue and clean-up conditions were a nightmare thanks to continual and powerful aftershocks.

Sichuan Earthquake, near Chengdu, China, May 12th, 2008

Also known as the Great Wenchuan Earthquake. Another devastatingly powerful earthquake, this one measuring nearly an 8.0 moment magnitude. The rumblings were felt in Beijing nearly 1,000 miles away.

This earthquake is noteworthy for causing hundreds of thousands of landslides and avalanches and it also featured strong aftershocks that persisted for months afterward.

This was one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded, inflicting nearly 90,000 deaths, over 350,000 injuries and leaving nearly 18,500 people missing. Total damages are estimated in the $150 billion range.

Kashmir Earthquake, near Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, October 8th, 2005

This wide-ranging earthquake measured 7.6 moment magnitude, and claims the crown of the deadliest earthquake to have struck southern Asia since the 1930s.

Destruction near the epicenter of the quake was almost total and vital first responders and hospitals were deadlined in the aftermath, worsening the toll in lives and injuries.

This quake is noteworthy for featuring spectacularly impressive upthrust of the ground, leaving nearly three and a half million people without homes and killing over 100,000.

Indian Ocean Earthquake, west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, December 26th, 2004

An apocalyptically powerful earthquake resulted in an equally apocalyptic tsunami in the Indian Ocean, one that swept ashore and killed nearly a quarter of a million people in 14 separate nations. The peak height of the waves generated top 100 feet, almost unimaginable.

This event is one of the top five most powerful earthquakes ever recorded by man and remains among the very deadliest of natural disasters that have occurred anywhere at any time.

So if you are very fortunate you might only have to deal with a little bit of broken crockery and a few cracked walls, but if you are not you will be in a fight for your life and struggling to survive in the aftermath.

The rest of this article will be dedicated to arming you with the knowledge and procedures you will need to know if you want to survive an earthquake intact.

Earthquake Survival Plan

Surviving an earthquake is entirely possible, and it is also possible to improve those chances of survival by doing the right things the moment you notice things start shaking, rattling and rolling.

A rapid response is imperative as the longer the earthquake goes on, and the worse the shaking gets the less likely you will be able to improve your position in any meaningful way. Act fast and stay alive!

Take heart that no matter where you are there is likely something you can do to improve your chances of survival and avoiding injury, even if it is only a modest improvement. Consult the following action items and we will break them down in the next section:

  1. Drop, Take Cover and Hang On.
  2. If inside a building:
    a. Get under a sturdy table or ledge.
    b. Stay near an interior wall if possible.
    c. If in a chair or bed protect your head as best as you can.
  3. If outside get as far away from buildings and overhead structures as you can.
  4. Stay away from windows inside or outside!
  5. If in a vehicle:
    a. Pull over.
    b. Put vehicle in park and set parking brake.
    c. Stay inside the vehicle!
  6. If you have to move, crawl, don’t walk or run.

Mind you, that is only what you must do while the earthquake is underway. You have to survive a one-two punch here since if the earthquake does not kill you, a landslide, avalanche or tsunami might, to say nothing of the hazardous and hostile environment you will be emerging into when it is all over.

In the following sections we will get into more detail regarding the steps we have shared above.

Taking Cover During an Earthquake

Just because the procedures for surviving an earthquake are simple, it does not mean they are easy.

All you have to do when an earthquake starts up is locate a heavy piece of overhead cover, something like a sturdy table, get yourself beneath it and then protect your head while preventing your cover from bouncing away or yourself from bouncing out from under your cover.

No problem! Yeah, right…

As you might have expected this will be much easier said than done why you’re getting jolted all over the place, the ceiling is falling in and everything is clattering off shelves to break on the ground.

No matter what kind of cover you reach, make sure you protect your head with anything else that is handy like a folded blanket, seat cushion or a pillow. Barring that just use your hand.

One more thing: you can forget the old advice you learned way back in grade school about standing in a doorway as this will not offer a significant protective envelope against falling debris. You also won’t be able to effectively shelter yourself beneath it when you are crouching, and standing will be out of the question.

Also, don’t forget that if you are taking advantage of a piece of furniture as overhead cover there is a high probability that it will move around, jostle and, potentially, even flip over thanks to the quaking.

Use your free hand to help anchor it in place or at least keep yourself beneath it. You must fight continually to maintain your position!

Let’s assume that you don’t have anything to take cover under. You’ll have to do the best you can, but make sure you move against an interior wall that is well away from any window or other glass fixture.

As with many disasters, breaking glass is disproportionately responsible for casualties inflicted during the event. Again if you have to move to get to a better position crawl, do not try to walk or run, as it will be easy to fall down and crack your head or even get tossed into the air.

If you are in a bed or chair when the earthquake occurs, perhaps because you are bedridden or confined to a wheelchair, you can still improve your position by grabbing anything to protect your head with. In a bed this will obviously be a pillow or a blanket.

If you are in a wheelchair, apply the parking brake to hold the chair in place and then bend over and cover your head.

If you are outside when the earthquake starts, you should get away from buildings if at all possible since falling debris or a rain of broken glass will be a major hazard.

If you are completely unable to move away from the building do what you can to shelter beneath anything that will stop something from falling on you.

If you are blessed with the fortune to be in a wide-open space when the earthquake begins, count your blessings. Get low to the ground, and hold on to something solid if possible.

You don’t have too many options for dealing with an earthquake if you are inside a vehicle, but you will have a little luck on your side in that the roof of the vehicle should give you some cover from falling debris.

Sorry convertible drivers and ragtop owners! All you need to do is stop the vehicle as soon as you can, put it in park and then set the parking brake. Don’t take any chances; protect your head even inside the car.

Staying Safe After the Earthquake

You are still in danger even after an earthquake stops rattling the ground. Any powerful earthquake will severely damage buildings, roads and all other infrastructure creating a landscape strewn with hazards.

All the same, you might have to act as quickly as you can to reach safer ground since aftershocks can occur at any time and depending on where you live you might have a landslide, avalanche or tsunami to contend with.

Have a look at the following guidelines you should practice after the initial earthquake ends.

  1. Beware aftershocks, which may be nearly as powerful as the primary quake.
  2. You cannot expect access to any emergency response in the aftermath of a powerful quake.
    a. Be prepared to render self aid.
    b. Help others if you can do so safely.
  3. Get out of damaged buildings as fast as you can.
  4. Beware falling debris, especially glass!
  5. If you are trapped in rubble, use anything you can to make noise and signal for help.
  6. Try to cover your mouth and nose with a mask or cloth to keep from breathing in airborne dust and debris.
  7. Stay alert for landslides and avalanches (near hills and mountains) and tsunamis (near coasts).
  8. Be extra cautious when getting out of the danger area after a quake; watch for sharp objects, downed power lines and leaking sewers.

Once the primary earthquake has subsided and everything has come to rest, you need to get moving in order to improve your position, especially since an aftershock might be enough to collapse the building you are in if it was damaged. Never, ever assume that there will not be aftershocks!

Get out of any building you are in no matter how strong and sturdy you think it is. An earthquake of any noticeable magnitude is very likely to break glass, and all kinds of fragile things are stored on shelves, so keeping an eye out for broken glass and other laceration hazards as you move should be high on your priority list.

The safest place you can possibly be is outdoors in a wide open space with nothing around that can fall on you should an aftershock occur.

Make sure you never, ever re-enter any damaged building after an earthquake unless you have no other choice. Damaged buildings are extremely dangerous and may collapse at any time.

Once you have improved your position and subsequently your safety, take a moment to collect yourself and better prepare for the events to follow if you can.

If you are fortunate enough to have a survival kit or go-bag with you, open it up and don gloves, as well as a mask or a bandana to protect your hands and your lungs. If you are really in a pinch you can use any cloth saturated with water as a primitive dust mask.

Should you have the misfortune to be trapped inside the rubble for a partially collapsed building after an earthquake you will need to signal to potential rescuers that you are still alive.

This is a grim outcome but not unsurvivable. One thing you should not do is shout for help as you are likely to run out of air if you have limited oxygen.

Use anything you can to bang on exposed metal, piping, concrete or stone, anything that will transmit noise that can be heard. Try to make noise however you can rhythmically so it is easier to hear among the din after an earthquake.

The traditional SOS signal is a good option which is done by making 3 short, sharp bangs immediately followed by 3 slower bangs and then three more short sharp ones. This is Morse code for S-O-S.

You cannot talk about surviving the aftermath of an earthquake without bringing up the threat of landslides, avalanches and most especially tsunamis.

Landslides and avalanches are not much of a threat if you do not live near a hilly or mountainous area, but anytime you are in a low-lying area or near the base of a hill it is not out of the question you could be dealing with a mass of tumbling debris.

There is not much you can do in this case except try to avoid it by taking cover or getting out of its path. You’ll have a hard time hearing either coming as there is liable to be plenty of noise after an earthquake, both natural and human.

Nonetheless, keep your ears perked for any strange cracking, slapping or crackling sounds that are the telltale indicators of boulders hurtling down slope and trees breaking.

Tsunamis are another threat entirely, and can be far more destructive than the earthquake that caused them! A tsunami is an enormous mass of water, a series of waves that accelerate away from the epicenter of an earthquake after being displaced by it.

This series of waves can crash ashore and move far, far inland destroying and drowning everything in its path.

A tsunami will easily drown a human being assuming it does not crush them early on by the large objects and other debris that it carries. Once a tsunami recedes, you will be dealing with a major flood event.

If you live anywhere up to a mile or mile and a half from shore and a major earthquake occurs you should simply assume that a tsunami is incoming even in the absence of a tsunami warning. Unlike landslides and avalanches, tsunamis do typically present some warning signs, but not always.

A strange roaring noise coming from the sea is one indicator as is a sudden, out of schedule recession of the tide that is particularly low. No matter what, your only choice is to get as far inland as you can, or as high off the ground as possible on as sturdy a structure if possible.

This is as you might imagine a complete nightmare after a powerful earthquake and why the occurrence of a tsunami in the immediate aftermath of one is such a deadly event.


Earthquakes are disasters that can strike with no warning, and completely destroy a region from below. Leaving behind shattered cities, crumbling infrastructure, fires and rubble rescue efforts will be uncertain at best.

You might feel defenseless but there are things you can do to improve your chances of surviving an earthquake so long as you move swiftly. Make sure you rehearse your earthquake survival procedures especially if you live in an area prone to experiencing them!

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PDF Checklist

Get the two lists above (on what to do during an earthquake, and what to do in the aftermath) in PDF format here.

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