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What to Do if you Are in an Earthquake

The chances if being in a major earthquake when traveling are slim — so slim, in fact, that planning an itinerary to avoid earthquake hot spots is more than a touch overkill. In point, a traveler goes to many different locations on the planet, so will therefore travel through far more earthquake zones (such as the Ring [...]

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The chances if being in a major earthquake when traveling are slim — so slim, in fact, that planning an itinerary to avoid earthquake hot spots is more than a touch overkill. In point, a traveler goes to many different locations on the planet, so will therefore travel through far more earthquake zones (such as the Ring of Fire) than someone who is sedentary, but a traveler often only spends a few days to a few months in each location, so the chances of a major earthquake striking when visiting one of them is rather slim. But the fact still remains that travelers are occasionally caught in major quakes, and knowing what to do during one is essential travel knowledge.

Usually, if you are outside during an earthquake then you should stay outside, if you are inside then you should stay inside. But there is one exception to this rule that I will outline below that is of particular pertinence to international travelers.

Drop, Cover, and Hold On Earthquake Safety Strategy

It is recommended by the CDC and various other safety agencies of the USA and that if caught inside a building during a major earthquake a person should dive beneath the sturdiest table or desk nearest to them, curl up into a ball, cover their heads with their hands, and arms, and hold on to the leg of the table (and always staying under it, even if it moves about the room) until the rumbling stops. According to the professionals, this is the strategy that a person should do almost all the time in an earthquake.

Aerial shot of destruction after the 2009 earthquake in Haiti. Notice that many of the buildings are still standing.

The thinking here is that most people who die in earthquakes are not killed by collapsing buildings but by objects flying around in them or falling upon them. Most often buildings — even the most shoddily built ones — do not completely collapse in earthquakes. So running for the door or between rooms is going to make you more vulnerable to injury than dropping where you are and getting beneath a desk or table as quickly as possible. Again, it is loose items flying or pieces of buildings falling that kill the most people in earthquakes rather than structures falling flat like a deck of cards. Staying inside of a building and taking cover is the best way to survive an earthquake.

It has been recorded many times that sturdy tables are often left standing after earthquakes — even in some cases where a building has otherwise collapsed. What a person wants to do in an earthquake is to first find shelter from air born or shifting objects and second to try to put themselves into a pocket of life  — a protected space in the wreckage. By taking cover beneath such a table or other piece of sturdy furniture, a person raises their amount of protection from being hit or crushed by displaced objects as well as increases the probability that they will end up in a pocket of life even if the building they are in collapses.

Choosing to dive beneath a sturdy table that is against an inner wall of a building is the best place to be — as the most damage happens to the exterior walls of a structure — but a person should not waste time and risk exposure changing rooms.

It is also recommended that cover should be sought from the first indication of an earthquake rather than standing around waiting to see if it gets worse or not. More often than not, a person diving for cover during a minor tremor will be seen as overreacting, but such a move could potentially save their life someday.

Standing in doorways of modern houses or buildings is no longer felt to be a viable option, as doorways are no longer more structurally sound than any other part of a building. Though if in a large, old wooden house, seeking cover in a doorway may provide a slight safety advantage.

From the CDC:

  • DROP down onto your hands and knees before the earthquake knocks you down. This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
  • COVER your head and neck (and your entire body if possible) under the shelter of a sturdy table or desk. If there is no shelter nearby, get down near an interior wall or next to low-lying furniture that won’t fall on you, and cover your head and neck with your arms and hands.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or to your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.

The Bolt for the Door Earthquake Safety Strategy

In very select circumstances — such as when in adobe, mud brick, un-reinforced cinder block, or shoddily assembled buildings — it may be advisable to try to exit the building as quickly as possible during an earthquake. It is my impression that this should be best practiced when there is an open area — such as a field or large courtyard — immediately on the outside. Most modern buildings on fault lines or other areas of high geologic activity are built to withstand earthquakes, but there are still many older or shoddy buildings in these areas that are not. Probability has it that even crappy buildings often do not completely collapse in earthquakes, but running for the door sometimes is not a bad option if the opportunity easily presents itself.

From Earthquakecountry.info:

The ONLY exception to the “Drop, Cover and Hold On” rule is if you are in a country with unengineered construction, and if you are on the ground floor of an unreinforced mud-brick (adobe) building, with a heavy ceiling. In that case, you should try to move quickly outside to an open space.

If Outside During an Earthquake

If you are outside during an earthquake, the best advice is to stay outside. Get as far away from buildings, power lines, utilities, fuel and gas lines as possible. The most dangerous place to be during an earthquake is near the exterior walls of buildings, so get away from these at all costs. It will probably be difficult to walk or run during a major earthquake so get down low and move by any means possible away from outside of buildings and anything else that could fall.

How to protect yourself during an earthquake videos

What to Do During an Earthquake Conclusion

“When you’re in a situation like that you usually don’t think about it too much. Usually you just stand there dumb until it is over,” a friend who survived a tornado that completely destroyed his home once said to me. This is often correct: you don’t think when in a survival situation, you either act or stand dumb. But I also know that little pieces of safety information sit lodged deep in the memories of humans, and can often rise to the surface in times of disaster and potentially save your life. The friend that survived a tornado did not stand around dumb, he made for the hallway of his house, took cover, and survived. So reading somewhere that you should dive beneath a desk or table during an earthquake and hold on to it for dear life is sometimes enough instruction to usurp a “freeze” response and provide a better chance for survival. When a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Chiapas recently I immediately ran for the door of my apartment and into the open courtyard outside, as I did not trust the architecture of my abode.

In point, humans have instincts which often serve to protect them in times of crisis, but instinct often needs a primer of knowledge to be of much use. Next time I’m in an earthquake I am not so presumptuous as to think I would say to myself, “Hmm, I wrote a travel tip about how I should drop, cover, and hold on during earthquakes, but I don’t really feel that this crappy made concrete block structure I’m in is unsound so maybe I should run for the door?” No, I know that I will probably act without conscious thought and instinctively take a course of action that has a chance of being influenced by the knowledge that I gained from researching this article about what I should do in an earthquake.

External Resources

Protect yourself during an earthquake
CDC Earthquake safety advice


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Filed under: Travel Safe, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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