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Earthquake Survival: Surviving an Earthquake

Updated on July 4, 2011

Earthquakes I know something about - I am both a trained geologist and a New Zealander. I understand earthquakes and I know how to survive them - surprisingly it has little to do with having an earthquake survival kit. Disclaimer: I have only survived minor earthquakes to date. Maybe if I don't answer your comment the "big one" hit already and I was wrong!Mind you the common sense approach seems to have worked well in the recent Christchurch earthquake.

Earthquake Survival Kits

Lets start with these because for most people this is where they start with earthquake preparedness - they start with an earthquake survival kit. They get together some bottled water, some canned food and a radio with batteries, a first aid kit. That's nice and can be useful - though the food isn't a big deal if you live in a Western country - you will take about a month to starve to death - whatever you think of emergency services they should have got to you by then. So an earthquake survival kit is a nice to have - but there are some more important things to consider first. On the other hand having having a few litres of water in sealed containers makes a lot of sense.Real earthquake preparedness is little bit more difficult and is all about the building you are in at the time.

Australian Earthquake!

Twisted railtrack from the Meckering Earthquake 1968, Australia
Twisted railtrack from the Meckering Earthquake 1968, Australia

Earthquake Survival - Choose Your Country.

Most people think of earthquakes and think of the rim of fire: the circum-Pacific belt of active faults and volcanoes which includes: New Zealand, China, Japan, Alaska, California and Chile all of which get frequent and nasty earthquakes. Places like Europe and Australia don't.

WRONG. Earthquakes can occur anywhere - they are far more common in the countries I listed but L'Aquila Italy had a devastating 6.7 magnitude earthquake in 2009 and the Western Australian town of Meckering was destroyed in 1968 by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

But right to - countries that either don't have earthquakes very often, or don't have a modern earthquake building code, have a much higher casualty rate. Check out video of the damage done in New Zealand's Gisborne 2008 earthquake. It looks dreadful - how many died - one - an elderly lady who had a heart attack. So much damage so few deaths - how did that happen?

Two issues: how we measure earthquakes and building standards.

The Richter Scale

When the news media quote a "6.9 magnitude earthquake" - they using the Richter scale. This measures the force of the earthquake at its epicentre. Not on the surface of the earth - but at the point that the earthquake occurs - often many kilometres below the surface. The original strength of the earthquake is part of the answer to how much damage an earthquake will cause - but its not the only factor, for deathrates its not even the most important factor.A 7.1 earthquake in New Zealand killed one person, a 6.9 in China killed thousands - different ground conditions, and critically, different building standards

Gisborne Earthquake 2008 New Zealand

Building Standards and Earthquake Survival

This is the single most important factor for surviving a earthquake: the building you are in. You statistically most likely to be in a building the authorities will tell you that if you are in a building stay in it. I say, maybe...

In a building which complies to stringent earthquake standards the building that will save you. It will do exactly what those Gisborne shops did - extraneous material such as shelving, and ceiling tiles will collapse and make a big mess. But the roof will stay up for a quite a long time. If the entire building does collapse then it will create big gaps in the building - gaps which will protect you and probably trap you, not kill you.

The tragedy of the 2008 Sichuan China earthquake is not that the earthquake but the abysmal building standards. The same happened at L'Aquila - the 500 hundred-year-old classic buildings survived - as they have other earthquakes the 1960 apartments did not.

The majority of New Zealand's property is wooden, particularly in Wellington. That's because the town was destroyed twice by earthquakes in the 1850's. The third time they didn't build in brick - and the 1941 earthquake destroyed a huge number of chimneys but few major buildings.

1989 Prieta Loma Earthquake California

How To Survive an Earthquake

Run Outside an Unsafe Building

Decide whether the building you are in is safe. I used to work for a geotechnical engineer in Wellington, our office was one of the buildings that at the time was considered completely unsafe, it was unreinforced brick warehouse on reclaimed land, we were on the first floor in an open plan office.

The earthquake plan was simple - sprint for the stairs and throw yourself down them, seriously. The stairwell is the most likely structure to survive. We had one slight shake - I was wondering whether it was a quake my boss, somewhat overweight and not particularly fast-moving normally - was 1/2 way to the stairs - if in doubt in a bad building move. As the shaking increases you wont be able to stand nevermind run.

I would use this principal for any building in countries that "don't have" earthquakes such as Ausralia. Also countries like Mexico and China who demonstrably don't have building standards.

Stay Inside a Safe Building

By the way this is the official advice from authorities. The main danager is flying debris - get under a desk and hold onto the legs - the desk will walk - you need to go with it. Or in a doorway sit down and brace yourself - protect your head. Unless there is fire - stay there. The earthquake may be the first of several - a quake can last 1 minute or come back within two or three minutes, or many hours later.

If you are driving - try to avoid being on over-passes, elevated roads or a tunnel, it you are coming up to one stop immediately. Stay in the car to protect yourself. If live wires fall across the car - stay in the car - the tyres are protecting you from shock.


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    • profile image

      Max 4 years ago

      Do. You. All. Know. What. The. New. Madrid. Fault. Line. Is ?????

    • profile image

      Kate 4 years ago

      I. Hope. My. Ex. Boyfriend. Larry Dies. In. An. Earthquake a. 8.7. Earthquake.

    • profile image

      Indpls IN USA 5 years ago

      found it. Doug Copps 'Triangle of Life"... article said it is FRAUD...but in under developed countrys where building codes are non existent. might work. so until actual studies are done. guess i'll stick with the Red Cross

      method. Thanks, heaps!

    • profile image

      Indpls IN USA 5 years ago

      within the last few years, I read an article that said 'do NOT get under something, squat beside it. then, when the 'something' collapses from all the debris on it, there will be an air pocket/safe area for you, instead of being crushed under. It appeared after a major quake, but I can't save every article & my retention of information is finite. Can anyone help me with this? I DID READ IT. & it made sense. Thanks for your assistance.

    • profile image

      Breadsasdsdf 6 years ago

      Just to point out that L'Aquila the town in Italy that was hit by a quake in 2009 lies on the edge of the Eurasian plate and the African plate, where earthquakes often happen..

    • WhitneyNZ profile image

      WhitneyNZ 7 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Once again nice tips lizzy!

    • sugz profile image

      sugz 7 years ago from Quakeville... Christchurch, New Zealand

      6 days later and more than 250 aftershocks.. i've left home for a few days.. great hubs lissie, and good info.

      this week has made me want to study earthquakes.. have started by just reading the chards and patterns.

      also, my gutt plays a big part in my knowledge.. so far, ive predicted 5 of the big aftershocks to my friends who thought i was nuts. well, 10pm tonght sticks in mind, and also this saterday afternoon or evening. i don't want to even go home.

      chch nz.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 7 years ago from New Zealand

      Robert - I haven't burnt myself badly either - but I know that putting my hand in the fire will hurt and if you do so I can tell you not to put butter on it LOL! You have to survive long enough to need the water! Exhaustion is exactly fatal either

    • profile image

      Robert 7 years ago

      If you have not been through major earthquakes, you don't know them do you. Water is a huge thing. If you do not have it you are in big trouble. Exhaustion from the thousands of aftershocks is next.

    • Gorgeously profile image

      April Treme 8 years ago from United States

      great info..

      thanks for sharing

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 9 years ago from malang-indonesia

      survival is needed when earthquake happen. maybe we stack on this disaster for two days, three ays or more. survival for food and drink.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Its a shame NSW didn't wake up after the 68 WA quake - but rather typical - WA is too far away to affect NSW right :-) I hadn't realised so many died - from memory the RSL collapsed didn't it? Unfortunately people have short memories - look at th bushfires in Vic: the Ash Wednesday fires in 1984 and then this year Black Saturday no one seemed to have remembered the lessons learned - particularly the authorities!

    • The Good Cook profile image

      The Good Cook 9 years ago

      I was living in Newcastle at the time of the 1989 earquake which was only a 'baby' quake of 5.5 on the Richter scale.

      Australia is generally believed to be one of the oldest and most stable continents on earth. The last really 'big' quake - the kind that forms new topography and replenishes the soil - was 40 - 50,000 years ago, and it formed the Great Dividing Range that stretches from the lower part of Queensland through New South Wales and into Victoria. Sure, we have had small earthquakes, but not often and it is that complacency which makes the small earthquakes so devastating.

      I think 9 people died in the '89 earthquake and damages ran into the millions, but new building standards have been adopted and, hopefully, most Australians have been jolted out of their complacency. There is no better teacher than Mother Nature. Great hub.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      In fact hiding under the bed is an excellent way to survive an earthquake ! Thanks for visiting goldentoad

    • goldentoad profile image

      goldentoad 9 years ago from Free and running....

      I just put a pillow over my head. I've survived so far.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Exactly - I don't like warnings - an earthquake - you live or die, dig yourself up and start all over again...

    • Megavitamin profile image

      Megavitamin 9 years ago

      Lissie, I actually come from the east coast of the United States and have been through plenty of hurricanes. At least you get a warning when they're coming, unlike quakes!

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Yeah California gets a lot of shakes - but that's good because it lets the tension on the fault line release and actually reduces the chance of a big one on the San Andreas fault!

    • thelesleyshow profile image

      TheLesleyShow 9 years ago from US

      Living in California they should pass this article out to all residents. We just had one two days ago and I think it's only been a month since the last one..... Better safe than sorry (or dead). Thumbs up!

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Yeah they call them cyclones in the southern hemisphere - happen up north not down as far south as Perth. Exactly I don't like how frequent they are- and imagine if the power goes out - disaster the Internet wouldn't work!

    • RobynW profile image

      RobynW 9 years ago from Taipei

      We have nice juicy typhoons here too Lissie, cyclones in Australia I believe? They wreak more damage here than earthquakes, though mainly because you have at least two or three 'biggies' a year. Now, that would be a good hub--cyclone survival :-) The last one, I hoarded up inside and watch all four mini-series of Anne of Green Gables with my girls :-P Yes, the electricity stayed on for that one!

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      SL - there are more major earthquakes in Europe that I had really thought of - again I suspect Romania at that time didn't have the world's best building standards. I have always been told to head for the stairs ...

      MV - earthquakes are easy - now hurricanes and bushfires they scare me!

    • Megavitamin profile image

      Megavitamin 9 years ago

      Thanks for the great information! I recently moved to California, so I'm always looking for good earthquake tips.

    • Savings Lady profile image

      Savings Lady 9 years ago

      I'm from Romania. I was nine when that earthquake stroke, but luckily the building we were living in at that time only got shaken very well, but didn't collapse.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Where are you from Savings Lady?

    • Savings Lady profile image

      Savings Lady 9 years ago

      Every 40 years or so, we have a devastating earthquake here, where I live. The last one was 32 years ago and many people got killed because they rushed on the stairs, which were the first to collapse.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Yeah get your house knocked down a few times you learn! Thats why the real danger is in places like Australia who think they don't have earthquakes!

    • Sufidreamer profile image

      Sufidreamer 9 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      It is strange, although most stone house have walls that are at least two feet thick, which probably helps! For all work performed by earthquake-aware architects (some of it very good), the old Greeks certainly knew how to build an earthquake-resistant house.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      It was noticeable in the pictures of Italy that the renaissance buildings were still structually sound. I wonder why the stone houses stand when brick is so notoriously bad? Maybe its the size of the stones and the strength of the exterior plaster work is actually reinforcement?

    • Sufidreamer profile image

      Sufidreamer 9 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Hi Lissie - nope, we did not feel that one, although there was a quake in Patra last year, and we certainly felt that one.

      The Earthquake standards are much stronger here, now - sadly, there are many older buildings that do not meet them. Mind you, the traditional stone houses seem to be the most earthquake proof - looking backwards is often the way :)

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      @tdardy - yes CA certainly has a lot of faults - its one of the most interesting and well-studied earthquake zones in the world. Yeah I would stay indoors if I was in CA you guys have great building regulations

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Hi Mark I know one geologist - an earthquake specialist in fact who was in SF (for an earthquake conference) for the Prieta Loma quake, in LA for another good shake, in the South Island when they had a good shake too. If its known that you are geologist its a bit of an issue apparently - if you want to leave town you can start a bit of a minor panic cause if the "experts" are leaving ... despite the fact they were just due to go home. I wonder if he was in LA this week...

      So hopefully if I do get caught in a quake I will just pass as a scum of the earth internet marketer! LOL

    • tdarby profile image

      tdarby 9 years ago

      I grew up in Hollister, CA--there are 4 major faults which go through the city. Earthquakes are definitely serious stuff. Thanks for the great tips on surviving an earthquake. It is so important to know this before it hits because when it hits, most people react instinctively and begin to run out of the building. Not the best move!

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      LOL Robyn that's a very good point re the naked sleeping -I don't in NZ - its too darn cold - but I do it a lot in Perth - its gonna be scary if the big one hits cause I will be out the door - the building wouldn't be safe in a real shake!

    • Mark Knowles profile image

      Mark Knowles 9 years ago

      Excellent hub - as usual. You do seem to have a gift for not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is the best survival technique I know of lol

    • RobynW profile image

      RobynW 9 years ago from Taipei

      Taiwan is right on the fault line too, and has earthquakes every couple of days, though they're mainly minor ones. One nice perk about living on a fault line is the hot springs--I love 'em. Good info though Lissie. You might want to add that if you sleep naked it's at your own risk, I don't anymore--wouldn't want to scare anyone if an earthquake hit in the middle of the night!

    • sixtyorso profile image

      Clive Fagan 9 years ago from South Africa

      Great info and yes earthquakes don't only happen on fault lines. They can happen anywhere. We have "tremors" in Johannesburg all the time and we had a major Quake in Ceres in the fair Cape

      According to Google

      The most destructive earthquake in South African history struck the Ceres area at 22H03 on the 29th of September 1969.  Its magnitude was 6.3 on the Richter scale.  The shock was felt as far as Durban (1175Km).   The earthquake was followed by a number of aftershocks, the most severe of which was on the 14th of April 1970. (5.7 on the Richter scale)

      For more

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Yeah that is very true Sybille - if you work 30km away from home - its probably going to take a day or 2 to walk home...

      Touche Princessa - seriously I completely missed the LA quake!

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 9 years ago from France

      The topic was not chosen out a whim ;)

      BTW, great info.

    • Sybille Yates profile image

      Sybille Yates 9 years ago

      Good hub, Lissie! Btw, earth quake and other survival kits are only useful if you actually have them always with you ;-) I lived through a few minor ones in Germany, one I always will remember stroke just as I was sitting on the toilet, rofl. SY

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Actually I didn't realise there had been another LA earthquake until I saw the news in the news feed under this comment capsule :-) Thats good more people searching for earthquake surivival kits!

    • agrande profile image

      agrande 9 years ago from Oregon, USA

      This is really good info Lis. And it is expecially important in the States because there was another quake in LA yesterday but I suppose you knew that. :)

      I really enjoy reading your stuff but I don't get much of my work done

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for the comments - I thought no one had time to comment on hubchallenge hubs :-)

      @Susan - yes its really possible anywhere - most people wouldn't think Australia has had earthquakes but there was the Mekering one in 1968 and another nasty one in Newcastle in the 1980s.

      @Sufi - yeah I don't think I'd big on the earthquake standards of Greece either... Did you feel the L'Aquila quake?

    • Sufidreamer profile image

      Sufidreamer 9 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Great advice, Lissie - we have had a couple of big tremors here, and sprinted outside pretty quickly!

    • Journey * profile image

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 9 years ago from USA

      good information Lissie. Thanks for sharing. -Journey*

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 9 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Excellent hub. Luckily I don't live in an area that has earthquakes. I guess it is possible anywhere though...


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