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How to survive a tsunami: A guide to escaping a natural disaster

Updated on December 12, 2013


Millions of people have been killed by tsunamis in the last hundred years alone.

The immense tidal waves are one of the worst natural disasters on earth.

And unfortunately, little can be done to mitigate against the damage and destruction caused by the phenomenal power of the natural world.

There are, however, precautions that everybody can put in place to ensure that they are not injured, or even killed, by these immense tidal waves that destroy entire cities.

Know where tsunamis happen

There are certain countries that are free from the risk of tsunamis. Obviously countries that are surrounded by large land masses are safe. Europe and Russia are not threatened by tsunamis.

Those countries that have been hit in the past by tsunamis include islands such as Japan and Hawaii. Coastal regions are also at risk. Cities next to the sea in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand were all devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 that killed 230,000 people.

The areas of the world at risk from tsunamis are those close to tectonic plate boundaries, shown here in red, that run under the  sea
The areas of the world at risk from tsunamis are those close to tectonic plate boundaries, shown here in red, that run under the sea

People who live in these regions that have experienced natural tragedies in the past will be fully aware of the dangers and need to put adequate measures in place to deal with any future tsunamis.

Holidaymakers and tourists who are visiting these popular regions should also know of the tsunami risks that are present. The chances of a tsunami striking on that small window during a vacation may seem remote, but a tsunami has to strike at some point.

Research the history of tsunamis

Research the history of tsunamis in the area. Are they regular occurrences or do they happen only once every century? If the last tsunami was 100 years ago, and they have been following a pattern of happening every 100 years, then there is clearly a risk that one could strike again. If this is the case, the need for preparations is much greater.

Also analyse the severity of the earthquakes and tsunamis in the region. If the tsunamis that have happened typically do not have high death rate, or nobody has ever been killed by them, the area may well be considered safe.

However, if the area has a past littered with large earthquakes in the sea and powerful tsunamis, then this is a dangerous place. Japan is one such example, and anybody visiting the area, as well as people living there, should have measures in place to ensure that they are not affected by a disaster.

For help with tsunami research, see the hub 'The biggest tsunamis in history' which includes a timeline of major disastors.

A first aid kit like the one above is essential in tsunamis
A first aid kit like the one above is essential in tsunamis

Prepare for the worst with a first aid kit

At all times while living or visiting an area at risk of tsunami damage, residents should have a first aid kit. This could prove not just essential in saving another person’s life, but also in saving one’s own life. The first aid kit must include scissors, bandages, plasters, antiseptic wipes and silver foil blankets.

In addition an excellent first aid kit, always have a survival pack at the ready. Fresh water, powdered food supplies, waterproof jackets, a life jacket and an S.O.S flare are essential.

A waterproof cell phone, such as the JCB Tradesman, will also allow a stranded tsunami survivor to call the emergency services for help (remember to have the number for the local area already stored in the phone!).

Follow the warning centers

Any country that is at major risk of a tsunami is covered by a warning center. These highly technologically advanced operations have sensors in the sea which detect seismic activity in the earth’s plates, which as you will know from reading ‘what causes a tsunami’, is the main reason that tsunamis happen.

The four main warning centers: Pacific Tsunami Warning Center;
Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System; North Eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean and connected Seas Tsunami Warning System; Caribbean Tsunami Warning System.

The warning centers also have dart buoys in the sea which measure rises in sea level, another indicator that a tsunami is imminent. They aim to detect a tsunami approaching and then issue alerts through sirens and public service announcements.

These centers, which are based around the world, also send email and SMS alerts to residents. Visit the pages of the warning centers, listed here to the right, and subscribe to their tsunami alerts.

Be aware of where the sirens are located in the town and keep a cell phone to hand to keep up to date with the tsunami news.

Pay attention to nature

Sometimes people can be at the beach when a tsunami strikes. Here, as was the case with the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, there may not be any sirens or public service announcements and people are unlikely to have their cell phone with them.

Always pay attention to the weather, and in particular to animals. Animals are in tune with the environment and can often predict the weather. If birds are flying away from the beach to dry land, and other wildlife are doing the same, then it’s generally a sign that something not good is about to happen. It may just be a storm, in which cases it’s good to head indoors anyway, or is could be a tsunami.

A sure sign that a tsunami is approaching is that the sea water may suddenly start to rise, the water may become more powerful and larger waves may begin to break further out at sea. If this is the case, turn to the shore and run to dry land. Inform other members of the family, too. Shout ‘tsunami’ to let other people on the beach know.

Find refuge

There could be few things more terrifying than getting caught up in an approaching tsunami. If this does happen, there could only be a matter of minutes to find shelter or high ground such as a mountain or hill.

If you have a car jump behind the wheel and drive away from the sea. But be aware that many other people will be doing this and the roads could become jammed, making it even harder to find shelter, or there could be car crashes and accidents.

This man was rescued 10 miles out at sea after he stood on the roof of his house and later used it as a raft when a tsunami struck Japan in March 2011
This man was rescued 10 miles out at sea after he stood on the roof of his house and later used it as a raft when a tsunami struck Japan in March 2011

If it’s not possible to drive out of the area, choose a very strong building and go as high as possible to keep dry. People have even been known to climb onto roofs and stay there until the water has subsided.

If no buildings or cars are available, and the water is fast approaching, simply climb as high as possible. This could include a tree, telegraph pole or lampposts. Always remember, though, to chose one that will be strong enough to withstand the force of the water.

If the water looks like it will sweep you away, grab hold of something to stay afloat. This could include a piece of wood, a barrel or ideally from the survival kit a life jacket.

Prepare for more waves

A succession of waves will batter the shore for anything up to an hour during a severe tsunami. It’s therefore important to maintain a safe position until after the waves have eased off.

Once the waves have stopped, there may still be large pools of water lying around. Be sure not to drown in these and plot your path along the pieces of dry land or areas where puddles are shallow.

Stay clean and healthy

The aftermath of a tsunami can be as dangerous as the initial earthquake and even the tidal waves. This is because there is often no electricity, no sanitation and very little food available. Many people die from illnesses that spread in the stagnant water.

Although there is likely to be some kind of rescue effort from the government or other international aid agencies, during this period it is vital to find access to shelter. Also ensure that you have clean water and food in storage.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Chicago. Will. Need. This. When. The. New. Madrid Fault. Line. Goose. Off

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      just enjoy the movements in your life,because anytime

      we can be dead............... wright?

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      lot of thing happen in japan like tsunikmas

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      y wont it hit japan,wen its a japanese name. its 4rm japan n tsunami iz a japanese

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I can not belive how many tsunamis hit japan! She is from japan.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      thnx a llllot

    • Rickrideshorses profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from England

      Yes, as the boxing Day 2004 tsunami showed, anywhere close to the coast can be hit. This is because the underwater waves travel many miles through the ocean from the initial site of the earthquake. Thanks for your feedback, voadn.

    • voadn profile image


      8 years ago

      So many people assume that tsunamis only affect Japan and other island nations and that's just not the case. Thank you for this informative hub.


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