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Earthquakes and Tsunamis Can Happen at Any Time: How to Survive Both


It’s now been one week since an earthquake and tsunami devastated the island nation of Japan. Last Friday, rescue teams, humanitarian workers, and air medical crews from multiple countries immediately mobilized to assist with the relief effort. Our thoughts continue to be with the displaced and injured victims and their families.

Over 16,000 people have been killed or are still missing, over 500,000 still staying in shelters, as government and military agencies, humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross, and even private air operators continue to respond to the crisis.

Japan is one of the most earthquake and tsunami-prepared places in the world. Yet, no one saw the devastation coming until it was too late.

Earthquakes are, unfortunately, a routine occurrence. They give little or no warning, and can cause catastrophic damage in seconds. Therefore, knowing what to do instinctively is very important. The next 9.0 magnitude earthquake could take a number of years, or it could happen tomorrow.

Contrary to popular belief, earthquakes are possible just about anywhere, from Florida, to the Midwest, to New England (see a map of all U.S. earthquakes in the last 7 days here — it may surprise you).

If an earthquake like the one that caught Japan off-guard one week ago happened where you are – tomorrow – would you know how to survive it?

For those in the air medical industry, you may not be at home when facing the sudden reality of an earthquake – you could be on the ground in another town, another state, or even another country, in an unfamiliar place. That’s why it’s important for air medical professionals above all to know how to respond to the unexpected — especially when a patient’s life – and yours – depends on your quick reaction.

Video of Tokyo airport during an aftershock of last Friday’s earthquake:

(most intense shaking begins approximately 45 seconds in)


The following tips come from the American Red Cross and the National Disaster Education Coalition (NDEC), and refer to earthquake survival in the United States specifically unless noted otherwise. As in other dangerous situations, first make sure you are safe, then help others who require assistance. After the ground has stopped shaking, attend to injuries if needed and ensure the safety of those around you.

If you are indoors:

  1. In the U.S., the old standard of “drop, cover, and hold on” when you’re inside a building during an earthquake is still your safest bet. Don’t try to get in a doorway. Just drop to the ground, cover your head, and hold on to anything secure nearby until the quake is over.

    Note: The American Red Cross specifically disputes some of the information in the popular e-mail circulation from Doug Copp of ARTI Inc.. They distinguish that “drop, cover, and hold on” is a uniquely U.S.-based recommendation based on U.S. building codes and construction/engineering standards, and that the e-mail’s recommendations are using observations of controlled building collapse in Turkey as a basis. Other sources have stated that this building collapse did not simulate the important lateral motion that occurs during an earthquake.

    In some countries with different engineering methods, construction materials, and building standards, some structures may in fact “pancake.” In a building of poor construction, curling up next to a large object such as a bed, dresser, or sofa (the “triangle of life” method) may be preferable to ducking and covering.

  2. The natural survival instinct of many animals (and humans) is to curl up in a fetal position in a dangerous situation. In an earthquake, you will want to make your footprint as small as possible. Drop to the ground, cover, and hold on to a fixed object.
  3. If you are in bed, stay in bed. Curl up, hold on, and use a pillow to protect your head from falling objects/broken glass. People who stay in bed are less likely to be injured. (Alternatively, using the disputed “triangle of life” method, you would lie down on the floor in the “void” next to the bottom of a bed.)
  4. Stay away from windows if possible to avoid being injured by shattered glass. Windows can shatter with surprising force, sending shards of broken glass flying several feet.
  5. The Red Cross advises people indoors to stay indoors until the shaking completely stops. Many injuries in California earthquakes have occurred from people falling while trying to exit buildings.
  6. Do not use stairs, escalators, or elevators while the ground is shaking. After the shaking completely stops, if you must leave, carefully use stairs to exit the building. Do not use elevators in case of aftershocks, power outages, or damages to the elevator shaft.
  7. If you go outside after the earthquake, move quickly away from buildings to prevent injury from falling debris.

If you are outside:

  1. Find a clear spot away from buildings, trees, and tall objects like street lights and power lines.
  2. Drop to the ground and cover your head until the ground has stopped shaking. Wait until the shaking has stopped completely to avoid injuries from falling trees, streetlights, power lines, and building debris.
  3. If you are in a vehicle, pull to a clear location and stop. Make sure you are not near an overpass or other overhead construction (such as on a freeway with multiple levels). People who stay in their cars in these areas can be killed by collapsing overhead construction.
  4. If a power line falls on your vehicle, do not attempt to get out – you may be electrocuted. Wait to be assisted.
  5. If you are in a mountainous area, keep on high alert for falling rocks and other debris that earthquakes may loosen. Landslides can be triggered by earthquakes.
  6. In coastal areas, in tandem with the indoor/outdoor tips above, you should immediately gather loved ones and move quickly to higher ground after the shaking stops — in case of a tsunami.


Tsunamis are often generated by earthquakes and may move across the water at speeds approaching or exceeding a jet aircraft. The fastest recorded tsunami wave moved at 800mph.

What would you do in this situation?

  1. First and foremost, follow instructions issued by local authorities. They will apply more specifically to the area you are in.
  2. If an approaching tsunami is detected, evacuate immediately. There may be little time to get out of the area and following official instruction is your best chance of surviving.
  3. If you evacuate, take your animals with you. If it is not safe for you, it is not safe for them.
  4. Get to higher ground as far from the shoreline as possible. Every foot upward and inland counts. Do not attempt to observe the tsunami. If you can see the wave, you are too close to escape it.
  5. If you cannot escape the tsunami wave, climb onto a roof or tree, or grab onto a floating object and wait until help arrives. It may not seem like a hopeful situation, but some people have survived tsunami waves by using these last-resort methods.

Because earthquakes can happen almost anywhere, everyone should have at least some idea of how to respond if the ground begins to shake. Similarly, everyone who lives in a coastal area, particularly those who live or work at low elevations within a few miles from the ocean’s edge (waves from Friday’s tsunami swept some six miles inland before stopping) should be familiar with the five steps above. As the Red Cross says regarding tsunami preparation, “familiarity may save your life.”

Practicing earthquake and tsunami procedures on a regular basis makes the proper, life-saving response akin to a natural reflex, rather than an ordered list of steps that has to be quickly recalled while facing a life-threatening, chaotic situation. It may seem an unlikely danger, but when it strikes, you’ll be thankful you were prepared to handle it — your patient will be, too.

Has your air medical company ever practiced procedures or have any protocols in place regarding earthquake/tsunami response? Let us know in the comments below.

And again, please donate to the Red Cross Tsunami Disaster Relief Fund online or by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 at a time.

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  1. Salmonderby

    12 / 10 / 2011 10:59 pm

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