Updated 05 August 2014

Earthquake: how to survive

Would you know what to do if an earthquake struck? Many injuries and deaths from this kind of natural disaster could be prevented if people follow some basic guidelines.


Earthquakes can strike without warning. But many injuries and deaths from this kind of natural disaster can be prevented if people follow these basic guidelines:

What to do during the quake

If you’re inside a building:

Stay there! One of the most dangerous things to do in an earthquake is to try to leave a building: fatalities often occur directly outside buildings when exterior walls collapse on people trying to exit.

Getting under a sturdy table (or similar piece of furniture) is a good way to protect yourself if you’re inside. Standing in a loadbearing doorway is a good idea too – but only if you know for sure that it’s loadbearing. Failing this, crouch in a corner formed by two interior walls with your arms over your head, preferably away from windows and any objects that might fall, such as light fittings, furniture, heavy pictures and other ornaments.

If you're in bed when the quake hits, stay there and cover your head with a pillow. If you're under a heavy light fitting or other object, however, move quickly to the nearest safe place (that may be under the bed).

If you’re outside:

Get into an open space, as far away from buildings as possible. Avoid anything else that could fall, like trees, street lights and overhead electricity cables. Ground movement seldom causes injury directly; most injuries and deaths result from collapsing walls, falling objects and windows shattering.

If you’re in a moving vehicle:

Stop as quickly as possible, away from overpasses, buildings, bridges or anything else that might fall or collapse beneath you. Stay inside the vehicle.

For all the above scenarios, stay where you are until the shaking has stopped.

What to do after the quake

If you find yourself trapped in rubble, it’s often helpful to cover your nose and mouth with cloth, for example a section of clothing, and use that as a dust filter to breathe through.

Trying to move (unless there’s an obvious way clear) may bring down more debris on top of you.

A working cell phone will allow you to call for help; remember to conserve the battery*. Shouting can cause you to inhale dust, and should be used only as a last resort to let rescuers know where you are; tapping on a pipe or wall, or blowing a whistle if you have one is a better method.

Don't light a match - there may be flammable substances in the air.

If you have a working radio or TV, listen for broadcasts that will inform you about the aftermath of the disaster and advise you on the safest course of action. It’s an excellent idea to carry a small battery-operated radio if you live in or are visiting an earthquake-prone area.

Be prepared for aftershocks: these are smaller tremors that follow the main quake, and can sometimes bring down weakened structures. Aftershocks can occur in the first hours after the quake, but sometimes even happen months later. Some earthquakes are actually foreshocks, so be aware of the possibility that a larger earthquake might still occur.

Therefore, if you are not in a secure position after the first shock, you should move quickly but carefully to a safer place.

Stay away from damaged buildings, which may be unstable and potentially pose other dangers from leaking gas mains and electrical shortages.

Don't re-enter your place of residence until the local authorities have advised that it's safe to do so.

If you’re in a vehicle, proceed with caution. Avoid bridges and highway overpasses that might have been damaged and weakened by the quake, and look out for cracks and debris in the road.

*Using cellphones in a disaster scenario: soon after such an event, the cellphone networks are likely to get swamped. So the sooner you make your emergency call the better. But if possible, send a text message: it has a better chance of getting through. Your message should state that you are trapped, your location (city, street address and floor of the building you were on), and whether you are injured. Send this to everyone in your address book to have a higher chance of someone responding. To conserve your phone' s battery, set it on battery saving mode, or even switch it off for an hour at a time, just switching it back on to check for messages.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Expert, Health24


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