Earthquakes are some of the most disastrous natural disasters. Fortunately major earthquakes occur, even on a global scale, only a few times a year and hence short-term visitors are very unlikely to end up in one. Nevertheless, if you do end up in one, there is a serious risk to your life and health.
Earthquakes are much less predictable than weather, though major quakes are in general preceded by smaller quakes known as foreshocks. Minor earthquakes that are hardly noticeable can occur anywhere in the world, the truly disastrous ones generally only occur:
- in the area from Italy to southern China (roughly along the Silk road), also known as the Alpide belt
- along the Pacific rim (New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, Russian Far East and the west coast of the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego), also known as the Ring of Fire
- in the Caribbean
These areas are known as convergent tectonic boundaries. In these areas tectonic plates (that form the crust of the Earth) are pushed towards each other and when they get stuck, a pressure is built up. When they break free, the sudden release of this pressure is experienced as an earthquake.
In places where tectonic plates are moving away from each other (e.g. Iceland) you will encounter other phenomena also associated with tectonic boundaries, such as volcanoes, but rarely major earthquakes. Earthquakes can also be caused by man-made dams, mining and oil drilling.
Earthquakes are capable of destroying buildings and other infrastructure. During a major earthquake, expect windows to shatter, trees to fall and things to be thrown around. However, the danger isn’t over once the quake has ended. Buildings that have been damaged by the earthquake can suddenly collapse and severed gas pipes and power lines can cause fires. Landslides and soil liquefaction can make buildings and other infrastructure move, sink or collapse. In addition to all this, roads, water, electricity (and therefore communication) and other utility lines are often damaged, which makes communication and rescue operations harder.
If the earthquake’s epicenter is under the ocean, there is a tsunami risk. Tsunamis are giant waves that usually strike the coast minutes after the earthquake, depending on how far away from the coast the epicenter was. Tsunamis may travel as fast as a commercial jet and are often invisible before it’s too late, as they grow in height only as they hit the shallower waters near the coast. Moreover, tsunamis can travel very far – for instance the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was caused by an earthquake north of Sumatra but also wreaked havoc on the east coast of Africa several hours later.
There has long been a tsunami warning center for the Pacific Ocean and after the 2004 tsunami one was installed for the Indian Ocean as well. Although they are not perfect and false alarms do occur, their warnings should be heeded, as the worst that can happen in case of a false alarm is a ruined day, but a tsunami is capable of destroying your possessions and even killing you. Should you find yourself in the unlikely situation of a tsunami where there is no warning infrastructure, these are usually warning signs: strange behavior in animals (may or may not occur), water receding and exposing ocean-floor that is usually under water at all times (this is a dead giveaway that the tsunami is imminent and you have at best a couple of minutes to flee from this point on), notable shocks of an earthquake off or close to the coast, news about a tsunami in the same body of water you are at.
During a tsunami warning follow the escape routes and pay close attention to what the authorities are saying as they are usually (especially in countries with a Pacific coast line) well aware of the nature of a tsunami and have refined their emergency plans with earlier tsunamis. The most important thing during a tsunami is obviously to get to high ground. However, trees and even the roofs of houses are a sub-par alternative to mountains as the enormous force of the tsunami is more likely than not simply going to destroy the tree or even the house you are seeking shelter in (or on the top of).
In general, locals in earthquake-risk areas know how to act if and when shaking starts. Follow their advice and example. Depending on how developed the country is, the authorities may have a special geological department continuously monitoring the earth’s behavior and alert people of imminent earthquake risks.
At your place of stay, always keep your travel documents (tickets, passport etc.), money and important personal belongings so that you can easily grab them if you need to escape — though not as visible as to attract thieves. Also, you may want to survey some ways for getting out in case getting out the regular way isn't possible. If you stay at a hotel, have a look at the map of emergency exits on the inside of your room door. Emergency exits are usually designed to better evacuate a building in case of fire; however, they may also provide means of escaping a building you fear might collapse due to seismic damage. In the worst-case scenario, you may have to go out of the window and climb down along a downspout or even jump.
During an earthquake
The U.S. FEMA and the New Zealand Civil Defence give the advice “Drop, Cover and Hold” in the case of an earthquake. If you are indoors, stay there — get down on the floor on your knees and bow down, cover your head and neck and take cover under a table or some other furniture if possible and finally, hold on and don't let the shaking throw you around. If you are in bed, stay there and cover your head and neck with a pillow. Contrary to "popular wisdom" standing in a doorway is not safe.
If outdoors, move away from buildings, trees, power lines or anything that could fall on you. Here too, it’s important to get down as soon as possible, cover yourself and hold on. If driving, pull over as soon as possible and stay in your car until the earthquake is over.
Do not move during the quake! Standing up, walking and most of all running are things that you should avoid as you are likely to fall over and thereby injure yourself.
After the earthquake
After the shaking has ended it’s safe(r) to move again. Remember that earthquakes are often followed by smaller quakes called aftershocks that can occur minutes, hours or even days or months after the original quake. In the case of an aftershock, follow the same procedures as above.
If you are indoors, move out. In the worst case the building has been damaged and may collapse. Move carefully as the light may not be working and there may be broken glass and other debris and live wires around. Small fires should be extinguished if you can do so safely. If the worst has happened and you’ve been trapped inside a building, avoid lighting matches or kicking up or inhaling dust. Tap on walls or pipes so that rescue crews know that you’re there.
In the case you’re next to the coast, you should move inland immediately due to the aforementioned tsunami risk. Remember that tsunami waves in some cases have the power to move several kilometers/miles inland.
If you’re in a vehicle it’s safe to drive on once the quake has ended. However, you should avoid bridges and similar constructions — the earthquake may have damaged them and made them unstable. Also, the road may also be damaged. If you move around outside on foot, be aware of potholes on roads and the fact that buildings, bridges, street lights, trees and such may not be standing as firmly as before the quake.
If you are on a train, it may have automatically stopped once the sensors detected the earthquake. In that case, it's usually best to stay in the train and wait for instructions. If the train has derailed, you should get out and help others get out. Often windows can provide a further mode of escape after being smashed, pulled out or both, depending on the design of the train. Do look before you jump, as the drop from a train window can be substantial.
Help injured people if you can, or at least call for help. Avoid using the phone unless you have an emergency because the phone network will be under a tremendous load handling everyone’s emergency calls. If your phone has internet capability, disable that, as this will only cause more stress on the network. Yes, you may want to contact family and friends and tell them what's happened and in what condition you are, but do keep this in mind.
Follow the advice and warnings given by the authorities on radio, TV, the Internet and by rescue crews, police, and military on site. If you are not a local, it is probably best to try to get out of the affected area if you can. In the case of major disasters such as earthquakes, embassies often want to get in touch with "their" citizens traveling in the affected area to know if they're OK or not.