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In the event of an earthquake would I know what to do,

March 1, 2010

or have I become complacent?

It’s a sunny Monday afternoon, quiet except for the occasional car whooshing past and the soft melodic calls from the native tui birds. A freshly brewed coffee sits to my right while I’m busy thinking about what I will eat for dinner? Then the earth shakes. It starts with a jolt, next comes the shaking, then the rolling. It seems like its minutes but its only seconds. Do I drop to the floor and cover myself, or do I sit and wait for the tremor to pass? At what point do I take this earthquake seriously, when ornaments and books fall from shelves, or when glass implodes on me?  And, when I take action, what exactly should I do to protect myself?

It looks as though Gaia is struggling with her tectonics this year. Only the second month into 2010 and earthquake number two has struck, this time in Chile and at a powerful 8.8 — only weeks after a devastating one in Haiti. My heart goes out to the victims of both earthquakes, I’ve donated, discussed, and stayed in careful contact with the news monitoring the destructive aftermath in both nations.

I’ve also, subconsciously, felt fortunate for being on stable ground but the reality is far from different. I’m not on stable ground since New Zealand is prone to earthquakes. This country has in its genetic makeup a  number of active faults running throughout the land. Wellington alone has four, the South Island has a major fault underneath the Southern Alps range — a fault that hasn’t done much for decades, but is expected to sometime.

Faultlines aside, my problem has little to do with the quake because it is something I can’t control. In the past I’ve slept through earthquakes certain that the ground will stop moving within a few seconds. Even though I’ve lived my life around shakes and tremors, my problem is complacency.

As New Zealanders flocked to coastal regions on Sunday to watch the tsunami waves roll in, I realised that as a nation, New Zealanders have become complacent about earthquakes (consider that the country has 10,000 -15,000 a year). Even schools don’t practice earthquake drills as often as they practice fire drills.

Rolling over a new leaf

I’ve never been someone who opts for hiding my head in the sand. I’ve made a point about staying safe on foreign streets but never done anything about earthquake proofing my psyche. It’s time to change.

There are numerous sites and videos with helpful  tips on what to do and how to keep yourself and others around you safe. I’ve found some good tips for travellers particularly those who have never experienced earthquakes.

Before an earthquake — this is important for all forms of disasters:

If you know you are visiting a country prone to earthquakes, you can take control of your environment. Beginning with your accomodation:

  • Check emergency exits and stairwells on the floor you are staying for clear access. Note these locations and distances so that you can find them in the dark.
  • Read the emergency plan on the back of your room’s front door and get to know where the assembly points are.
  • Look at the furniture in your room and check for sturdiness. Which one would you run for overhead cover should you need to?
  • Check the bedside table for a torch and test it. If it doesn’t work  get it replaced.
  • Scan the layout of the room — doors, mirrors, windows, ceiling lights, other things that could fall on you. These are objects you want to move away from during an earthquake.
  • Long term visitors and expats should register with their embassy. This takes five minutes and can be done online.

During  an earthquake– drop, cover, hold


  • Find cover under a table, desk, or sturdy chair away from windows, mirrors and ceiling lights. Interior walls are the safest. Wait until the shaking stops.
  • Stand under a doorway? I was always told this is the best option but most doorways have doors that will swing during an earthquake.
  • If there is no furniture to cover you, go  to an interior wall, drop down low, cover your head and hold on until the shaking stops.
  • If you are sleeping stay in the bed, cover your face with a pillow. Don’t get out of the bed; you could end up walking on broken glass.
  • Don’t – go outside, walk around during the quake, light a cigarette or use the elevator (lift).


  • Move to a clear space away from wires, windows, anything that can become flying debris.
  • Drop to the ground and cover your head. Wait till the shaking stops before moving on to a safe place.

Mountains and outdoor areas

  • Stop and take cover away from cliffs, edges or banks.
  • Watch out for avalanches, rock falls and slips that can occur during and after the earthquake.

Subway, train, car, public stadiums– drop, cover, hold

I found these areas have a similar message: drop down to ground, cover your head, and hold on to something if you can.

If you are in a car

  • Pull over to the side and put the car in park. Make sure you are in an open space away from signs, wires.
  • Don’t park under a bridge or underpass.

After an earthquake

  • Prepare for aftershocks, these will continue well past the original earthquake.
  • Check the safety of your surroundings and move to an assembly point at the direction of the building safety co-ordinators or civil defence officers.
  • Use the stairs not the elevators.
  • Beware of gas leaks – don’t light up!
  • Tsunamis or tidal surges are likely around coastal regions. Head to high ground immediately.
  • Stay safe and be aware – crime and looting rises after these disasters. If you are travelling through a developing country be aware of the potential for civil and political unrests.

Via Christchurch City Libraries

Have I covered the important points? If not add your tips  in the comments.

Caffeinated Traveller

  1. March 2, 2010 1:31 pm

    Very sound advice.

    I’m not sure how concious one might be about the DOs and DONTs in the middle of a severe earthquake unless drilled mentally beforehand. All the more reason to read your inputs time and again until it’s settled in the subconcious.

    I’ve been through several rumbles. The worst is being caught up in a highrise. Closer to the ground the better. It might be good after all to actually head to an open space, and sleep out if more aftershocks are predicted.

  2. March 2, 2010 8:37 pm

    Anil -I think it’s a matter of how calm you can stay while the walls are shaking and crumbling around you. Often people go into “flight” mode and this is where a lot of the injuries occur. For example – stay in bed instead of getting out because it’s dark, you have no footwear on and there is every chance of broken glass and other objects lying on the floor. Run out into the streets and you are not protected from falling glass or electrical wires, lamp posts, traffic lights etc.

    It is something I don’t know how I would react until it happened, but I would hope that I have the capacity to stay calm.

    I agree with your point about sleeping in an open space, this seems a good idea.


  3. March 3, 2010 6:36 am

    I’ve never been in an earthquake despite living in earthquake zones for a good part of my life in Turkey. I can’t even begin to imagine what the shaking of the ground that results feels like; must really be quite jolting mentally. I’ve always been curious about it but my dad who has been through some severe quakes has told me once you feel one earthquake you never want to go through it again.

  4. March 4, 2010 3:53 pm

    Anil – your father’s advice rings true. That shaking feeling can only be described as scary. Something you know you can’t run away from like you can with other types of disasters. In NZ’s Te Papa museum there is an earthquake house. The house is designed to replicate an earthquake 6 on the richter I think. You walk into the living room and wait for the shake, it gives you some idea on how things are in an earthquake.

  5. March 5, 2010 10:27 am

    Chicago also had a small earthquake last month, it was the second one that I’ve experienced here. This is such a good list of tips because I’ve never considered what I’d do in an earthquake either. I vaguely knew about getting away from windows and hiding under furniture but this is a really in-depth list.

  6. March 7, 2010 12:26 am

    Hi Rosalind!

    I didn’t hear about the one in Chicago, actually I was unaware the city experienced any.

    I thought an easy to understand list would help inform people about what to do during an earthquake.

    Lets hope none of use ever go through one.
    Thanks for your comment!

  7. March 8, 2010 9:57 am

    Agree with Anil, very sound advice. The closest I’ve ever come to experience that kind of shaking, when pictures fall from the walls, was during an intense thunderstorm last year – far from a real earthquake though. I feel fortunate that I’ve never had to experience one and I hope it stays that way.

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