Earthquakes are frightening and deadly enough as is. Knowing what to do to be safe will enhance your chances of survival.

Earthquakes are some of the most deadly natural disasters there are, and often can occur without forewarning to the average person. Advanced seismological equipment may be able to detect the movements of plate tectonics in the Earth’s crust and predict where fault lines are, but most people don’t have access to this equipment. For now, you can’t predict an earthquake.

If you’re unfortunate enough to experience an earthquake, you need to know what to do during an earthquake to survive, because some of what you’ve heard may be counterproductive.

What is an Earthquake?

The crust of the Earth is broken up into sections called tectonic plates. They are carried around on a bed of molten magma throughout millions of years. Normally, friction keeps them relatively in place, so we don’t experience the movement. The places where these plates meet are called fault lines and are where most earthquakes start.

The best comparison is snapping your fingers. The sudden movement when the sideways motion overcomes the friction of pressure is what produces the snap.

That’s right: you don’t have to be on a fault line to be affected by an earthquake.

Some areas are more prone to earthquakes than others: in places where friction builds up, severe earthquakes occur when the tension is finally released through shockwaves in the crust. The San Andreas fault in California is one of the most well-known fault lines and the source of a severe earthquake.

Scientists are attempting to find methods of predicting when and where the next quake will be.

Recognizing an Earthquake

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As the name says, an earthquake happens when the ground begins shaking  The stronger the shaking, the longer the earthquake will potentially last in the form of aftershocks. Aftershocks are like ripples in a pond that occur when you drop something in it. The main shock of an earthquake is the up-and-down motion that happens deep within a fault.

If you feel the ground moving underneath you and hear rumbling, an earthquake is happening.

What to Do During An Earthquake: Where to Go

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The first thing you need to do is immediately take shelter. Where you do this depends on where you are.


If you’re outdoors, you need to stay outdoors. Do not go near buildings because they can crumble and bury you under the debris. Also, stay away from power lines, gas mains, or other potential sources of falling damage. If you’re in a car, stay there. Pull over to the side of the road safely, duck, and cover your head with your arms.

In your car, the best thing to do is stay there and keep your radio on for further instructions. Turn to your local news station. It might be on the AM band rather than FM; AM has a wider range, so you may need to switch from FM to AM on your radio.

If a power line falls on your car from being snapped, don’t get out. Stay where you are because you should treat every wire as potentially live. Power wires can carry lethal levels of voltage and current and touching one would most certainly kill you. Therefore, you should await professionals.

Roll your window down a little to allow air if you’re trapped in your care for a long time. If conditions are dusty, be careful about doing this. Cover your nose or mouth with a handkerchief or cloth to avoid breathing in dust particles. This goes for being indoors as well.

If you’re on foot, similarly, drop to your hands and knees to lower your center of gravity. Doing this helps stabilize you and keep you fem falling. Hold on to something sturdy until the shaking stops, then move to safety. Help others if necessary and if you have the training to do so.

Water Safety

If you happen to be on the water whether it’s a lake or the ocean when an earthquake occurs, get to land immediately. It could herald an oncoming tsunami. Once you get to solid ground, move to at least 100 feet above sea level and 3 kilometers from the shoreline to offset the dangers of being swept away by flood waters.


If you’re buried under debris and awaiting rescue, the first thing you need to do is look for a wall or exposed pipe. Strike it to let rescuers know you’re trapped and need help. Avoid shouting; shouting makes you likely to inhale dust, and you don’t want dust to get in your lungs. This is how people end up suffocating.

Aside from hitting a wall or pipe, avoid exerting yourself. Too much exercise uses oxygen, and if you’re trapped, you don’t know how long your oxygen will last. You’ll need to save it to survive as long as possible.

Upper Floors

If you happen to be in a high-rise building, although you might be tempted, don’t rush for the ground floors. Instead, stay where you are. Especially avoid using the elevators. Cables can easily snap during an earthquake and send you plummeting to your death. Also, be aware that the sprinkler or fire extinguisher system may turn on. Stay away from the windows.


If you’re in a crowded place when a quake happens, don’t panic and rush for the exits. This is how people end up getting trampled to death. Try to keep away from free-standing display shelves because these can topple. Drop to the floor and cover your head and neck.

Overall, the theme is to keep your cool, stay calm, and maintain your position until rescuers can come for you if necessary. If you can make it out on your own afterward, do so if it’s safe.


Just because the main part of the earthquake is done doesn’t mean you’re safe. The main shock of an earthquake is a vertical motion that causes ripples to radiate from it in the form of a side-to-side shaking. You’ll likely feel both types. Don’t assume that just because the main shock is over, you’re safe. Aftershocks can be just as powerful. Keep to safe places.

If you feel an aftershock, take the same precautions you would otherwise.


Although you can’t predict an earthquake, you can be ready when one does happen. Have an evacuation plan for your family, including a meeting point if you get separated. Here are a few supplies to keep on hand:

  • Three days of food and water
  • Flashlights
  • Batteries
  • Portable radio
  • First aid kit
  • Face masks

Go over this kit regularly with your family, ensure that everyone knows how to use all the components, and above all stay calm. Fear is a natural and healthy reaction to a natural disaster, but succumbing to panic is only going to get you or someone else hurt or killed. Learning beforehand what to do during an earthquake can better prepare you.

Other Preparations

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Keep your car’s gas tank filled up. During and after an earthquake, gas stations may not be working and if you need to get somewhere in a hurry, you need a full tank of gas. It might also be a good idea to fill up some portable gas cans for electrical generators if you have any.

Final Thoughts

Although we can’t accurately predict when an earthquake will happen, that doesn’t mean you have to be subject to the whims of nature. Knowing what to do during this event can potentially save your life. As with any natural disaster, the most important thing you can do is to stay calm and have a plan for what to do during an earthquake when necessary.

If you need further help, look for local disaster-preparedness resources for information specific to your area.