How to Survive an Earthquake: At Home, in Your Car, or Anywhere

Earthquake Survival Tips

In October of 1989, during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in California, I was at home with my brothers and sisters being cared for by an elderly babysitter. My father was across town walking down the isles of the local Costco warehouse and my mother was driving home from work. Candlestick Park in San Francisco was filled to the brim with spectators watching a world series major league baseball game.

That is when a devastating 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck and caused freeway overpasses to collapse, landslides to block roadways, buildings to collapse, and 57 people tragically lost their lives. Power and water were out for many residents for days.

If you are like me and have ever lived in an earthquake-prone area, you know that an earthquake can strike at any time. Having the proper knowledge of how to survive an earthquake can save you and your family from potential disaster.

What to Do When an Earthquake Hits

An earthquake can create heavy property damage, topple buildings, and serious destruction. That is why you must know what to do in the first few minutes of the disaster; to save you and your family from possible harm.

The most important piece of advice I can give you is to stay as calm as possible. Also, by knowing what to do in these types of emergencies, you will reduce the amount of panic that sets in right when it happens. When you don’t panic, you can think and act clearly, improving your chances of surviving the earthquake.

Before I get started, there is one more important tip to remember: No matter where you are when an earthquake hits, you must not try to change venues. If you are inside, stay inside. If you are outside, stay outside. You only have a few minutes to act and trying to change your environment will do nothing but add possible risk.

Earthquake survival at its most challenging.
A large section of a building collapses after a significant earthquake.

If You Are Inside

If you’re inside when an earthquake hits, do not try to escape the building. Not only is it unlikely you will safely reach the outside, but the risk for structural problems adds risk to your movement. In fact, the exterior of a building is one of the most dangerous places to be located when objects are falling. Do not use elevators or stairwells. Also, remember to stay away from exterior windows whenever possible.

Follow these simple guidelines to increase your chances of survival when an Earthquake hits:

  • Try to stay toward the interior of the building: You and your family immediately toward an interior wall.
  • “Drop, cover, and hold on”: You should “drop” low to the ground and position yourself under a sturdy table or desk to protect yourself from falling objects. When you take “cover,” remember to do so away from exterior walls and windows. You should also use your hands to cover the top of your head. Once you are in position, do not move from that spot. “Hold on” to something near you, like the leg of a desk, for support, and wait for the earthquake to end.
  • If there isn’t anything to hide under:  Be sure to position yourself in the corner of an interior wall, while tucking in your body and using your arms and hands to protect your head.
  • If you are in bed, stay there: Do not try to move through the house. Stay where you are and use a pillow to cover your head.

If You Are Outside

Do not ever go immediately back inside if an earthquake occurs when you’re outdoors. A building may not be structurally sound and you would be safer finding shelter close by. You should immediately move away from any trees, signs, cars, buildings, or power lines that could come down.

Move to a clear area if it is possible. Hunker down and protect yourself with your hands and arms until the shaking has stopped. After it has stopped, be careful when moving around to avoid damaged or falling power lines, trees, or other tall structures.

If you want to survive an earthquake, be cautious even after the shaking stops.
Roads can buckle, collapse, or lift up during an earthquake. Pull over and park until it is safe to move again, and do so with utmost caution.

If You Are Driving

If you’re driving when an earthquake hits, pull over to the side of the road as quickly as possible. Set your parking brake and try to park in a clear location.

Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, large trees, and any other large structure. The exterior of your car offers some protection from danger, so stay inside the vehicle until the earthquake has ceased. When you get back on the road, however, be sure to look out for road hazards.

If You Are in a Public Place

The first thing to remember if you’re in a public place is to never panic. Never run for the door or exits, which can create panic and chaos. Stay where you are, stay as low as you can, and try to find cover under a table or other sturdy structure. Cover your head and watch out for falling objects.

what to do when an earthquake hits
Heavy damage to a building caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in California.

What NEVER to Do

  • Do not stay near kitchens or other areas of the house (or public place) that could be more dangerous. You want to stay clear of all appliances, fireplaces, furnaces, and other possibly-hazardous objects. Be aware of broken gas lines to these appliances that may now be leaking explosive natural gas.
  • Do not use landline phones or other electronics until you have been cleared to do so. Once you are sure the power and gas to your house has not been damaged, you can use them again.
  • Do not stand in doorways. Many people think that it is a safe place to be because it is away from things that could fall on you, but it could become a source of weakness in a structure and collapse on top of you.
  • Do not mess with power lines. Downed power lines can be extremely dangerous, so never go near them. You definitely should never try to move them yourself either. If you’re driving when the earthquake occurs and power lines have fallen on your car, call for help and do not try to move away from them yourself.
  • Do not use matches, candles, or flame of any sort until your house or the building has been cleared. If there is a gas leak or other problem, an open flame is the last thing you need. Instead, use flashlights or LED candles.

What About After the Earthquake Stops?

Even if the tremors have ceased, stay-put for at least 10 minutes; if it is safe to do so. Aftershocks can take a minute or two to begin and can sometimes be more destructive than the earthquake itself. Aftershocks have been known to cause significant damage and injury, so never move too hastily.

Once you are sure the earthquake is over and any possible aftershocks have ceased, you can slowly move from your position while paying attention to any surrounding hazards. If you’re in your home, safely turn off all power at the control box, as well as your gas valve. Check for fire and other possible hazards.

You should then use a radio (recommended) or phone to listen for emergency information, possible hazards, and further instructions. The community will issue emergency broadcasts and outline any serious damage sustained in the area as well as instructions for your safety. Check yourself and others for injuries and follow emergency instructions.

Video: 10 Ways to Survive an Earthquake, According to Experts


It can be extremely difficult to know what to do during an emergency but staying calm and remembering these tips on how to survive an earthquake can save your life. An earthquake can happen at a moment’s notice but taking the right steps in the first few seconds can avoid unnecessary injury and damage. While there is not much you can do to prevent natural disasters, there is plenty you can do in reaction to them to improve your situation.

As for my family, my father stayed out of harm’s way despite the tall shelves of heavy pallets swaying above his head in the isles of Costco. My mother made it home soon after, despite a few detours due to road damage, and the spectators at the world series baseball game got a better show than they expected.

My elderly babysitter took all three of us kids and had us stand outside the house, underneath the tall balcony of our house. Just about the worse place for us to be. Luckily the balcony didn’t collapse, and I survived to share these earthquake survival tips with my loyal readers.

Have you been through an earthquake? What are your favorite tips for safety for when an earthquake hits? Share those in the comments below!

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

Recent Posts