To Survive an Earthquake Choose the Table, Not the Doorway

Jennifer Nalewicki

How to prepare for, protect yourself during, and survive after a temblor.

Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, earthquakes often arrive without warning, leaving people no time to evacuate before disaster strikes. According to the World Health Organization, earthquakes are the most lethal of all natural disasters, and from 1998 to 2017 they accounted for nearly 750,000 deaths worldwide—or more than half of all natural disaster-related deaths combined. 

Earthquakes also tend to create a lot of orthopedic injuries among survivors—no surprise given the amount of falling and moving debris in an earthquake. That was true in Haiti this past August, when the country was hit by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake.

“Everything we saw was orthopedic injuries, fractures, dislocations of bones and joints,” said Dr. Eric Hill, an emergency medicine physician from the Denver area who served with Team Rubicon at the Hospital of Immaculate Conception in Les Cayes, Haiti in the first days after the earthquake. “There was a large number of open wound infections.” Hill three days after the earthquake the team was also seeing a lot of untreated open fractures.

Dr. Eric Hill and a colleague evaluate an X-Ray in Les Cayes, Haiti, after the August 2021 earthquake.

While earthquakes may be hard to predict and avoid, there are precautions you can take to protect yourself, your family, and your home before, during, and after an earthquake.

Prepare to Survive Before an Earthquake Strikes

Devise an emergency plan with your family that includes a meeting point of where to go after an earthquake. Don’t leave heavy objects on shelves that could fall during impact. Also, anchor furniture, cabinetry, and other heavy objects to the floor and walls.

How to Stay Safe During an Earthquake

Practice “drop, cover, and hold on.” When an earthquake hits, drop onto your hands and knees, seek shelter under a sturdy table, and hold onto your shelter until the shaking subsides. If you don’t have a shelter nearby, use your hands to protect your head and neck from falling debris while staying in a crouched position to protect your vital organs.

What not to do? Run outside or stand in a doorway. Because facades, windows and architectural accents are often the first parts of a building to collapse in an earthquake, being near exterior walls can be incredibly dangerous. And, in modern buildings doorways are no more structurally strong than walls or any other part of the building. 

Avoiding Disaster After an Earthquake

Examine yourself and others for injuries and provide first aid if needed. To prevent a disaster after a disaster, wear protective footwear such as sturdy boots to prevent injury from broken glass or other debris. Check utilities such as gas and electricity for any damage. If damage is found, switch off the valves to prevent possible fires or inhalation.

After the earthquake in Haiti in 2021.
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