What is the safest place during an earthquake?

We’ve peered into the terror of the most dangerous places to be during a major earthquake, but for most of us who live in earthquake country, the opposite question is much more relevant.

“Where is the safest place to be during a major earthquake?”

If you’re a Kiwi over a certain age, you’re familiar with the old advice to “stand in a doorway” during an earthquake. It turns out it’s bad advice, at least in our modern era. The conceit apparently grew from a 19th century photo of an unreinforced home with only the doorway standing.

Should you stand in the doorway?

Back in the early days, some homes in New Zealand and certainly around the world were built with unreinforced structures. That’s not true anymore, and in most buildings, the doorway is no sturdier than any other part of the house. Buildings are much less likely to completely collapse, even in developing countries, and the much bigger risk of injury is from broken glass, and flying or falling objects. In addition to possibly getting hit with objects while in a doorway, there’s also the very real possibility of being struck by a slamming or falling door.

That’s why official earthquake safety experts in New Zealand and around the world recommend the Drop, Cover, and Hold method of protection during an earthquake. Its simplicity is the one reason for its effectiveness.

Drop, cover, and hold in an earthquake

First, DROP to your hands and knees. Getting down low prevents you from being knocked down, helps you crawl to safety as needed, and protects vital organs.

Next, COVER yourself with the sturdiest object available. If available, the safest place is under a strong table or desk. If no sturdy object is available, get next to an interior wall with no windows.

Finally, HOLD on to your shelter if you have one, as the temblor will likely involve great shaking. If you have no shelter, protect your head by covering your neck and head with both arms and hands.

If you try to move during a major earthquake, it is very likely that you will be knocked to the ground, putting you at much greater risk of injury (another important reason not to run to a doorway).

If you are at home, in a high-rise building, or inside a crowded place, the advice is still the same: Drop, Cover, and Hold.

The only exception to the “Drop, Cover, and Hold” rule is if you find yourself in a building with un-engineered construction. Given building standards this is unlikely in New Zealand. However, if you find yourself in this situation then you should try to move quickly outside to an open space.

Safest Place to be outside

If you are outside during a major earthquake, quickly get to open space—move away from any large buildings, structures, trees, and vehicles. Despite movie portrayals of giant holes in the ground opening up during big earthquakes, it simply doesn’t happen. When in a tsunami zone during a large earthquake (often defined as 20 seconds of strong shaking), especially a beach or harbour, move to higher ground as soon as the shaking stops. Remember if an earthquake is LONG or STRONG, GET GONE.

Don’t bother waiting for a tsunami siren as these are not widely used in New Zealand. Simple reason is that a tsunami could hit within 10 minutes, well before any siren is activated so be proactive.

In a moving vehicle

If you are in a moving vehicle during a major earthquake, slowly head to the shoulder or curb and choose a spot to park that is away from utility poles, overhead wires, and under/overpasses. Set the parking brake and remain in the vehicle. Turn on the radio for emergency broadcasts. When the earthquake stops and you resume driving, watch out for hazards on the road created by the earthquake.

In a large venue

If you are in a large venue such as a stadium or theatre remain in your seat and cover your head. Once the shaking is over, carefully walk out following emergency routes and watching out for debris or anything else that could have fallen during the earthquake.

It might seem anticlimactic to realise that the safest place to be during a major earthquake is wherever you happen to be when the shaking starts. On the other hand, it testifies to the power of preparedness.