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How To Survive a Tsunami

We’ll discuss one of the worst situations imaginable:

How To Survive a Tsunami

Tsunamis are among the worst, most destructive forces on the planet. The ocean just opens up and swallows everything in its path. Water is an incredible thing, the giver and taker of life. One foot of moving water can knock you off your feet, so a moving wall of water can level a city. There have been two large scale tsunamis recently that have taught us a great deal, but unfortunately at a great human cost, the loss of lives was overwhelming.

Recent Tsunamis

The two tsunamis we’ve learned the most from were the Kamaishi, Japan tsunami on March 11, 2011 and the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean Tsunami.  Both of these incidents were massively destructive and claimed thousands of lives.

There’s No Guarantee

I will talk about how to survive a tsunami in this article, but unfortunately there is no sure way to guarantee you’ll survive. And that goes for any kind of disaster. You increase your chances of survival by learning and reading articles like this one, but there is no method that you can learn to absolutely survive any situation. No one can tell you to do xyz and you’ll undoubtedly come out alive. I wish there was some magic skill I could teach that would ensure your survival, but that’s not the way it works.  I would suggest continual reading and learning and teaching your family, that is the safest and best way to ensure your survival, or dramatically increase your chances anyway.

One theme I’ve always spoken about and one that is abundantly obvious in several of the photos and videos of the 2004 Indonesia tsunami is quickly getting your head around what’s happening and acting accordingly.

No matter how strange things look to you, no matter how out of the ordinary things seem, no matter how unbelievable things look, you have to accept what’s happening, turn your ass around and run as fast as your legs can carry you. If you don’t act quickly during a tsunami, and I mean the second you see it’s happening, you will die. There is no easy way to say it.

Remember those videos of those poor people down at the beach and in the water?  They were all just standing there looking at the ocean’s Tsunami Picstrange behavior. They didn’t understand what they were seeing or what was happening, and their inaction cost them their lives. Maybe it’s because there hasn’t been a tsunami in such a long time, and the last major tsunami was before video cameras and Hi-Def video, so our collective memory has no recent record of what it means when the ocean recedes for several hundred feet and you can see the ocean floor. But now we know.

My grandfather was on a mountain in Hawaii when a tsunami hit back in the 50’s. He told me how strange it was that you could see the ocean floor for what looked like miles. I always remembered that. And when the Indonesia tsunami hit, I of course remembered my grandfather’s story and wish these people had heard his account of what happened to him all those years ago. I think it would have saved their lives.

So anyway, here we are. The sad cases of two major tsunamis claiming thousands of lives. But we are the wiser for it too.

What You’ll See or Hear

TsunamiSo if you hear a tsunami warning or even worse, you see the ocean receding, pick up your kids, your husband, your wife, your grandma or grandpa, drop everything you have and run your ass off. I don’t care if you just robbed an armor truck and you have ten million dollars in your hands, and you’re going to get away with it, or if you just found a backpack full of gold and this is the answers to your prayers, drop everything and run for high ground.

So now we know if you see the ocean recede and/or hear a tsunami warning it’s a sure bet there is bad news headed your way and you probably only have a matter of seconds, a minute maybe, to save yourself and your family. So once you see these signs run for high ground. Other signs, for those close to the beach, but not at the beach is falling trees, phone poles, signs and houses and buildings.

From the video footage and the reenactments of the movies made afterwords, you could see a wall of collapsing trees and buildings coming towards people. Of course they were stunned and didn’t know what to do because they didn’t know what was happening, so they got swiped up by the ocean and most of them died.

But that is a clear sign. A very strange sight for sure, but a sign that you need to start getting to higher ground now. Once the wave hits land, you only have seconds. The water moves so fast that if you didn’t act earlier you are now in a fight for you life.

Situational Awareness Side Note:

This is just a side note, but an important one that I’ve discussed in other articles about situational awareness. I know it’s popular to do so, butTsunami Photo walking around with headphones on listening to loud music is a horrible idea, for a number of reasons. And what we’re talking about here is a great, but deadly example.

If you’re walking around with headphones in your ears listening to music, you’re not paying attention to your surroundings, because listening is part of paying attention. Often times you can avoid all sorts of dangers simply by hearing it coming. If you talk to motorcycle riders they’ll tell you that the louder your motorcycle is the better it is for you, because other drivers can hear you coming. Many people have been in accidents and/or killed on motorcycles because the car that hit them didn’t see or hear them coming, and that was it.

You can even avoid fights and confrontations if you hear someone making a ruckus. You can at least make the decision to engage that person or turn around and leave, because you heard it before you encountered it. There are hundreds of examples like this.

Sometimes you can even avoid getting mugged if the bad guy accidentally makes a noise while he’s creeping around the corner waiting for his next victim, you.  So use your senses, and hearing is a huge sense you should not block out when you’re in public. If you want to crank up the Rock N Roll, Opera or Rap at home, fine, but don’t do it when you’re out and about.  Literally, headphones can cause your death!

Other Strange Signs:

Another huge and strange sign is that the animals start behaving strangely. The birds all start flying, cats and dogs, rats and just about everything else can feel the danger and they start running. So when you see birds all take off at once and/or other animals acting weird it’s your cue to follow their lead and run to high ground.

Where you should go:

After a TsunamiSo, where should you go? Anywhere but where you are. Again from the video footage we’ve seen, most places above the first floor provided protection from the wave. Of course it’s better to get higher if you can, but at least get to the second floor, it should provide you enough time to get higher. Also, some of the trees at the beach were still standing after it was all over, so if nothing else, and you don’t have another other options, throw your kids and yourself up a tree and hold on for dear life.


You’re in the water, now what?

So what happens if nothing I just mentioned worked and you’ve found yourself in the water? Now like I said earlier, you’re in a fight for your life. This is not to say that there’s no chance, there’s always a chance, but your odds of survival are now very small. But always remember, there is always hope. Never give up. So, that said, let’s try to increase your odds a bit more.

Panic Stricken

Even though there’s plenty of reason to panic, don’t, or try not to. If you freak out and start screaming, yelling and crying and stiffening up your body you’ve just increased your odds of not surviving this experience. What you need now is a cool head and to pay attention. Even if you get hurt. You are going to try to save your own life until there’s no life left in you. You continue to fight until the end.

If you do manage to keep a cool head and you’re trying to grab something or signal for help, your best bet is to go with the flow, paying attention and try to grab anything you can hold onto. Because if you’re panicked you won’t have the sense to grab something or climb up something to save your own life. Panicked people tend to die quicker than others and they tend to kill others in the process. I know its difficult to talk about, but it’s true. So at this point, even though you are facing death, your best chance of survival now is to not panic even though you’re going to want to. This is a very scary situation.

At this point it doesn’t matter if you’re a good swimmer or if you’re a bad swimmer, the undertow and current is so strong and there’s so muchTsunami debris that only a cool head and some luck will save you.

What to do with your body:

While you’re floating along, try to keep your body as small as possible to avoid injury from underwater debris. You’re going to need to try to keep your head above water by treading water, but if you can manage it, keep your legs tucked in as much as you can to avoid injuring yourself from underwater debris.

I know this is a lot to think about, especially when you’re in the situation, but you’ll also want to protect your face and head. This is going to be incredibly fast paced, you’ll be jerked and pulled and wiped around so it’s going to be confusing and scary, but again, you’re going to try your best to keep as calm as possible in order to survive.

During all this fast paced confusion you’re going to have to keep your eyes out for something to grab ahold of or to climb up on. So while you’re trying to keep your body as safe as possible and while you’re being swiped down stream, try to grab a tree or climb up on a house or building.

There is often no good outcome in these situations so the best you can do is to survive, with as few injuries as possible. There will be pain and death all around you but you’ll need to focus on saving yourself.

There are all sorts of survival stories people recount from the most horrific disasters, so it is possible to survive any major natural disaster, even a tsunami. Most of it depends on blind luck, but by reading articles like this one, it does increase your odds of survival, by using your head, keeping as calm as possible and doing everything you can to survive in such a seemingly impossible situation.

What about kids and family?

This is the difficult section. Kids. If you have kids with you it makes this situation that much worse. You’ll want to hold onto them and keep their heads above water, and I recommend doing exactly that if you can. Try to get them up on something as quickly as possible. Keeping their heads above water may push you underwater, so you’re going to have to fight for your life and your child’s life at this point.

No matter how tired or exhausted you become you have to keep fighting and treading water to keep yourself and your child alive. Do everything you can to grab something and/or let your child climb up on something, even if it means giving up your life for theirs. Again, I know this is the worst possible situation a parent can imagine, and I know, I am a parent, but sometimes this is what it comes down to, giving our lives for theirs. As a parent, I can say this is a fair trade.


After a TsunamiSo the overall point is that this is incredibly dangerous, and make no mistake, this is life threatening. If you are ever caught in a tsunami you are in a fight for your life, and if you have your family with you, you are also in a fight for their lives as well. You are going to need to stay calm and use your head, this also helps you conserve energy, because you’re going to tire quickly.

I have been in very dangerous situations with fast moving water, in the ocean, and I’m telling you, no matter how good of shape you’re in, the ocean is stronger, and we wear out quickly. So conserve your energy, use your head and climb on something quickly, and if you have kids with you, get them up on something quickly as well.

The odds are that you and your family will be separated, and when that happens your going to go through hell, but you have to survive no matter what. So the best thing you can do at this point is to keep in mind everything I just discussed, and survive. After it’s over you’re going to want to go searching for them, which you cannot do if your seriously injured and you’re no help to them if you’re dead.  So stay as safe as possible and keep yourself alive. Your family needs and depends on you.


Further Reading:

Here is an older, but great reference to further learn about how to survive a Tsunami.


And another reference from Ready.gov:


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