Natural disasters can most certainly be scary, but I would argue that a tsunami is one of the scariest.
A wave 10- to 100-feet high full of sharp debris slamming down on you is a nightmarish experience.
However, like with most other natural disasters, there are things you can do to improve your chances of making it out of the situation alive.
This is how to survive a tsunami.
What You Need To Know About Tsunamis
There are a few basics of a tsunami that you need to understand if you want to make informed decisions.
Why Do Tsunamis Happen?
For starters, they have several causes.
Earthquakes, underwater landslides, asteroids, and volcanoes erupting are all very real causes of such, and if you get word of one of these happening, you need to be on your guard.
Where Do Tsunamis Happen?
While technically they could happen anywhere along U.S. coasts, the most likely regions to experience a tsunami are in the Gulf and along the Pacific Ocean.
When Do Tsunamis Happen?
Pretty much anytime they dang well please. There’s no “tsunami season,” if you’re wondering.
What Exactly Is a Tsunami Though?
That’s a pretty good question.
A tsunami means a lot of water is headed your way very quickly.
Most people picture this as a massive wall of water…and that’s a possibility.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami reached heights of 65- to 100-feet. That’s massive!
Imagine a 10-story building-sized wave bearing down on you.
It should come as no surprise that this tsunami was absolutely devastating, killing 200,000 people in 11 countries.
That said, a tsunami doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-fledged wall of water. A fast-rising flood would be the best way to describe a tsunami.
Either way, the result can be deadly, so you need to be very careful.
How to Survive a Tsunami if You’re at the Coast
You’re chilling in your AirBNB with your spouse when both of your phones let off an ear-piercing scream.
It’s a tsunami alert.
What should you do? It’s simple.
Get as far away from the coast and as high up as possible.
Every foot inland and every foot higher you can get makes a difference.
The Red Cross recommends either 100-feet above sea level, or at least 2 miles inland.
And the sooner you can do that, the safer you’ll be.
A tsunami is deadly, and if you stick around, you may soon realize just what that means.
It’s not just the threat of drowning either — though that most certainly is a very real possibility.
That wave of water headed at you at 30mph comes with broken glass, metal scrap, and pointy shards of wood.
Sure, maybe you’re a great swimmer, but you won’t be with a broken broomstick impaled through your torso and a laceration down your arm.
You need to get out of there fast.
How to Survive a Tsunami if You’re on the Beach
Let’s say you’re on the beach, though, enjoying your vacation in an area where you don’t speak the native language, and infrastructure is haphazard to say the best.
You’ve not received any word whatsoever of a tsunami.
But then you see this…
As the Red Cross blithely points out, “If you can see the wave, you’re too close for safety.”
If you can see the wave coming, and you have time, rush inside and up to the top floor of the nearest reinforced concrete structure.
A hotel, parking garage, or an office building works.
While most buildings are not rated to withstand the impact of a tsunami, you may be offered some better level of protection.
If you can’t make it to such in time — if you find yourself swept up into the water — your best bet is to grab onto something that floats and hold on.
How to Survive a Tsunami if You’re on a Boat
You’re out deep sea fishing with some buddies when a tsunami watch is issued over the marine band radio.
How on earth do you live through a tidal wave if you’re on a boat?!
Well, thankfully, you’re likely in a much safer situation than those who are on the shore.
If you’re at sea when you get issued such an alert, your best bet is to head further out.
According to FEMA, tsunami waves can’t be seen if you’re out far enough in the open ocean.
However, the caveat to that is that a minimum safe depth is 30 fathoms. Anything less than that and the tsunami is going to look at you as fair game.
Once you make it out that far, stay there.
Listen to mariner radio reports and contact the local harbor authority, if you can.
The coast is going to be dangerous for several hours after a tsunami as debris clogs up all bays and harbors, and further swells come in.
Once you’ve received confirmation that it’s ok to return, then do so.
“But what if we’re just hanging out in the harbor together swapping jokes and hanging out? What do we do then?”
If you’re in harbor when you get the alert of an incoming tsunami, it’s a different story. You need to get to land as fast as you can, abandon your boat, and head for the hills.
Within a bay or harbor is often where tsunamis are the most destructive.
Boats end up washed hundreds of yards inland, people get pinned against buildings underwater, and fast-moving, pointy debris flows out of sight.
You cannot stay there, and it’s time to move.
Yeah, you’ll likely lose your boat…but you’re worth more than a boat. Get the heck to shore, and head for the hills.
How to Survive After a Tsunami
Though the water may no longer be rushing, you still need practice caution, or you could easily end up on a casualty list.
Tsunamis are known for knocking down power lines…and those power lines will be live when that happens.
Stepping into electrified water could happen. So, be on the lookout.
Sewers will overflow into the water, decomposing bodies will be present, and dangerous chemicals get mixed in with the swell as well.
This means you could come away with severe chemical burns, poisoning, or some illness if you attempt to wade through the water.
As mentioned, water will be filled with glass, knives, twisted metal, and scraps of wood.
Though they may no longer be moving at rapid speed, you still don’t know where they’re at thank to muddy, brown water.
So, How Do I Stay Safe?
Your best bet post-tsunami is to stay where you’re at.
If you’re on the top floor of a hotel somewhere, stay there and wait for rescue.
Phone service will likely be interrupted, drinking water will probably be contaminated, and electrical power…yeah that’s not going to be an option.
So, plan accordingly.
Keep some type of bug-out bag of supplies handy.
A ham radio or internet connection could easily prove to be a lifeline in such a circumstance.(WinLink is a form of ham radio internet, in case you were interested.)
A Yaesu VX-6R really doesn’t take up a lot of room in a bag and could easily help save your life in such a situation.
Early Alert Systems for Tsunamis
While we can’t predict earthquakes (yet), we can predict tsunamis with some degree of accuracy.
There are several early alert systems that can give you life-saving time to act.
Many coastal locations have tsunami sirens that will go off if one is expected.
Emergency text message systems are available in some locations and may alert you if a tsunami is incoming as well.
If you’re looking for a more independent source of information, you can always check NOAA and the National Weather Service’s U.S. Tsunami Warning System.
It’s an interactive map that lets you know in real-time where a tsunami is likely.
Virtually every media source within your region should alert you when a tsunami is on the way as well.
If you’re powering down and don’t have access to tech, there are a few environmental signs that might clue you in on an impending tsunami.
For starters, if you feel an earthquake, there’s a very high chance of a tsunami coming your way.
It’s one of the easiest tsunami giveaways.
An earthquake isn’t always necessary for such to happen, however.
Other tsunami indicators can be an unexpectedly loud roar coming from the ocean or a sudden rise or draining of ocean waters below what’s normal.
There’s no doubt, a tsunami is scary. However, a lot of the fear can be resolved by knowledge.
While I can guarantee the tips above won’t vaporize fear in such circumstances — I’d still be terrified — it can help you to mitigate your risk.
Have you ever lived through a tsunami? Are there other tips you have? Let us know in the comments below! For more on surviving the odds, check out our Survival Category.
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