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[How-To] Survive a Tsunami: Tips to Keep You Alive

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. 

Tsunami wave
It sure looks cool, but you don’t want to be around when it comes to shore. (Photo: Cristiandel76)

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. 

Tsunami evacuation route
Knowing where these are is tip #1.

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. 

1964 Alaska Good Friday earthquake and tsunami
For example, this is the result of an earthquake off the Alaskan coast on Good Friday in 1964. (Photo: NOAA)

When Do Tsunamis Happen? 

Pretty much anytime they dang well please. There’s no “tsunami season,” if you’re wondering.

They can happen year-round

What Exactly Is a Tsunami Though? 

That’s a pretty good question. 

2011 Tsunami in Japan
A wave approaches Miyako City from the Heigawa estuary in Iwate Prefecture after the magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck the area March 11, 2011. (Photo: iEARN-USA)

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!

Tsunami in Thailand after the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake
Tsunami in Thailand after the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake (Photo: David Rydevik)

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. 

Rescue efforts after the Sunda straight Tsunami
Doesn’t exactly seem like a party, does it? (Photo: Indonesian National Armed Forces)

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. 

Tsunami early warning system
You may also hear an alert the old fashioned way. (Photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas)

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. 

Man vs Tsunami giphy
Get away from the coasts ASAP.

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. 

Storm tsunami giphy

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

Tsunami over roadways giphy
These guys have the right idea.

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…

Tom Holland The Impossible film tsunami giphy
The Impossible was the most lifelike movie ever made about tsunamis, and it’s pretty brutal.

As the Red Cross blithely points out, “If you can see the wave, you’re too close for safety.”

Captain Obvious giphy
Thanks, Red Cross. Super helpful.

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.

So you can see that a hotel can very easily save your life. This video will give you chills.

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. 

Scream giphy
One possible reaction to a tsunami while out at sea.

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.

Super Easy gif
No, I’m serious. This is about as close to an ideal position to be in during a tsunami as you can get.

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.

waves hitting the shore
You don’t want to be close to the shore when this happens. (Photo: Ilona Froehlich)

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

boat washed ashore by tsunami
You really don’t want to be on your boat when it reaches the land. (Photo: Khao Lak Lover)

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.

Electrocution

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.

Home Alone electrocution skeleton
You don’t want this to be you.

Disease

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.

Laceration/Impalement

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.

flood damage after a tsunami
There’s plenty of dirt and dangerous debris on the land. I don’t even want to think about what’s hidden under the water. (Photo: USAID)

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.

Mountain Man Medical Yellowstone
Even a small first aid kit would make a difference.

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.

Ham Radio Shack Yaesu VX6
Yaesu VX6

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. 

Tsunami warning sign
Unlike the people you see in the ocean in this photo, you should actually head those warnings. (Photo: Vinni)

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.

Tsunami Travel Times chart
If you’re lucky, you’ll get several hours’ notice. (Photo: NOAA/NWS/West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center)

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. 

Pay Attention

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. 

Conclusion

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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1 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Matthew Bennett

    I purchased a sailboat in the Los Angeles area and scheduled a Saturday to bring the boat from Long Beach harbor to Marina Del Rey. On our way out of Long Beach, the US Coast Guard boarded our boat and let us know there was a Tsunami warning and they didn't advise going out. I didn't really have a choice due to a very tight schedule and went anyway. Once out on the ocean, the Tsunami came by and we didn't even feel it. I didn't think the water was 30 fathoms (1 fathom = 6 feet) but could be wrong. Eventually we made it to Marina Del Rey and saw the aftermath of the Tsunami. Most of the water exited the marina area leaving boats on the hard ground. Then the water came rushing back in, destroying quite a few of the docks and damaging numerous boats. We just sailed in and tied up to my new boat slip in the back of the marina where very little damage occurred.

    With regards to ham radio, you will want to make sure you have an amateur radio license. Anyone can pass the technician test with about 4 hours of studying and the fee (it recently changed but I think it is $35 now). Even though you are not licensed, you can listen all you want. If it is a life-or-death emergency, you can even transmit and ask for help. Just make sure someone's life truly is on the line or you could get a nasty fine. The national calling frequency for the radio listed in the article above is 146.520 MHz. In an emergency someone within 5 to 10 miles of you will hear your call and hopefully be able to render service.

    October 9, 2021 4:16 pm