Prepping Basics

How to Survive a Tsunami: Emergency Checklist You Need to Follow

How to Survive a Tsunami

Tsunamis, alongside other natural disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, fires and floods, have been happening for a long time. The word “tsunami”, which is Japanese for ‘big wave “, can be defined as a series of huge powerful waves that are caused by underwater disturbances. Most of the time, earthquakes occurring on the sea floor have been the most common causes of tsunamis, but there are lots of things that could cause one to happen. As dangerous and destructive as they may be you can learn how to survive a tsunami.

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Like many other natural occurrences, you can neither stop a tsunami from happening nor predict when it is going to hit. The best way to protect ourselves is to know what to do in the event of a tsunami. But first let us look at just what causes these tsunamis to occur.

Causes of tsunamis

Over the years, people have come up with lots of reasons as to why tsunamis and other natural disasters happen. Some say that it is the wrath of God for our sinful ways; others say that Mother Nature is getting back at us for destroying our natural resources and so on. The list is endless.

However what many people don’t know is that for a tsunami to occur, there is a chain of events that triggers the formation of these huge destructive waves we call tsunamis.

Tsunami causes

Underwater earthquakes

Over 85% tsunamis that have occurred over the years can be attributed to deep sea earthquakes. But the real cause lies in the origin of the earthquake. The surface of whole world is covered with tectonic plates which are constantly moving, some more than others.

The plates hold together at specific boundaries, and the type of boundary is determined by how one tectonic plate moves relative to the other: transform, where the two plates slide horizontally past each other; spreading, when the two tectonic plates are moving away from each other; subduction, when they are moving towards each other.

Since earthquakes can happen at any time, in any given place on Earth, you should check out our advice on how to prepare for an earthquake.

Volcanic activity

Volcanic eruptions also cause tsunamis. Like subduction zones, eruptions also release a lot of built up tension. That is why most volcanoes literally blow up during an eruption. Only underwater volcanoes or those that are very close to large water bodies can lead to tsunamis.

Normally, a volcanic eruption is usually preceded by a series of small earthquakes caused by the tension within the volcano. Or if the eruption is violent to the point that the volcano collapses into the adjoining sea, it will cause a large displacement of the water which will be transmitted into wave action that could lead to a tsunami.

Violent underwater volcanic eruptions could lead to tsunamis. Earthquakes and volcanic activity usually go hand in hand because of the instability of the area. Apart from the high seismic activity in the area, the Ring of Fire is also famous for having the highest number of highly active volcanoes within close proximity of each other. The islands of Hawaii have survived several tsunamis that were the result of volcanic eruptions.

Japan tsunami infographic

These are the main causes of tsunamis in the world; however, a tsunami can also be caused by a host of other natural phenomenon’s key among them landslides and extraterrestrial collisions such as meteors and other such objects falling to earth.

How to survive a tsunami

Surviving a tsunami is no easy task; fortunately there are some easy steps that you can take to avoid the destructive force of tsunami waves. To survive a tsunami you will need to follow the following tips.

Be prepared

Tsunami prone areas are usually near a coast or a large water body mostly an ocean. The first survival tip that can save your life is adequate preparation. One of the ways to be prepared is by knowing whether your area of residence is a tsunami hotspot, if it is, there are some survival essential you will need to pack. If you reside in a tsunami prone area, it is important to have a first-aid kit on the ready, climate appropriate attire, stocked food and water. The emergency kit should be light to allow you to scamper off in case of a tsunami emergency, so if you want to go over the check list of things that must be in your kit, here is the best resource for it.

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Your local authorities will most probably have tsunami warning signs. It is important to heed tsunami warnings, as the saying goes, better safe than sorry.

Tsunami Warning Sign

Go to higher ground

Tsunami prone areas are usually low lying areas. This means that if you detect a tsunami, the best thing to do is to go to higher ground. The following activities precede a tsunami

  • Underfoot shakes and tremors
  • Water recession
  • Loud roars

If you detect any of these activities, you should find higher ground as soon as possible. A light emergency pack is less cumbersome when moving. The faster you can get to higher ground the better. Thus a light weight emergency pack is crucial. The ideal distance is either 2 miles inland or 100 ft above sea level, which is the equivalent of 3,200 M and 30M respectively.

Stay up for a while

As mentioned earlier, a tsunami is a series of waves. This means that a tsunami is not made up of only one wave. A tsunami will come in the form of a series of waves hitting dry land at different time intervals. Normally, a tsunami can last up to two or three days. To ensure that you are completely safe, you should stay on higher ground for two to four days just to be sure.

Be cautious

In recent times, tsunami detection systems have suffered greatly from vandalism activities especially in developing countries. This has led to poor detection and warning system that guarantee little protection against the onslaught of a tsunami. Thus it is important for you to be cautious when making the decision to go back to your home.

Listen to all alerts and all clear messages being sent. Do not go back down immediately after these announcements as in some cases people have died as a result of inaccurate tsunami all clear messages. You should also put together an accurate emergency communications plan and you should discuss it with friends and family. We have a great resource that can be of help during the preparation phase.

Know the area

This is essentially for tourists and visitors who are fond of tsunami prone destinations such as the American coastal town of New Orleans. Before making the decision to travel to such destinations it is important to know which areas is more tsunami prone. Areas of low sea level are more susceptible to tsunamis. Thus when travelling to these areas try and stay clear off low sea level regions.

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The FEMA website is an essential source of information on everything flood and tsunami related. Before taking a tour of any coastal region, it is important to find out whether it has a history of tsunami. This website will have information pertaining to tsunami prone areas such as Chile, Western United States, Japan, and Philippines. Try and stay clear of these areas especially during wet seasons.

Move after the earthquake if any

One of the main causes of tsunamis is earthquakes. As such an earthquake that lasts for more than 20 minutes is a prelude to a tsunami. It is not possible to survive a tsunami if you do not survive the earthquake. Thus when the earthquake strikes drop, cover and hold on. After the earthquake stops you should immediately start planning for the evacuation of you and your family members. When doing so avoid power lines, bridges and buildings due to the dangers of falling debris.

Have an evacuation plan

A comprehensive evacuation plan should be prepared in advance. This plan will assist you and your family evacuate fast before a tsunami hits. It is important to involve local authorities and community members in the plan.

Tsunami Evacuation Sign

A good evacuation plan needs to have several things, key among them.

  • A number of evacuation options that will ensure your family is reunited after a tsunami. This may be a common area where all the family members should escape to
  • Drills should be conducted. The purpose of the drills is to acquit everyone with the essential of the evacuation plan i.e. what to be done in case of a tsunami and where to escape to.
  • An evacuation plan should accommodate a head count of everyone and also ensure assistance to the disabled, ill and the elderly.
  • All those involved in the plan should be familiar with all tsunami warning signs
  • The evacuation plan should have alternative escape routes should roads be destroyed by a preceding earthquake.
  • Consider whether there are evacuation shelters, and if not whether and where they can be built.

A good evacuation and emergency plan should also incorporate the aftermath of the tsunami. The aftermath can be horrifying, thus it is important to be prepared. You can learn more about making a plan in such a situation in our article on what to do in a tsunami.

Save lives not belongings

When a tsunami hits, the best thing to do is to evacuate your residence immediately. Remember the purpose of the evacuation is to save you and your family’s lives. Therefore, do not trouble yourself with any possessions as this may slow your escape. The only possession you should carry is a safety pack, and warm clothing.

The evacuation

When you hear a tsunami sign or warning grab your emergency kit and drive inland as fast as you can. Your family should be with you obviously. To ensure the evacuation runs smoothly especially if you have children, take the following steps.

  • Whenever you hear the tsunami warning, be prepared to live and make sure your family members are all prepared to leave with you.
  • Give clear and simple instructions to your family members that will be easy to remember. This is particularly if you have children who may not understand what is going on.
  • Select a common area for you and your family members to reunite should you be separated in the evacuation.
  • Teach all your family members especially children how to listen and detect tsunami warning signs
  • If you truly believe that a tsunami is coming before the alerts are sent evacuate immediately, it is better to be wrong than to be dead
  • Listen to instructions and advice from local authorities on how to survive a tsunami. Your local authorities will send out instructions on radio and other media platform, so keep a look out for such instructions.
  • If you live in a coastal area, make sure that you and your family members are good swimmers. The two main causes of death are drowning and being crushed by falling debris. To avoid drowning ensure that you know how to swim.

React quickly

Sometimes it may be impossible to avoid a tsunami. Should this happen and you find yourself trapped in the water, look for something that can float and hold on to it. Floating objects such as doors, tree trucks, fishing equipment’s among others can save your life. When the rescue time comes you will be easier to spot.

How to create a post tsunami rehabilitation plan

A rehabilitation plan is one that will help you and your family adjust to life after the tsunami has hit. Survival does not end with the tsunami. Most probably essentials such as water, food and even electricity will be tough to come by. Therefore it is important to prepare a rehabilitation plan in advance.

Tsunami Rehabilitation Plan

This plan, you can prepare as a family or as a community. However, it is recommended that you consult your local authorities on the establishment of such a plan. For the plan to be effective it needs to have the following.

  • Have a stash of fresh water, it may be bottled or filtered water. As a family or as a community it is important you have water reserves stored away for tsunami emergency purposes
  • Using undamaged shelters and structures. As a community the key to surviving a tsunami aftermath is working together.
  • Having a generator or any other secondary source of electricity/energy is welcome. This may be difficult especially since generators are cumbersome. However, there are portable models out there and even models that work on solar power. Check our portable generator article and our solar portable generators reviews.
  • As a community your plan should have a shelter and food distribution mechanism for all those affected.
  • The plan should also factor in gas raptures and fires caused by broken gas pipes.

Therefore, with the above tips you are able to know what to expect in case a tsunami hits and still be in a position to help your loved ones and others to survive and overcome any challenges brought by it.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you click on one of these links and make a purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Also, as an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. If the information in this post has been helpful, please consider purchasing through one of the links in this article. Thank you.

About the author

David Dawson

David Dawson is a retired security specialist with over 20 years of experience. He worked for a secret manufacturing facilities and hospitals in Illinois. David's responsibility was to protect people in case of any disaster or cataclysm that might occur. Now he keeps on doing it through teaching others about how to prepare and survive flood, earthquake or even war.


  • I agree with the author, if someone travels to a tsunami prone area he must be prepared to a disaster and have all the important information. But unfortunately most of the tourists have no practice and even have no idea that it’s necessary to plan a trip even if you travel with a tourist group! At the same time, such destinations are rather exotic and attractive for visitors…

    • I am definitely in agreement with you, as well. Most tourists are usually poorly prepared for any natural disaster apart from a tsunami. Therefore, it is wise for tourists to check with hotels, motels, or campground operators for disaster evacuation info, and the available warning system. Personally, I suggest that the operators should take responsibility of supplying such info to the tourists even if they do not make any inquiries.

  • Tsunami is one of the most dreadful natural disasters, particularly for islands’ inhabitants. While living in the middle of the continent I will hardly ever face a huge wave, but this survival information seems to be essential in case of the journey to islands. By the way, all advices here are focused on the fact that you know that tsunami is about to come. But what should you do if the wave is above your head? Is it real to stay alive? I can’t even imagine what to do!

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      Cell phone w/ chargers

      Personal hygiene items

      Blankets/ beddings

      Medical supplies and medication

      Extra batteries

      Battery-powered radio


      Water and food

      First aid kit

      Emergency contact info

      Area map for navigation

  • Once the wave is above your head there is no place to run or hide and you must do whatever is possible to stay alive. This includes trying to swim and keep away from debris (as much as you can).

  • What do you think about watching for behavioral changes in animals? It is not uncommon for animals to show behavioral changes before an upcoming disaster, such as trying to seek human shelter or grouping together. The usual explanation is that the animals pick up tremors caused by the under-sea earthquake, in the situation of a tsunami. I strongly believe that watching for uncommon animal behavior can give people time to react against an upcoming tsunami.

  • Usually, most people depend on news alerts to prepare for a natural disaster, such as a tsunami. But, I think it will be a good idea if people living in tsunami prone areas can detect danger by observing the surrounding animals.

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