How to Survive Tsunamis and Hurricanes

Part of the intrigue of adven­ture trav­el is its unpre­dictabil­i­ty. But that doesn’t mean you should be care­less when you’re care­free. Smart trav­el­ers throw a mea­sure of cau­tion to the wind, but also reduce risks by being informed, aware, and prepared.

As many Thai­land trav­el­ers dis­cov­ered in 2004, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters have a way of arriv­ing quick­ly and some­times with­out warn­ing. The Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion describes hur­ri­canes (which are increas­ing­ly pre­dictable and man­i­fest as sus­tained winds of 75 to 200 mph) as the most vio­lent acts of nature on the plan­et, while tsunamis, which are wall-like waves typ­i­cal­ly trig­gered by earth­quakes, may be even more ter­ri­fy­ing because of their unpredictability.

Here are 10 tips, some gleaned from sur­vivors’ sto­ries com­piled by the Unit­ed States Geo­log­i­cal Ser­vices, to help you sur­vive a hur­ri­cane or tsunami:

Know the Lin­go and the Sea­son
Cat­a­stroph­ic storms occur when the oceans warm dur­ing sum­mer months. They’re called hur­ri­canes when they orig­i­nate in the equa­to­r­i­al waters of the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mex­i­co, and spin off in the Atlantic Ocean or the east­ern Pacif­ic Ocean. In the west­ern Pacif­ic Ocean they’re called typhoons. When they’re cir­cu­lat­ing around Aus­tralia or the Indi­an Ocean, they’re called cyclones.

Along the west coast of Mex­i­co and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, the hur­ri­cane sea­son runs from June through Novem­ber, peak­ing in late August to ear­ly Sep­tem­ber. In the Atlantic, hur­ri­cane threats are great­est in August and Sep­tem­ber. Typhoons peak in late Feb­ru­ary and ear­ly March in the South Pacif­ic, and cyclone sea­son runs from Novem­ber to April around Australia.

Don’t Ignore “Watch­es”
Typ­i­cal­ly, it’s the storm surge—created by atmos­pher­ic pres­sure changes inside the hurricane—rather than the hur­ri­cane itself that caus­es the great­est hav­oc, suck­ing up huge vol­umes of sea­wa­ter out to sea, and blast­ing it inland where it can pro­duce severe flood­ing. Hur­ri­cane winds suck up sea­wa­ter along the coast­line, cre­at­ing walls of water up to 40 feet high that then bar­rel inland. In island areas, upper lev­el winds often dimin­ish the effect as the hur­ri­cane heads inland, caus­ing it to fall apart when it approach­es land. But none of this is reli­ably pre­dictable. Car­ry a small wind-up or bat­tery-pow­ered radio when trav­el­ing in hur­ri­cane (cyclone or typhoon)-prone areas dur­ing these storms’ sea­sons and lis­ten to it if you begin to notice intense weath­er changes and are out of reach of a tele­vi­sion or radio.

Play it Safe
Mete­o­rol­o­gists will change a hur­ri­cane “watch” to a “warn­ing” when fore­cast mod­els show the storm is with­in 24 hours of land­fall. Besides bat­tery- or wind-up portable radios, there are few oth­er items you should car­ry when you’re trav­el­ing in hur­ri­cane prone areas dur­ing hur­ri­cane sea­son. These include an emer­gency sup­ply kit con­tain­ing a flash­light, food and a high-qual­i­ty portable water fil­ter (or enough water to last 3 to 7 days).

It Takes a Vil­lage 
If you’re stay­ing with friends or fam­i­ly, or in a vil­lage or com­mu­ni­ty threat­ened by a hur­ri­cane, or one that has just expe­ri­enced a huge earthquake—and you’re able bodied—lend a hand. Be espe­cial­ly alert to hur­ri­cane warn­ings and be will­ing to help board up win­dows, and store patio fur­ni­ture or any objects that could become lethal in high winds or water.

Take Shel­ter
If you hear sirens, con­sid­er your­self on notice and imme­di­ate­ly evac­u­ate or take shel­ter on high­er ground. Stay out of cars and pub­lic tran­sit: ride or run as quick­ly as you can toward shel­ter or high­er ground. Do not sit around and try to cal­cu­late your lev­el of risks; it could be too late already. Take shel­ter as far from win­dows as you can. If you’re in trop­i­cal back­coun­try, and find your­self fac­ing hur­ri­cane winds, find a cave or look for a rocky out­crop­ping to hud­dle beneath. Be pre­pared to change your loca­tion or con­ceal­ing posi­tion after the eye of the storm has passed over, as the winds will reverse, increas­ing the force from the oppo­site direc­tion for awhile.

Killer Wave Warn­ings are Far and Few
Tsunamis and their inten­si­ty are hard to pre­dict, even post earth­quake. Alerts are typ­i­cal­ly issued in con­nec­tion with earth­quakes, but some­times the tsuna­mi hits before an alert is issued. Tsuna­mi waves can trav­el unde­tect­ed a long way at fair­ly low lev­els (up to three feet high, which is why ocean ships often miss them), gain­ing in strength and height as they move inland. The 2011 Tōhoku tsuna­mi in Japan mor­phed into a wall of water that reached 133 feet high. If you’re in a coastal area and you feel or hear an earth­quake, auto­mat­i­cal­ly and instinc­tive­ly assume a tsuna­mi is trav­el­ing right behind it and get mov­ing to high­er ground immediately.

Hatch an Escape Plan
Upon arrival on islands and coastal areas, inquire about inland escape routes. Ask shop­keep­ers, hotel concierges or res­i­dents about all your options for emer­gency con­tin­gen­cies. When flee­ing a tsuna­mi caused by a prox­i­mal earth­quake, you may find roads destroyed or blocked. After a tsuna­mi has hit, do not return to low­er ele­va­tions until you get con­fir­ma­tion that dan­ger has passed. Tsunamis often come in as a series of waves.

Run or Hold on for Your Life
Say you’re on the beach on a per­fect sun­ny day and hear a rum­ble off in the dis­tance. You see dust ris­ing from the land, palm trees pitch­ing vio­lent­ly and the sea erupt­ing in white foamy shock­waves, fol­lowed by dead silence. At that point, you should aban­don every­thing in your pos­ses­sion, and run to the high­est land point you can see above the beach. If the land is entire­ly flat or you’re trapped and unable to reach high­er ground, try to get to the upper sto­ry of a stur­dy build­ing or onto its roof. Last resort, grab a tree and wrap your­self around it, or look for some­thing that will float and grab it to use as a raft.

Swim Out to Sea
What if you’re out snor­kel­ing or surf­ing and you notice a sud­den change in waves or the cur­rents get­ting weird? You may be lucky enough to still have a few min­utes to out­smart the incom­ing wall of waves. Imme­di­ate­ly look for a point­break and head to it, or pad­dle toward the shore, and then run like hell. If the cur­rent impedes your effort, and you’re already out on a deep­wa­ter reef, or you’re just out there far enough off the beach, turn around and pad­dle toward the open sea. If you’re far enough off­shore, you may be lucky enough to float for a while and avoid the debris or struc­tures that kill most peo­ple on beach or shore­line dur­ing tsunamis.

Play it Safe Again
Tsunamis can last hours with each suc­ces­sive wave big­ger than the next. They also leave behind sand, col­lapsed build­ings, swamped cars, and human and ani­mal remains. Stay clear until you know for sure you can safe­ly nav­i­gate all of this (prob­a­bly a cou­ple hours at least). Then head to the near­est hos­pi­tal or pub­lic square (pre­sum­ably on high­er ground) to make your next move or to try to locate lost com­pan­ions. Your cell­phone will like­ly not work so do not depend on it—that’s why it’s impor­tant to let friends and fam­i­ly know of your where­abouts when you’re out adven­tur­ing. Have a plan in place so that if they don’t hear from you for a spec­i­fied length of time or if they get news of a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter, they can begin to con­tact embassies and author­i­ties to try and help locate you with an evac­u­a­tion plan.