Surviving a Tsunami

Paying attention to any advanced signs and warnings dramatically improve the amount of time you have to react and increases your chance of surviving a tsunami or other natural disaster. The warning for the most recent tsunami in Japan was issued nine minutes after the earthquake hit. Unfortunately, this only gave the residents in the hardest hit areas about 15 minutes to react. Since that horrible event, it’s become clear that people in the tsunami’s area of impact somehow survived. Some would call the people who survived lucky. But were they? Did the survivors of this and other tsunamis do something differently that helped them survive while others perished? A comparison of survival stories from tsunami victims revealed several commonalities.

They immediately headed for higher ground
Yoshio Kimura survived the recent Japanese tsunami by climbing a hill near his home in Onagawa, Japan. Vitalia Llanquimán and her family also survived a tsunami that hit Chile in 1960. After a 9.5 magnitude earthquake hit the area, she was told by a passerby that the sea had receded from the shore. Vitalia dismissed this information but her husband took it seriously and the family climbed up a nearby hill and waited for the threat to pass. Unfortunately, as the recent tsunami in Japan demonstrated, there may not always be sufficient warning of a tsunami to allow time to get to a safer location. So, alternatively, experts suggest climbing onto a roof or the upper floors of a building to increase the chance of survival.

They were not in the water when the tsunami hit
Most people on vacation will be out enjoying the ocean so this may be unavoidable. However, being in the water when a tsunami hits greatly increases your chance of being killed. Chris Chapman, a survivor of the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004, reported that he and his travel companion were in their guest house, about a half mile from the beach. They were not aware of the tsunami until they heard the roar of the water rushing down the streets. The water eventually crashed into their guest house. As the water kept crashing in, they were able to climb out a window to escape. Had they not been able to escape, the best solution would have been to try to grab onto a piece of debris that floats or something sturdy like a tree. Nelly Gallardo survived the 1960 tsunami in Chile by clinging to a floating tree trunk after being swept away by the waves.

Possibly the most famous survivors of the 2004 tsunami, Petra Nemcova survived by clinging to a tree for more than eight hours and Nate Berkus survived by clinging to a telephone pole. Since the force of the tsunami waves can still knock you into the water, climbing trees and other structures that are in the path of the tsunami may not offer much protection but it’s better than nothing.

They were observant and acted quickly
Leif Giske also got caught in the 2004 tsunami and can credit his quick reaction for his survival. He was standing near the beach waiting for a sailboat to arrive for a scheduled outing. While looking out at the water, he noticed what appeared to be the ocean “disappearing”. Once he and his travel companions observed the ocean reappear in the form of a huge wave, they took off running. He and his wife were able to get to the safety of the second floor of a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, his niece did not make it.

The odds of surviving a tsunami are not specifically known because they occur so infrequently. The stories from tsunami survivors offer insight into how we can prepare for our own survival in case of an extreme emergency or natural disaster. Heeding warnings and responding to our natural instincts may be our best chance of survival.


Compiled by Brian F. Atwater, Marco Cisternas V, Joanne Bourgeois, Walter C. Dudley, James W. Hendley II, and Peter H.Stauffer (1999). Surviving a Tsunami–Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and Japan. US Geological Survey.

Goodman, P. S. (2004, December 28). We Didn’t Understand, We Were Just Paralyzed. Washington Post Foreign Service, p. A12.

Birmingham, L. (2011, March 18). Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami Warning System Explained. Time.