Stay quake safe

The Canterbury earthquakes have highlighted the fact that New Zealand could be hit by a natural disaster at any time, taking lives and causing huge physical and economic damage. We need to be prepared.

The threat of further earthquakes anywhere in the country is very real, but storms, floods, volcanic eruption, tsunamis, landslides and other events can also seriously disrupt our lives. While this page focuses on the threat of earthquakes, much of the advice is relevant to other natural disasters (for more information on these, see

Living with the risk of disaster means we have to be prepared – firstly to survive the initial effects; then to be resilient enough to be on our own for a period of time (at least three days) without the assistance of emergency services, and without water, electricity and sewerage systems; and finally to recover as quickly as possible. The following information is provided with the assistance of the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, and includes the latest safety strategies.

Earthquakes offer no warning, so you could be at home, school or work when one strikes. Think now about where you can get to quickly to be safe. For example:

  • A strong table (perhaps your desk at work) provides good protection. Grab the table legs to stop the table from moving.
  • Next to an interior wall, away from windows that can shatter and cause injury and tall furniture that can fall on you. Protect your head and neck with your arms. (Note that modern homes don’t generally have doorways that are any stronger than the wall, and the doors can swing and injure you.)
  • Practise the Drop, Cover and Hold routine. It’s internationally recognised as the best strategy for earthquake survival (beware of bogus email advice such as the “triangle of life” that has been widely discredited). In an earthquake, the routine means moving no more than a few steps (away from buildings, trees, street lights and power lines if outside) and then:
  • Drop to the floor or ground. This will help to prevent injury not only from flying glass and other objects, but also from being knocked to the ground by the quake.
  • Take COVER under a nearby table or desk. If nothing is nearby or you’re outside, COVER your face and head with your arms.
  • HOLD on to something sturdy, such as the table legs, until the shaking stops.
  • If you’re in an elevator, drop, cover and hold. When the shaking stops, try and get out at the nearest floor if you can safely do so.
  • If you’re at the beach or near the coast, drop, cover and hold then move to higher ground immediately in case a tsunami follows the quake.
  • If you’re driving, pull over to a clear location, stop and stay there with your seatbelt fastened. When the shaking stops, drive on if you think it’s safe and avoid bridges or ramps that might have been damaged.

After a quake

  • Listen to a local radio station – emergency management officials will broadcast advice that’s appropriate for your community and situation.
  • Expect to feel aftershocks.
  • Check yourself for injuries and get first aid if necessary. Help others if you can.
  • Electricity could be cut, and fire alarms and sprinkler systems can go off in buildings during an earthquake even if there’s no fire. Check for small fire and put them out if you can.
  • If you’re in a damaged building, try to get outside and find a safe, open place. Use the stairs, not the elevators.
  • Watch out for fallen power lines or broken gas lines, and stay out of damaged areas.
  • Use the phone for short essential calls to keep the lines clear for emergency calls.
  • If you smell gas or hear a blowing or hissing noise, open a window, get everyone out quickly and turn off the gas if you can. If you see sparks, broken wires or electrical system damage, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box if it’s safe to do so.
  • Control your animals because they can become disorientated. They might need to be protected from hazards, and they could annoy or attack other people.
  • When it’s safe to do so, take notes and photographs for insurance purposes if your property is damaged. If you rent your property, contact your landlord and your contents insurance company as soon as possible.

Household emergency plan

Images of people queuing for water and digging toilets in their back yard after the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake show that life will not necessarily return quickly to normal. In a serious earthquake, you might not be able to leave your home or communicate with other people, or you might have to leave your damaged home.

Emergency services are unlikely to reach you immediately. That’s why you need a plan that ensures you and your family can survive for at least three days on your own. So get your family or household together and work on the plan. To help, the website has a template for a household emergency plan you can use. Your local council will also be able to help.

It pays to ask your council about the community’s civil defence warning system, and where civil defence or public shelters are. It’s also useful to learn first aid and how to deal with small fires.

Other important stuff

  • Check your insurance policy for cover (home, business and contents) and ensure your cover is adequate. Know where your important documents and keep them within easy reach if you have to evacuate.

Seek qualified advice to make sure your house is secured to its foundations and ensure any renovations comply with the New Zealand Building Code.