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Lessons from Japan: Earthquake Survival 101

Events are moving quickly in Japan as engineers at a nuclear plant in Fukushima are trying to bring three stricken reactors under control. Tokyo is 170 miles south from Fukushima, and though prevailing winds are sweeping most of the radiation to the Pacific Ocean, residents say a feeling of anxiety pervades the capital. Aftershocks wake them up at night. Lines are long at supermarkets, where staples such as milk and rice are selling out quickly. “The streets are eerily quiet compared to the usual hustle and bustle of this massive city,” says Rachael White, an American teacher and blogger based in Tokyo. White and others, however, note that people remain calm—a reflection of Japanese fortitude.

As a traveler, the most you can do in the event of a nuclear meltdown is get as far away as possible or head for the basement. But there are steps you can take to increase your chances of survival in an earthquake and/or a tsunami. Japan is located in the world’s most seismically active regions—the Pacific Ring of Fire, which includes the West Coast. About 90 percent of earthquakes happen here, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And Tokyo is still bracing for the Big One that experts say is long overdue. (Friday’s massive quake occurred along the northeastern fault line, rather than the southwest fault line that affects Tokyo more directly. It last ruptured in 1854.) The second most active region stretches from the Mediterranean into northern India.

Keep in mind that Japan, one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, has the best earthquake preparation and infrastructure in the world. Buildings stay upright, warning systems work, and citizens are drilled in emergency procedures. You’re probably more likely to survive an earthquake in Japan than China, India, or Indonesia, where building codes can be lax. Still, earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict.

1. If you’re inside, drop to the ground and take cover under a solid piece of furniture and hold on until the shaking stops. Stay away from windows, walls, and shelves. Only take cover under a doorway if you’re near it and know it’s sturdy.

2. If you’re in bed, stay there, curl up, and protect your head with a pillow.

3. Don’t go outside until the shaking stops and never use the elevators.

4. If you’re outside, move away from buildings, street lights, and telephone and electricity poles. Most casualties happen from falling debris and collapsed walls.

5. If you’re by the coast and a tsunami warning sounds, head for higher ground or inland as quickly as possible. Don’t count on roads, which might be blocked by fallen debris.

6. Recognize the natural warning signs of a tsunami: the sea suddenly receding and animals fleeing or acting unnaturally.

7. If you can’t get to higher ground, get to the highest floor—or even the roof—of the tallest, sturdiest building nearby. Or climb a sturdy tree.

8. If you’re caught, climb onto something that floats and hang on. Expect multiple waves.

9. Abandon your possessions. Every second counts.

Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia Correspondent.

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