What It’s Like to Evacuate for a Tsunami

See recent posts by Margot Bigg

Viña del Mar, Chile. Photo Credit: Hector Garcia, Flickr

Viña del Mar, Chile. Photo Credit: Hector Garcia, Flickr

I experienced my first earthquake when I was 11 years old. I was spending the night at my best friend's house, and in the early hours of dawn I woke up to the nonstop screams of her older sister, who had been sleeping in the next room. I opened my eyes to a shaking world -- the earthquake lasted about 45 seconds -- and jumped out of bed just seconds before a model horse fell from an adjacent bookshelf and landed right where I'd been lying. 

I've been through more than my fair share of earthquakes in the years that followed, from short-lived jolting reminders of the earth’s seismic activity in Tokyo and Venice Beach to a downright frightening -- and devastating -- quake in the South Asian region of Kashmir. And though I grew up in the reasonably earthquake-prone city of Portland, Oregon, where earthquake drills were standard practice, I can’t say I was particularly prepared for my most recent earthquake experience -- and subsequent tsunami evacuation -- in the seaside resort town of Viña del Mar, Chile last year. 

The Initial Earthquake

I’d spent the day wandering the city with a friend, and we’d just sat down, famished, in a casual Italian pizzeria across the street from the beach. We were sipping wine and snacking on breadsticks when the earth started to rumble. 

A row of decorative copper pans, hung along a beam above my head, began trembling with increasing vigor. It was as if they had come to life, finally liberated of their boring existence as inanimate objects– and they were threatening to — at any point — spring loose from the hooks that supported them, and go flying freely about the restaurant. I tried to remain calm, joining the group of seemingly nonplussed Chileans who were making their way outside. Chilean people are used to earthquakes, I told myself. This is routine, just part of the local experience.

We waited with servers, chefs, and fellow customers outside as the last waves of the three-minute long quake swept through the ground. (I would later learn that it was of an 8.3 magnitude at its epicenter, 145 miles away in the town of Illapel). After a few minutes, customers began heading back inside. My friend and I followed suit, but right as we crossed over the threshold, a strong aftershock struck again. Within seconds, mobile phones began emitting shrill alarm noises — the type usually reserved for severe weather warnings or amber alerts. This time the message was more daunting: we were on high alert for a tsunami and needed to get to higher ground immediately. 

The Tsunami Evacuation

Photo Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory,Flickr

Photo Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory,Flickr

One of the restaurant staffers pointed to a nearby hill and told us the quickest way to get there. Off we went, not daring to look back at the ocean only a few hundred feet behind us. My friend and I spent the next half hour walking, jogging, and — at times — sprinting toward the nearby hill. We only stopped when we felt aftershocks, which we verified by looking up at the telephone pole wires to see if they were moving. At one point, a parked car began to bounce up and down, reminding me of footage I’d seen of the devastating Nepal earthquake that had taken place earlier that year.

We eventually made it to the top of the hill, where we joined hundreds of other evacuees waiting for the alert to pass. After a couple of hours, we were cleared to return to our hotel, though were advised to sleep in our street clothes and keep our shoes and valuables within close reach should we need to evacuate in the middle of the night. We would later learn that — while the tsunami wreaked havoc in many communities further up the coast — Viña del Mar was spared from damage as it was contained by a dry estuary that absorbed the seawater.

What to Do When an Earthquake Strikes

If you do find yourself in an earthquake, your first instinct may be to run — but if there’s even a chance of falling debris, you might be better off hiding under a table or other similar object that can shelter you. “Do not attempt to exit any structure you are in until after the shaking has stopped, then evacuate,” says James Howard, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College.

Also, be mindful of residual risks spurred by earthquakes. “Remember aftershocks can linger for hours or days after the initial quake and cause substantial damage,” warns Howard. “Look out especially for damaged utilities, such as downed power lines or gas leaks.”

And while there’s not much you can do in the event of a tsunami warning (besides moving inland and to higher ground), the California Emergency Management Agency has a How to Survive a Tsunami brochure particularly designed for those who live in a high-risk area. Advanced preparation strategies include planning and walking your escape route, creating an evacuation kit with essential such as medicine and flashlights, and coming up with a reunification plan with family members in case you are separated when a tsunami strikes. 

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Photo credit for Pinterest background image: Charles Wagner aka ChumpChange, Flickr

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