Don’t panic: Know what to do


As long as you are in Japan, which has about 1,500 active faults, you are at risk of experiencing a major earthquake at any moment. It could come while you’re at home or at your workplace, at a movie theater or in a subway. Wherever you are, you must stay calm and determine what to do next.

Disaster expert Takehiko Yamamura offers tips on what to do in the following cases:

If you are in a high-rise office building . . .

You don’t have to worry too much about the building collapsing because most high-rises have been designed to absorb the shock of earthquakes. The building’s swaying, however, can be dangerous. It’s best to get under a desk or table and wait until the tremor stops. Keep away from windows to avoid injuries from breaking glass.

If you are in an elevator . . .

Get out as soon as possible. A relatively new elevator will have been programmed to stop automatically on the closest floor and open the door when it senses a large earthquake. If it is an old elevator, however, press all the floor buttons and get off wherever it stops.

If you are trapped in an elevator, press the emergency button and try to reach someone outside for help. If the electricity has been cut off, use a cellphone. Even if you cannot make a phone call, you might be able to send e-mail via your cellphone, says Yamamura.

If you are in a train/subway . . .

Trains stop automatically when they sense a quake with an intensity of 5 on the Japanese 7-stage seismic scale. (Shinkansen stop at an intensity of 4.)

Stay on the train until you hear instructions from the conductor. Do not break the window and try to get out; touching a high-voltage cable can be fatal.

If you are in an underground shopping arcade or passageway . . .

You might be inclined to panic due to the sudden darkness, but try to stay calm. Basically tremors underground are much smaller than ones felt above ground and staying there might be safer unless there is a fire or a gas leak. Wait until the emergency lights come on. As a rule, there should be emergency exits every 60 meters.

If you are driving a car . . .

You may think you’ve got a flat tire and lose control of the car. To avoid an accident, turn on the hazard lights and slowly pull over to the road’s shoulder; stay in the car until the tremor stops.

Many disaster-related handbooks tell you to leave the car wherever you stop, but Yamamura points out that this can cause traffic jams and may block emergency vehicles. He suggests finding a clear space, such as a parking lot or a park, and leaving the car there.

If you are walking outside . . .

In principle you should get away from any buildings to avoid falling glass, signboards and roofing tiles.

If there are no open places in the vicinity, find a safe-looking building and run into it, protecting your head with your jacket or a bag.

If you are at home . . .

If you are woken from sleep, try to get away from bulky furniture, such as dressers, and protect your body from broken windows or lights with a blanket or comforter.

Since small spaces, such as bathrooms, are considered relatively safe, do not rush out of your home, but shelter in a suitable room. Open the door or window slightly to secure the exit and stay there until the quake subsides. However, if your bathroom’s water tank is overhead, it is best to get out as soon as possible.

If you are in the kitchen, shelter under the table. If you have a large refrigerator, stay clear. If you were cooking, do not attempt to turn off the stove until the quake subsides, to avoid unnecessary burns. Big tremors usually last less than a minute, after which you should turn off the stove immediately.