Earthquake Survival Guide


Compiled by Tobie Openshaw


Looking back at the last 20-odd years of earthquakes and disasters in Taiwan and elsewhere in the region, one can learn a few lessons and prepare some necessities to ensure that you can survive similar scenarios to what we have seen play out here.


Disasters in Taiwan


Disaster  scenarios 

1. AT HOME, BUILDING DAMAGED, BUT YOU CAN GET OUT (The 9/21/1999 Earthquake)
During the earthquake of 9/21, we were living on the 10th floor of an apartment building in Taoyuan. The building swayed to such an extent that our bed moved away from the wall by about a meter. We got the kids into jackets and shoes in between violent aftershocks, and got them down the stairwell and bundled into the car. We covered them up with the duvet we had brought down with us, drove to an open space, and spent an

921 earthquake
An image showing aftermath of earthquake that occured on Sep 21st, 1999.

uncomfortable night sleeping in the car. The next day we spent driving around because there were still aftershocks and we thought the apartment was unsafe. 7-11 remained open but all necessities were quickly sold out. All other businesses and restaurants were closed, ATMS were dead, so we were running out of cash. On the 3rd day we found a lone bank employee with a generator, running one ATM! We snacked on whatever we could find at 7-11. Eventually we returned, but we had no electricity and no water for over a week. We did have gas supply so we could cook. The most severe problem, that was the most immediately sign that you were in a state of emergency, was the fact that without water, you can’t flush the toilet. We developed a system of only flushing once a day, and getting water out of the swimming pool for that.   Carrying a 20l can of water up 10 flights of stairs was no joke, and that was barely enough for one flush. The men peed into the sink. It was almost 2 weeks before things were normal again.


2. AT WORK (The Fukushima 2011 earthquake)

You’re at work. You are uninjured but you need to get home. You don’t know where your loved ones are or if they are safe. PHONES ARE DOWN. Cellphone networks are vulnerable to damage to towers, complete power outages, and system overload immediately after a disaster. In Taoyuan after the 9/21 earthquake it took several hours before I was able to send and receive text messages. During the Fukushima earthquake, some of my colleagues in Tokyo chose to walk home because all transportation was halted. Some of them walked for FIVE HOURS in very unsuitable shoes.

3. AT HOME, BUILDING TOPPLES, YOU ARE TRAPPED (The Tainan 2/6/2016 earthquake)

You wake up to the building toppling. Everything happens incredibly quickly. Everything slides down, you are trapped at an awkward angle, with only the stuff next to your bed in a mess around you. You get the weight of the bed off you where it crushed you against the wall. The water pipes break and the water tanks on the roof tip out their contents. There is a gush of water, some of which drenches you. You are stuck in a narrow space because the floors pancaked. It is dark and cold. You can smell gas. A piece of rebar gashed your leg. It’s not bleeding too badly, but you’re not sure if it’s fractured. You are in shock. It may take hours, even days, before rescuers can get to you. You need to let them know you are alive so they can hone in on you. You need to dry out, give yourself first aid, you need to keep warm, and you need to keep your spirits up. You have to stay alive.

Some general thoughts in no particular order:

Have a plan

When the building is violently shaking and shelves come crashing down, it’s well past the time for you to think, “Aaaah what should I do?”

Discuss with all members of your household, and have a solid plan.

LARGE-SCALE DESTRUCTION such as in Haiti or Nepal is uncommon in Taiwan. It’s usually just single buildings that go down. If your building is still standing after the first shake, chances are that it will stay that way. If you can get out, you are safe – you can get to shelter, you will get government assistance, you can also go stay with friends or family – Best to have this conversation before disaster strikes.

  • Remember to take your house keys, with you, keep duplicates in your bag – you don’t want to evacuate, stay outside in the cold for a while and then discover you’ve locked yourself out of the house.
  • Keep your floors clear of kids’ toys etc. … you don’t want to be tripping over Legos in the dark.
  • Include your pets’ needs in your preparations.
  • If you keep your shoes by the door, keep at least a pair of flipflops right by your bed.
  • A car provides shelter and warmth and relative comfort, and the ability to get out of danger. If you have one, it is a very important part of your plan.
  • Check Websites/FB Groups if people offering help and rooms, and mark yourself safe.
  • EVACUATION CENTERS are usually at a school in the neighborhood. Go there to get help, to be accounted for, and to find loved ones. Don’t just bug out and go sit it out somewhere without letting people know you are safe.


Usually the following applies:

The building starts shaking. You wake up and assess.

  • Is the building just swaying, and then stops? You can probably just go back to sleep.
  • Is the building groaning and things falling off shelves? You should probably leave.
  • Is the building tilting/pancaking, pieces of concrete breaking out of ceiling and walls? – You should protect your head as best you can, ride it out. This will be a very violent experience, it usually happens VERY quickly. You will probably be hurt. Once everything settles down, check yourself for injuries, control any bleeding first, get your flashlight from your grab bag, and seek an escape route. Be careful of upsetting things that are precariously balanced. If there is no escape, keep warm, treat yourself with what you have to hand, try to communicate to let others know you are alive and your location (blow a whistle, tap on beams or pipes) and sit tight. YOU WILL BE RESCUED. The Taiwan Rescue Services are very experienced, very well equipped, and they do not stop before they have every single person accounted for.

It’s best to NOT try to run out of a building when things are still shaking and falling. That’s the most vulnerable period. It’s best to STAY and COVER. Get under a table or bed or doorway (pick out suitable spots in EACH room beforehand) or whatever will protect you against falling things. Wait for the shaking to subside.

  • Now grab the THINGS ON YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE and your BUG OUT BAG (be prepared for aftershocks, take cover again if they come immediately)
  • PUT ON YOUR SHOES, PUT ON A JACKET, GRAB CHILDREN OR PETS, (maybe sit out another aftershock)
  • ONCE OUTSIDE, you now have the option to wait and see if it’s safe to go back inside, get in your car and get out of the area, or, if your building catastrophically collapses, vacate the area so that emergency services can get in, and get to a shelter.


Some people will find their first instinct is to help others who may be trapped. In fact, in most disasters, such as the Haiti and Fukushima earthquakes, the first 24 hours is when MOST people are rescued – mostly under their own steam, or helped by relatives and others – many of them dug out by people using their bare hands. Therefore in my earthquake kit I have a hammer, cold chisel, hacksaw, pry bar, gloves, goggles and helmet. However, while I have had SOME experience with this kind of thing, I know my limitations. Once the trained and equipped emergency services arrive, give them whatever useful information you may have, then GET OUT OF THEIR WAY.



This is my list. Yours may be tailored according to your needs. Some of these are essentials, others can be described as “comfort Items”.


Here you should have the stuff that you really cannot do without, things that you can grab in an instant – or, should you be trapped, they are immediately to hand.


  • Phone on charge
  • Wallet with money and ID
  • Shoes
  • Keys


  • Automatic flashlight (plugged into wall, this keeps its charge and switches on automatically when there is a power failure)



This bag should be tailored to your specific needs and will change depending on your household situation, do you have pets or children to provide for, etc. You might prepare a bag for each member of the family. This should ideally also be reachable from your bed.


  • Personal ID
  • Folder with personal documents
  • Beanie hat
  • Warm gloves
  • Scarf
  • Hand warmers
  • Sweater
  • LED Flashlight
  • Multi-tool
  • Umbrella
  • Powerbank for phone plus variety of cables
  • Wallet with 5k and small change Masks
  • Work Gloves
  • Lighter
  • Light plastic raincoat/s
  • Small roll plastic bags
  • Goggles
  • Whistle
  • Spare Reading glasses
  • Spare keys to everything including car
  • Cigarettes
  • Hard candy/chocolate nuts
  • Small first-aid kit:
    • Band-aids
    • Iodine
    • Gauze
    • Bandage
    • Sanitary towels
    • Aspirin
    • Antacid
    • Water purification tablets
    • Paper clips
    • Safety pins
    • Dental floss
    • Any meds that you depend on
  • USB Memory stick with:
    • Scans of Passports
    • ARCs
    • Will
    • Family photos
    • Car registration
    • Medical info
    • Emergency contacts in other city/country
  • Change of socks/underwear
  • Wind-up charger/flashlight
  • Pry bar for jammed doors
  • Spare batteries for flashlight
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Wetwipes
  • Sudoku
  • Pen/pencil
  • Strong metal water bottle
  • Jacket
  • Small battery-powered FM radio
  • Roll of plastic bags
  • Toilet tissue
  • Duct tape
  • Helmet (skating helmet is cheap and will protect against falling things.)


3. Elsewhere in your house:

Know where the electricity, water and gas taps are to shut them off. Do so if you have an orderly evacuation. In fact, it might be a good idea even to turn your gas tap off every evening before going to bed.


  • Fire extinguisher
  • Large water container with water (for toilet)
  • Smaller water container (drinking)
  • Battery –powered LED Room Light
  • Large plastic bags
  • Duct tape
  • Canned food – soups etc.
  • Dry noodles
  • Pastas
  • Rice
  • Trail mix
  • Pet food
  • Candles (Naked flame only to be used if 100% sure no gas leak!)
  • Stock of batteries for devices, flashlights etc.
  • Toilet foam (Spray into bowl to cover sight and smell so you can flush less.)
  • Battery-powered FM Radio


4. Always in car:


  • Fire Extinguisher
  • Silver windshield sunscreens
  • Machete
  • Wood saw
  • Hand axe
  • Pry bar
  • Folding Table
  • Folding chairs
  • Tarp
  • Large Umbrellas
  • Blanket



What you keep in your car is a very personal choice. Many things like food on this list will spoil if you leave in your car too long. Maybe you could have a bin in your house in which you keep those items, and only put it in your car during heightened risk periods, like typhoons approaching, or earthquake swarms like we’ve been having. You can also check the expiry date on things at least once a year and swap them out. I like to camp so a lot of the stuff I have in my car is to survive in an outdoors, camping, living-out-of-the-car situation, but that would be almost unheard of in Taiwan, you will be better off going to a shelter or with friends.




    • Camping stove and gas canisters
    • Camping pot x 2
    • Can opener
    • Knives/forks/spoons
    • Bowls
    • Plastic cups
    • Kitchen knife
    • Cutlery
    • Dry food
    • Energy bars
    • Dry noodles
    • Canned foods
    • Hard candy
  • Baby stuff (Even if you don’t have a baby yourself, diapers are good for wound dressings, and also for barter with families with babies)
  • Wetwipes
  • 2 small Towels
  • Sanitary towels
  • Flipflops for everyone
  • Wide duct tape
  • 20l Water bottle
  • Bucket
  • Toilet seat
  • Toilet paper
  • Roll black garbage bags
  • Disposable underwear & socks
  • Books:
    • Survival manual
    • First-aid manual
    • Novel
    • 3lb hammer
    • Cold chisel
    • Pry bar
    • Hatchet
    • Hacksaw
    • Wire cutters
    • Pliers
    • Adjustable wrench
    • Gloves
    • Masks
    • Goggles
    • Water and gas main wrenches?
    • Scissors
    • Soap
    • Shampoo
    • Dental floss (roll, many uses)
    • Toothbrushes
    • Toothpaste
    • Toothpicks
    • Dishwashing liquid
  • Green oil for insect repellant/smell
  • Firestarters
  • Windproof Lighter
  • Sunglasses
  • Candles
  • Solar charging panel
  • Blow up travel pillow
  • Umbrellas
  • Raincoats
  • Reflective vest
  • SD card
  • Spare camera battery
  • Ziploc bags
  • Pack of cards
  • Rope – paracord, climbable rope, towing rope
  • Sleeping bag
  • Bleach
  • Aluminum foil
    • Painkiller
    • Antiseptic
    • Wound clotting
    • Tourniquet
    • Stretch bandage
    • Wound Gauze
    • Stomach medicine
    • Bottle of saline
    • Sanitary pads
    • Lip balm
    • Sunscreen
    • Water purification


  • FOOD
    • Foodstuffs – candy, trail mix, energy bars
    • Cans of food
    • Hard candy
    • Trail mix
    • Energy bar
    • Baby Porridge/food
    • Multivitamins
    • Pao mien
    • Pet food

6. At the office:

Small backpack with:

  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Scarf
  • Raincoat
  • Umbrella
  • Empty water bottle (fill up from water dispenser immediately)
  • Candy
  • Emergency phone numbers of family members



  • All the stuff you keep by your bedside
  • Clothes
  • Bug-out bag
  • Camera bags

8. TO BUY immediately if available:

  • Draw all cash money if possible
  • Water – 20l
  • Bread
  • Snacks
  • Chocolate
  • Coke
  • Charcoal
  • BBQ
  • Firelighters
  • Newspapers
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • Condensed milk
  • Instant Coffee


In closing, remember that Taiwan has had a lot of experience in dealing with disasters, and if you can survive the first hours of an event, you will probably be ok.



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