After asking this question, What's the worst natural disaster that could hit New York City in our lifetime, it looks like the most popular answer was a Tsunami. A tsunami, however, from the sources of the most devastating ones could completely obliterate the city which makes me feel like it's not realistic to expect survivors.

However, if there were survivors, what methods would likely have been used for them to survive?

Being in a really tall building? On a ship? I imagine anyone on low ground is a goner. Perhaps depending on how bad the Tsunami is, the center-most land of the island is safer than the coasts?

Reading the Prologue in Maze Runner, they basically survive a Tsunami because they just happen across an ex-military guy who knew about the impending disaster and leads them out of the subway before they drown and into the tallest building in the city. They eventually leave this tall building when someone happens to pass by with a ship and tries to rob them which was a total stroke of luck. Is this... realistic?

References: http://www.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Tsunami

  • $\begingroup$ This may help as well: pubs.usgs.gov/circ/c1187 $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 17:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think even the biggest, most powerful tsunamis with the power to tear down buildings and sky scrapers would have survivors just out of pure luck. Not many, maybe (depending on how big the tsunami is) but a few, just out of randomness and being in the right place at the right time and being able to escape to a little pocket of safety. Even if your chance of survival is 1 in 100000, that's about 85 survivors. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 14:25

3 Answers 3


With the exception of the 'meteor' style event, a tsunami wave isn't actually that high. In the Indonesian earthquake that caused the tsunami there, it's debatable if the height of the wave was over 10 feet tall. The destructive part came from the pure volume of water and the energy/strength it brings...anything not anchored in, is pretty readily relocated a long ways into shore. I doubt the water itself would ever down a skyscraper, however I could see a tsunami crashing enough debris (including houses) into the foundations of these buildings to cause enough structural damage to bring one down.

I have met travelers who avoided the initial wave on a 3 story roof top of a building that bore the brunt of the initial strike in the Indonesian tsunami in 2004....terrifying, but not that likely to kill. What made this tsunami dangerous was a complete lack of warning coupled with natural human curiosity...we saw the water heavily recede and came out to see whats happening. Correct response if you ever see an ocean's water recede into the distance is to get to high ground immediately, you're probably too late if you're on the beach seeing the water recede.

Surviving the initial wave is simply being out of this water flow and debris. In hills or in buildings is quite functional...trees have a potential of working as well, you just have to make sure whatever you're standing on isn't swept away.

However I do not believe that is the most dangerous part of a tsunami...it's the days after. Survivors find themselves stuck in standing water with very limited mobility, full of sewage and debris that have been washed up. Entering standing water is inherently dangerous as metal shards from what used to be signs and cars are quick to cut open skin. Once cut open, the wound is exposed to this sewage happy water and will likely become infected and toxic. Take Katrina and the impact flooding New Orleans had as an example here.

A city's water supply is most often underground, so the aftermath now includes a complete lack of drinking water (even worse if you consider most bottled water supplies are kept on ground floors). The majority of food (grocery stores) tend to be on ground levels as well, which is now covered in not so clean water.

So you're stuck, with likely a lot of other survivors, with very limited food and water...and absolutely no mobility that doesn't come with some serious risks.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for clarifying that, it appears the aftermath might be more dangerous than the event itself. $\endgroup$
    – KaguraRap
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, this depends on how large an area was affected. From NYC to high land is only a few miles, an easy walk. $\endgroup$
    – abcde
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 23:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So your tsunami backpack should contain: a map to high ground/strong tall buildings, water purification tablets and lots of beef jerky. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 10:42
  • $\begingroup$ @KaguraRap that is generally true of most large disasters in the modern world, what's the old saying modern cities are 3 days away from starvation? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:35

For something like this, I'd probably just research actual tsunamis. There are probably plenty of accounts along the lines of "luckily the casualties were low this time, because..."

But if you're just looking for options, it just depends on how powerful a tsunami it is. Can it knock over buildings? If not, anyone above the waterline should be ok. Does it happen without warning? If not, people could have evacuated or gotten to shelters. Is this an unusual place for tsunamis? If not, they may have made special facilities for weathering the storm.

Remember, tsunamis are rarely a single, giant wave: more commonly, they're like a tide that just keeps coming in. Unless you're talking about a tsunami from an asteroid impact or something, it probably won't be knocking down skyscrapers.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Plus: if the city is hilly, it will affect only people on the ground level. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ So a tsunami wouldn't knock buildings down unless it's caused by a meteor? Even if buildings didn't fall depending on how powerful the tsunami is, some buildings would be completely submerged whereas others tall enough may have some floors survive? I was thinking earthquake caused tsunami. $\endgroup$
    – KaguraRap
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 17:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KaguraRap They'll knock down houses, but I've never seen a skyscraper taken down by one. And yeah, some buildings would be submerged or destroyed (by the water itself or by floating debris, like getting hit with a few cars), but there are always some buildings that are way above the waterline. A meteor would be needed to create the "giant wall of water" from Hollywood that towers above the city. Most tsunamis don't hit like a shockwave from a nuke, it's more like a river just got redirected through your town: its the constant push that does damage, not the sudden impact. $\endgroup$
    – Nerrolken
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 17:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KaguraRap check out this video for illustration: youtu.be/2uJN3Z1ryck At the beginning it starts small, you could probably outrun the water on foot. But the problem is, it JUST KEEPS COMING. By the end, there are houses floating in the water, and everything has been destroyed. But it was the relentlessness that was the problem, not the initial impact. $\endgroup$
    – Nerrolken
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 17:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Nerrolken Thanks for the video - it was helpful! $\endgroup$
    – KaguraRap
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 0:53

Grey's harbor in Washington state has been working on this very issue, and my wife has actually been researching it.

A Tsunami-safe building mainly needs the following three traits...

  1. The support structure of the building should be strong and deep to keep the foundation from washing away.
  2. The first two floors need to be easy to break away any external walls. You don't want those walls blocking water or the force could collapse the building, you want minimal in-water building.
  3. You want the third floor reinforced. Tsunamis pretty much never reach this high, but splash up waves can get in, and it can take a beating. Also, you'll want it built to drain out. Of course, also have it stocked up with water, food, blankets, communication equipment, first aide equipment, etc.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .