Italy is reeling in the wake of a massive earthquake in the middle of the country on August 24, leaving in its wake a death toll upwards of 290 people, and hundreds are taking refuge in makeshift camps. Experts say the earthquake was especially devastating because it was a relatively shallow quake less than six miles beneath the earth’s surface.

The disaster overseas affected American’s including students. Twelve students from St. Mary’s University were studying abroad in Rome at the time, fortunately all dozen are safe. All of the students were enrolled in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which meant they could get emergency messages from the local embassy to stay informed.

Taking a simple step like signing up for the Smart Traveler program can mean a world of difference if disaster strikes while you are traveling. Reading country specific warnings, especially in landscapes with volcanoes, can alert you to potential eruptions and earthquakes.  

How prepared for a shakeup are you? See if you were fooled by these common earthquake myths:

 

  • The safest spot during an earthquake is a doorway: Nope. In most modern homes, doorways are no stronger than the rest of a house. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re safer under a table.
  • I’m safe if it’s not “earthquake season”: There’s no such thing as an “earthquake season.” It was originally thought that earthquakes only happened in hot, dry weather. It has since been discovered that they can happen anytime.
  • As long as there’s no earthquake forecast, no problem: Think again. Scientists don’t yet know how to predict earthquakes. They happen totally without warning.
  • Earthquakes cause buildings to collapse: Yes and no. The vast majority of buildings do not collapse, especially in the most earthquake-prone areas. However, in many developing countries, poorer standards of construction can lead to devastating earthquake damage. See this 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when 70 percent of the buildings in Port-Au-Prince were destroyed.

Here are more tips for earthquake situations, provided by the American Red Cross:

When an earthquake occurs:

 

  • If you’re inside, drop, cover, and hold on.  Get under a heavy piece of furniture if possible and stay away from windows. Cover your head with a pillow.  If you are outside, find a clear spot and drop to the ground.  If you’re in a car, pull over in a clear area and stay there.  Stay away from bridges, overpasses and power lines. Most earthquake-related deaths and injuries are caused by falling objects and debris.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings: The damage to infrastructure caused by earthquakes can make your area unsafe. Gas leaks and explosions can occur. Listen for instructions on local radio or television stations for safe areas and spots to avoid.
  • Get in touch with your local embassy: Your lifeline abroad, the local United States embassy or consulate, aids citizens abroad when a disaster strikes.
  • Be prepared for aftershocks: Secondary quakes can happen hours, days or weeks after the initial quake. If one hits your area, stop, drop, cover and hold onto something.
  • Don’t go if it’s not safe: Return to your home, dorm or hotel room only after the local officials say it’s safe to do so.

  • Don’t drive: The roads need to be clear for emergency personnel. Get to the nearest place of safety and stay there until you’re officially cleared to go.
  • Stay tuned: Make sure you have access to updated information from disaster channels. Your situation and your environment could change at any time.

For even more information on what to do in the case of an earthquake, see the American Red Cross’ handout called “Be Red Cross Ready.”  
One way you can prepare for disaster before it strikes is taking out travel medical insurance. Taking out a small policy first can save you thousands of dollars in evacuation and medical fees.