Surviving a Structural Collapse: Tips and Guidelines

Imagine it’s a windy day, but you’ve been indoors playing Fallout 4 for the past couple of days, completely unaware of the weather outside. Suddenly, a deafening noise shatters the windows, and you hear the structure around you collapsing. The roof caves in, and you find yourself trapped beneath a massive pile of steel, wood, and concrete. What should you do in this dire situation?

Windstorms can happen in many parts of the country. While tornadoes can unleash wind speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, they usually have a narrow path of destruction, typically no wider than a mile. This means that the damage they cause is concentrated in a smaller area, making it easier for emergency responders to reach and assist those affected. On the other hand, hurricanes may have lower wind speeds, but they can carve a path of destruction wider than 100 miles, spreading rescuers thinly across a larger area.

In the event of such a disaster, it’s essential to understand that rescue teams might be in short supply. Blocked roads and other hazards could further hinder their ability to reach those in need. In such cases, ordinary citizens may need to take matters into their own hands. Search and rescue could become a self-driven effort. Having the right knowledge and being prepared could make a significant difference in whether you and others survive or find yourselves waiting in vain for government assistance to arrive.

Preparing for a Storm

When facing the threat of a severe storm, it’s essential to take steps to protect your home and ensure your safety. Here are some practical tips in plain language:

Secure Windows: During high-wind events, it’s crucial to protect your windows. If they break, the wind can enter your home, potentially causing your roof to blow off. One effective way to do this is by using pre-cut, labeled 5/8-inch plywood panels with pre-drilled holes. Make sure to keep screws in a safe place for quick installation. If plywood seems too heavy and bulky, consider using polycarbonate hurricane panels. These plastic sheets are lighter and transparent, allowing light to pass through.

Stay Informed: Once you’ve fortified your home as best as you can, stay tuned to local authorities for evacuation orders. If they recommend evacuation and it’s at all possible, it’s wise to leave your area. Staying behind is not a sign of bravery; it’s risky. A severe storm can disrupt essential supplies, power, and water for weeks. If your carefully prepared supplies and water storage are destroyed, you could face even more significant challenges.

Choose Your Shelter Carefully: If evacuation is genuinely impossible, carefully consider where you’ll seek shelter. Keep in mind that residential homes and townhomes are typically less sturdy than taller buildings. Lightweight wooden and metal structures are especially vulnerable during windstorms. Avoid staying in mobile homes, airplane hangars, marina structures, and large retail stores with unsupported roofs.

Consider Reinforced Structures: In extreme cases with advance warning, breaking into taller buildings may be a life-saving option. Three-story or higher buildings are often more robust and subject to stricter construction standards. Look for specially reinforced structures like federal government buildings and hospitals. Public schools can be a second-best choice. These buildings usually have skeletons made of reinforced concrete or heavy steel frames. High-rise glass curtain wall buildings can also provide stability even if their windows break during high winds.

Be Prepared and Stay Ready: As the wind picks up, always have your escape bag on you. If you’re trying to sleep, keep it close. When things start happening during a storm, they can escalate quickly, leaving no time to search for essentials. Keep your phone charged to its best capacity. Once the cell network becomes available again (and it likely will), it can help rescuers locate victims. Turn off accessible utilities such as water, power, and gas to reduce the risk of fire and electrocution when lines are damaged in the storm.

Signs of a Building Collapse

signs of a building collapse

Recognizing early warnings of a building collapse can be crucial for your safety, but these signs can vary depending on the type of structure. Here are some indicators, explained plainly:

Windows Are Not the First Sign: Contrary to what you might think, windows blowing out are not the initial warning signs, especially in taller buildings.

Separation of Walls and Ceilings: Watch for walls starting to separate from the ceiling and from each other. If you see cracks forming at these junctions, pay close attention. Cracks wider than your thumb suggest that the situation is becoming critical.

Dust and Unusual Noises: Be aware of dust lingering in the air or sudden, louder creaking and groaning sounds. These signs can be significant indicators of structural stress.

Eerie Doors: In multi-story buildings, one of the eeriest signs of impending collapse can be doors unexpectedly opening or closing on their own. This happens as the building twists or “racks.” Disturbingly, these doors often fail to close properly and may become jammed in their frames, potentially trapping people inside. If you witness this, you likely have less than 15 seconds to escape to safety.

Being vigilant for these warning signs can help you react swiftly and make critical decisions in the event of a building collapse, potentially saving lives.

Escaping a Collapsing Building

In the event that a building is collapsing around you, your immediate goal is to get out using any means necessary. Here’s what you should do, using straightforward language:

Head Towards the Light: If you’re in a building and it’s collapsing, move towards any source of light. Windows are often the most accessible exit points, especially if you’re on the lower floors (below three stories).

Multi-Story Building: In a multi-story building, your best bet is to try and reach a stairwell if possible. Stairwells are typically reinforced and can offer a safer escape route. During the 9/11 attacks, survivors were often found inside stairwells.

Use Hallways Wisely: If reaching a stairwell isn’t an option, aim to get into a hallway. Hallways usually have less debris, reducing the risk of being crushed.

Avoid Center Rooms: Stay away from the center of rooms, especially if you’re indoors when a collapse occurs. These areas are often the most dangerous. Instead, try to stay near walls or find shelter under heavy office equipment or furniture.

Protect Yourself: If you’re covered by debris, try to shield your face with your arms and hands as you fall. This action, similar to what’s done during an avalanche, can help create a life-saving air pocket around your head.

Remember that in a life-threatening situation like a collapsing building, every second counts. Prioritize getting to safety and use these guidelines to increase your chances of survival.

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After a Building Collapse

Once you’ve managed to escape a building collapse, it’s crucial to take immediate action. Here’s what you should do afterward, explained plainly:

Exit Quickly: As soon as you can regain your composure, leave the collapsed building without delay. Avoid lingering or waiting to see what happens next. Time is of the essence.

Use Essential Tools: Small hand tools, gloves, and headlamps can be incredibly valuable in assisting your escape. These items can help you navigate through debris and darkness.

Beware of Utility Hazards: Be cautious of the potential dangers caused by broken electrical lines mixing with broken water lines, especially if gas lines are involved. This combination increases the risk of fire. It’s why rescue teams often prepare water hoses immediately upon arriving at a structural collapse, even if there’s no visible fire.

Orient Yourself if Buried: If you find yourself partially buried, try to determine your orientation. If you’re unsure which way is up, use a simple trick: spit and observe which way the saliva falls. It can help you identify the correct direction.

Carry an Egress Bag: It’s crucial to carry an egress bag with you at all times, especially if you have advance warning of potential disasters. This bag can contain essential supplies that may prove life-saving in situations like these.

Remember that your safety is paramount, and taking swift, well-informed actions can greatly increase your chances of surviving a building collapse.

Assisting Others After a Collapse

If you find yourself in a building collapse situation and want to help others, here’s a straightforward guide to follow:

Prioritize Your Safety: Your well-being is essential. Unless there are family members or individuals with significant debts to you inside, focus on getting yourself out of the building first. Afterward, take a moment to assess your condition before considering re-entering the damaged structure.

Calm Eye of the Storm: If you’re dealing with a hurricane, be aware that if the winds suddenly seem to calm down, you’re likely in the calm eye of the storm, and the other half of the storm is yet to pass. This calm period usually lasts less than an hour, so act quickly if you plan to take any action.

Assess Structural Damage: When rescuing people from a collapsed or partially collapsed building, start by evaluating the structural damage. Ideally, look for victims on the building’s surface. Pay attention to cracks wider than your thumb and any missing supports like beams or columns. “X” cracks between window openings indicate severe shear forces and structural fragility. If there’s a pile of rubble, climbing on top can provide a better view and access to surface victims. While there’s a risk of the rubble shifting under your weight, the potential benefit of finding more surface victims often outweighs this risk. If possible, ensure utilities are turned off before entering to reduce the risks of fire and electrocution.

Search Stairwells: Concentrate your efforts on searching the stairwells. These sheltered areas typically offer the most survivable spaces for victims. If stairwells are inaccessible, focus on searching near any remaining standing walls, as survivors often seek refuge there. Debris tends to accumulate in the middle of rooms, away from walls, potentially crushing anything beneath.

Methodical Search: Take your time and avoid rushing. Conduct your search methodically. Shout out to potential victims and listen for their responses. Running or breathing heavily can make it difficult to hear faint calls for help. Keep in mind that those who haven’t been found are likely buried under something, making their voices muffled and faint.

Ensure you have the necessary safety gear, including gloves, eye protection, steel-toed boots, and consider wearing an N-95 respirator or Buff due to the high levels of airborne dust and debris. Your safety and a systematic approach are key to effective rescue efforts.

Dealing with Snow-Related Collapse

dealing with snow related collapse

With increasingly severe winters in recent times, snow-related structural collapses have become more frequent. This is often due to a lack of warmer or sunny days that would melt ice and compacted snow, which puts tremendous stress on roofs. Here’s what you need to know in plain language:

Roof Inspection: To prevent a collapse, inspect all four sides of your roof for snow buildup. Don’t assume that if one side is clear, the others are as well. A general rule of thumb is that if there’s more than 24 inches of snow on the roof, it’s a red flag. Lower this threshold to 18 inches if rain or ice is expected. Local conditions and building types might dictate different standards, so consult a local structural engineer or your building department. Signs of trouble include sagging roofs, rafters, popping noises, creaking, and visible cracks.

Using a Snow Rake: If you decide to use a snow rake (roof rake), start from the edges and work your way towards the center. Get a rake long enough so you can clear snow while standing on the ground. Avoid climbing onto the roof as this can add weight and increase the risk of falling, especially if there’s ice. Shave the snow down to a few inches without scraping the roof entirely clean. Also, ensure that snow is cleared from furnace and dryer exhaust vents.

Communication Plan: In rural areas, establish a communication and evacuation plan with someone offsite. Check in with them twice daily as scheduled. If two consecutive calls are missed, activate the emergency rescue plan. Return to or stay at your last reported location and await contact. If you suspect a collapse, keep your supply bag with you at all times. Woolen undergarments can help retain warmth, even if they get wet.

Maintain Heat: Try to keep a fire going but ensure proper ventilation. If you run out of water, melt ice and snow before consuming. Eating snow when you’re already cold will only lower your temperature further. At the very least, melt snow in your hands enough to mold it into a ball before consuming it. If things get dire and your home becomes a snow cave, the cold can affect your thinking. Plan while you can still think clearly.

By following these practical steps, you can better navigate the challenges posed by snow-related collapses and increase your chances of staying safe.

Clearing Up Structural Collapse Misconceptions

SVMD B1Let’s debunk some misconceptions about structural collapse in simple terms:

Duct Tape on Windows: Contrary to popular belief, duct tape on windows doesn’t provide protection. Instead, it increases the risk of getting glass shards and duct tape fragments in your eyes when the windows shatter.

Building Inspections: Just because your home was inspected by the local building department during construction doesn’t guarantee it’s structurally sound. During construction booms, inspectors can miss critical deficiencies due to their workload. Some issues, like unfilled concrete block walls or weak roof-to-wall connections, may not be evident until later. Older homes built before 2002 might be especially vulnerable to wind-related roof collapses due to outdated construction practices.

Government Assistance: Relying solely on government help can be a mistake. In a large-scale disaster, rescue resources may be spread thin, and prioritized based on the severity of the damage. If a neighboring town is hit harder, most government resources may be diverted there. Your individual situation might not receive immediate attention. This was evident during Hurricane Katrina when some areas had to wait for aid while resources focused on tourist and convention center locations. It’s essential to be prepared to some extent and not solely rely on government assistance.


Remember, even in the bleakest of circumstances during a collapse, there’s always a chance for survival. Remarkable stories exist, like a World Trade Center survivor who defied the odds by essentially riding the collapsing building down, an outcome that seemed technically impossible. Victims have been found alive in voids up to 14 days after a disaster, and experiences from events like the Haiti earthquake have expanded our understanding of human survivability beyond previous limits.

Even if you’re not a professional first responder, you might find yourself in a situation where you become the first responder by chance. Being prepared and having the knowledge to act swiftly and wisely can make a significant difference in saving lives during critical moments.

Recommended resources:

How To Prepare For Emergency Evacuation

How To Build The Invisible Root Cellar

The Eight Principles of Emergency Evacuation

Preserving Food and Cooking like in the Old Days

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