Many Americans think of tsunamis as events that unfold in Hollywood disaster flicks or in far-off lands such as Indonesia or Japan. But tsunamis crash against U.S. shores, too. The most destructive ones have struck the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, but they can hit almost any part of the U.S. coastline.

Would you know what to do to stay safe in the event of a tsunami?

“I don’t think anyone is suggesting that you walk around in fear,” says Michael Angove, the national tsunami program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Maryland. “What we are suggesting is that people pay attention, because these things do happen.”

Related: Why You Need an Emergency Plan For Your Pet

Tsunami 101

Tsunamis are not normal ocean waves, which are created by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon. They’re caused by undersea earthquakes or other disturbances that displace water, creating a series of enormous waves. Tsunamis can travel hundreds of miles an hour in the ocean and reach a height of more than 100 feet — higher than a 10-story building — according to NOAA.

Worldwide, major tsunamis occur about once every decade, according to NOAA. The 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan that killed an estimated 18,000 people and led to meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant caused smaller tsunamis in Crescent City and Santa Cruz, California.

Most tsunamis in the United States are fairly mild, according to Lucile Jones, PhD, science advisor at the science application for risk reduction project (SAFRR) at the U.S. Geological Survey. Tsunamis are rarely more than a few feet high on the East coast, and because 75 percent of coastal areas in the West are rugged cliffs, people there are rarely at risk, she says. But people living on or visiting any coastline need to know what to if one occurs, she says, since a local tsunami could pose a much bigger threat than one originating overseas.

Related: 5 Simple Ways to Prepare for an Emergency

Protect yourself

Here’s advice from Jones, Angove and experts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that can help you protect yourself in the event of a tsunami.

Know your risk. Find out whether your home, workplace or vacation spot is in a tsunami zone by checking with your local emergency management office or the National Weather Service. Coastal areas less than 25 feet above sea level and within a mile of the shoreline are at greater risk, according to FEMA. If you’re in a potential tsunami zone, FEMA notes, plan how to evacuate by foot to a safe place within 15 minutes.

Know the signs of a tsunami. These, NOAA officials warn “may be your first, best or only warning that a tsunami is on its way.” Signs include a sudden receding of the water (leaving seaweed, fish and reefs in its wake), a roar from the ocean resembling that of an airplane and waves that look like a wall or shelf of water. If you’re on a beach or coastline and notice any of these signs, get to higher ground immediately.

Undersea earthquakes can trigger a tsunami. If there is a strong or prolonged earthquake near a coastline, you may have only few minutes before the tsunami arrives.

Pay attention to official tsunami warnings. If you’re planning an outing to a beach, check the National Weather Service’s tsunami site for predictions. Scientists cannot predict all or even most tsunamis well in advance. But if an earthquake occurs in the Cascadia fault zone off the West, for example, scientists and government officials will have between one and four hours to inform the public, according to Jones.

If an earthquake occurs while you’re on a coast, turn on the radio to see if there is a tsunami warning. Evacuate immediately (and take your pets) if you hear a warning — don’t go to the beach to watch it or take a selfie. “If you can see the wave, you are too close to escape it,” according to FEMA.

Get to higher ground as fast as you can. This is the one guiding principle for dealing with a tsunami, experts say. Try to get 100 feet above sea level or as far as 2 miles inland, according to FEMA. If you’re trapped and unable to reach higher ground, if you can get to the third floor or higher of a very sturdy building — say, a concrete–reinforced hotel — you may be out of danger, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Don’t let down your guard after the first wave. Tsunamis often consist of more than one wave, and the first is not necessarily the largest, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The tsunami may last for hours, so don’t return until you get an “all clear” from the authorities.

If higher ground is too far away, climb a tree or grab something that floats, advise experts at the U.S. Geological Survey, which interviewed survivors of tsunamis in Chile, Hawaii and Japan, some of whom found safety in trees or survived by clinging to a log or rooftop.

Use common sense. Above all, don’t panic, and act swiftly. On the coast in Chile they say, “If an earthquake throws you on the ground, as soon as you can get up, run,” says Jones. “That’s pretty good advice.”

Related: Disaster Preparedness? There’s an App for That

Like this article? Share it with friends by clicking the Facebook or Twitter button below. And don't forget to visit our Facebook page!

Susan Suleman is a freelance writer who divides her time between the United States and Africa.