Mudslide Survival

by Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones of
MUDSLIDEWith the grim news of at least 14 dead in the mudslide that occurred in the state of Washington, I realized that I had never written about mudslide survival.  This surprised me, as I, myself, could easily be a victim of one.  We’re part-time residents of beautiful Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with a home on a mountain overlooking the town and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  As such, we live on a slope. How much of a slope? Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to fall off our deck (and not just because of our resident black bear).
The mudslide in Washington was huge, about a mile wide with an extensive debris field. In some places, the debris is 30 feet thick.  Our thanks, by the way, to the emergency personnel who tirelessly dug survivors from the wreckage.
A mudslide, sometimes called a “debris flow”, is a landslide with a high water content. Mudslides act like a river that, if the mud is thick, has the consistency of wet concrete. Mud, rocks, trees, and other large objects are carried along and can cause homes to collapse and a huge amount of traumatic injury to residents.   In the U.S., 25-50 deaths occur on average as a result of landslides.
Periods of heavy rainfall or snow melt saturate the ground and cause instability in sloping areas. Areas prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters are especially susceptible. Humans contribute to this susceptibility with poor planning: Roads cut into hills and mountains and scenic mountain retreats (like ours!) make mudslides more likely. River or brookside retreats at the base of a hill or mountain (in the “holler”, as we say in Tennessee) are also vulnerable.
Before building that dream home:
  • -Beware of steep slopes, natural or man-made runoff conduits, or eroded areas.
  • -Have the county Geological Survey specialist assess your property for possible mudslide risk.
  • -Consider flexible pipe fittings (installed by pros) less prone to gas or water leaks.
  • -Consider building a retaining wall in likely mudslide channels.
  • -Avoid areas that have experienced mudslides in the past.
  • -Plan out an evacuation route.
  • -Have a battery-powered NOAA weather radio.
  • -Have a medical kit with items to deal with both traumatic injury and water sterilization.
Mudslide prone areas will begin to show signs that trouble is on the way:
  • -Cracks develop in walls, flooring, paving, driveways, or foundations.
  • -Outside structures (for example, stairs) begin to separate from buildings
  • -Doors and windows start becoming jammed.
  • -Utility lines start breaking.
  • -Fences, trees, and utility poles start tilting.
  • -Water starts accumulating in strange places
  • -Roads and embankments along slopes start breaking off at the edges.
  • -The Terrain starts to “bulge” or starts slanting at the base of the slope.
  • -Turn on the NOAA radio and listen to warnings as they are reported.
  • -Warn your neighbors!
  • -If a mudslide is imminent, get the heck out of there if at all possible with the understanding that roads may be washed out.  Stay away from mudslide areas; further mudslides may still occur.
  • -If you stay home, get to the second story if you have one.
  • -Watch for and avoid downed power lines.
  • -As the slide passes through, get under a table and curl into a ball, protecting your head.
  • -If you’re trapped in the mud, survival rates go up if you can form an air pocket around you.  You can survive with water for 3-4 days if you had to.
Mudslides are just another reason why it’s important to be prepared, in every way, for the slings and arrows that the uncertain future may hold for you and your family.
Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones

Joe and Amy Alton are the authors of the #1 Amazon Bestseller “The Survival Medicine Handbook.  See their articles in Backwoods Home, Survival Quarterly, and other great magazines. For over 400 articles on medical preparedness, go to their website at

The opinions voiced by Joe Alton, M.D., and Amy Alton, A.R.N.P.,  aka Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy, are their own and are not meant to take the place of seeking medical help from your healthcare provider.  The practice of medicine without a license is illegal and punishable by law.  Seek modern and standard medical care whenever and wherever it is available.


  1. I would think that driving pylons into the slope above you house would do a lot to mitigate the danger of slides. Also high walls or barriers to divert the flow if it does occur.

    These are not that common, at least in the news, others than in CA. Again the ground cover gets burned off, lots of water in a short about of time. Many times proceeded by a drought.

    Views are nice, but I’m not sure I want to risk losing everything for a view.

  2. Exile1981 says:

    I’m sorry but building a house on a slope in an area prone to mud slides is about as smart as building a house in a flood plane or on the edge of a volcano.

    • Donna in MN says:

      I agree. There were ample warnings since those heavy rains hit the west coast for mudslides weeks ago whether an area had these mudslides before or not.

  3. Desert Fox says:

    A guy on Coast to Coast AM Radio thought that the slide looked more like a “Lahar,” which is a slide due to volcanism. Seattle has a volcano nearby…so….

  4. Tactical G-Ma says:

    What may never have happened in recorded history, can happen.
    Flooding and mudslides have been known to close down the north eastern corner of TN including the interstates. I saw a slide in Syracuse, NY in the early 80’s.
    Just like Dr. Bones points out, you can’t take anything for granted.

  5. mom of three says:

    We are an hour from where this happened, my prayers go to everyone thay survived. Even though we are the evergreen state, we can only take so much rain.

  6. Northern wolf says:

    Here in Washington state we have slides all the time due to the rain and the ground where a lot of it is left over from glaciers, in Seattle the sounder train is down more than running due to slides on the tracks they have to wait 48 hours before running again as long as there are no other slides.
    When I went house hunting many years ago I chose a place that is on flat land away from rivers
    , hill sides and creeks,yes creeks can cause damage.we had one near by me that washed out a road to some homes that only had 1way that is something else to think about access to your place is a good location and unlike a lot of places around me the ground is solid with no Sandy rocky soil.

  7. riverrider says:

    mudslide survival- don’t live in a mudslide area. any place they occur, they have occurred for centuries. they are not new. study the soil/rock.

  8. Soggy Prepper says:

    Pretty much here in the Pacific Northwest the chance of land/mud slides are “purtnear everywhear”. We’re a couple hours south of where this happened. Today alone we had 2 highways shut down and a road on a hill nearby due to “little” slides. We have lots of hills, mnts, creeks, streams, rivers, springs, ect. Most of the time everything is fine, like years fine and then it goes. Just like when St. Helens erupted people asked why do you live next to a volcano? Cause most of the time everything is fine! (great hunting there too if you can get a tag!)

    Plus this mile wide slide you wouldn’t figure on being a mile away from a mountain and a slide reaching you and being 15 to 30 feet thick when it does. Ducking and covering under a table won’t help that.
    If you look at the pictures of this particular slide on line and where it occurred a slide probably wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t logged off recently, no buildings on it and it was a massive slide that traveled far.
    I’d have been more concerned about the river flood plain down the valley then the mountain that gave way. Which is what they will be getting now since the slide wiped out the river channel. The backed up river is going to go somewhere.

    When I saw the photos of this slide I thought, “geez, I don’t have a second location with “stuff”, no BOL”. These people lost their homes and everything in them. All my storage is in my home. If I lost that everything would be gone. In a localized disaster like this other people,friends, family, ins company, can help you. The people that made it can rebuild. In a disaster like this with a larger state or country shtf scenario it would be very bad.
    I imagine a mudslide is as bad as a forest fire, only less warning.

  9. we live in slide prone area here in socal as well. being that comminities continue to be built in more remote and scenic areas, fires and subsequent mass land movement become from rainfall seem inevitable. run-off mitigation helps where it can be implemented but much area is unaccessible or not pratical to ad drainiage or shore up. hwy1 up norcal has debris from the mountain constantly giving road crews work in that part of the state.
    nice read

  10. I live on the Oregon Coast and a whole section of the highway south of me is on what my Dad called soap stone. It slides out periodically and our highway crew is out fixing it. Most of us don’t get horribly anxious about it – it is just one of the things you deal with when you live here. Just like people who live in snow prone areas just accept that there will be snow and plan accordingly so do most of us who live in this area.

    There just isn’t any truly safe place to live – there will always be potential man-made and natural disasters – our job is to know what disasters are prevalent in our area and plan and prepare accordingly to the best of our ability.

  11. I have a basic preventive remedy for mudslides. Move!!!

  12. Really not the kind of advice I was looking for…

    A safe-room should remain intact under the debris pile, if you get to it in time, even if it is upside-down and a mile from where it started. Hope you’ve got seat-belts. But then you need to plan to be stuck there for WEEKS. Oxygen supply and CO scrubber are a MUST.

    Beyond that, if you can open a hatch (inward) or break through your walls… several sections of pipe and a sledge-hammer should allow you to make a reverse-well (see: sand point wells). The pipe sticking up will alert rescuers, and once you find a good way to remove all the debris from the inside of the pipe, you can pump air in and out, if you’ve got the proper power equipment.

  13. We’ve got some hills in our area, but few are steep enough to lead to a mudslide even in a rainy season. Tornados & flooding are more common.
    Another reason to avoid property w/ steep hills is security. A steep hill can hide intruders. I prefer relative flat land w/ a gentle slope so the excess rain can run off. But still flat enough to plant a garden, etc.

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