Sunday, February 7, 2010

How to Prepare for Natural Disasters Abroad

It's hard to tell if there are more natural disasters these days or if it's just that the information age has let the news of them run wild. From January's Haitian earthquake catastrophe to the floods at Machu Picchu and Southeast Asia's 2004 tsunami, we are constantly reminded that no matter how well humans appear to dominate the earth, it is undeniably the earth that dominates us. Last week I was caught in cyclone Oli here in Tahiti and I am awed and humbled by how helpless I felt during the storm. I also realize how completely unprepared I was for a cyclone even though I have lived in this country for fifteen years. So what to do when a natural catastrophe happens while you're traveling or are in a foreign country? To make myself feel better and to spread the word, I have compiled these tips:

1) Research. Read up on your destination and find out what risks are present. If you're going to a place that's in an earthquake zone, know what to do in case of an earthquake. Will you be in a tsunami zone, visiting during cyclone season or be near an active volcano? There are lots of great tips online and you can educate yourself with the basics of what to do in a worst-case-scenario in well under an hour. Knowledge is power but it can also save your ass.

2) Know where to get in-country information. During cyclone Oli we had no electricity and no cell phone reception. The only means of getting information was by radio. If you're going to a risk area, consider carrying a small battery powered radio (it's great to listen to local radio in foreign countries anyway!). During cyclone Oil I had to listen to my car radio. If you don't speak the local language then at least keep some phone numbers handy such as your embassy or crisis hotlines - if the phones go out these obviously won't help but it can't hurt to have them. The most up to date information on the Internet during a crisis is often on Twitter. If you're lucky to have Internet, figure out the trending topic abbreviation of whatever you're in for and follow it diligently.

3) Pay attention. Many countries now have much more advanced crisis systems than they used to. In Southern Thailand for example there are well-marked tsunami evacuation routes everywhere. Look at these and make a mental note where they are, kind of like checking out where the nearest emergency exit is on an airplane. In your hotel, does that sturdy table look like a good place to crawl under in case of an earthquake? Does the bathroom have the least windows and could you pull the bed's mattress over yourself if a cyclone blew the roof off? All this takes little energy but could potentially save your life at times when you might not be thinking straight.

4) Insurance. Having travel insurance that can help you be evacuated to receive proper medical care can be very reassuring. In most cases you will not be reimbursed for cancelled flights due to weather and even most cruises have a clause that they can change their itineraries die to unseen circumstances without offering a refund. Buying your travel with a credit card (especially American Express) or through a travel agent can also increase your chances of getting money back after a natural catastrophe. Always read the fine print.

It's not fun to be paranoid but it's even less fun to get the daylights scared out of you or worse, hurt or killed. A small amount of effort can really go a long way and is well-worth the time.

For more information on my experiences during Cyclone Oli see my posts on awaiting the storm and after the storm.

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