Preparing for the Worst: How to Survive a Natural Disaster
With the recent Nepal earthquake fresh in travelers’ minds, TPG Contributor Carly Blatt—a former Red Cross staff member who was on vacation in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit —shares tips on how to be prepared for natural disasters while you're on the road.
A natural disaster descending upon an area you’re visiting is the ultimate travel nightmare, but while there’s no definitive way to know when the worst might strike, you can proactively take steps to be as prepared as possible. Some of the lessons below I learned through Red Cross disaster training classes, while others I learned first-hand after being on vacation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Prior to Your Trip
Check these simple items off your list before you leave home:
- Complete Ready.gov’s Emergency Plan
- Fill out an updated emergency contact card
- Put together a small first-aid kit along with a wind-up flashlight
- Register with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) if you’ll be traveling abroad. The State Department will keep you up to date on relevant travel warnings and advisories, and registering will allow them to be better able to help you if a natural disaster occurs.
- Pick someone from home to be a point of contact for you and your travel companions in case you’re separated when a disaster occurs. Following some disasters, it’s often easier to make long-distance calls—especially on landlines—even if local cell phone service becomes limited. Your point person can help transmit information to help you reconnect.
- Pack double the supply of your prescription medicines, extra copies of prescriptions, a back-up pair of glasses and a list of all of your medications along with dosages. If a disaster occurs, you may be away from home much longer than anticipated and have difficulty getting access to medicine.
- Bring paper copies of your travel insurance details, full itinerary and key phone numbers, as well as a copy of your passport. Give copies to a trusted friend at home in case your papers are lost or damaged and store digital copies of everything online.
If you’re reluctant to carry extra paper, imagine a situation where there’s no power for your phone, computer or other electronic device, and you have zero Internet access. What information and phone numbers are on your devices that you’d need to access?
When You Arrive
- Pick up a paper map and write down the name and address of where you’re staying—even if you plan to primarily use a map app on your phone.
- Learn the local emergency phone number as well as where nearby hospitals and pharmacies are.
- Find out what your hotel’s emergency plan is.
- If you’re traveling with others, pick two places to meet up if you’re separated during an emergency. While the default location can be where you’re staying, it’s also wise to pick a back-up location at least a few blocks away in case that area isn’t safe.
- Cash is king! I know—almost everything you read about travel safety warns you against carrying too much cash. It’s irreplaceable if you lose it, unlike credit cards and travelers cheques. But if there’s a disaster, it’s suddenly your new best friend. If a power outage occurs, you may be unable to use ATMs or credit cards. And no local merchant is going to want to deal with exchanging a traveler’s cheque during a disaster.
If You Have Advance Notice of an Impending Disaster
In the case of hurricanes, tornadoes and similar emergencies, there’s usually sufficient warning before they land. If you’re able to leave town safely with enough notice, head out ASAP. If you can’t leave, make a run to the nearest store to load up on nonperishable foods like energy bars, peanut butter and canned foods that don’t require an opener. Don’t forget bottled water as well as iodine tablets that you can use to purify water if needed.
Also, check news reports and ask hotel staff for information on local shelters and transportation options in case you need to evacuate.
After a Disaster
Since Internet and phone use may be limited or difficult, you can use Google Person Finder and the Red Cross' Safe and Well program to check in and share that you’re okay. Friends and family can search these databases for updates on loved ones.
Also, Facebook’s new Safety Check will present a prompt to ask if you’re okay if you’ve recently used the Internet in an area near the disaster or if your registered hometown is nearby. You can also simply post an “I’m okay” status.
If you’re not able to access the Internet but have phone access, consider asking a trusted friend from home to post updates about your situation on your Facebook wall.
Get Prepared Now
Visit Ready.gov to learn more about creating your disaster preparedness plan—and be safe out there! If you're interested in donating to Nepal, check out our post from last week Giving Tuesday: How to Help Nepal, with ways to donate.