How to survive travel disasters: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina
LIKE THE OCCASIONAL BAG going missing, a lost reservation, nonstop rain at a beach resort, or a bad stomach from eating street food. For most of these, we have backup plans or can easily improvise a solution.
But for many travelers, the most significant type of travel disaster is the one for which we’re the least prepared: a natural disaster that occurs during a trip. I learned firsthand the importance of preparing for disasters while traveling when I was on vacation with a friend in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Although no one could have been fully prepared for Katrina’s wrath, we quickly learned that as travelers we were even more in the dark about what plan of action to take.
Next time you’re planning a trip, consider putting together a basic disaster plan and disaster supply kit so you’ll be prepared if the unthinkable happens. Below, I’ve incorporated a few suggestions from the “Family Disaster Plan” developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross, as well as my own experience.
1. Prepare a disaster plan.
What to do if you’re separated from your traveling partner? Most formal disaster plans are geared for preparing for the natural disasters at home, but they can easily be altered to fit your travel needs.
2. Meeting Places.
The Red Cross suggests picking two places to meet up with your traveling companions if you’re separated during an emergency. One of these can be obvious, like your hotel, but be sure to have an alternate location in case your hotel is directly affected by the disaster. Don’t forget to also pick a reliable contact back home who you each can call to check in with if you get separated. After the tsunami in Asia, many friends and families became separated and had no way to easily reconnect.
Even if all of your traveling companions have a cell phone, chances are the service might go down in a disaster. Also, after a disaster it’s often easier to make a long distance call than a local call. If you’re traveling solo, keep a contact back home updated on your situation so they can fill in others with the latest information.
When I was in New Orleans the day before Katrina hit, I realized that cell service would soon disappear and gave my parents a list of people to keep updated since I knew I didn’t have the time – or battery juice – to call them each directly. I also discovered mass text messages were effective for quickly sending out information without wasting my battery. This only worked until the actual hurricane hit, though, when all communication came to a halt.
4. Emergency info.
Have a hard copy of important phone numbers and keep it in an obvious place. Chances are, many of your frequently dialed phone numbers are carefully saved in your cell phone rather than your own memory. Which is fine until a disaster-related power outage happens and suddenly turning on your phone wastes valuable juice.
A hard copy list of important numbers serves two purposes – it’s an additional resource for you, and it’s helpful in case you’re injured and someone needs to know who to call. Write “ICE” – which stands for In Case of Emergency – next to your emergency contacts. If you’re hurt, this will help English-speaking emergency personnel who are trained to look for this information know immediately how to contact the right person.
FEMA has a ready-made card that you can cut out and personalize. If your traveling companion has a cell phone or if you have friends in the area that you’re traveling, specify that clearly next to their names and numbers. When you’re abroad, know the number for emergency services in each country you visit.
5. Carry cash.
Travelers often avoid carrying extra cash because they’re worried about theft. But if you’re stuck in a natural disaster and a power outage occurs, your ATM cards and credit cards may be completely useless. Trying to finding anyone who will exchange a traveler’s cheque during a crisis may be even more challenging.
Carry change for a few phone calls in case you can find a coin-operated phone that works – land lines often continue to work when cell service goes down.
6. Learn about your surroundings.
If you’re staying at a hotel or hostel, learn what their emergency plan is, if any. The Red Cross suggests determining the best escape routes and finding two ways out of each room.
Get to know the general area as well. If you had to leave town quickly, what are your options? How could you get to a train or bus station? Carry hard copies of a city map along with your hotel or hostel’s address with you at all times. Learn as much as you can about evacuation routes by listening to news reports and speaking with knowledgeable locals, when possible.
7. Keep important documents and extra medical supplies handy.
Important documents can include passport, emergency contacts and numbers including you travel insurance.
The Red Cross suggests including special needs items such as prescription medications, extra eye glasses, and contact lens solution in your Disaster Supply Kit. This is imperative if you want to stay as healthy as possible during a disaster.
If you take a certain medication regularly, plan to bring double the supply, if possible, than you’ll actually need for the length of your trip. That way, if you’re stranded because of a disaster you won’t have to worry about missing doses.
Also, have extra copies of your prescriptions in case you need an emergency refill. Even if you’re not able to fill them abroad, it will help give local doctors information on what you need. Keep photocopies of your itineraries, travel insurance information, passport, etc. in each of your bags. Large, clear bags are great for these, and help protect them from water.
You can read the full Disaster Supply Kit list here. Keep in mind however that it’s geared toward people at home, not on the road, so you’ll need to make a few adjustments based on your particular travel situation.