What To Do When Disaster Hits

You've finally taken that overseas vacation you've promised yourself for years. You're having a great time, as you expected. Then the unexpected and unimaginable happens: A natural disaster or other activity hits that makes where you are a dangerous place to be. What do you do? What if a family member's the one in the middle of it? How can you check on her from the US?

These aren't pleasant thoughts, but we need to think about them. Last year there were the Haitiian and Chilean earthquatkes, and now in 2011, unrest in the Middle East and an earthquake in New Zealand. These tragedies serve as a reminder to be prepared.

First Steps

Of course, before the trip actually takes place, there's travel plans to be made, right? Airline reservations, hotel accommodations, etc. As part of the travel plans, take some steps to prepare for a natural disaster:

  • Make an itinerary of your trip and include as much detail as possible, such as flight numbers and arrival/departure times and dates; the name of the hotel where you'll be staying and its telephone number. Leave a copy of it with a friend or family member who's staying home
  • Register your travel plans with the US State Department. It's free, and it may go long way towards helping you in case of an emergency
  • If you regularly use any prescription medicine, talk to you doctor about getting several days' worth of extra medicine to take along on the trip. Take an extra pair of prescription eyeglasses, too, if you have them
  • Take some extra money and promise yourself not to use it except for an emergency. Try to take some cash. Credit cards and traveler's checks are good to have from a security stand point, but if there's a natural disaster, it may be impossible to use credit cards or checks
  • Make sure your passport and driver's license are up-to-date
  • Make sure your immunizations are up-to-date

If it's your family member or loved one's who's traveling, make sure he takes all of the steps. Also, make sure you get the cell phone numbers of anyone he's traveling with. Of course, try to convince his traveling companions to take the same precautions.

While You're There

Here's a list of some things to do when you get there:

  • Contact someone back home to confirm your arrival and your hotel or other accommodations and contact numbers
  • Find out where the US Embassy or Consulate is and how to get there from your hotel
  • Look for a hospital and police station near your hotel
  • Be sure that your cell phone is charged fully and that you have it and your passport with you at all times, whether your going out to eat or to the hotel lobby to get a newspaper
  • Try to keep your things together and organized, especially your extra medicine and money. If possible, keep it in a small bag that you can grab in hurry 

If you stayed home, and if she hasn't called yet, call your family member or loved one to make sure she landed safely and that there's been no change in her plans, such as a change in hotels or other lodging accommodations.

If disaster hits while you're away:

  • If you're in your hotel, stay there if the building and area are safe, for example, the building isn't flooded by water or it hasn't been damaged structurally. If the building isn't safe, gather your belongings - especially your passport, extra medicine and money - and leave immediately
  • If you're out on the street, go someplace safe and away from the immediate danger. If you can make it to your hotel safely, get your extra medicine and money and any of your belongings you can carry easily
  • Go the US Embassy or Consulate as soon as possible. Unless it's been damaged by the disaster, you can get food and shelter and assistance getting back home
  • If you can't reach the Embassy or if it's been destroyed, look for local law enforcement or medical personnel for instructions on where to go. You may also be able to find emergency relief efforts already underway, such as a Red Cross center
  • Once you're safe, contact someone back home as soon as possible. Try your cell phone, but don't be surprised if you can't get through. Likewise, local telephone and telegraph lines may be disabled as well. If all else fails, the Embassy or emergency relief personnel can help you call home

If your loved one or family member is in the middle of a disaster, try to stay calm and try:

  • Calling her hotel or cell phone
  • If you can't contact her, call the US Embassy or Consulate in the area
  • Contact the US State Department. It usually has emergency contact information up and running very quickly after an overseas natural disaster. For example, almost immediately after the earthquake in Haiti, the US State Department had set up a toll-free hotline and an e-mail form to help US citizens locate family members
  • Keep the television on. News agencies respond quickly to natural disasters, especially 24-hour cable television news agencies. It's possible that you may catch a glimpse of your loved one before she's able to contact you or before the Embassy or State Department can locate her

Natural disasters can happen anywhere at anytime, often with little or no warning. Taking some simple steps before you leave for and when you get to your overseas destination can help save your life and save your family members some worry and stress.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My daughter is overseas and she lost her passport. What should I tell her to do? Can you help her from here?
  • The airline wouldn't honor my reservation for a return flight home after a natural disaster over seas. Can I get my money back?
  • The authorities can't find my loved one. I want to go overseas to look for her, but I don't have a passport and I was told it would take weeks to get one. Is there any other way I can into that country?
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