What to do if you’re a tourist in a natural disaster

Natural disasters can strike anywhere at any time. Mother nature doesn’t care who you are, how much money you spent on your vacation, or whether you bought travel insurance. Mother nature is kind of a jerk like that. So, what exactly do you do if you’re lying on a Chilean beach one day and then suddenly you’re in an earthquake?

While I would never advocate living in fear or always preparing for the worst (no way to live, in my humble opinion), a little precaution is more than a good idea; it’s responsible. It’s like packing an umbrella when you know it’s likely to rain. Consider the risks of your destination (Does it get avalanches? Tornadoes? Is it the island from Lost?), and make sure you have a plan in mind in case you get unlucky. Read on for a list of potential disasters and tips on how to stay safe.

But first, everyone should program 202-501-4444 into their phone or keep it in their travel documents. Why? It’s the phone number for emergency assistance to Americans in foreign countries, a’la the US Department of State (they’ll get you help from your nearest US embassy). Additionally, you should register with the US Department of State when you’re going abroad so that they can inform the nearest embassy that you’re coming and keep better track of you if there’s a crisis. Travel registration is a free service for which your taxes pay, and you can do it online here.

If that sounds a little big-brother-ish to you, consider how much passport stuff you go through anytime you travel abroad. It’s okay for your country to know where you are. In fact, it’s a very good thing, as they have an obligation to try and protect you on your travels. Also, there’s a Privacy Act:”The provisions of the Privacy Act are designed to protect the privacy and rights of Americans, but occasionally they complicate our efforts to assist citizens abroad. As a rule, consular officers may not reveal information regarding an individual Americans location, welfare, intentions, or problems to anyone, including family members and Congressional representatives, without the expressed consent of that individual. Although sympathetic to the distress this can cause concerned families, consular officers must comply with the provisions of the Privacy Act.”

Basically, the Department of State can’t tell anyone where you are, even if they know, unless you expressly tell them to. When you register, you can give them an emergency contact who’s not traveling with you. Don’t you want them to be able to tell your mom (or wife, husband, girlfriend, whoever you list) where you are and that you’re okay if all the phone lines and computers are down? You can also allow them to disclose info to the media, your medical representative or your lawyers. Register up. Expats, too. I did.

FEMA lists the following crises as potential disasters:

Click on any one you’re concerned about for FEMA’s advice — they provide great instructions for what to do immediately, like crouch in a corner or get outside.

Additional advice for expats in particular is here.