Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami: How to Stay Safe When Traveling

Firefighters arrive in Sendai on Sunday, two days after the devastating earthquake (photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kyodo News)

On March 11th, an earthquake of 8.8 magnitude hit the north of Japan closest to the city of Sendai. The damage, injuires and loss of life are extensive, with death toll numbers expected to reach 10,000 and property damage in the billions of dollars. The initial earthquake was followed by numeorous aftershocks, tsunamis and serious damage to the country's infrastructure, including an important nuclear plant.

Although locals are always the hardest hit by natural disasters or political uprisings, it can be even more confusing and terrifying for tourists, who find themselves unexpectedly trapped in an emergency situation far from home without contacts, knowledge of the language or customs, or knowing how to protect themselves in a disaster. These tips are not meant to frighten anyone away from global travel (after all, disasters and protests happen at home as well), but will hopefully provide some help with preparation and maintaining a calm state of mind, which can go a long way toward alleviating the stress of a seemingly unmanageable situation.

Smoke pours from an industrial complex in Kamaishi (photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kyodo News)

1) Arm Yourself with Information Before You Leave Home: when traveling to a foreign country, especially one with geographical or climatic instability such as Japan or Iceland, do as much research as possible before booking your trip. Check, for example, that you will not be arriving at your tropical paradise destination in the middle of cyclone season, or that you are aware of what the locals do when an earthquake or tsunami hits. Research has never been faster or easier with sources such as Google, the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings site, Britain's Foreign & Commonwealth Office Travel Advice by Country or a reliable news outlet such as The New York Times, CNN World, NPR or the BBC World. It is also a good idea to contact your airline or travel agency beforehand. Note: keep in mind that news organizations in general tend to exaggerate threats for ratings sake and that airlines and tour organizers tend to downplay threats as they have a vested interest in keeping your business.

Residents of Sendai stand in line for water at a local schoolyard ((photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kyodo News)

2) Carry Emergency Supplies: always have the following in your backpack or carry-on: a first aid kit, snacks, a bottle of water, sufficient cash in a hard currency such as U.S. dollars or Euros (it's doubtful that you will be able to get to a working ATM in an emergency), copies of your passport and visas, phone numbers and email addresses (travel providers, U.S. consulates, medical services, family and friends, local contacts), a cell phone or hand-held device and chargers, prescription medicines, toiletries.

3) Safety First: when disaster strikes, quickly and calmly get yourself out of harm's way as soon as possible. In a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tsunami, get to high ground or a hurricane shelter. In political turmoil, go to a hotel or private home as far away from the protests as possible. Listen to local authorities; they are the experts on the situation. For balance and more extensive information, connect to an external source such as international news coverage, the U.S. State Department or your hotel, airline or travel provider for further instructions on how to stay safe. If you are injured, even in a small way, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

A woman walks by cars damaged by the tsunami, Ofunato (photo by AP Photo/Kyodo News) 

4) Keep a Level Head: if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself in an emergency situation, stay calm. The worst thing to do in either a natural disaster or political uprising is to panic. Many unnecessary problems are caused by the over-reaction of frightened tourists since they tend to rush and overwhelm local resources, especially transportation and communication hubs and spread (albeit understandable) fear and anger to other tourists and locals. Even though communication infrastructures are the normally the first thing to be adversely afffected in disasters, satellite cellular phones and land lines in some areas are often still in operation. As soon as you are able, connect to travel providers, the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate or the consulate of your home country, and family and friends to let them know that you are safe and to help yourself establish a sense of normalcy and communication with the outside world. Use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to stay abreast of developments.

5) Join Forces with Locals and Other Tourists: I am constantly amazed when traveling at the kindness of strangers. Often, especially in emergency situations, other (non-official) citizens and fellow travelers are the first and best source of support, information and assistance. Locals are especially helpful, as they know their own country well and have often dealt with the same type of situation many times before. Other travelers can offer a surprising amount of comfort and emotional or practical support. During a crisis, many tourists band together to share hotel rooms, transportation and to charter private planes and split costs. As always, trust your instincts. Although the vast majority of people are well-intentioned and trustworthy, there will always be a small percentage of those who do not have your best interests at heart; stay alert.

Korean travelers scrambling to leave Japan after the earthquake (photo courtesy of Yonhap/

6) Don't Move Unless You Have To: although the natural instinct is the get out any way you can as soon as you can, this can often put you into an even more dangerous position. You will do a lot more good organizing your departure from a quiet, safe hotel room far away from the epicenter of a disaster than trying to fight your way through the smoke, flames and panicked crowds of city streets trying to get to the airport or train station. Aside from the danger of navigating the streets, transportation hubs are often the first places targeted by protesters, especially in political coups. In the case of natural disasters, the airports are needed to quicckly bring in emergency supplies and medical personnel. It is a much more sensible option to keep communication lines open and wait out the first few days of turmoil and high emotions in a safe place. Leave as soon as the situation has stabilized and a flight or train departure can be safely arranged.

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