Home :: Safe Travel for Women :: Natural Disaster Survival :: 30 June 2015

Natural Disaster Survival When You Travel
Staying safe when disaster strikes

It was Christmas 2004 and a friend of mine had last been sighted along the southwestern coast of India. Then the tsunami struck. We waited tensely until she resurfaced; she was able to escape the tidal waves, but across the Indian Ocean some 220,000 people died. 

More than 35,000 of them were in Sri Lanka, where I’ve just spent a month as I write this.

Natural Disaster Survival Sri LankaThis heartbreaking photograph brings home the magnitude of natural disasters. Preparing for disaster when we travel to danger zones can save our lives (photo Wikimedia Commons)

More recently, two devastating earthquakes hit Nepal, leaving thousands more dead. And natural disasters will continue to happen.

They can occur at a moment’s notice, turning life as we know it upside down and leaving unimaginable destruction behind. 

As travelers the thought of a natural disaster isn't always uppermost in our minds – but depending where we go, perhaps it should be. If nothing else, we should at least be prepared, especially if we’re heading to an area where disasters are known to occur.

NOTE: I am NOT a disaster preparedness expert and nothing on this page should be construed as professional or medical advice. I have gathered information in one place to be helpful but please, if you think you may be facing a dangerous situation or phenomenon, do your own research and check your country's emergency websites! 

What to do about tsunamis and floods

According to the tsunami checklist prepared by the Red Cross, there are a number of steps to take to be tsunami-ready:

  • Find the escape route. Make sure it can get you at least 30m/100ft above sea level or 2-3km/2mi inland.
  • Check out your route ahead of time in case you have to navigate it at night.
  • If a tsunami is triggered, get away immediately. Take an emergency radio with you and monitor the situation until it’s safe to return.
  • Finally, wait until the all-clear because one tsunami wave can hide another, larger one.

The first thing I did when I arrived at my destination on the Sri Lankan coast was to check if they had a tsunami evacuation procedure of any kind.

They did not. So I visited Google Earth and looked at the topography. I traced a road for myself that would get me out of harm's way if a tsunami was declared. And I printed and memorized it.

I also bought a one-month plan from the Tsunami Alarm System, a commercial warning system that sends text messages in the event of a tsunami. Since I was right by the sea for the better part of a month, this sounded like a wise investment. I never received a warning, but I was glad to have the extra security, especially since my hotel was right on the beach.


Flash floods are another type of water-related disaster; you can’t predict them but if it rains excessively you should at least be attentive. One party of rafters in France drowned in a river canyon a few years ago because of rains that filled the narrow gorge in just a few hours. The water rose faster than they could escape.

And water can pose other dangers.

If you happen to live in an area with aquatic life, be extra careful or you might come face-to-face with an alligator or water snakes. The other danger is downed power lines; electricity coupled with water is never something to take lightly. Just stay indoors.

Here are some resources for flood preparedness:
Floodsmart (US-based only)
Protect Your Pet

Preparing for tornadoes

Like most natural disasters, the best protection is to anticipate, to prepare and plan and avoid – where possible – being taken by surprise.

A tornado is basically a violent wind funnel and while many seem to occur in North America, they’re not limited there by any means.

Tornadoes mapWhere tornadoes happen most frequently (via wunderground.com)

Typically, tornadoes are preceded by strong storms, but not always so pay attention if a bad storm hits and you’re in a tornado-prone region. If it gets dark suddenly or you hear a strong rushing sound then you need to turn your radio on and seek shelter, especially if you spot the trademark funnel cloud heading your way.

There is a myth that tornadoes don’t cross rivers or bodies of water: that’s what it is, a myth. They can and do cross water, and mountains and all types of rough terrain. Again, a trusty emergency radio will come in handy, especially if internet or phone lines are down. 

I’m starting to believe the best thing to do is just come up with a plan. I probably won’t need it, but it takes five minutes when there’s no emergency – and those five minutes might be precious if there is one.

One thing to remember: if you’re in a hotel room during a tornado, stay away from windows and head as far into a room’s interior as possible to avoid flying glass and other swirling debris.

Once you come out of hiding, be careful of broken glass and strewn wreckage like nails and other sharp items. You may be safe from the tornado but you don’t want to pay for that safety with a big fat gash on your foot or a puncture.

Staying safe in a hurricane

Hurricanes usually start over water and may head towards land (called landfall). They can be quite deadly but you can usually prepare somewhat because you know how much time you’ll have before the storm hits – if the storm hits you at all. It might veer slightly and completely miss your town. Or not. Hurricanes can be tracked but they are still unpredictable.

Being preemptive is just as much part of hurricane preparedness as it is for any potential disaster. Make sure you have all necessary supplies including water, bread, milk, batteries, candles, and a weather radio, if you plan to ride out the storm. If you have shutters, close them, whether you’re staying indoors or escaping.

HurricaneTop, tornado. Bottom, hurricane - both lead to high winds and can cause untold damage but they aren't quite the same. (Both photos via Wikipedia)

Be familiar with any evacuation routes and if you’re told to leave, leave. Hanging in there to ‘ride out the storm’ is, how shall I say, plain stupid. Yes, you might survive the storm. Or you might get stranded or hurt and someone else could lose their life trying to save you. If you have a car, make sure it’s packed with your first aid kit, tires properly inflated, plenty of gas in the tank, and a few snacks and drinks to hold you over in case businesses shut down during your evacuation.

Once you arrive safely, or the storm has passed, pay attention to your weather radio and follow the instructions accordingly. It may not be safe for you to return to your neighborhood if it has been leveled, or it may not be safe for you to venture out of your home if power lines are down or there is a bit of localized flooding.

And don't be fooled by a name: a hurricane is known as a cyclone in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans and a typhoon in the NW Pacific.

Earthquakes and other tremors

Being in an earthquake can be paralyzing. I was caught in a major earthquake when I was a child – I slept through the levelling of our building and woke up to a devastated city I still remember decades later. My father had bundled me into a car at the first tremor and in the process undoubtedly saved my life.

If you live in an area prone to earthquakes then you’re probably familiar with the telltale signs. The earth will shake and the ground will roll until the earthquake stops of its own accord, and there's nothing you can do about it. If you're worried about the danger of earthquakes on your travels, check online before you go – the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program highlights the world’s earthquake-prone regions.

Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do to avoid an earthquake. There’s a lot of conflicting information around – should you get under a doorframe or not? Probably not. Under furniture or not? Yes, if it’s sturdy, the common wisdom being to curl up next to something solid so a bit of space is left around you should the building collapse. Go out or stay in? Stay put! Stay indoors if you’re indoors, stay outdoors if you’re already outside.

There does seem to be unanimity about protecting yourself should things start flying around during an earthquake. The accepted advice about earthquakes is ‘drop, cover and hold on’, outlined in greater detail here and here.

Everywhere I turn the advice seems to be the same, whatever the potential disaster: be prepared and don’t assume it can only happen to someone else. If you’re in a danger zone, make sure you add some money to your grab bag. It isn’t fair, but having money may make the difference in survival if you can rent some transport to get out of an affected zone. And don't forget some drinking water purifying tablets or kit.

Even in wealthy countries help isn’t always instantaneous – so multiply this for a country with weak emergency procedures. Natural disasters may also happen in the middle of nowhere and infrastructure like roads may be destroyed.

If you do face a natural disaster, you (and everyone around you) will undoubtedly be in a state of shock or acting irrationally so the more you’ve prepared and are operating on instinct, the better your chances of survival. 

A final word: when an emergency winds down and people's defenses have been weakened, security breakdowns sometimes happen; shops may be looted or supplies stolen. Even if the all-clear has sounded, stay watchful until you're returned to a place of safety.

A good resource with checklists for preparedness can be found here on the American Red Cross.

Have you ever been involved in a natural disaster? Any thoughts on how to protect yourself and minimize the dangers? Please comment below.

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