Natural Disaster Survival For Travelers

Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Floods. Mexico. The Caribbean. Italy. Nepal. Japan. And now Bali.

Wherever we turn, we feel the earth shudder under the latest catastrophe. Do we know enough about natural disaster survival to save ourselves if a tsunami, earthquake or hurricane hits our destination? How truly prepared are we?

If you’re like me, not very. At best we’ll calculate the odds of danger before we travel and conclude that the chances of disaster just at the wrong moment are slim.

Natural Disaster Survival Sri Lanka
This 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)

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! 

Of course being prepared is no guarantee of safety, but it does increase your odds of natural disaster survival.


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 recently spent some time.

Before leaving for Colombo I had visited Google Earth and printed out a map of the most likely escape route.

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. I never received a warning, but I was glad to have the extra security, especially since my hotel was right on the beach.

At the hotel, the first thing I did was to ask about their tsunami evacuation procedure.

They had none. I was glad I had planned my own.

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 (and if there isn’t one, plan your own). 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 – a battery-powered oldie, if you have one, in case the Internet goes.
  • Finally, wait until the all-clear because one tsunami wave can hide another, larger one.

* * * * * 

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. If a flash flood is imminent, head uphill. 

If you’re in your hotel room, keep some sturdy shoes by your bed (and put a flashlight in your shoe – you don’t want to be desperately searching for one in an emergency). Flip-flops aren’t great for running.

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 – so stay out of the water! The other danger is downed power lines; electricity and water don’t mix well. Stay indoors if you can.  

Here are some resources for flood preparedness:
National Geographic’s Flood Safety Tips (US-based only)
Protect Your Pet


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 map
Where tornadoes happen most frequently (via

Typically, tornadoes are preceded by strong storms, but not always so pay attention if a bad storm hits your area 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. 

The best advice I can come up with is the one I follow myself: come up with a plan before all hell breaks loose. You 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. If your bathroom doesn’t have a window, that might be your best bet. If you have time, pull the mattress off the bed so you can use it as protection.

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 wound. Most tornado injuries are the result of flying debris. 

This CDC feature on tornadoes goes into greater detail about safety measures.

Should you travel to the scene of a natural disaster?

The reason I ask is because I recently heard someone say they were headed to Mexico City during the earthquake relief efforts “to see if they could help”. They can’t, and the simple answer to that question is NO. You may have the best of intentions, but you’ll be putting yourself in danger, and possibly others. The time to visit the scene of an emergency is AFTER it’s over. For more about what is known as disaster tourism, click here.


Hurricanes usually start over water and may head towards land (called landfall). They can be quite deadly but you can usually prepare to a certain extent 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 shop at a nearby store for all necessary supplies including water, easy-to-eat food, batteries, candles, matches and a weather radio, if you plan to ride out the storm. If you have shutters, close them.

Top, tornado. Above, hurricane – both lead to high winds and can cause untold damage but they aren’t quite the same. (Both photos via Wikipedia)
Natural disaster survival - Hurricane Irma satellite photo
The terrifying thing that was Hurricane Irma (photo NASA)

Be familiar with any evacuation routes and if you’re told to leave, leave immediately. 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. If you can get online, do so. If you’re in a foreign country, ask local people what they are being told to do – and do the same.

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.

Find out more about hurricane preparedness from the Red Cross and the US National Weather Service.


Being in an earthquake can be paralyzing. I was caught in a major earthquake in Tehran 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 lists the world’s most 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? Under furniture or not? The common wisdom seems to be 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?

One thing people do seem to agree on is about how to protect yourself should things start to fly around during an earthquake. The accepted advice about earthquakes is ‘drop, cover and hold on’, outlined in greater detail here and here.

A good resource with checklists for preparedness can be found here on the American Red Cross, with additional earthquake safety tips available from National Geographic and Earthquake Country Alliance. Listen to what the experts have to say.


While not a daily occurrence, we’ve seen them relatively often: Mount St Helen’s, Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, Mt Merapi in Indonesia and now… Mount Agung in Bali, along with a few rumbles on Mt Etna. None of this is comforting if you’re heading for a country with regular or imminent volcanic action.

If you’re looking for information on what’s active and to what extent, you can check Volcano Discovery. Even so, volcanoes erupt without warning so make sure you’re prepared: you’ll need something to protect your eyes, like goggles, and something that will allow you to breathe, like a disposable breathing mask or bandanna. Remember, ash is hot and can burn you so make sure your arms and legs are covered.

Also, volcanic ash can fall 100 miles from an actual eruption so you can still feel the effects even if you’re far away.

For more on what to do in case you’re caught in an eruption, here’s what the CDC has to say.

How to avoid natural disasters

  • Make sure you do your research before you go to a zone prone to disasters, and register with your local consulate or embassy.
  • Make sure you have the necessary supplies on hand.
  • Develop an emergency escape plan.
  • Keep a few essentials on hand: cash, water, a flashlight, your passport, a small radio.
  • Carry a card with an emergency contact number. If danger is imminent, use a pen or a marker to write your name and a contact number on your arm.
  • If you’re in a foreign country, learn a few words like Emergency, Help, or I don’t understand. Better yet, have a phrasebook with you (an app is fine but in an emergency, you may find yourself without a signal).

There’s one piece of advice that is the same for any 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.

If you are involved in 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. 

Be prepared to wait for help. Even in wealthy countries assistance 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, hampering rescue efforts.

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’ve returned to a place of safety.

No one wants to spend their holiday worrying about a potential disaster – I certainly don’t, and that’s why I take a few minutes to plan ahead of time if I’m heading to a sensitive zone. It’s a question of mindset. If you face your concerns and plan for them, you can then let those thoughts go and enjoy your trip. If something happens, however scary, you’ll feel more in control and not as panicked as if you hadn’t given it a thought.

— Originally published on 05 April 2015

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