Here is what to do if disaster strikes when you are travelling abroad; a handy checklist to keep in mind before, during, and after you travel!
The whole thing was very matter of fact. A note appeared under our hotel room door stating that instead of the afternoon shuttle to the airport, we had been rescheduled to take the shuttle that morning.
Six months into a hyperemetic pregnancy (literal translation: lots of barfing) hot, jealous of my adorable sister in law in her adorable bikini, and utterly dying for a margarita, I was ready to leave our all-inclusive resort in Cuba. It didn’t really hit me that we were leaving because a hurricane was coming.
We boarded the bus with people who had just arrived the day before and were also being evacuated. Looking out the window from the passing vehicle, we saw people boarding up windows with whatever scrap material they could scrounge, wind whipping at their efforts. In many places, the destruction wrought by a previous hurricane had not yet been repaired, and now there was another bearing down on the island nation. The disparity of our situations struck me as I boarded the plane to my safe Canadian home.
My hurricane evacuation was a non-issue, with the gravity of the situation not really striking me until we were home. If you are abroad when a disaster hits, hopefully, you will have a similarly non-dramatic experience. To make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible, here is what you need to do:
Before you go:
Disaster planning should start before you leave: Natural disasters are mostly unpredictable, but some places are more likely to have an earthquake than others, the Pacific coast, for example. Atlantic hurricane season is the beginning of June until the end of November. The likelihood of a natural disaster happening during your vacation is small, but do your research before you plan.
Check travel advisories: You should check travel advisories issued by the government of Canada at least twice before you go. Check before you decide on a travel destination. The information on the website will give you an idea of trouble spots, what to look out for, and why. Check again before you leave. Keep in mind that travelling to a location despite an advisory will void your travel insurance, which means a world of trouble if something should go amiss.
Buy insurance early: Speaking of travel insurance, ask a lot of questions about what you are buying. When you make a claim, your insurance company launches an investigation. They will follow the minutiae of your plan, and if they find a reason to void the claim, they will. It isn’t personal; it is their business. Make sure you check your particular policy, but generally, if your insurance policy was purchased before a hurricane is named you are covered.
Make Copies of Everything: Photocopy your passport, Nexus card, birth certificate, drivers license, health care card and insurance documents plus that of everyone in your travel party. Keep a hard copy at home where your emergency contact can access it, and another with you. Scan those documents and save them to your phone and especially save them in cloud storage, be it Google, Dropbox or Apple. If you have to abandon everything, at least records will be accessible with reasonable ease.
Use a travel agent: A travel agent will be well versed in weather patterns and safety standards of the place you are visiting and will be able to offer advice and suggestions you might not find with an online search. Moreover, if something bad does happen, you will be able to contact the agent for help evacuating.
Register with the government: The Government of Canada offers a free registration of Canadians Abroad service. You can fill out the online form with your contact information and travel itinerary, plus emergency contact information for people here at home. In the event of an emergency, the information will be used to relay important news to you or to trace you if needed. It is also a good idea to carry an emergency contact card with you, including the best way to communicate with the embassy or consular office for help.
Pack for a Purpose: If you are going to an area that has been ravaged by a disaster in the past, you may want to consider bringing some supplies with you to donate to a local hospital, school, hospice or orphanage. Pack for a Purpose is an organisation that helps travellers figure out what to bring, and where to be of most use.
While you are there
Monitor news and social media: Follow Travel– Government of Canada on Twitter and Facebook for alerts and advice while you are travelling. Staying abreast of current events in the local news is also a good idea.
Contact your family: If you are safe in a city or country that has been affected, even if you are not in the immediate area, let your friends and family know you are okay. If you need help, get a hold of your emergency contact at home and let them know how to start advocating for you.
Contact your embassy or consular office: The representatives of our government abroad will work to get you the assistance you need. You can contact them by phone, email or by filling out this online form.
Use your credit card: If it’s possible, use your credit card to create a paper trail, and save your receipts. If you can claim anything from insurance, you will need the proof of purchase and a record of the expenses. If you are receiving health care, get a copy of everything.
Check your privilege: Being in the midst of a disaster is scary and confusing, no bones about it. Add in a language barrier, and it can be even more overwhelming. But in your dealings with local people keep in mind that as a visitor, you are in a privileged position. As bad as it feels, you are still one of the lucky ones. You get to leave.
Once you are home:
Start your insurance claim: The earlier you start your claim, the better. If it is a straightforward claim, you will get your money back quickly. If it is a claim that requires more investigation, the sooner it launches, the better. For healthcare claims, your policy likely requires you to contact the company as soon as possible or BEFORE you receive treatment. For other claims, send your paperwork in as soon as you get home. Remember to save copies for your own records or if you need to re-send.
Donate: Once you are safely home, you may want to investigate how you can help relief efforts. The International Red Cross/Red Cresent is often a first responder in a crisis and are grateful for donations. If you can find an organisation that is matching donations, your money will make an even bigger impact. UNICEF and Medecins san Frontieres/ Doctors Without Borders are also organisations that work to provide humanitarian aid.
Hopefully, your vacation will go off without a hitch, and all you have to worry about is how many pictures to post on FaceBook without boring your friends to death. But in the worst case scenario, you will be glad to know what to do if disaster strikes.