What You Should Do If a Natural Disaster Happens While You're Traveling

The state department and the Red Cross weigh in.

By Caroline Hallemann, Town & Country

Hurricane Irma has ravaged the Caribbean and is headed for Florida this weekend, just days after Hurricane Harvey left devastation across Texas.
Irma blew through the islands of the Caribbean with 185 mile-per-hour winds, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The storm is barreling toward the east coast of Florida this weekend, and the area is preparing with mandatory evacuations

In the wake of these storms and and the recent earthquake in Mexico, we spoke with Patricia Aguilera, State Department director of American Citizen Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and Jim Judge, chair of the Disaster/Preparedness Subcouncil for the Red Cross, about what travelers should do if they find themselves caught up in a natural disaster when they're far from home. Here are their tips:

Before your trip

Plan your trip with safety in mind.

Both Aguilera and Judge agree that preparation is key. Start by researching you destination. If it's prone to certain natural disasters (hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes) during specific seasons, consider scheduling your trip for a different time. 

"Know what's going on," says Judge. "It's always a good idea, no matter whether you're traveling locally or afar, to do some research. With the internet today, you're only a few seconds away from weather, travel advisories, and other news in the region that you should be aware of."

Enroll in STEP, the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

Through the program, you'll receive travel and security updates about the destination in which you're registered. In a natural disaster, it will keep you informed of road closures, curfews, and other information you, as a U.S. citizen, need to know about the situation on the ground. You can sign up at

Purchase insurance.

We recommend purchasing travel insurance regardless of your destination, but should you find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster, it can be life-changing. "It is so important," says Aguilera.

Equally important: Reading the fine print. "Some of them will cover medical evacuations—in a natural disaster that can be extremely important. If you need to be medevac-ed because there is not a facility to treat something more serious, that's big thing to consider, especially because medical evacuations can be so costly: upward of $20,000 or more. Other kinds of travel insurance will cover things like changes in airline fees or staying additional nights at the hotel. Do some research, and seriously consider getting it any time you travel, no matter where you're going."

Aguilera also recommends looking into your airline's policy in regards to natural disasters so there are no surprises, should anything happen.

Pack with a worst-case scenario in mind.

Increasing luggage fees have travelers squeezing as much as they can into carry-on bags, but, in case of emergency it's better to be safe than sorry, so save a little room for these key items.

"People should consider taking a little bit of extra cash, making sure that they have copies of their credit cards. Making sure that they have extra cell phone batteries with them, if possible," Aguilera says.

[post_ads]"And if it's allowed—read our country-specific information beforehand—if you take prescriptions, make sure you have one or two days extra just in case you get delayed in departing, so it's not a problem. It will be very difficult for you to find those medications, if something should happen."

Print two hard copies of your travel documents, keeping one with you and giving the other to a close friend or family member back home. Make sure you have contact information for your airline, your hotel, tour operators, readily available so you don't have to scramble to look it up in an emergency.

And if you're traveling by car, Judge suggests keeping a small stockpile of essentials in your trunk:

"Put some bug spray, sunscreen, an extra pair of shoes, a first aid kit, cliff bars, maybe even have a couple of extra jugs of water in the trunk, he says, continuing, "a flashlight, a blanket, an extra battery for your phone, even toilet paper. Those things are invaluable when you're in an emergency situation."

And while a store-bought First Aid kit is a great first step—the Red Cross sells pre-made kits, here—Judge recommends customizing to fit your needs, by adding in an extra pair of glasses, any prescription medications, hearing-aid batteries, etc. 

"We always encourage people: don't just take that kit and put it away: Customize it for your own needs and for your family, and then you've really got something there to help you through an emergency crisis," he says.

During the disaster.

The specifics of what exactly you should do during a natural disaster vary depending on the type of event, but Aguilera says keeping calm is critical.

"I think the most important tip is just to as much as possible remain calm and patient, understanding that obviously things aren't going to be functioning the way they normally do, and not to get caught up in the chaos. That key preparation beforehand will allow you to at least think more clearly in a time of emergency."

Judge also suggests that seeking shelter, and getting off of public streets is advisable in nearly every situation. For more natural disaster-specific tips, check out the Red Cross mobile apps for information on earthquakes, floods, wildfires, tornados, and hurricanes.

After the disaster.

Let your friends and family know you're okay. If you are traveling abroad, contact your local embassy, but only if you're injured or in need of emergency assistance.

The first thing you should do after a natural disaster is let your family know that you are safe. 

"If you are okay, if you are uninjured, if you don't need assistance, you need to call your family and friends," says Aguilera. And if the landlines aren't operating, try to use social media—What's App, Facebook, or Twitter.

"That is the primary thing that a person needs to do if they are not in harm's way."

[post_ads]If you're traveling internationally, you should also have the local embassy's phone number on you in case of an emergency, or you can call 888-407-4747, which is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by the U.S. State Department, but do so only if you are in need of help.

"The only time that an American needs to contact us is if they are in a critical situation where they do need assistance, where they are injured or they know of another U.S. citizen that has been harmed," says Aguilera."Then we need to know about that. That is a time that they would call us."

Follow the instructions of local authorities.

Tune in to local radio, television, social media, whatever you can to get the most up-to-date information on road closures, curfews, and emergency assistance. 

"The best possible thing is for people to find local to listen to local radio, television, and to hear what local authorities are saying about the situation on the ground," says Aguilera. That could be the fastest way for them to get the information that will be critical, and them deciding if they can move around, or leave the country, or what are the best next steps."

Leave if you're able.

If you leave as soon as possible following the event, "then you're not part of the traffic problem, you're not using the resources that locals might need," explained Judge. "You're doing yourself a favor, but you're also doing the community a favor by going home."

Aguilera agreed. "I would highly recommend that if they don't need to stay there, they leave," she said. "There is going to be a series of events that follow after a crisis, and and it will continue, so the infrastructure that was there, won't be there anymore. And security might be strained in assisting those that need assistance. It's better that you just depart, if possible, and get to the safest place that you can."

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Travel Magazine: What You Should Do If a Natural Disaster Happens While You're Traveling
What You Should Do If a Natural Disaster Happens While You're Traveling
The state department and the Red Cross weigh in.
Travel Magazine
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