Travel quakes! BE PREPARED!

Many years ago, I was sitting at a table in a family home in Greece enjoying a meal with some Australian friends and chatting about how the village we were visiting had suffered a shocking earthquake years before. Suddenly, the table began to shake. I thought it was one of my Aussie friends playing a joke!

But I quickly realised we were in an emergency situation as other people in the room began to race out of the house. They were shouting warnings in the greek language, which I didn’t understand. But it was clear the earth tremor was for real! Panic set in. I went into shock. This wasn’t on my travel itinerary. I’d never felt an earth tremor before. I wasn’t prepared!

All I could do was follow everyone else out of the house. As I reached the front door, a greek priest was just ahead of me. He had been visiting the family and heckling out their Aussie visitors. The sight of him fleeing down a long flight of steps to the safety of the street, his black robes billowing majestically behind him, is forever etched in my memory.

He definitely wasn’t coming back to help me! Everyone was concerned for their own safety. It was my first lesson in disasters. You can’t depend on other people who will also be in a panic survival mode. If you are travelling with a guide, they might be injured or worst still, dead in a disaster. You must be able to depend on yourself, even as a tourist.

Luckily, it was only a minor tremor. No damage. But it did shake me up. Everyone in the village knew what to do, but as a traveller, I wasn’t ready for a natural disaster at all! My knowledge about what to do to save myself was zilch!

These days my favourite places to travel are the ‘shaky isles’ New Zealand and Japan – both very quake prone. And like me in Greece, most tourists are not prepared if they are caught in an earthquake. Many have absolutely no idea of the devastation a quake can bring. Holidays are supposed to be fun. Disaster situations aren’t factored in.

I lived in New Zealand for two years in 2004/06, and learnt first hand how the NZ Earthquake Commission, local authorities and even employers educate their people about what to do in an earthquake. I watch NHK TV Japan World regularly, and again see how Japanese residents are educated about what to do. I also returned to Christchurch after the 2011 quake there, shocked to see how this popular tourist city had been shattered.

This tourist office in Christchurch was a no go area after the 2011 quake.
The upper storey of this Christchurch building after the 2011 quake

As an Australian traveller, I had never experienced the sound of a community siren that alert people to an impending disaster. In fact, during my first couple of trips to New Zealand, no one even told me about sirens. Imagine my shock to hear one suddenly blast out in the middle of the night directly behind my hotel! I’m sure it almost gave me a heart attack. I had no idea what was going on!

When I lived in NZ, I attended a couple of training courses organised by employers to help prepare me for a disaster. But most tourists, especially if they come from an area that isn’t disaster prone, are not prepared at all. And there is very little information available for them on arrival in a quake proof country to learn about simple procedures that might save their lives.

Christchurch streets after the quake of 2011

So here are a few tips on what I learnt during my stay in New Zealand. First of all, be aware of the natural disasters that might affect you in the country you are planning to visit. And do a little research about what to do if you get caught up in such a disaster.

I think we probably all know now that we head for high ground if a tsunami is on its way! Don’t stop to take photos! There are shocking videos of people who did just that in the great Japanese tsunami a decade ago. Blissfully unaware of what was about to unfold, they wanted to capture photos on their phones of the wave approaching the shore. I watched the footage on television just recently and found myself screaming at the TV ‘run,run’!

In a disaster such as an earthquake, local authorities warn their communities that they may have to be self sufficient for at least three days before you can get assistance. Just because you are a tourist, doesn’t mean that won’t apply to you!

If you are hiring a car to travel, buy some emergency supplies to carry in your car boot. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and can be put together with a quick visit to a local convenience store or supermarket. At least three litres of water per person and food that won’t perish during your stay – a dozen muesli or candy bars, even a few cans of food – don’t forget a can opener! A couple of plastic cups and bowls. A first aid kit. A small shovel is even recommended. Think about what you might need should you be trapped between a collapsed bridge ahead of you and a road covered with a landslide behind you with help perhaps days away.

A good old fashioned swiss army knife or a small multi tool is very handy to carry in your backpack.

A torch is essential. I always carry a small headlamp on my travels, and I ensure it is on my bedside table every night in case of a black out or even smoke from a fire. I may not be very familiar with my hotel room, and would find it difficult navigating to the exit without light. My headlamp also goes with me in my travel backpack, along with a small thermos of water and a few candy bars.

My hubby always takes a small radio that you can wind up to operate. You’ll usually find them in camping shops and on the internet. These days you can easily buy quite tiny compact emergency hand crank portable solar radios, combined with a torch and USB charger. They don’t cost much, but might prove very handy if you are a traveller caught in an emergency situation.

Any medicines should always travel with you – don’t leave them behind in your hotel. You might not be able to get back there in a quake, and you may have no access to a chemist or doctor.

Always have a jacket or jumper in your backpack or car when travelling around. Tough luck if you get caught in a quake in your shorts and t shirt, with nothing warm to put on at night.

If you are in a building that appears safe when a disaster hits, stay there. It might be more dangerous to go out onto the street where there may be broken glass and live electricity wires on the ground. A friend was in her hotel room when the 2011 earthquake hit in Christchurch. All the lights went out. Her room and the hotel hallways were in darkness. Luckily, the hotel structure was sound, and staff were able to instruct guests to stay in their rooms until the situation improved.

This may all seem a little silly, but it doesn’t take much effort to educate yourself about possible disasters and take some simple preparation steps when planning your trip.

An article I wrote while living in New Zealand

Obviously, there is a limit to what a tourist can do in preparing for a possible disaster. But a little thought and awareness before undertaking your trip might save your life.

The training I did in NZ made me realise that in a quake, I might be stranded for several days without access to help. I have to be self sufficient, and being a tourist is no passport to special treatment or an easy way out.

None of this has stopped me going to New Zealand and Japan. They are both fabulous countries to visit. Wonderful tourists destinations. After-all, I could trip over my own front door step with disastrous consequences!

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