The Carefree Highway – Safe Travel or Vacation Disasters

Posted: November 21, 2012 in Disasters and Geology, Individual and Community Preparedness
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As many of us take off to interesting places (or stressful families) for Thanksgiving, I remind you that disasters occur during travel, as well as at home. I know, I know – I’m a spoil sport. But without too much effort, you can be safer while you travel without ruining that good vacation vibe.

Hopefully getting lost, missing your plane, or having your wallet stolen will be the worse disasters you ever experience while travelling.  But what about a superstorm while visiting Grandma in New York or a tsunami while surfing in Hawaii?

Battery Park, New York City (more recently underwater during Hurricane Sandy). Photo by Sheila Sund

Primer on travel emergency preparedness:

1. Leave an itinerary with someone, and always check in if plans change. If someone knows you are visiting a disaster area, it could increase your chance of help. However, if someone thinks you’re at the disaster when you’ve actually moved on, resources might be wasted looking for you, and your loved ones will gray prematurely.

2. Pack an emergency travel kit. For air travel, throw power bars, a flashlight, batteries, a first aid kit including useful over the counter medications, and a small radio in your carry-on. Car travel kits should include water, calorie dense food, flashlights, batteries, a first aid kit, tools, flares, maps, sturdy shoes, gloves, a blanket, and a cell phone charger (hopefully already in place from your home preparedness plan). A backpacking water purifier is a great addition for air or car travel.

3. Be prepared to grab and go wherever you are staying. Keep medications, important documents, money, your phone, and your emergency kit packed and ready. Keep glasses, shoes and a jacket by your bed (not in the closet) and your gas tank half full. Have cash on hand (no power = no ATMS or debit cards). I keep my essentials in either my purse or computer bag. Both stay next to my bed at night, along with my shoes.

4. Think about the kinds of disasters that could occur in your vacation spot. Are you in a flood or tsunami zone? Are you camping in a drought or in a flood area? Is it open season for tornadoes or hurricanes? At Thanksgiving, winter storms are a huge issue. Forethought allows simple advance planning, which in turn, helps immensely if a disaster occurs.

Backcountry Utah – classic flash flood area. Photo by Sheila Sund.

Do you want more tips? Check out the Consumer Travel site:

Common Hazards:
Floods – Pay attention to weather and terrain when travelling. Plan evacuation routes when driving, camping, or walking in canyons, lowlands, or along streams. Watch for sudden heavy rain, either locally or in nearby mountains, particularly if very dry or heavily saturated soil. 6 inches of water can knock you down and 2 feet will float your car – stay out of flood waters and get to high ground, on foot if necessary.

Tornadoes – Always plan where you could shelter. A storm shelter is best, followed by the innermost part of a building on the lowest possible floor. Learn the local tornado warning system. If a warning is heard, seek shelter immediately. Myth alert – Opening windows worsens damage! Avoid gymnasiums, theaters, or malls (they collapse) and mobile homes (they blow over). Stay out of your car. If shelter is not available, lie down flat in a low spot, cover your head, and pray.

Thunder and lightning (particularly for climbers, hikers, and golfers) – Lightning can strike if you hear thunder, even without rain or a cloud overhead (a bolt from the blue). If you see or hear a thunderstorm, get inside a building or car. If you can’t get inside, stay away from water, metal, or tall things.  If your see or feel lightning, crouch down, making yourself as teeny as possible and minimize contact with the ground (tiptoes while doing squats, anyone?).

Tsunamis– Usually 10-4o feet, tsunamis can reach 100 feet, can land within 15 minutes after a quake, and often recur for hours.

Laupahoehoe Beach Park, on the eastern side of the Big Island, Hawaii. Unfortunate site of many deaths in the 1946 “April Fool’s Day” tsunami. Photo by Sheila Sund.

Review tsunami evacuation zones and routes immediately upon arrival at the coast. If you feel shaking, see a sea level change, or hear a 3 minute siren, immediately move inland and up, on foot, as fast as you can go. Don’t come down until given the “all clear”, often hours later.

Winter storms – if driving, you must have extra food, water, and blankets. If stranded, they could be the difference between life and death. Don’t drive off main roads without checking with authorities. GPS systems sometimes lead people on roads that are impassable in snow or mud. Obviously, carry chains, don’t let the gas run low, and don’t drive it you can’t handle a car in weather. If flying, keep emergency supplies, particularly medications, and comfort items in your carry-on. We’ve seen pictures of huddles of people stranded for hours in airports – imagine making this a more pleasant process.

Earthquakes – If you don’t know about these, stay tuned! They are my “favorite” disaster.

Happy Thanksgiving travels, across the country or across town.

Stay safe,


(adapted from an article I wrote for the Marion Polk County Medical Society Chartnotes July 2011)

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