The Situation: My husband and I had just gotten off the Futaleufú River in Patagonia, Chile, where we’d been white water rafting for a week. We were tired. We were grimy. We were looking forward to a hot shower, some clean clothes, and a soft bed—all back at home in Philadelphia.
Our fantasies of home wouldn’t come true for another week.
On the day in 2010 when we were scheduled to fly home from Santiago, the sixth largest earthquake ever recorded devastated parts of Chile’s capital city, home to the only international airport in the country.
The Experts: Lynn O’Rourke Hayes, travel expert and owner, www.familytravel.com; Kevin Kato, former resident of Fukushima City, Japan and Author of For Now: After the Quake - A Father’s Journey, a firsthand account of living through the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11, 2011; Dan DeoCampo, associate professor of geosciences at Georgia State University.
The Solution: Even if you’re not directly in the quake’s path, your trip is likely to be affected, and probably not for the better.
According to Hayes, your best defense is a good offense. “Trip planning should include assessing the risks of your destination. The U.S. Geological Survey provides earthquake information by country and by state. If you are traveling to an area with significant seismic activity, consider signing up for the organization’s earthquake notification service to receive notifications on your phone,” Hayes said.
Before you go register with your country’s embassy so that they know how to reach your loved ones in case of a disaster.
If despite best efforts, you find yourself in the epicenter, get to a shelter immediately, says Kato. “It will be your best jumping off point - for water, food and facilities, as well as for figuring out your next move,” he says.
And that’s not all, says DeoCampo. Be aware that the earthquake itself isn’t the only danger. “If you are in a tsunami area, move to higher ground,” he recommends. “If you are in the mountains, beware of landslides, especially in steep valleys.”
Once you’re in a safe place, contact folks back home, both because they may be worried and because they may have information from the news services that you can’t access because the communications infrastructure is out. Be flexible: For example, when my husband and I were stuck in Chile, our cell phones didn’t work, but we found a wifi café where we could email home and post on social media.
Getting out of the earthquake zone may require you to be creative. Ask friends in other places to make calls for you; in our case, one friend found that calling the airline’s China office worked when she couldn’t get through to the South American one. Explore other modes of transportation. In Chile, when the Santiago airport was out of commission, the one in Buenos Aires was fine. Sure, we had to ride on a bus over unpaved roads for a day and a half to get there, but at least we were on our way home.
Other, unexpected consequences of an earthquake? Well, all of Chile’s banks were headquartered in Santiago. We couldn’t get money out of the ATMs (because the banks were destroyed). Our credit cards didn’t work (because the cables that would link to the banks were out). Had it not been for the kindness of strangers, we would have been hungry and homeless on top of wet and cold.
Just in case, keep cash in a safe place in your luggage—you probably won’t need it, but Murphy’s Law says that the earthquake will strike just when you’re fresh out of coin.
Lisa Tucker McElroy is a law professor and freelance writer who spends most of her time living with her husband, two teen daughters, and two wirehaired dachshunds in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. When she’s not home, you can find her on safari in Kenya, on a Vespa tour in Tuscany, or in the halls of the United States Supreme Court. Lisa, the author of eleven books for children, also writes for Redbook, TravelAge West, Huffington Post, Slate, and lots of other publications and websites.