Part of the intrigue of adventure travel is its unpredictability. But that doesn’t mean you should be careless when you’re carefree. Smart travelers throw a measure of caution to the wind, but also reduce risks by being informed, aware, and prepared.
As many Thailand travelers discovered in 2004, natural disasters have a way of arriving quickly and sometimes without warning. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes hurricanes (which are increasingly predictable and manifest as sustained winds of 75 to 200 mph) as the most violent acts of nature on the planet, while tsunamis, which are wall-like waves typically triggered by earthquakes, may be even more terrifying because of their unpredictability.
Here are 10 tips, some gleaned from survivors’ stories compiled by the United States Geological Services, to help you survive a hurricane or tsunami:
Know the Lingo and the Season
Catastrophic storms occur when the oceans warm during summer months. They’re called hurricanes when they originate in the equatorial waters of the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, and spin off in the Atlantic Ocean or the eastern Pacific Ocean. In the western Pacific Ocean they’re called typhoons. When they’re circulating around Australia or the Indian Ocean, they’re called cyclones.
Along the west coast of Mexico and Central America, the hurricane season runs from June through November, peaking in late August to early September. In the Atlantic, hurricane threats are greatest in August and September. Typhoons peak in late February and early March in the South Pacific, and cyclone season runs from November to April around Australia.
Don’t Ignore “Watches”
Typically, it’s the storm surge—created by atmospheric pressure changes inside the hurricane—rather than the hurricane itself that causes the greatest havoc, sucking up huge volumes of seawater out to sea, and blasting it inland where it can produce severe flooding. Hurricane winds suck up seawater along the coastline, creating walls of water up to 40 feet high that then barrel inland. In island areas, upper level winds often diminish the effect as the hurricane heads inland, causing it to fall apart when it approaches land. But none of this is reliably predictable. Carry a small wind-up or battery-powered radio when traveling in hurricane (cyclone or typhoon)-prone areas during these storms’ seasons and listen to it if you begin to notice intense weather changes and are out of reach of a television or radio.
Play it Safe
Meteorologists will change a hurricane “watch” to a “warning” when forecast models show the storm is within 24 hours of landfall. Besides battery- or wind-up portable radios, there are few other items you should carry when you’re traveling in hurricane prone areas during hurricane season. These include an emergency supply kit containing a flashlight, food and a high-quality portable water filter (or enough water to last 3 to 7 days).
It Takes a Village
If you’re staying with friends or family, or in a village or community threatened by a hurricane, or one that has just experienced a huge earthquake—and you’re able bodied—lend a hand. Be especially alert to hurricane warnings and be willing to help board up windows, and store patio furniture or any objects that could become lethal in high winds or water.
If you hear sirens, consider yourself on notice and immediately evacuate or take shelter on higher ground. Stay out of cars and public transit: ride or run as quickly as you can toward shelter or higher ground. Do not sit around and try to calculate your level of risks; it could be too late already. Take shelter as far from windows as you can. If you’re in tropical backcountry, and find yourself facing hurricane winds, find a cave or look for a rocky outcropping to huddle beneath. Be prepared to change your location or concealing position after the eye of the storm has passed over, as the winds will reverse, increasing the force from the opposite direction for awhile.
Killer Wave Warnings are Far and Few
Tsunamis and their intensity are hard to predict, even post earthquake. Alerts are typically issued in connection with earthquakes, but sometimes the tsunami hits before an alert is issued. Tsunami waves can travel undetected a long way at fairly low levels (up to three feet high, which is why ocean ships often miss them), gaining in strength and height as they move inland. The 2011 Tōhoku tsunami in Japan morphed into a wall of water that reached 133 feet high. If you’re in a coastal area and you feel or hear an earthquake, automatically and instinctively assume a tsunami is traveling right behind it and get moving to higher ground immediately.
Hatch an Escape Plan
Upon arrival on islands and coastal areas, inquire about inland escape routes. Ask shopkeepers, hotel concierges or residents about all your options for emergency contingencies. When fleeing a tsunami caused by a proximal earthquake, you may find roads destroyed or blocked. After a tsunami has hit, do not return to lower elevations until you get confirmation that danger has passed. Tsunamis often come in as a series of waves.
Run or Hold on for Your Life
Say you’re on the beach on a perfect sunny day and hear a rumble off in the distance. You see dust rising from the land, palm trees pitching violently and the sea erupting in white foamy shockwaves, followed by dead silence. At that point, you should abandon everything in your possession, and run to the highest land point you can see above the beach. If the land is entirely flat or you’re trapped and unable to reach higher ground, try to get to the upper story of a sturdy building or onto its roof. Last resort, grab a tree and wrap yourself around it, or look for something that will float and grab it to use as a raft.
Swim Out to Sea
What if you’re out snorkeling or surfing and you notice a sudden change in waves or the currents getting weird? You may be lucky enough to still have a few minutes to outsmart the incoming wall of waves. Immediately look for a pointbreak and head to it, or paddle toward the shore, and then run like hell. If the current impedes your effort, and you’re already out on a deepwater reef, or you’re just out there far enough off the beach, turn around and paddle toward the open sea. If you’re far enough offshore, you may be lucky enough to float for a while and avoid the debris or structures that kill most people on beach or shoreline during tsunamis.
Play it Safe Again
Tsunamis can last hours with each successive wave bigger than the next. They also leave behind sand, collapsed buildings, swamped cars, and human and animal remains. Stay clear until you know for sure you can safely navigate all of this (probably a couple hours at least). Then head to the nearest hospital or public square (presumably on higher ground) to make your next move or to try to locate lost companions. Your cellphone will likely not work so do not depend on it—that’s why it’s important to let friends and family know of your whereabouts when you’re out adventuring. Have a plan in place so that if they don’t hear from you for a specified length of time or if they get news of a natural disaster, they can begin to contact embassies and authorities to try and help locate you with an evacuation plan.