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What To Do If Disaster Strikes

What If Disaster Strikes When You’re Overseas? Here’s How To Make Your Own Disaster Plan

Typhoon Haiyan recently slammed into the Philippines and destroyed huge swaths of those islands. Thousands were killed and millions displaced. As of this writing, Filipinos and international agencies are mounting relief efforts.

By coincidence, Vicki and I recently did our first-ever disaster plan. Friends here in Thailand suggested we prepare a plan. A few days after the suggestion we felt the edge of a Myanmar earthquake in our hotel room. We were convinced.

Typhoon Haiyan and the awful consequences brought our plan back to our minds.

In making our plan we considered natural disasters like typhoons, floods, earthquakes, fire, and disease. We considered man-made disasters like a collapse of the banking system, an ATM shutdown, civil unrest, and food shortages.

We often live in hotels and figured the most likely disaster in this regard would be a hotel fire.

We then divided between local versus global disasters. We wondered what would happen if local ATMs suddenly shut down, as they did in Panama a short time ago. We wondered about local flooding or severe disease like dengue fever breaking out. We wondered about the possibility of a civil war. We also looked at worldwide breakdowns. Local banks could collapse, and local ATMs could shut down, but what if New York or London brought down the world banking system or the global ATM network? What if a nuclear war broke out or we faced a collapse of the food chain?

We quickly concluded that if everyone else would likely be in the same boat, as in a worldwide ATM shutdown, we’d manage just fine. In a crisis, people tend to help each other. Strangers do business on street corners. We lived in Argentina when that country imploded, and somehow we got through it. Butchers had meat, even fresh produce remained available. Electricity functioned, we had fresh water.

Vicki and I have never experienced a devastating natural crisis. Still, I imagine people will tend to help each other to survive then, too. Filipinos will make it through this crisis by helping each other.

We considered whether to keep fresh water on hand. We can pretty much get along without gas and electricity, especially in a benign climate like Thailand. But without water we’re in real trouble, whether in the kitchen or bathroom, whether to quench thirst or clean. But we concluded storing up water is impractical for us, so we’ll have to take our chances.

In the end we decided our disaster plan consists of two simple parts. First, we decided to keep our valuables–passports, hundred-dollar bills, credit and debit cards–all in one place. That way we could grab our stuff quickly and run. Second, we decided to keep a larger amount of local currency on hand–in our case Thai baht–to help us through the first days of a crisis.

We know that people under pressure tend to make lousy decisions. We tend to forget to do things. By keeping our valuables in one place we could avoid having to think about what we need and where to find it. When the flood waters rise, when a fire alarm buzzes, when rioters close the streets, we can grab our stuff and run without a second thought.

We decided, too, that the U.S. dollars we use for backup would do us little good in a disaster. Exchange houses will likely shut in a crisis. So we keep more baht on hand. We have to make a tradeoff here, as hiding larger amounts of money presents a risk.

That’s it, that’s our disaster plan—keep our valuables, including extra money, hidden in one place. In a crisis we grab it and go, no thinking or decision-making required. We keep money belts in with the valuables so we can strap them securely around us on the way out.

Some suggested we keep plane tickets on hand. But when we lived in Argentina during the 1982 war there, against England, I asked the president of Pan Am whether having an open ticket out of the country would do any good. He said, “No. In a panic just go to the airport. If there are seats available you’ll get them. If there aren’t seats available, having an open ticket won’t help.”

Finally, a friend recently sent an email saying, “I had a diving trip planned for the Philippines. At the last minute I heard about Typhoon Haiyan and canceled the trip. I was lucky.”

Well, yes, in a way he was lucky. He was lucky to hear about the typhoon, lucky to have the presence of mind to cancel the trip. But I think good planning helped, too. Planning means you know what you’ll do when disaster strikes, whether a typhoon, a stock market collapse, or rampant bird flu. Our friend got the news, acted, and saved himself. Call it luck if you wish. But as someone once said, luck is the residue of design.

Paul Terhorst

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