Preparing for Travel Disasters

Preparing for Travel Disasters

T+L looks at the global state of natural disaster contingency planning. PLUS How hotels are recovering post-tsunami, and a traveler's safety checklist.

In the wake of devastating recent natural disasters, including the earthquake in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, mud slides in Guatemala, river flooding in Europe, and the tsunami in South Asia, officials worldwide have been forced to confront significant gaps in their disaster contingency plans. This has led to a renewed focus on old problems: how to better anticipate hurricanes and earthquakes; how to evacuate affected areas efficiently; how to make a sometimes unpredictably dangerous world as safe as possible. "Generally, we don't think in terms of preparedness, we think in terms of response," says Arthur Lerner-Lam, director of Columbia University's Center for Hazards & Risk Research. "The truth is, from the standpoint of mitigation, of preparing for disasters, we are not doing a good enough job." There is progress to report, however: new technologies are being developed and deployed, and many countries have early-warning systems and detailed plans in place to assist potential victims, including travelers.

• TSUNAMIS Historically, tsunami alert systems have been born of tragedy. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, both of which use deep-sea sensors to measure changes in water pressure, were established after tsunamis damaged Hawaii and Alaska in 1946 and 1964, respectively. Last December 25, the PTWC broadcast a Pacific-wide bulletin seven minutes after registering a cataclysmic quake off Sumatra. Scientists tried to signal Indian Ocean nations; unfortunately, there was no disaster network for this region, where tsunamis had been a rarity, and budget-strapped governments had no civil defense structure set up to order coastal evacuations. The tsunami caused an estimated 240,000 deaths.

In the aftermath of this disaster, the White House announced a $37.5 million upgrade of the existing tsunami warning systems that would expand coverage to the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico coasts by mid 2007, and the U.S. Agency for International Development pledged $16.6 million to provide technical assistance for unesco's ongoing design of an Indian Ocean warning system similar to the PTWC's. "Would I like to say that a year later, we have a completed system?Of course," says Tim Beans, the Bangkok-based director of usaid's regional mission. "The good news is, we're well on our way." Last May, Thailand opened its own system, the National Disaster Warning Centre in Bangkok, which is linked to tsunami centers in Japan and Hawaii. When a tidal wave seems imminent, public warnings can be disseminated by national TV and radio and via 62 100-foot-high towers capable of broadcasting multilingual alerts along the southern coast, including Phuket and Phi Phi Don island. Travelers on group tours to Thailand can have their travel agent request cell-phone text message alerts from the disaster center's director (www.ndwc.or.th).

• HURRICANES/TYPHOONS As part of the ongoing $4.5 billion modernization of the National Weather Service by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seven new weather buoys were deployed in April in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. The data picked up from these buoys—measurements of wind, waves, barometric pressure, and temperature—are analyzed at the National Hurricane Center, using computer models like slosh (Sea, Lake, Overland Surge from Hurricane), a program that identifies storm-surge risks. NOAA's Web site (www.nws.noaa.gov) issues advisories and updates conditions every 12 hours.

The slow response to Katrina was an exception. Florida handled four hurricanes in 2004, and emergency officials took no chances with Hurricane Rita, ordering evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from the Florida Keys, Louisiana, and Texas. As Hurricane Emily bore down on the Yucatán Peninsula in July, the Mexican government mobilized hundreds of buses to carry 30,000 tourists inland from Cancún, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen. "Most countries do a very good job of getting tourists out,'' says Michael Lindell of Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center. "Resorts would rather lose revenue than lives.''

In Asia, Japan is at the forefront of typhoon tracking and preparation, and China evacuated more than 1.8 million people from coastal provinces in September as Typhoon Talim approached.

• EARTHQUAKES Scientists can make long-term prognostications about seismic activity, but predicting a specific earthquake remains impossible. Huge death tolls from events such as the Pakistan quake in October are preventable only by long-term investments and planning. Japan is considered a world leader in earthquake preparedness, yet the 1995 Kobe event killed more than 5,000 people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes. Richard McCarthy, executive director of California's Seismic Safety Commission, toured Kobe the following year. The Japanese had tightened building codes, reinforced existing structures, and prepositioned rescue equipment. California has incorporated some of those measures into its own earthquake plan: more than 2,000 bridges have been retrofitted and countless unreinforced masonry buildings shored up. "The lesson for us?Bad buildings collapse,'' says McCarthy.

One California company, Seismic Warning Systems, has developed a patented earthquake alert that is already used by some local fire departments, hospitals, and schools and has attracted interest from around the world. The paperback-sized QuakeGuard device detects P waves—speed-of-sound shock waves that travel nearly twice as fast as more damaging S (shear) waves—and begins automated emergency procedures, opening firehouse doors before they can jam, alerting surgeons in the midst of delicate operations, and shutting down gas lines. "A few seconds can make a world of difference,'' says Seismic Warning chairman George Dickson. "We can get early responders out to do their job."


• FLOODS While high waters are an annual event along the world's great rivers, many scientists believe global warming has increased the intensity and frequency of storms, and flooding is by far the most widespread natural hazard. Weather services may issue flash-flood advisories, but mitigation remains mundane: rain gauges, dikes and levees, and pumping stations."

The ultimate recommendation is Don't build in a flood plain or below sea level,'' says Havidán Rodriguez, director of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center, referring to New Orleans. "You're going to invite property damage and loss of life. But there are already communities in these areas; realistically the populations aren't going anywhere. Then you need to turn to communication, coordination, education, and training about floods on a continuing basis.'' Indeed, within weeks, the lessons of the Katrina flooding were being applied in anticipation of Hurricane Rita.

In late August, record-setting rains spawned flash floods from Switzerland to Bulgaria; several dozen people drowned, 25 of them in Romania. Lech, a resort town in western Austria, suffered an estimated $35 million in losses, but though this was the proverbial every-500-years flood, its plan worked well. Firefighters cleared buildings and closed streets. The town's tourism staff worked around the clock in their ruined office to keep 3,500 stranded visitors informed. Drinking water had to be boiled, and showers were banned for two days, but there were no food shortages. "In our country," says Gerhard Walter, Lech's tourism director, "you have to be prepared at any time, whether it's a flood, a blizzard, or an avalanche."

christopher r. cox is a frequent T+L contributor.


Expert advice on travel in areas prone to natural disasters.

• Pack a "go kit''—cell phone, key documents, passport, flashlight, shoes, and a quart of water—to have at hand in case of an emergency, says Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems.

• Register with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs (at travel.state.gov); it will be easier to track you down in case of an emergency. "This was immensely useful during last year's tsunami," the bureau's Angela Aggeler says.

• Cell phone networks are often overloaded during disasters; text messaging, however, usually works. Pack your Blackberry or a phone with messaging capabilities.

• Before you book your hotel, ask about its disaster contingency and evacuation plans. Consider that larger hotels may have more resources.

• Once you check in, find the exit nearest your room and make sure it is unlocked, says McIndoe.

• If you are caught in a disaster, monitor the local news, and heed orders to evacuate. —C.R.C.


A recent analysis by Columbia University's Earth Institute shows areas of highest risk, mapped by type of natural disaster (tsunamis were not included). According to the study, Taiwan may be the most dangerous place on earth, with 73 percent of its land and population exposed to three or more hazards.


Aside from several isolated but notable properties, most hotels damaged by last December’s tsunami have reopened. But according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, tourism in the region is still off: international arrivals to the Maldives fell 47 percent in the first half of 2005, and air arrivals at Phuket dropped nearly 43 percent; in Galle, hotel occupancy rates have hovered at around 30 percent. Nevertheless, hoteliers remain optimistic that travelers will return, and report recent increases in the number of visitors.

THAILAND The tsunami affected only a fraction of Phuket’s hotel rooms. Even badly damaged properties, including Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, have reopened. It’s a different situation on Phi Phi Don island, where the tsunami razed many guesthouses and hotels, including the waterfront PP Princess Resort.

Hardest hit was Khao Lak, an emerging ecotourism destination an hour’s drive north of Phuket’s airport. Many properties, including La Flora and Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach & Spa Resort, have been repaired and, at press time, were open and offering specials. But the Sofitel Magic Lagoon Resort & Spa, which suffered the loss of 189 guests and employees, may never reopen.

SRI LANKA Even though international arrivals to Sri Lanka now exceed 2004 levels, Galle continues to suffer. In mid-September, 15 of the state’s 51 hotels and villas were still closed. But there is encouraging news: After an $8 million makeover by the office of Geoffrey Bawa, Ahungalle’s beachfront Triton Hotel reopens this month. On the southeastern coast, where the tsunami destroyed the 63-room Yala Safari Game Lodge, parent company Jetwing Hotels will break ground on a newly designed 60-unit lodge before the year’s end.

THE MALDIVES Many damaged properties on this low-lying island nation have already reopened, including Soneva Gili Resort & Six Senses Spa. The Taj Exotica Resort & Spa is set to open this month, the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa, which is undergoing an eight-figure upgrade, should reopen by mid 2006, and around the same time, a second, 102-villa Four Seasons resort debuts at Landaa Giraavaru. Armando Kraenzlin, general manager at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa, says his colleagues had a “very encouraging’’ August, with 80 percent occupancy. “The Maldives are the ultimate beach-island holiday,’’ says Kraenzlin. “They will come back.’’ —C.R.C.

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