Natural Disasters and Travel Plans – What You Should Know

Written by Kate Goldstone

In the past couple of weeks two natural disasters have rocked the world, the Chilean volcano and the Nepalese earthquake. The Tsunami in 2004 was a world-class natural tragedy whose repercussions are still being felt. So what about natural disasters and travel plans? And if you’re caught up in a natural disaster while you’re abroad, what can you do to help?

Volcano Eruption in Chile

Volcano Eruption in Chile – 2015

What do natural disasters mean for your travel plans?

If you’re planning to fly to a region or country that has suffered a natural disaster, what does it mean for your travel plans?

Your first step is an obvious one: does it still make sense to make the journey, full stop? Or will you just end up being a liability in an area where the local people are quite rightly too concerned with survival and rescue to think about your needs? If you’re likely to get in the way, stay away.

There’s no guarantee the infrastructure will still be there to support you anyway. The 2004 tsunami destroyed everything in its path, trashing tourist hot spots as well as homes, businesses, entire towns and cities.

Think about the risks inherent in a country before travelling there

Anyone travelling to an area prone to natural disasters should stay up to date with the news and government issued warnings. It’s just common sense.

Take Chile, an active earthquake zone with a recent increase in high magnitude quakes. The country’s active volcanoes can erupt at any time. Santiago saw a massive one in early 2010, causing widespread damage and generating several tsunamis.  The same volcano also erupted in 2008, triggering mass evacuations of the surrounding area, and the Llaima volcano recently flared up, too.

Natural disasters and travel plans

One thing that’s always a feature of natural disasters is chaos, since they tend to be unexpected and unpredictable events. Take Nepal, where hundreds of British tourists and nationals are still trapped. A report in the Daily Mail reveals the challenges people face.

Holiday companies are cancelling trips to Nepal for the foreseeable future, at least until May. Customers with existing bookings are being offered either a full refund or a trip somewhere else. The UK Foreign Office is focusing on ensuring the safety of British people in Nepal, and there’s a special helpline offering advice for anyone caught in the disaster.

There are warnings that there will always be a risk of earthquakes in Nepal because of its geology, sitting on top of two vast tectonic plates which constantly push against each other. And queues are building ever-faster as Tribhuvan International Airport fills up with tourists desperate to leave. It’s a situation most of us would prefer to avoid.

What about claiming on your travel insurance?

If you have to cancel a flight because there’s been a natural disaster, what about travel insurance? Can you claim? It depends on the terms and conditions. Having said that, most travel insurance policies cover much the same risks and many have much the same terms and conditions.

Travel insurance cover

Are you covered for natural disasters?

The first thing to check is whether your policy covers you for natural disasters, AKA natural catastrophes, full stop. Sometimes you need to actually buy special Natural Catastrophe Cover, which offers financial protection if you need to cancel your trip or are stranded.

The natural disasters insurers tend to cover include volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

  • If your outbound flight is delayed, your airline might be able to offer an alternative flight or give you your money back
  • If you’re delayed more than 24 hours many policies let you claim a sum per person to compensate. Other policies let you claim for ‘reasonable’ extra expenses like accommodation and food
  • If your flight is cancelled, many travel insurers pay out a sum per person for alternative travel arrangements so you can still go on your trip, assuming your destination still exists
  • If your return journey is delayed by more than 24 hours and your airline can’t fly you back, most insurers pay for alternative travel arrangements
  • If you are due to travel soon but there’s been a natural disaster, you should be able to claim travel insurance compensation for the costs you’ve incurred
  • If you’re injured in a natural disaster your travel insurer will do everything they can to get you out and to a good hospital asap, something that would otherwise be completely unaffordable

What’s happening in Nepal?

Dozens of British families are still waiting for news about loved ones missing in Nepal. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff were working hard to identify and help British nationals, dozens of whom are listed as missing. The number of people confirmed killed so far stands at more than 5000 but the final toll could hit ten thousand.

Rescue workers search for earthquake survivors in Kathmandu

Rescue workers search for earthquake survivors in Kathmandu

Our government has promised to provide continuing emergency assistance. There’s a team of British Gurkhas on Everest busy identifying and reporting British nationals as they head down the mountain and soldiers from the Gurkha training base in Nepal are also pitching in.

60 British government personnel including search-and-rescue teams and disaster experts were already in the country when the earthquake hit, and transport planes full of British army Gurkha engineers and equipment are on their way.

Natural disasters – What you can to do help

Several British doctors were climbing in the Himalayas when the recent Nepal earthquake struck. Unable to get home, they’re currently trekking to reach civilisation, at which point they’ll be using their medical expertise to pitch in and help local people.

When the tsunami hit in 2004 holidaymakers from all over the world helped locals in the aftermath. It’s human nature to want to help – so what can you do when stuck abroad after a natural disaster?

These days NGOs and charities often collaborate with local people. Locals know the territory and know the culture. If you’ve survived a natural disaster abroad, you might not be able to get home any time soon. Your best bet might be to hook up with the first charity workers you comer across and volunteer your services.

Provided you’re fit and uninjured you might be able to provide invaluable help by lending your mobile to the emergency services, removing rubble and freeing trapped people. It may involve dealing with dead bodies, something most westerners aren’t used to.

Building temporary shelter, rebuilding homes, preparing and distributing food are things most of us can do, even though we’re not aid experts.

Love Nepal – what can you do from home?

If you’re determined to help from home, perhaps because you’ve been to the area, loved it and feel you’d like to contribute, monetary donations are always appreciated. It’s sometimes the only way you can help, but there’s more.

  • Donate clothing, food, blankets, tents, tarpaulins to your nearest collection centre
  • Donate time to sort, pack and deliver donated goods
  • Raise funds yourself or with a group of like-minded friends and family
  • Kick off a fundraising drive at work
  • Bear in mind the need for money and other donations and funds is almost always ongoing, long after the news has died down.
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Donate to DEC

In this country the DEC, Disasters and Emergency Committee, co-ordinates charity and relief work in war-torn or disaster-stricken regions. They’re currently co-ordinating a huge appeal, so give what you can.

Do you have any experience trapped abroad by a natural disaster? How did you cope? We’d value your tips.

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