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In the case of an emergency: what's an expat to do?

Updated 20 Jun 2011

Having experienced the 2011 earthquake in Japan, an American shares his take on an emergency evacuation guide.

According to the American Red Cross, the appropriate steps to take in the case of an emergency are:  

  1. Get a kit

  2. Make a plan

  3. Be informed

Based on my experience getting out of Fukushima City, Japan with seven other people – my wife, our three children, and three friends – after the March 11th earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, I would say the American Red Cross is generally correct. Nevertheless, what meeting these guidelines actually entails deserves some clarification; especially for those expats living and working overseas, who'll find the difficulties normally inspired by an emergency situation magnified and made endlessly more confusing.

Get a kit

The most important components of getting a disaster kit are to keep the kit small and easy to keep track of.

Some items that are essential are:

  • Passports and other necessary paperwork – my family didn’t bring ours, since we hoped (naively) that the authorities would stabilise the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor so we’d be able to go back. Instead, they shut the roads back into the city shortly after we got out. We wound up having to wait in Tokyo for an extra week while our passports were mailed to us (postal service had been suspended).

  • A fat wad of cash – ATMs were shut down for several days after the earthquake. Supermarkets magnanimously compensated for this by rounding down to the nearest denomination of currency and accepting fistfuls of cash.

  • A flashlight – since evacuating often necessitates night travel and disasters often knock out electric grids.

  • A map showing both roads and geological features such as mountain ranges – when things go wrong, life goes back to the state of nature, where geography and weather actually matter. For example, a helpful fact gathered from having a map: it will take a lot longer and burn a lot more gas travelling a few kilometres through a mountain range than it will taking the highway around. If it’s winter and supplies are short, you’ll want to avoid tricky geographical features.

  • A smartphone with good internet access – keeping up with the latest developments via a number of sources is important. In our case, MIT had a page dedicated to the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, and there was a wiki that was especially helpful.

Make a plan

It can be difficult to prepare for disasters, since they’re often unexpected by definition. But expats should certainly prepare for various worst-case scenarios by having some kind of plan of action in mind. Furthermore, in the case that you don't formulate a plan, and even if you do, if you find yourself amid an emergency situation don’t be afraid to take your time and really plan a solid solution using the resources available.

The simpler the better. Generally, you want to head away from whatever is causing trouble. Avoid crossing mountain ranges or other natural bottlenecks in case other people are trying to get away; try your best to get to a functioning airport, you should be safer; if your trip will take several days, it helps to arrange places to stay before arriving at the departure point.

Absolutely essential to this whole process, of course, is speaking some of the local language. Usually having a few basic phrases written down or committed to memory has outsized rewards.

Be informed

This doesn’t just mean diligently listening to/watching/reading the news. I can’t stress how important it is to scrutinise sources.

In the case of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the Japanese government was hopelessly inept at pressuring the plant operator to disclose necessary information. When numbers finally came out, they were conspicuously low, and then they got conspicuously slightly less low, and now they’re conspicuously slightly less low than that.

Crowdsourcing and social media is a much better way to stay informed. Basically, we had a guy in Canada who assembled information from people on the ground and posted it all on his Facebook page. By checking his Facebook page with our smartphones, we knew which roads were closed, where quarantine lines were, which cities had gas and other supplies and which cities didn’t, the best routes to escape, which way radioactivity was blowing, and what the levels were. We and others challenged the assembled information by commenting and demanding links to credible sources.

The next steps in our constantly evolving plan were decided by piecing together such credible press releases, crowdsourced information, and scientific articles to get a clear picture of exactly what was happening. 

Manage stress

Fleeing a disaster area is quite stressful and paranoia-inducing, especially in a foreign country. Moments of inaction can be scarce, but nonetheless, it's important to find little mental escapes from that which you're escaping from. Find an outlet, no matter how small, and indulge when you can.

The tremendous amount of sudden, in-depth research into nuclear physics that we did, coupled with marathon planning sessions, stringent evaluation of media reports and arguments, and the sheer stakes of our adventure left us with little time to unwind, collect our thoughts, or ponder essential meta-narratives. During our time on the road, we took advantage of whatever of Japan’s hot springs, shopping opportunities, and beer was available in taking breaks.

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