Before Natural Disaster Strikes: a Checklist For Your Relatives Back in the Home Country

In the previous article, we saw how we, expatriates, could cope with disaster in a foreign country. In the wake of hurricane Sandy, some families are highly traumatized.

Credit image @Wikimedia Commons - Richard Gutschmidt

They’re so far away now. The only thing is to pray… Or is it?

But can you imagine the experience of your relatives during such a disaster? It must be nerve wracking.

While you may think they can’t do anything but pray because they’re so far away, they can actually help.

By being actively involved in helping their loved ones (you!), they can

  • avoid to feel guilty, powerless and useless
  • transform their anxiety into positive action
  • enhance the bond you have together and

… make a real difference in your quality of life.

So what can you suggest them?

1. Relatives can help by gathering information about natural disasters that already happened at your place

“We can forecast where geophysical hazards (earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis, hurricanes) will occur, because they have recurred repeatedly in the same places”, aldus Professor Iain Stewart at Plymouth University.

This is one of my learnings at the International Geological Conference earlier this year.

The good news is that we can clearly identify today the dangerous places to live even if we can’t predict the exact date of a major disaster (yet?).
The bad news (you were expecting it, right?) is that those dangerous places tend to coincide with human settlements. They’re mostly located on or near vaults, water supply, volcanoes. Before the world population jumped to 7 billion, only few people were exposed, should a hazard occur. But as James Jackson explains in his article “Fatal attraction: living with earthquakes, the growth of villages into megacities, and earthquake vulnerability in the modern world” : “Half the world’s megacities of more than 10 million inhabitants are in locations vulnerable to earthquakes and the reason we have not yet had an extreme catastrophe in one of them is probably because they have only been exposed for a short time (about 50 years) compared with typical recurrence times of earthquakes (hundreds or thousands of years).”
And while we have the technology to build houses able to withstand powerful earthquakes, the anti-seismic specifications are often overlooked. This immediately translates into rising death tolls.

So to avoid you being part of those unpleasant statistics, how can your relatives get to work?

Beside the classical Google search, there are dedicated sites listing natural disasters that occurred in a particular place. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters manages such an International Disaster Database. You can perform a detailed and customized search by country or by disaster type.

Other databases provide localized information like the Asian Disaster Reduction Center or the Australian Disasters’ Database for example.

Your relatives (and you too!) can download, on their mobile phones, very useful apps issuing warnings in real time. Try Disaster Alert or look for other apps in the country you’re interested in. Again for Australia, I found Emergency AUS.

When relocating, you’re most likely drown into so many practicalities. I bet you’ll have other worries in the first place than studying the history of the local disasters during the last 500 years. This is where your extended family and friends can give a hand.

“Forewarned is forearmed.”                     Click to tweet

2. Relatives can build a relationship with embassy or consulate too

This is often overlooked. Who likes to deal with the administration? It’s not a matter of country, it’s just the nature of it. We only remember the hassle of the paperwork, the long waiting times, the nightmare of providing the right birth certificate (not outdated!). But you have to keep in mind that it can be a precious resource in case of major disaster. After hurricane Sandy, the French consulate coordinated efforts to provide a roof for French citizens in need.

I found the best way to be in touch nowadays. It’s to like and subscribe to their Facebook page. This is a great tool if your embassy or consulate has got one. The page is updated regularly, if not daily. You can comment on articles and it’s much less impersonal than a cold and static webpage. Your consulate does not have a Facebook page? Ask them to create one!

Maintain contacts with both embassies: from your home country in the host country and vice-versa. Always diversify sources.

3. Relatives can join expatriates networks.

Not only will your relatives make friends around the world, but they’ll be able to get insights on multiculturalism, bilingualism, culture shock, expatriate grief, in short, all what you feel. Those networks might offer valuable advice. Even more if their members happen to live in your country or your region! Should I tell you for example that one of my readers live close to my parents?

Sites like Internations can be an excellent resource. You can select the location you’re interested in.

An other option: while our community is still modest, you can join our Facebook page.

4. Relatives can help by listening to THEIR national news

“When my family sent me an email letting me know that the hurricane was headline news back home in the UK, I realised just how serious the weather might be over the next few days.”

This is how Sophie, a British student in Manhattan describes her state of mind before Sandy’s arrival.

Relatives help to put things in perspective: the ultimate wake-up call!

5. Relatives can pester you until you have prepared a “go bag”

Have you a prepacked suitcase in case of disaster with clothing and emergency supplies in it? Have you got enough food for 3 days? Should you run out of power, are you still able to meet your basic needs? Most of the time, we care more for loved ones than for ourselves. We neglect our own safety.

Here are some up-to-date recommendations from an expat in Canada just after hurricane Sandy.

6. Relatives can ask you to establish a clear communication plan

Appoint a single person in the family as your primary contact person. She’ll then pass on the information to all the other relatives. Plan a backup, just in case your chosen contact gets an unexpected problem.

A tip for your relatives: once the primary contact has been defined, she can make a list of all the persons that have to be informed. The primary contact calls the second on the list, the second calls the third, etc. The last one has to call the primary contact so that she knows that the chain has not been broken and everybody has been informed. Should somebody in the chain be unavailable, define the rule: either calling back the primary contact or calling the next on the list.

In those critical moments, time and energy are scarce. Save your emotional resources in the frontline. You’ll be tired and stressed. Repeating 10 times the same story may become irritating!

7. Relatives can ask for instructions in case you’re missing

We don’t like to think about this situation. But that should not prevent us from facing it.
Express your wishes, best in written form. Even an email or a purposeful conversation is better than nothing.
Where do you want to be buried?
Who should take care of the children?

Those are tough questions. But is it more appropriate to let others answer them for you?

8. Relatives can encourage and support

That’s true but are they really encouraging and supporting you?

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute: if you were seriously worried for your son/daughter/brother/sister‘s life, you could get angry at them! Why on earth did they put themselves in such a tricky situation? So far away?
The truth is: it does not help. It’s worse.

Don’t allow your relatives’ disapproval to affect you. Understand they are simply repeating old patterns as a way to deal with stress even though it’s not helpful to you.

And because we may be a bit more resilient than them due to our expatriate experience, why not share this wisdom, the 3 keys to resilience?

  • Accept reality
  • Improvise for solving problems
  • Find a meaning in what is happening

Do you have anything to add? How did your relatives help in a difficult situation?

Or was it just the opposite? Did you have to comfort them and support your own family at the same time? Just let me know in the comments.

Oh, I almost forgot: here is a little gift for your relatives back home. Share this checklist with them. Ask them to print it out and to put it on the fridge.

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  1. […] got someone else’s children. They changed dramatically. She is totally disoriented. Without family and real friends around, she’s sinking into […]

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  3. […] And in the meantime, you think of grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins and nieces, in-laws and friends far away who have nothing left but praying, don’t you? How can your relatives help? […]

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