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Staying Safe During an Earthquake

A magnitude 3.9 earthquake shook western Jamaica at 6:10 a.m. on Sunday, February 10, 2013. The epicenter was located in Darliston, Westmoreland, 29 kilometers south-southwest of Montego Bay and 130 kilometers west of Kingston. No injuries or damages were reported.

The rumbling lasted just a few seconds. Was that an earthquake, I wondered. I shook my head to reject the thought and calm the panic that suddenly tightened my chest when I realized I couldn’t remember the earthquake survival lessons I’d learned when I was little.

As I tried desperately to remember what to do, another, less insistent sound rippled through the stillness of the morning. There was no doubt now; it was an earthquake. Thankfully, it wasn’t strong enough but what if that had been an earthquake?

Going from one room to the next, I took a good look at the doorway I had just passed through – standing in the doorway was the only thing that finally came to mind. It appeared solid enough to my untrained eye, but would it have been able to withstand thousands of pounds of concrete? I didn’t want to wait for an earthquake to be sure. I had to devise a plan, so I went online.

If you live in Jamaica or another Caribbean island, the thing that’s uppermost in your mind is a hurricane. There’s even a rhyme that we all learn: June, too soon. July, stand by. August, you must! September, remember. October, all over. that describes what to do during the five critical months of the season.

But although Jamaica is in an active seismic zone and experiences up to 200 tremors annually there’s no such reminder for earthquakes. Jamaica has had a long history with earthquakes. It recorded its first in 1687 and evidence of its most devastating, in 1692, remain to this day. In that event, Port Royal was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that submerged two-thirds of the city. Nearly 3,000 souls were lost.

Prior to this year, the last earthquake hit the center of the island in 2005 and caused minor damage. Following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, it was reported that geologist predicted it but were unsure whether Haiti or Jamaica would have been affected as both countries are on the same fault line.

So what should you do if an earthquake hits while you’re traveling?

  • First and most importantly, don’t panic.
  • Drop to the ground and take cover. Get under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture and hold on until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a sturdy table nearby, crouch inside the corner of your room or building and cover your face and head with your arms.
  • Move away from glass windows and doors and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures, ceiling fans, heavy mirrors, bookcases, hanging plants or other heavy objects.
  • If you’re in bed when the earthquake strikes, protect your head with a pillow and stay clear of anything that could fall or break.
  • Seek shelter in a doorway, if you’re nearby and if you know that it is strongly supported. Stay on the hinged side to avoid it swinging and hitting you.
  • Remain indoors until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Most injuries occur when people enter or exit or move to a different location inside a building.
  • Don’t use candles or matches or other open flame during or after the earthquake as there might be ruptured gas mains.
  • Electricity may be off so fire alarms, for example, may be off or won’t work.
  • Do not use elevators or you might become trapped.
  • If you’re in a hotel, stay in your room. Shelter under a sturdy table or desk and hold on.
  • If you’re in a restaurant, get under the table.
  • If you’re outside, stay there but be sure you’re not close to buildings, streetlights, utility poles, utility wires, or trees. Drop to the ground and cover your head and face with your arms. Remain until the shaking stops.
  • If you’re in a moving vehicle, stop as safety permits but stay in the vehicle. Avoid parking near or under buildings, trees, overpasses or utility wires. Once the earthquake has stopped, proceed cautiously but stay clear of roads, bridges and ramps that might have been damaged by the earthquake.

There are a few precautions you can take when you travel that will help put your mind at ease whether there’s a disaster or a power cut.

  • Pack a battery operated or crank radio so that if the electricity goes out, you’ll still be able to get information.
  • Carry an LED flashlight in case the power goes out.
  • Pack snacks like trail mix, nuts, etc., in case you can’t get food for a while.
  • After an earthquake, water might not be drinkable. It’s good to iodine tablets handy but if you don’t have those, stick to bottled water. Make sure there are a few bottles in your hotel room and rental car, if you have one.
  • If your hotel is near the sea, check with the hotel staff about their evacuation plan and make sure you know how to get above the ground floor or other designated ‘safe’ area.
  • If you’re traveling with others, decide on a meeting point and make sure everyone in your party can find it. Also designate someone back home to be your contact person.

Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes strike without warning but having a plan in place can mitigate some of the stress they can cause.

Do you have an emergency travel plan?

Is Jamaica a Safe Place to Visit?

Is Jamaica a safe place to visit? It’s the question I’m asked over and over. Sometimes, I reply flippantly that it’s probably safer for visitors than for residents. It’s true.

To protect the lucrative tourist market, the Jamaican government relies on the Tourism Courtesy Corps, uniformed guards, that is deployed in major tourist areas. These guards are like insulation: their presence tells locals to keep away and the visitor, that someone’s watching over them.

All-inclusive hotels provide their own layer of protection. Upon arrival, guests are bused directly to the hotels. Once on property, every conceivable amenity and experience you could desire is on offer. They’ll even bring in craft vendors (for a fee) on special days, and have “Jamaican Nights,” where traditional food and entertainment are provided. So unless you really want to,  you don’t have to leave their premises.

The entrance to most hotels are manned by guards. As a resident, I can’t just casually turn up at one of these hotels, especially those in popular tourist towns like Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, for dinner or drinks. In fact, I was turned back twice from Secrets Montego Bay when I tried to visit friends who were guests there. And when I attended a wedding at the Riu Hotel recently, I had to purchase a US$75 day pass just to be on the property.

Tourism Courtesy Officers in Falmouth Jamaica
Female Tourism Courtesy Officers

It’s not just hotels that put a cordon around their visitors. Some cruise lines have shopping areas adjacent to port so if their passengers don’t want to, they don’t have to venture beyond the security gates.

They have reason to be cautious. Over the years, visitors have been targets of robberies, some have been killed. And lately, with the economy teetering, begging has become more than an aggravation.

But it’s the stranglehold of violent crime, one that successive governments seem powerless to break, that has prompted several countries to issue travel advisories cautioning their citizens to be on the alert in Jamaica. It’s also what worries Jamaicans at home and abroad.

Continue reading “Is Jamaica a Safe Place to Visit?”

How Not to Get Sucked in by Times Square Electronic Stores

Up to 70% off all cameras, the sign screamed, its bright red letters unmistakable against the white background. It could have been there for months but on that day late last year, it drew me in.

I’d heard about them before I even moved to New York – these stores around Times Square that pull you in with the promise of good deals on electronic items. For years, I never even looked their way. Then, on an impulse, and thinking I was immune to the hard sell, I walked in.

Yes, young lady. What can I help you with today?

Just looking, I said, in my best I’m-not-interested voice.

You looking for a phone? camera? We’ve got the iPhone, iPad and all the cameras, all on sale. Seventy percent off. You looking for a camera?

At this point, I thought, what the heck?

Yes, I’m looking for a camera, I replied nonchalantly.

What kind of camera?

Canon, I told him.

Well, the Canon’s a good camera, but you’ve got to try this one.

Continue reading “How Not to Get Sucked in by Times Square Electronic Stores”

Can You Afford Not to Have Travel Insurance?

Having travel insurance should be a no brainer for those of us who travel. But most people don’t think of it until it’s too late.

Take my friend, Jessica, for instance. On her first trip to Africa, she arrived at her destination only to find that her luggage had not. For two weeks, all she had was the clothes on her back, a few items given to her by others on the trip, and some personal articles. Her suitcase went on its own adventure. Following her return home, she had to produce receipts for the contents but received a check from the airline that only covered the cost of a new suitcase.

In the grand scheme of things, a lost suitcase is a temporary inconvenience. But what if my friend had become ill and had to be hospitalized, or worse, evacuated home? Without travel insurance with appropriate coverage, her trip and her finances would definitely have been ruined.

Why then are we so cavalier about travel insurance?

One of the reasons we give so little thought to travel insurance is because we believe it will be prohibitively expensive. But at a cost of a fraction of the actual price of the trip, it’s a small amount to pay for our peace of mind.

There’s also, I suspect, the expectation that vacations will be perfect interludes where nothing bad ever happens. Ironically, it’s also the time when we’re most likely to venture way outside our comfort zones and engage in activities we’d probably never do at home.

According to Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), 10 Brits have been hospitalized abroad every day this year. Last year, the figure was 70 a week.

And so far this year, there have been 13 cases of young Brits falling from balconies while on vacation.  Unfortunately, 3 lost their lives while others ended up with very serious injuries.

Because of this, the FCO along with the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA – The Travel Association) are now campaigning jointly to help prevent further incidents.

But it has to go further than that. Of 2,000 people surveyed by the Foreign Office, 48% revealed that they did not realize that they would be responsible for their medical expenses if they became ill abroad.

The situation isn’t better in America where the United States Travel Insurance Association (UStiA) found that since the summer of 2010, one in eight adults have had their travel plans changed because of natural disasters. Of that number, only 29% had travel insurance.

To further underscore the importance of having travel insurance, it is one of the requirements for obtaining a Schengen visa.

So how much coverage should you get? Whenever I buy travel insurance, I make sure to have medical coverage, including provision for evacuation in the event of an emergency; trip cancelation and interruption; lost, stolen, delayed, or damaged baggage or personal effects; missed connections and flight delays. I’ve also bought coverage in case my hotel or airline becomes insolvent while I’m on my trip.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to file a claim but knowing that I was protected was worth the additional expense.

So whether we’re making plans for that Caribbean vacation, the trip around the world or to take the kids to see their grandparents, we should always include travel insurance to the budget. Can you afford not to?


Staying Safe While on the Road

We rarely think about staying safe while on the road but consider what happened to me on a recent trip. While it wasn’t serious, it had me rethinking safety while I travel.

It was a few minutes before 3 a.m. I pulled the shower curtain back and suddenly, as if I had also hit the lights, I was plunged into darkness. I flipped the switch but nothing happened. Maybe the bulb blew, I thought.

The hallway was dark when I exited the bathroom and there were no lights in any of the adjacent buildings. Continue reading “Staying Safe While on the Road”