In the wake of Japan's tragic earthquake and subsequent tsunami, one thing has become crystal clear to our family: Yes, it can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Friends in Japan, hundreds of miles away from the quake's actual location, lost power for an entire day following the event. Alaskans vacationing in Hawaii spent a night and most of the next day crammed inside their rental car in a WalMart parking lot, waiting until the "all clear" signal told them it was safe to return to their hotels. Japan prepared, drilled, and informed its citizens about procedures, but still, disaster grabbed hold and shook the country's residents and visitors and plopped them, dazed and confused, upon the sodden, clammy earth, wondering what to do next.
AK Dad and I, on a flight from Portland to Anchorage the day after Japan’s quake, wondered aloud to each other about AK Kid's ability to follow a family plan if such an emergency hit while we were on travel. We drill at home, draw escape route maps in Kindergarten, practice the "duck and cover" thing, but what about when we are away from our own comfortable, familiar spaces? What do we say, and how do we instill, without too much fear in our own voices, that being prepared for an emergency is still important even though we may be lounging on a beach or ordering room service in a high-rise hotel?
So we made a list, based loosely upon our own professional parental knowledge, but mostly upon what we've noticed coming through the news wires; what are people needing, where they are congregating, and who is among the missing. I also grabbed some info from the U.S. State Department’s Travel page, a wealth of important "know-before-you-go" stuff. Bottom line, traveling moms and dads, is to stay informed, engaged, and aware with your kids.
1. Talk about it. Yes, emergencies are scary, but talking honestly without providing too much information to kids is helpful in the long run. Example: "We're going to show you what to do in case an emergency happens and mommy or daddy is hurt and can't get to you right away." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a great page for children and parents called "Ready Kids" that outlines some ways to address and prepare for emergencies.
2. Have a plan. Lots of us tune out when flight attendants deliver their safety briefing; perhaps this might be a good time to rethink how our complacency looks to our kids. Point out what the flight attendant is talking about, (exits, lights, etc), and let children know you will get to them as soon as you possibly can, but to follow directions from airline grownups. In a hotel or other lodging, walk through the building and show kids emergency exits and safe routes outside. Establish an easy-to-remember meeting place for your children in case of separation; practice at least once during your first day. Make sure kids and adults know how to contact emergency services, since "911" is not available all over the world.
3. Consider the family health insurance policy. Ask your provider if they carry "evacuation insurance" in the event a family member is sick or injured and must be transported back to your hometown or to a larger facility, a huge expense if one is overseas. Also, of course, make sure you carry a little extra of any necessary medications in case pharmacies are closed down in an emergency, and keep them in your backpack or bag.
4. Register and make yourself known. In a foreign country, it's always a good idea to register with the U.S. State Department. During the hours after Japan's quake, the State Department went through its rolls of U.S. citizens and was able to account for nearly everyone.
5. Have a list of important phone numbers, next-of-kin, and parental identification for your kids on a small card that fits easily inside a pocket. Even the most responsible child may forget his or her phone number during a time of stress. We attach a small card (laminated) to AK Kid's belt loops with a rubber band and stick it inside his pocket when traveling. In addition, be sure your family has an out-of-state/country contact and everyone knows the number. In the event local lines are jammed, it is often easier to reach people far away. We call this our "Check-in person".
6. Review what to do if your child gets lost. Remind kids of the "stay put" rule, meaning adults find kids, not the other way around. AK Kid knows to "hug a tree" (or pole, mailbox, lamp post, etc) if he gets lost, and not to leave the area with someone he doesn't know. In the past, kids were instructed to find "someone in uniform". We've a friend who's adapted this slightly to "find a mommy"; either way, kids should not go with someone who makes them feel uncomfortable, even in an emergency. Older kids may be able to handle a cell phone, but overseas use can require extra steps, so be sure your 'tweens and teens know the procedure, writing it down if necessary.
Of course, this is not a complete list for every family, and you may have different ideas of what will or won't work with your particular offspring. Do you have any particular precautions? Have you ever misplaced your children or experienced an emergency while on vacation? We'd love to hear your family's strategies.
We join the world in extending our deep sympathy to the people of Japan; our thoughts and prayers are with you.