Expat Emergencies and Evacuations

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Expat Emergencies and Evacuations

It can happen anywhere, to anyone…

By Clara Wiggins

Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 22 | January/February 2016

It was an evening like so many other evenings. I sat with my husband watching one of the DVDs we had bought from a store in Islamabad, the city where we had been posted just a couple of months earlier. Our two young daughters – one still a baby at just nine months old, the other who had just turned three – slept soundly upstairs.

Everything seemed normal. Or at least, as normal as things could be in this deeply troubled country, where we lived on a secure compound inside a secure zone and where every trip out was wrought with worry and interrupted by security blocks. But this night seemed no different from any other night.

Until the bomb went off.

The 2008 attack on the Mariott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan killed more than 50 people and was just the latest incident to hit. It was also the event which led to us being sent home – with little notice, no planning and very little official support at the other end. For me, it was certainly a wake-up call.

It wasn’t the first time I had been evacuated. As a child, living in Lagos at the start of the eighties, my father was medi-vacced after coming close to death with a brain aneurism. He was diagnosed in the morning and put on a plane to London in the afternoon. We – my mother and three brothers – followed the next day. We never returned to Lagos.

It must have been an incredibly difficult time for my mother but, as a child, I was only concerned that we find a home for our African grey parrot. When the bomb went off in Islamabad, I realized how much responsibility you have – not just to yourself but also to your children, whose lives had already been turned upside-down by the move out there and now had been thrown up in the air once again.

I can’t say it was an easy few months – we had to find somewhere to live as our house was rented out, a preschool place for my older daughter, a car… and, in the meantime, my husband had to work out what on earth was happening about his job. We had help from my parents but nothing from the “office”, apart from some financial help at the start. We muddled through but it is something I don’t ever want to experience again. However, living back overseas again as I am now, I know that actually an emergency – with or without evacuation – can happen to anyone, just about anywhere in the world. So it is best to be prepared.

While the incident in Pakistan was perhaps somewhat predictable given the history of that country, terrorism is something that stalks us all, as we know from the recent terrible events in Paris. But it isn’t just terrorism that can cause an emergency or lead to an evacuation overseas – weather events, local unrest, civil war, earthquakes, major accidents or illnesses, even the outbreak of a deadly disease like Ebola; all of these could be the cause of you either having to take some form of evasive action while living overseas, or even being sent home. In fact, there are so many things that could affect you when you are living far from home that I would go so far as to say it is more likely that you WILL face some sort of emergency – minor or major – than not, at some point in your expat life.

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In the Caribbean, it was hurricanes. I have lived on two different Caribbean islands as an adult – Jamaica and St Lucia – and have lived through several different severe storms in that time. The worst of these was Hurricane Ivan, a force five that clipped the Jamaican coast, caused devastation across the Caribbean and killed more than 60 people. As it was a slow-moving hurricane, we had plenty of time to prepare and managed to stock up on drinking water and dry food in advance. But no one knew how severe the after-effects would be, with no electricity or water for days, and a huge clean-up operation needed to get the island back on its feet.

Another friend of mine, Carole Hallet-Mobbs who runs the Expat Child website, lived in Tokyo at the time of the devastating earthquake there in March 2011. She described what life was like on her personal blog written at the time, including how the after-shocks and the not-knowing period after the event itself were as bad as the actual quake:

One week. That’s all. But it seems like the longest week in history. How can just a few minutes change the lives of so many people, in some cases forever?

It’s shocking, devastating and deeply upsetting. I hate feeling so helpless. I want to go out and help, but I can’t. Instead, I have to keep home life as normal as possible, which is a difficult task because life is anything but normal.

So it’s very possible that wherever you live, you may be involved in some sort of emergency, possibly even evacuation. What can you do to prepare?

First of all, know your country and what the most likely scenario is going to be. There is no point being ready for a hurricane if you live in Sweden; there is also no point in worrying too much about an Ebola outbreak if you live in the Middle East. It’s also worth understanding as much as possible about local politics and when things such as outbreaks of violence are most likely – e.g. around election time. Keep an eye on both weather forecasts and the local news.

However, do be aware that some things – accidents, terrorist events, etc. – can happen to anyone, anywhere. And it isn’t that they don’t happen at home as well – it’s just that, as an expat, you are a long way from your usual support networks and often trying to cope in a very unfamiliar environment (double this if you have just arrived somewhere new; treble it if you don’t speak the local language).

There are of course a few sensible precautions you can take. For example:

  • Keep a box of emergency rations with enough dry food, water, flashlights and batteries, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, water sterilizing tablets, etc. for the whole family for at least four days. Don’t forget pets.
  • Think about whom you would contact in an emergency – a friend or a colleague – and how. This is especially important when you first arrive somewhere and don’t know anyone.
  • Know where your local hospital is (put it in your GPS if you have one – even if you think you know the route) and how to get into the accident and emergency department, and have all the necessary numbers already in your phone.
  • Also think about how you would let people back home know you are safe – Facebook is one great way of getting the word out quickly to a lot of people, but what about people who aren’t on Facebook (such as an elderly relative)?
  • If you live somewhere with a high probability of a severe weather “event”, ensure you know evacuation routes and, if necessary, where shelters are.
  • Have a plan in the event that you get evacuated – where would you go? Who would you live with? What about schooling? What about if you are evacuated to your partner’s home country or a third country? Find out, if you can, what the most likely scenario would be, and work with that.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

Although there are plenty more things you can do to prepare for an emergency, I think the main message is to know that it could happen to you; that until it does happen you won’t really know how you will deal with it; and that being far from home you will not have your usual support network to rely on.

But also remember that whatever sort of situation you find yourself in, chances are you will be fine. As an expat you may be far from home and you may be in unfamiliar territory, but you are likely to have both the financial and physical means that you need to deal with almost everything this sort of life can throw at you. However, many of those who live alongside you in your host country won’t be so lucky: it may be their house that gets washed away, or their child who they can’t afford to fly to a five-star hospital in another country for treatment, or who won’t be plucked from danger in the face of political meltdown.

So when things do go a little pear-shaped, just remember this: things may be bad; they may be very bad. But in almost every case, they could be a lot worse.

[Image © Photoraidz 2016 under license from Shutterstock]

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