Volcano Insurance? – Handling Catastrophes Abroad


We’ve seen unfortunate situations arise in various parts of the world in recent years – and many of them are home to a good number of TEFLitos like you.  Massive earthquakes in Chile and Japan, revolutions in Thailand, Africa and the Middle East… tsunamis, volcanoes, viral outbreaks… and bears, oh my!  We here at BridgeTEFL feel that it is imperative, and even perhaps overdue, that we cover this topic.

It can all be pretty scary, and may even dissuade some of you from heading overseas to a location of your choice.  My advice – don’t let it.  Yellowstone could blow tomorrow and decimate North America while you eat supper.  The San Andres fault could snap and California could fall into the sea while they film the next Spiderman movie’s stunts.  An asteroid could strike Earth and leave nothing but roaches behind.  A distant star could hit us with a massive gamma ray burst and roast the planet to its iron core!  Can you ever really know when these things will occur?  Nope.  Can you do anything to stop them?  Nuh uh.  So don’t think about what you can’t control!  All the more reason to live each day like it’s your last, and embark on your adventure overseas!

Now then, I cannot stress enough that you should always be prepared and know what steps you can take to make sure you SURVIVE and crawl out safely (metaphorically or… literally).  And so begins the longest blog I’ll ever write – all for your benefit.  Love me.

Here is a brief and non-inclusive list of items you should have with you if you are in an area prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, monsoons, etc. in order of importance:

1. Bottled water – This is going to keep you alive longer than anything else!
2. First-aid kit – Depending on the situation, you may have to act fast to treat wounds (even small cuts) – don’t count on fast emergency assistance (think of the number of people they have to help!).
3. Pocket knife – Personally, I recommend a Swiss army knife and a bowie knife (never know what you’ll run into when mass hysteria strikes!).
4. Can opener – Canned food lasts longer, will be easier to get a hold of, easier to eat, and easier to loot (just kidding).
5. Sleeping bag or heavy blanket – You want to keep yourself warm – it could happen in the winter, it could cause you to come into contact with cold water, volcanic debris could block the sun and cause temperature drops… besides, a blankey always makes you feel better.
6. Duct tape – For a variety of reasons.  Keeping pressure on wounds, creating a makeshift shelter, tying up the guy you are going to use as food…
7. Copies of important documents – ALWAYS keep a copy of your passport on you, medical documents, visa documents, important phone numbers, a map to your nearest embassy…
8. Batteries – And plenty of them!  They’re small enough to stock up on, and will be useful for number 9 and 10, among other things you may come across.
9. Battery operated radio – Depending on where you happen to be located, you’ll want to hear announcements and updates on the situation.
10. Flashlight – There is a good chance you might be without power, or will experience rolling blackouts.
11. Emergency cash – You never know when you’ll need it!

You have your list.  Seems like a lot, but you can fit it all in/on a single backpack.  Hey, that’s not a bad idea.  Keep an emergency backpack.

Now, let’s look at some of the events you may encounter – what you can expect, what you need to know, and what you need to do.


We’ve been seeing a lot of devastating earthquakes lately, so I’ll start here.  No, I’m not buying into the whole 2012 bit, but they can happen, without warning, and they can be devastating – especially when accompanied by a tsunami.  If you are in an EQ zone, be sure to keep some necessities on you at all times (keeping your supplies at home won’t help you if your home collapses).  When an earthquake happens, take one second to assess your surroundings.  Where are you and what can you do to keep safe?  In an office or a school?  Get under a desk and make sure your students do the same!  On an open street near tall buildings?  Find a safe place to avoid any fall out such as shattering windows.  Hanging out at the beach?  Just in case – run inland.  Er… sprint.  Get to high ground in case a wall of water is heading your way.

If you become trapped by debris, the worst threat you face is suffocation or crush syndrome.  You are going to panic, so you are going to breathe heavily and fast.  Try not to.  You want to salvage any oxygen in your general vicinity and you want to keep your internal organs as limp and loose as possible (hyperventilating won’t help this).  If you are trapped under a heavy object, try to keep yourself moving somehow but slowly.  Wiggle your legs and arms regularly, or even try to shift your body so that there is less pressure on your body as a whole if you can.  When rescuers arrive, let them know if you have been stuck for more than 15 minutes.  If they pull a giant rock off you after you’ve been crushed by it for longer than that – you might die instantly.

You don’t always have to freak out.  Judge how the natives respond to an earthquake and follow suit.  Many areas are used to minor earthquakes on a daily basis, and they are usually nothing to worry about.  Modern countries where earthquakes are common typically have an infrastructure to withstand them.  Japan, for instance, has some of the strictest building codes in the world to ensure their cities do not crumble – and they even have an entire town that sits on small metal balls to roll with the shocks of an earthquake!

Medical Evacuations

I’m not talking about Medevac.  I’m talking about full-blown outbreaks.  Okay.  I know all of your brains just littered you with images from 28 Days Later.  Odds are, zombies are not going to take over while you’re sucking down Mai Tai’s in Ko Samui.  But, as you may have read in my Staying Healthy Abroad post, bad bugs are out there.  Sometimes, they get bad enough to warrant a medical evacuation at the discretion of your government or local embassy.  Two places you want to be most aware of this occurring will be China and mainland Africa, but this has happened in other locations before.

Sometimes things will get so bad you will need to leave for your own safety.  It’s very likely that your insurance has coverage for this – and you should have insurance.  Even travel insurance covers this!  However, if it is a dire situation, the military will get you out without bothering to check your insurance card.  Depending on what it is, you may be quarantined before you are allowed to depart the borders of the afflicted location.  Remember, it’s not that they are suspicious of you – they just don’t want it to spread and are not taking any chances.  Anyway, not all outbreaks will require an evacuation.  This may be because the danger is not airborne or has not contaminated the water supply.

So what’s up?  Ebola?  Cholera?  H1N1?  SARS?  Mad Cow?  Meningitis?  Leprosy?  Bubonic plague?  H5N1 (yea, that exists)?  Legionnaires’?  Tuberculosis?  Honestly, radiation is going to be the most problematic concern you run into – if it happens.

Do you know what these things are, how you get them, how to avoid them and where they commonly occur?  Let’s be honest, widespread outbreaks are rare and military-assisted evacuations are even rarer.  But they can happen.  I remember living in Zaire, Ebola was something we were all scared of.  Eventually, the Ebola threat coupled with civil unrest forced an evacuation of our compound.

Hurricanes and Typhoons and Monsoons

In case you don’t know, hurricanes and typhoons are the same thing; they just spin in different directions (the more you know…).  Hurricanes happen in the western hemisphere, typhoons happen in the eastern hemisphere.  For those of you living in the United States, you know what a hurricane can do – and the same goes for typhoons.  Luckily, you have time to prepare for this if necessary.  Baton down the hatches, have your emergency backpack ready, and find a place to stay safe!

A monsoon is an extended period of practically nonstop rain and usually has a season.  These can result in massive flooding on occasion, so if you are near a major river or in an area with poor sewer systems, you want to keep an eye on the situation and upgrade to higher ground for a while if necessary.  Surges happen without warning and the last thing you want to be doing is doing a mock impression of Singing in the Rain while a wall of water comes up the street behind you.

All of these weather patterns can cause massive damage and leave you stranded for a period of time, depending on how bad they get.  Bottled water and a medical kit are absolutely necessary.  Remember, the water surrounding you is never safe to drink and you probably won’t have access to necessary supplies if you did not prepare.


What are the odds?  You never know.  Listen, all volcanoes are active on some level, and dormant doesn’t always mean safe.  Lucky for you, there are a lot of scientists that are just giddy over these grumbling mountains and eruptions can be predicted more often than not.  Emergency backpack?  Check.  Okay.  You’re worried about lava.  Don’t be.  You can outrun it and, unless you are parked at the bottom of the mountain, you’ll have plenty of time to.  You do, however, want to seriously worry about a few things:

Is the volcano going to blow its top?  You can be miles away and still have an extraordinarily large, smoldering rock land on your home.

Is it a Peléan-type eruption?  You better hope not.  Pyroclastic clouds are the most devastating thing that can happen – you cannot outrun them, they destroy everything in their path and they come with heavy volume.  You can see them coming, that’s for sure.  If you’re in a car driving away from the volcano, you need to be going at least 170 kph (106 mph) – and good luck with that when everyone else is clogging the freeways.  Lucky for you, massive pyroclastic flows are rare and your local volcano may not be built for it.

What about the air quality?  Theeeere ya go.  This is likely going to be your concern.  You probably won’t have a military-grade gas mask on you, so as silly as it sounds swimming goggles and a surgical mask will help you get out of the debris zone without permanent damage to your lungs and eyes.  You will think it’s just smoke, but it is really a minefield of floating debris made up of ash, sulfur, tiny rocks and more.  You don’t want to breathe it in and you don’t want it in your eyes!

Earthquakes accompany volcanoes, by the way.  So anything that can happen during an earthquake could, potentially, happen during a volcanic eruption – and vice versa.


Oh, people.  Let’s face it; people are less predictable than all of the above.  As a visitor in a foreign land, you may not be fully aware of the undercurrents of their society and any aggression that’s bubbling to the surface.  I’d like you to remember a very worthwhile proverb:

If anything happens, grab your passport and leap the fence to your embassy.

Okay, it’s not really a proverb, but for you it might become one!  Look, you can love where you are all you want.  You can feel as much of a local as possible.  You can feel like you are truly part of the community.  It can be your home, where your heart is, so on and so forth.  But if civil unrest or even war breaks out – throw all of that out the window.  You are not one of them, and they will not take care to shoot over your head or throw down their machete an extra inch away from you.  It does not matter if you support one side or the other, do not get involved!  Aside from the fact that as a non-citizen of the country you could be faced with some serious criminal repercussions, it’s simply not safe!

Depending on the severity of the situation, you don’t have to leave.  Do what you feel you are comfortable with.  If people are gathering in the streets staging demonstrations for several days and you feel nervous, go ahead and leave if you don’t feel right.  If the military begins shooting said protesters and war begins to ravage the streets, run for the embassy or nearest military base of your flag – whichever is closer.

Here’s a severity index of civil unrest for your reference:

Peaceful demonstrations?  Watch some TV.
Violent demonstrations?  Put your shoes on.
Civilian vs. police clashes?  Grab your emergency backpack!
Molotov cocktails and live rounds?  You should be out the door now…
Machine guns and rocket launchers?  Ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun!
Bombs?  Seriously?  Are you out of the country yet?

Well, those are the basic emergencies you have the small chance of running into while abroad.  Remember, any and all of these things can happen right at home, so don’t think going abroad necessarily increases your risk of danger.  Even if it does, what’s the adventure of a lifetime without a little danger?  But, let’s be honest, the odds of something major happening to you are pretty slim despite the news lately.  Know where you are going, what’s possible and what safety measures you can take.  The emergency backpack doesn’t sound so stupid now, does it?

This post was written by Kaye McDaniel.