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Study Abroad Emergencies and Evacuation

Preparing for Natural Disasters, Political Unrest

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Study Abroad Emergencies and Evacuation Photo by Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

Earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes, political upheaval, medical crises - those are the very last things any parent wants to think about when he or she packs college kids off for a study abroad program. But in the last few years alone, many study abroad students - college kids spending a semester or year abroad - have been faced with disasters their families back home never imagined.

The list includes a massive 9.0 earthquake in Japan, followed by a devastating tsunami and the threat of nuclear meltdown in March 2011; a 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand in February 2011 that required some university evacuations to other parts of New Zealand and Australia; political upheavals in Cairo, Egypt in January 2011, that had universities scrambling to evacuate students from Egyptian cities; and a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 that required emergency evacuations of college students on relief flights. One of those students had to have his foot amputated - and there were at least two instances of evacuation insurance companies sending small private planes into remote Haitian airstrips, Hollywood movie-style, to extract a handful of teens and 20somethings. And that list doesn't even touch on the many ways teens and 20somethings can get sick or injured.

No one can anticipate disaster, but there are a few things parents of study-abroad students can do to hedge their bets. Before you read on, bear in mind that you can drive yourself nuts fretting about what might be, when the odds are really very slim indeed. But depending where your child is traveling, you might want to consider some of these options - and no matter where he's traveling, do the first two:

  • Medical emergencies: Long before departure day, it's critical to visit a travel clinic or university health center to get hepatitis shots, anti-malarial medication and other country-specific medical issues taken care of. But medical emergencies - illnesses, broken bones and serious injuries - can happen anywhere, anytime. In the same way you prepared your child to take care of his health at school, run what-if scenarios for his trip abroad so he's prepared to seek medical attention there too. Make sure your family's health coverage is up to date and covers treatment in other countries. (You may also want to consider taking out additional health insurance that includes medical evacuation, especially if your child is traveling to a remote area. These policies are usually offered through your child's study abroad program. Although the chances of having to airlift your kid out of some remote locale are pretty remote, when it happens, it's unbelievably expensive.)

  • Emergency contact: The U.S. State Department has some great tips for travelers, whether they're students studying abroad or regular tourists, including registering with the nearest embassy. But you also need to discuss communication with your child. He may not think he's anywhere near that catastrophic earthquake; you (and his university) may need reassurance anyway. So he needs to get in touch quickly. Communication lines break down during natural disasters and political unrest, so discuss all the ways you and he can connect - via cell phone, text (which sometimes works even when cell networks are jammed), e-mail, Facebook, land lines (which continued to work in Cairo, even when cell did not), Google people finder, embassies and consulates, and via the university.

  • Political upheaval: There are riots and demonstrations - and then there are political upheavals so extreme, they fill city streets and pose a danger to tourists in hotels and students in their dorms, as well as bystanders on sidewalks. Most university study abroad programs keep fairly close tabs on their students and rely on staff on the ground to warn of imminent danger. But by the time the U.S. State Department, for example, issues an evacuation order, it can mean days before those relief flights get everyone out. Some universities contract with a private evacuation insurance company, which brings in charter flights. Some families take out policies of their own, either under an umbrella evacuation policy or with what some companies. including On Call International, have begun billing as "political evacuation."

  • Natural disaster: All of the above applies here too, with a few additions. In the same way that you keep emergency supplies on hand at home - you do, don't you? - your child needs to stockpile water, some emergency rations and cash in the local currency, plus a first aid kit. In the event of a natural disaster, food and water are hard to come by, and cash is essential. (Just make sure your kid understands the cash is for emergencies, not entertainment shortages.)
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