4 Tips for Dealing with Disaster Abroad

May 7, 2015

It was Monday, April 20, 2015, around 9:40 in the morning. I was sitting at my desk in my Taipei office, wrestling with words and phrases, which are part of my stock and trade as an English editor and writer. At some point, as I stared at yet another English test I had to write, I felt like jumping to my feet and shaking my computer monitor with frustration.

Suddenly, it began to rock and shake on its own! For a moment, I was shocked, not sure what was happening. Then, I heard the worried murmurs and sharp gasps from my co-workers as they tried to steady their shaking shelves and computers. Some of them ran into the hallway. A few seconds later, the shaking stopped, even though my own body and heart couldn’t stop vibrating with alarm.

Each time, I find it hard to judge between the trembling of the earth and the trembling in my own anxious body.

After things settled down, I immediately got a text from my husband, saying he felt the tremors over an hour away from Taipei. After a couple of aftershocks, I jumped onto the U.S. Geological Survey website and other media resources. Sure enough, Taiwan had an earthquake, measuring at least 6.6 on the Richter scale at the epicenter. Later, I learned that there was one death attributed to the earthquake, but mostly it left behind rattled nerves, at least on my part.

Taiwan is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 40,000 km swath of Earth’s most active fault lines and volcanoes. Earthquakes are very common here on the island. However, I’m originally from the East Coast of the United States, where earthquakes are not common at all. In the five years I’ve lived in Taiwan, I’ve experienced at least five significant ones. Each time, I find it hard to judge between the trembling of the earth and the trembling in my own anxious body.

My life in Taiwan has brought home to me even further that our planet is truly alive. It creaks, it groans, it heaves, and hurls. We are affected by these earth changes every day, in ways great and small. Disaster strikes all the time, and it can be frightening when you are living abroad. The following four tips have helped me to “keep calm and carry on” when nature decides not to live in harmony with humanity.

4 Tips for Dealing with Disaster Abroad

1. Get educated.

I make it a point to learn what I can about natural disasters and what to do in the event they take place. Not only do I live in a place with a high frequency of earthquakes, Taiwan also gets typhoons from about May or June until September. While California is enduring its worst drought in its history, northern Taiwan is dealing with similar conditions. I read the news on CNN.com, the Taipei Times, which is in English, and the Central Weather Bureau for current advisories and tips. Because of the drought, the Taiwanese government has issued water restrictions for certain areas, so I read Tealit.com for updates, as well as for the weather forecast. Whether I’m stocking up on water or thinking of ways to offer aid, I’m prepared.

2. Share knowledge.

Once I learn what’s going on, I have to share it with others. I try to keep my family and friends updated through social media. I enrolled in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and it’s a terrific resource while you’re traveling and living abroad and for your friends and family staying behind. My husband and I have started teaching our young son about first aid and what to do in case of an emergency at home. I also ask my Taiwanese friends and co-workers questions and follow their cues. I’ve noticed most of my Taiwanese friends are pretty calm and relaxed when a typhoon is forecast. “It means no work or school, and it means plenty of rain!” one of them told me.

3. Do yoga.

I have found that returning to my yoga practice has helped attune me with my breath and given me more control over my body and mood. In a disaster, it helps to be calm and focused on the task of helping others. I truly feel yoga brings me back to that balance. It’s also helping me cope with my everyday anxiety and depression.

4. Lend a helping hand.

While my experiences with natural disasters in Taiwan have been mild, not everyone is so fortunate. While I was teaching in Korea in 2010, there was a massive earthquake in Haiti. After bringing the matter to their attention, my Korean students raised awareness of the Haitian earthquake by creating posters, ran little fundraisers where they donated blankets and toys, and spread the word to their families about contributing aid. Mere days after the Taiwan earthquake that rattled my senses, the earth lashed out with a huge earthquake in Nepal. Social media is alive with ways to provide aid for the people in Nepal, whose lives are never going to be the same again. There are so many ways to help others.

Living and traveling abroad is a great way to expand our knowledge of the world. I think it can also teach us how the very earth under our feet and in the air around us can erupt and lash out in ways that are terrifying and heartbreaking. I’m learning to put my fear aside and teach my child and others around me to learn more and to help where they can. I also think disasters abroad can teach us how to help others in times when all is well in our world.

Still, when the earth rumbles under me, my heart can’t help but pound harder.


About Whitney Zahar

Whitney Zahar is a writer, a teacher and a student librarian. She’s been actively involved in the arts scene for as long as she can remember. She and her globetrotting family are pulling out of Taiwan soon and are looking forward to more adventures.

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