family gathered in living room preparing for emergency

Could a Disaster Interrupt Your Vacation? How to Travel Prepared

(This article was largely drafted as Houston sat out the “sideswipe” by Hurricane Beryl, and was completed in a public “cooling center” the next day.)

An Emergency in Strange Territory: One Family’s Story

As most ESGH clients know, Houston has seen more than its share of disasters lately. Good for you if you hold family fire drills and keep an “emergency evacuation” bag handy. However, even if you’ve covered all bases at home, you probably aren’t home every day of the year. When your family sleeps in strange quarters, are you prepared to move quickly if an emergency alarm wakes you?

The following story (from Cristen Reat, BridgingApps Program Director) shows what can happen if you aren’t prepared.

Our younger son, Vincent, has cognitive disabilities, sensory issues, mobility challenges, and sleep disorders. When traveling as a family, we’ve always brought his adaptive stroller, and have chosen hotel rooms in low-traffic areas of the building.

However, that wasn’t nearly enough one night in February 2018, when Vincent was 14 and the family was in Dallas checking colleges for our older son, Martin. Around 2:30 a.m., a fire alarm went off in our hotel room. That bleating sounded like a million decibels, accompanied by flashing lights.

All became chaos in our room: Vincent trying to burrow into his covers away from the sensory overload; Martin screaming, “Where are my shoes? I can’t find my shoes!”; and me doing nothing because I was trying to decide what to do first. Should I take Vincent to the bathroom because who knows when we will get to go next? Should I get myself dressed first, or get Vincent into his stroller—wait, we’re on the fourth floor, how will we get the stroller downstairs?

Someone will have to carry Vincent; my husband has a bad back, can’t do that. Can I do it alone? Should I get Martin to help? Should I have him carry Vincent’s medication bag? If the room burns up, Vincent will be in big trouble without his meds. Are the meds even still in the bag, or are they strewn about the bathroom?

Luckily, the alarm turned out be a kitchen fire that was put out before it could endanger any hotel guests. If it had been on our floor, we all could have died of smoke inhalation in the ten minutes we spent scrambling about and arguing.

Since then, whenever our family stays in hotels, we:

  • Return all medications to their bag after use, and keep the bag ready to grab if we have to move quickly.
  • Keep everyone’s shoes by the door.
  • Scope out exits and stairwells convenient to our room.
  • Hold onsite fire drills, helping Vincent practice getting into his travel wheelchair and up and down hotel stairs.

How About You?

Anyone can be surprised by an emergency in a strange hotel. Or in a strange climate. When traveling, are you prepared for possible disasters (earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, etc.) that may not be a concern in your hometown? Are you prepared for differences in altitude, temperature, humidity, or other environmental factors that could impair your functioning in a crisis?

Do your homework in advance; keep essentials close at hand; and remember these other tips to keep your vacation safe as well as enjoyable.

  • Don’t rush into your tourist itinerary after a long trip. Spend your first day (and your first two nights) resting and acclimating.
  • If you’re bringing service dogs, give them time to acclimate as well—and remember that they will also need to practice finding their way around your destination.
  • Stay healthy to stay resilient. Even vacationers need nutritious food, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep.
  • Have a personal emergency plan for personal emergencies (e.g., pack extra medication in case you can’t leave for home—and your regular pharmacy—on schedule).
  • If driving, have the car thoroughly serviced in advance—and check whether your usual road service is available at your destination.  
  • Keep your gas tank full and your devices charged.
  • Pack light: every unnecessary item is a potential burden. You might see about bringing a lightweight “travel” walker, CPAP machine, etc.—or renting equipment at your destination.
  • Keep a checklist so you don’t leave anything at home (or at your vacation lodging).

Closing Tips: Emergency-App Recommendations

The Reat family used the FireGuide app (unfortunately no longer being updated) for scheduling fire drills. Cristen also recommends:

  • Zello Walkie Talkie for communicating with friends and family during emergencies.
  • The Red Cross Emergency app: free to download, and includes a variety of planning and weather-alert tools in English and Spanish.

See also: Disability Rights Texas Disaster Resilience resources

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