June 4, 2010

Surviving a Hurricane in Mexico

hurricane Yesterday we talked about the hurricane season and what that can mean for Mexico. Though it's rare for a hurricane to have landfall in Mexico (only 4 times in Cancún for example), it can happen. We are in 'The Season' now, but the most active months are August, September and October. The first tip to surviving a hurricane is to be aware that you're in 'The Season' and that you now know.

There have been 4 major hurricanes in Cancún during the past 42 years. So for 15,336 days in that time, there was no hurricane. For four days, there was. That gives you odds of approximately 4000 to 1 of encountering a hurricane on your vacation. And that's historically only in September and October. The odds fall during June, July, August and November. They dwindle to nothing for the rest of the year. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this blog, let's assume that you were extremely unlucky and there is one on the way, while you are there.

If you do nothing else, nor remember nothing else, then the single most important tip is this: follow the lead of the locals. These are people who have seen it all before. They may well have lived through Wilma at least. Most of the hotels have been built to withstand hurricanes. The staff have been trained in emergency procedures, designed to protect themselves and their guests during a hurricane. The federal, state and municipal authorities all have policies in place to cover all eventualities. There are even state-funded hurricane refuges in Cancún. In short, all of the people there know what they are doing and most of them have plans that include ensuring your safety too. It's in your interest to do what you're told.

However, you could be prepared too. If you are heading to Cancún during The Season, then you could do these things:

1, Register with your country's embassy/consulate. Let them know that you're here!

2, Make enquiries with officialdom. Will your airline help if you're stranded or are required to be evacuated home early? Will your hotel refund pre-paid rooms, if the official order comes to evacuate? Does your travel insurance cover hurricanes? Is there advice from your tour operator about procedures during/after a hurricane? Will your tour operator look after you in the event of an evacuation?

Evacuation from Cancun

3, Prepare a grab bag. The idea of this is that the hurricane warning comes and you are given notice to evacuate. You dash into your hotel room, grab it and run to safety. In reality, this bag is probably to survive an overnight stay in a refuge or snuggled in a reinforced inner hotel room. However, pack like you're in dodgier surroundings for longer.

Items you might wish to include are:

* Water - at least one gallon daily per person for 3-7 days
* Water purification tablets
* Food - non-perishable food and snacks for 3-7 days. Tinned food is good, but remember the tin opener (non-electric is best, in case the batteries run out). Also think about plates and cutlery, plus, if you need to cook it, a camping stove with fuel.
* Drugs/medication - Anything that you need to generally stay alive, hurricane or not
* First Aid Kit
* Clothing - it's probably best to think sturdy shoes, as you may be walking over rubble as you leave
* Blankets and pillows
* Torch/Torch candle - let there be light! But if your torch needs batteries, don't forget a spare set, or else remember the matches/lighter for the torch candle
* Bin-bags/garbage bags - you would be amazed at how versatile and useful these waterproof sacks are. They can hold all of your stuff; they can be makeshift raincoats; they can cover you while you get changed; they can be makeshift sleeping bags (if you're small or curl up really tightly); they can be tacked up for partitions/privacy or used as emergency toilets; they could even be made into very flimsy, noisy tents; use your imagination! Oh! And they're good for holding the trash as well
* Toiletries/hygiene wipes/moisture wipes - you can't be guaranteed access to a five star restroom, while you're hiding out from the storm. Baby wipes can be used for a wash; you might want to include something like DentaBurst or Oral B Brush Ups to clean your teeth
* Radio - it is better to buy a wind up radio, which doesn't need batteries. It's also best to get one with a weather band; though, to be fair, if you're using it whilst hiding from a hurricane, you could probably guess the weather report yourself. However, it will keep you informed on what's going on in the real world and where you need to go next. For example, after Wilma, the US Embassy put out special information for their nationals, which was to head for Mérida and fly to the States from there
* Important documents - passport, travel documents, driving license etc. Put these into a waterproof, resealable bag or container. You really don't want to get these wet
* Telephones - fully charged with a spare battery. Ensure that it works internationally, particularly inside Mexico. Also a list of telephone numbers on paper. If your telephone does die on you, you still have your contact numbers
* Cash/Credit Cards - in a category 5 hurricane, you might emerge to discover that there's no ATM out there anymore, and those that structurally remain might not work due to the lack of electricity. This is emergency money in case there is none accessible, once you leave the shelter
* Keys - To get back into your hotel room/house/car/business etc
* Special items - you know your party better than me. Do you need diapers/nappies for the baby? Will someone panic without their lucky stone? Does granny only find religion at times like this and therefore needs her rosary beads?
* Books/toys/games - It might be exciting at the refuge at first, but after an hour or two, you'll be looking for entertainment
* Pet care items - It's unlikely that you will have your pet with you on vacation, but if you have, remember to pack for him/her too

4, Create a plan for you and your party/family. Research the hazards and take the worse case scenario. What if all 'phone lines are down, but you and individuals in your party/family have become separated? Where should you meet back up? When should you meet back up? If you have been given the order to evacuate, then what should each person grab on the way out? (V gets the children; W gets the blankets; Y gets the grab bag; X gets the passports and travel documents; Z gets the rum - all important things covered and off you go.)

5, Work out where to go. Cancun shelter If you are going to rely upon the offical evacuation procedures, then check in advance where you should congregate when the warning goes up. This might not be your own hotel. All Cancún hotels are built to withstand hurricanes, but not necessarily a category 5. Find out, in advance, where you should be heading instead by asking in your hotel lobby or with your tour operator. In 2008, the hotel's assigned shelters were listed here.

If you would prefer to make your own evacuation plans, then make reservations in advance and don't delay. The second you feel you should evacuate, then go. Any delay will just put you in a traffic jam full of the other thousands of people evacuating. Please note that all Cancún official plans include ensuring the safety of the tourists. These plans haven't failed in the past, so they are to be trusted.

6, Monitor the weather. You could invest in a radio with a weather band, which can carry this to the beach or everywhere else. Check it regularly, even when glorious sunshine is beaming down upon you. Then you'll know if a hurricane is coming. Alternatively, you could check the hurricane watch websites.

National Hurricane Center
Caribbean Hurricane Network

5, Stop worrying about hurricanes and enjoy your holiday. You're as prepared as you're going to be. There's only a 1 in 4000 chance of a hurricane occurring and, if it does, you will most likely see it out safe and sound.

If a hurricane did hit Cancún, then you would probably be asked to remain in your hotel for a category 1-3. By the next day, you'd definitely be chilling out on vacation again, with a great story to tell back home. The above preparation is really for categories 4-5, another Wilma. In that case, just follow the instructions given by your hotel.

For more local links and advice, please check out the TripAdvisor page: Cancún: Traveling During Hurricane Season. For more real life stories about Cancún hurricanes, try Hurricane Cancún, the home of a collective of bloggers telling their experiences as they occurred.


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