Volcano erupts on St. Vincent: What happens if you get caught in a natural disaster away from home?

Korin Miller
·7 min read

St. Vincent's La Soufrière volcano has been erupting since late last week, and the situation continues to get worse. Officials say that a "huge explosion" rocked the volcano and eastern Caribbean island on Monday, spewing ash and hot gas into the air.

"It's destroying everything in its path," Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies' Seismic Research Center, told the Associated Press. "Anybody who would have not heeded the evacuation, they need to get out immediately."

About 16,000 people who live near the volcano evacuated on Thursday, but some stayed behind and refused to leave.

DJ Hannah Bronfman shared in an Instagram Story on Sunday that she was recently vacationing on the island of Mustique, which is near St. Vincent. "This place is magic and [people] were evacuated by boat mid day and it was pitch black because of the ash," she wrote next to a video of a sunset over the water.

Bronfman suggested in another Instagram Story that her family had since left the island, writing, "We were just in Mustique, which is an island in the Grenadines and a volcano erupted on St. Vincent, displacing so many [families]."

Hannah Bronfman shared (Photo: Instagram/Hannah Bronfman)
Hannah Bronfman shared that she and her family were visiting the nearby island of Mustique before the volcano erupted on St. Vincent. (Photo: Instagram/Hannah Bronfman)

St. Vincent is a popular tourist destination in the Caribbean, drawing in people with its white sand beaches. That raises a big question: What happens if you're caught in a natural disaster away from home?

Psychologically, it can be more difficult to handle than grappling with a natural disaster at home because you don't necessarily have a comforting area that you feel safe in, clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. "Getting caught in a natural disaster away from home has the effects on our basic brain chemistry that puts into action our flight or fight brain processes," he says. 

Couple that with the unease of being in unfamiliar surroundings, and it can lead to even more heightened feelings of panic and anxiety, Peter Economou, associate professor of psychology at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, tells Yahoo Life. "You're away from your support system and your normal routine, including your coping skills," he says. "Many people who use their gym or therapist to cope with stress may not be able to do that while traveling." There's also a lot of uncertainty, he says, adding, "uncertainty is petrifying in this situation."

It's important to be aware that a disaster is something that can happen while you're on vacation, Andrew Kruczkiewicz, senior associate at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, tells Yahoo Life. "Extreme events happen all the time, around the world," he says.

There is a wide range of catastrophic events that can happen when you're away from home, and "when you're traveling or on vacation, you are actually more vulnerable to natural disasters because you may not be familiar with the area and the natural hazards," FEMA-certified natural disaster preparedness instructor Cheryl Nelson, founder of Prepare with Cher, tells Yahoo Life. Still, there are some things you can do. Here's what experts recommend:

Before You Travel

Think about your sources of important disaster-related information

When you travel, Kruczkiewicz recommends thinking in advance about what would be the best source of crucial information if a disaster were to strike. "Most people are familiar with the mechanisms of receiving critical information in the U.S., like getting alerts on your phone, but the process can be quite confusing and complicated elsewhere," he says. "It's important to think if risk information would be updated as frequently if you were elsewhere, and what sources it could come from. Many times, there can be a mismatch between what your phone is telling you vs. a national source."

Credible information is crucial, Nelson says. "A portable NOAA weather radio is always great to take with you on the go," she adds.

Do your research before your trip

Nelson recommends looking for information on current conditions about the areas you're planning to travel to. Things like droughts, a recent history of wildfires and floods are important to know, along with how prone the area is to tornadoes, earthquakes and active volcanoes. "Knowledge is power," she says. "If there has been some seismic activity recently, perhaps think about postponing your trip."

Have a plan

This doesn't need to be elaborate, but knowing where you'd go if something would happen is important, Nelson says. "Kind of like the hotel fire exit location maps that are on the back of every hotel room door," she says. "Look at things like this."

Pack a disaster preparedness kit

While most people don’t do this, Nelson says it's "always recommended" that people carry a disaster preparedness kit, even while traveling or on vacation. That can include things like bottled water, non-perishable food like granola bars, a portable NOAA weather radio, cell phone charger, mask, hand sanitizer, prescription medications, a flashlight and batteries, a first aid kit, cash in single dollar bills and sturdy shoes.

If Disaster Strikes When You're Traveling

Get to a safe place

If you're under a tornado warning, Nelson recommends getting to an interior room in the lowest level of your building. "If it's an earthquake, get under something sturdy and remain there until the shaking stops," she says. "If it's a volcano, try to remain calm and listen to the instructions of authorities via TV, radio or internet." If you're in an area where there’s a volcanic eruption but you’re not in immediate danger, Nelson recommends staying inside "until the ash has settled."

Be mindful of wind and currents

If you're dealing with a volcano eruption, Nelson recommends doing your best to avoid areas that are downwind of the volcano and areas downstream from a river. "Rivers are low points and lava would flow down into those low-lying areas," Nelson says.

Reach out to friends

If you've done everything you can to ensure your physical safety, talking to friends or travel partners about how you're feeling can help take care of your mental health. "Rely on your resources to help you through, such as reaching out to your travel partners, calling friends back home and helplines provided in the area you are in," Mayer says. "Don’t try to cope with this alone."

Try mindfulness

It's hard to think of anything but how anxious and stressed you are when disaster strikes but, if you're in a relatively safe location, Economou recommends practicing mindfulness, like taking deep breaths, praying or meditating. "If somebody is able to practice mindfulness during a natural disaster, they are more likely to have a healthy relationship with uncertainty," he says. 

Experts warn against disaster tourism — that is, purposefully traveling to an area that has been through an environmental disaster out of curiosity. This is different from delivering government-endorsed humanitarian aid or being part of a research group, Kruczkiewicz says. "If you’re traveling to a location where there is likely to be stressed systems and strain on the local population for curiosity, then that travel should be highly reconsidered," he says. "That's a pretty bold statement of privilege. People don't understand what it's like for disaster to happen in lower-income countries. The last thing that is needed is to have other people and other considerations to take priority over [the] survival of the local population."

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