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Travelers should think about natural hazards when in unfamiliar

Sunday, October 21, 2001

Terry Casperson travels all over the country as a university gymnastics coach, but she never gave any thought to earthquakes until she found herself knocked off her feet atop the swaying Space Needle during a Seattle tremor.

Now, she thinks about natural hazards when she travels and shares with her traveling companions the safety precautions that those who live in the area may take for granted.

"I'd never thought of a natural disaster," Casperson says. "I'd been to coast-to-coast and not once had I ever thought of it."

Casperson was in Seattle with a half-dozen members of the Western Michigan University team when the magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck in February. They had just come in from the outside observation deck and were still 52 stories above the ground.

"The building started to quiver," she recalls. "It kept getting worse and more intense, you could just see everybody's eyes getting big."

While residents of the West Coast grow up with earthquake drills in school, Casperson was raised in Philadelphia and has lived in Kalamazoo, Mich., for more than 15 years; she knew nothing about quakes before living through the largest one to hit the Pacific Northwest in more than 50 years. It caused about 400 injuries, mostly minor, and $2 billion in damage.

Unexpected hazards

"I've never experienced that feeling before of no control. You're at the whim of mother nature," said Casperson, who credited the Space Needle staff with keeping everyone calm.

Earthquakes aren't the only natural hazard that can strike without warning.

Linda Skelcy of Cranford, N.J., was in a taxi going from the airport to her hotel when a rare tornado hit Salt Lake City in 1999. They were about two miles from the hotel, and the driver refused to go any further.

"There I was with my laptop and my luggage in a strange town," she recalled. "This tornado had just hit, and they were issuing warnings for more."

Skelcy had no choice but to get out of the cab. She didn't know her way to the hotel, and she had too much luggage to carry by herself as she climbed over uprooted trees and maneuvered around downed power lines. Fortunately, a stranger who was sharing the taxi offered to help, and stayed with her until she was checked in.

She hadn't been at the hotel for long when it was evacuated because of gas leaks. Things went smoothly, but once outside, she was lost again. "Police were saying to leave the area. I didn't know the area so I just followed the crowd," she says.

Attention on security

As much as last month's terrorist attacks have focused attention on airline security, it often takes a disaster for the tourism industry to review its policies. For instance, strict fire regulations weren't put into place in Nevada and elsewhere until after the 1980 fire at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas that killed 87 people.

After the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco that killed 67 people and caused $7 billion in damage, California reviewed its earthquake requirements and found them to be adequate, says Jim Abrams, executive director of the California Hotel and Lodging Association.

"There really wasn't any great hue and cry to do more in the way of telling people what to do in the event of an earthquake," he says. "Especially in a hotel or motel, the building codes are such that there almost certainly is enough strength in the building" to prevent it from collapsing.

Similarly, modern building codes were credited with minimizing losses during the Salt Lake tornado, which killed one person, injured hundreds and caused more than $150 million in damage.

And Skelcy says the hotel staff did a good job in helping with the evacuation.

Though it varies from state-to-state, general emergency procedures are covered in the fire safety instructions that visitors must be given. In addition, in California at least, each hotel must have a fire safety director who is responsible for an emergency plan that stipulates what employees are supposed to do in the event of a crisis -- something guests never see, Abrams says.

Ultimately, however, it's up to travelers to take responsibility for preparing themselves for unfamiliar places.


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