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When disaster strikes, it pays to be prepared

To have a happy trip, pack for disaster:  In an emergency, a little pre-planning can go a long way.

As I write this, the quake-damaged streets in Kona are being repaired, Hurricane Paul is losing steam over Mexico and I’m wondering if I really need to worry about being prepared for disaster when I travel. After all, the odds of getting whacked by an earthquake or hurricane fall somewhere between slim and none.

It’s the slim part that’s got me wondering. It’s been almost two years since the December 2004 tsunami devastated Indonesia, and it seems like Mother Nature’s been on a tear ever since — Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Hurricane Wilma two months later, earthquakes in Java, Indonesia, in May and July 2006. Slim odds or not, disasters are a fact of travel life.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m still going. I’m just thinking that after all these years of casual planning and inadvertent optimism, it’s time to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared.

Let there be light
Centered off Hawaii’s Kona Coast, the October 15 earthquake struck at 7:07 a.m., followed by a second temblor seven minutes later. And while the aftershocks gradually subsided throughout the day, electrical power didn’t come back on in parts of Honolulu for up to 20 hours. That means no lights, no clock, and no TV or radio news in all those high-rise hotels in Waikiki.

The takeaway: Pack a flashlight. The smallest use a single AAA battery and weigh less than an ounce, but for a few ounces more, an LED light using 2 AAs will last longer and shine brighter.

Power outages can also wreak havoc on ATMs, cash registers, and credit-card authorization machines, meaning your debit and credit cards may not be worth the plastic they’re made of. The takeaway: Always carry a small stash of cash. I’ve had the same $40 in my passport pouch for the last five years.

Then there’s phone service, which, depending on the nature of the disaster, may or may not be affected. Bringing the cell phone is a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget to charge the thing after a day of sightseeing or a night on the town. Of course, if you can’t get service at all, it doesn’t matter if your battery is charged or not.

The twin takeaways: Obviously, keep your cell phone charged, but also consider carrying an international phone card. The minutes don’t expire, the calls are often cheaper, and you never know where you’re going to be (or what’s going to work) when disaster strikes.

Consider, too, that, in a major disaster, everybody around you will be in the same situation, and that getting food, information, or medical attention may be difficult or impossible. Packing a water bottle and some energy bars — maybe even a portable radio and compact first-aid kit — can make a big difference while you’re waiting out the storm.

The power of paper
Of course, it doesn’t take a hurricane or an earthquake to put the kibosh on a great vacation. Fact is, you’re more likely to be a victim of petty theft than a natural disaster, which is why it’s also important to be prepared for more personal emergencies.

Suppose, for example, that your purse, briefcase, or backpack gets stolen, along with your passport, credit cards, and PDA. Just like that, you’ve got no ID, no money and, if you keep all your contact information on your Treo or BlackBerry, no way to tell the appropriate people about the problem.

Takeaway No. 1: Make a written list of contact numbers for airlines, hotels, and other travel providers, and keep it somewhere safe. If you’re traveling out of the country, include local numbers whenever possible as many U.S.-based 800 numbers don’t work internationally.

Takeaway No. 2: Put your credit card numbers and the issuing companies’ phone numbers on the list, so you can report stolen cards as soon as possible. And before you head out, it’s a good idea to let your credit-card company know you’re going. It’s no fun trying to use your card and finding it frozen because your (completely valid) charges triggered a fraud alert.

Takeaway No. 3: Make a copy of your passport’s identification page. If your passport is lost or stolen, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. They can help procure a replacement, and having a photocopy of your original passport can facilitate the process.

Embassy and consular offices can also provide assistance for a host of emergencies, ranging from petty theft and medical problems to outright evacuation due to a natural disaster, terror attack, or civil unrest. For a list of overseas offices, go .

Finally, you may want to consider registering your trip with the State Department before you leave by going . This free service allows you to input information about your travel plans so that local U.S. officials can locate you should trouble strike. Here’s hoping you never need their services.