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What can the U.S. Embassy, Consulates and State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs do for Americans caught in a disaster or a crisis abroad? Earthquakes, hurricanes, political upheavals, acts of terrorism, and hijackings are only some of the events threatening the safety of Americans abroad. Each event is unique and poses its own special difficulties. However, for the State Department there are certain responsibilities and actions that apply in every disaster or crisis.
When a crisis occurs, the State Department sets up a task force or working group to bring together in one set of rooms all the people necessary to work on that event. Usually this Washington task force will be in touch by telephone 24 hours a day with our Ambassador and Foreign Service Officers at the embassy in the country affected. In a task force, the immediate job of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is to respond to the thousands of concerned relatives and friends who begin to telephone the State Department immediately after the news of a disaster is broadcast. Relatives want information on the welfare of their family members and on the disaster.
The State Department relies on its embassies and consulates abroad for hard information. Often these installations are also affected by the disaster and lack electricity, phone lines, gasoline, etc. Nevertheless, Foreign Service Officers work hard to get information back to Washington as quickly as possible. This is rarely as quickly as the press is able to relay information. Foreign Service Officers cannot speculate; their information must be accurate. Often this means getting important information from the local government, which may or may not be immediately responsive.
You can help yourself and your relatives by planning in advance (see emergency preparedness message):
- Enroll with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
- Ensure your passport is valid.
- Gather all vital documents into a secure location and make photocopies which you keep separately.
- Remain informed by watching the news, reading newspapers and referring to the State. Department Consular Information Sheets, Public Announcement, and Travel Warnings.
- Leave your itinerary and contact information with family/friends at home.
- Arrange for regular communications with family/friends through email or phone calls.
For more information, please see U.S. Department of Homeland Security Website.