When a Tsunami Hit My Hotel
Preparing for and facing a natural disaster can be frightening and panic inducing enough on their own but even more so when you have others aside from yourself to look out for. So, for hotel staff who often shoulder the added responsibility of the safety and well-being of their guests, this can sometimes seem overwhelming. Having experienced this first hand, while working in the Maldives in 2004 when the tsunami hit, I know just how intimidating it can be.
I still remember that day. I had just finished the first half of my break-shift in the restaurant and had returned to my cabin when I heard the screams. At first, I thought it was excited squealing, but then my instinct gave my amygdala (the fear center in the brain) a kick in the shins and the panic button in my head went off and sent me running for the door. I was on the first floor and when I looked down the flight of stairs, there was water up to the third step.
My first thought was that the island was sinking (since a lot of the island, as with many in the Maldives, consists of reclaimed land). I quickly began wading through the water to the front desk to find out what was going on, and it was on my way there that I realized we had been hit by a tsunami. I learned later that another hotel in the area that had been hit first called to warn us about the approaching wave, but the waters came rushing so fast that the tsunami hit and broke the front pillars of the beach front restaurant, engulfing the island, while we were still on the line with them.
It was the festive season and the hotel was at 100% occupancy. I was a trainee still in graduate school at the time, and the enormity of the situation suddenly hit me. I found my manager, and he quickly debriefed us on what needed to be done in as calm and collected a way as he could, highlighting the key risks and immediate actions we needed to take, which included:
- Accounting for all staff and guests and reporting if anyone was missing (fortunately no one was)
- Attending to anyone who was injured
- Ensuring that all guests were in a safe place away from the side the water was encroaching from
- Ensuring everyone was kept warm and as dry as possible
- Ensuring that food and drink supplies were available to all staff and guests
- Assessing damage to the property that posed health hazards and addressing them
- Calming and soothing distressed guests
The next few days were a blur of damp, dark foreboding as the runway was a mere air strip in the middle of the sea and was underwater so evacuation was challenging. Phone lines were also down, and TV transmission was out too. Looking back it was scary, but I think what kept me as grounded as I could be given the circumstances was:
1. Knowledge – Understanding the situation and how it may unfold as well as where to find necessary supplies and equipment. Not knowing what to expect can be unsettling and having to scramble around in search of things can induce further stress.
2. Personal risk assessment – Knowing that I could swim and at least keep my head above water for the moment enabled me to minimise the risk to my personal safety.
3. Ability to compartmentalise – I was able to separate my personal concerns from what needed to be done which helped me shift my focus to what needed to be done rather than the enormity of the situation.
4. Turn off the emotions – Usually I am an empathetic and emotional person and I feel for others but in a situation like this it was critical to listen and care without imbibing the feelings so as to retain my composure around panicking guests. I had to stay strong and stay focused.
When you work in hospitality, emergency situations that threaten not just your safety but the safety and health of your coworkers and guests can occur quickly and out of the blue. So, take he time to make sure you're prepared and comfortable with your establishment's emergency procedures before something big happens – the effort could save your life or the lives of your guests.
Guest Post by Aminah Khan, Hcareers