THE BLOG
07/08/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Preparing for Disaster in Nicaragua

My face was buried in the dirt, my hands protecting my head from physical threats, whether they be kicks or bullets. My colleagues were somewhere in the grass after a group of masked gangsters seized our vehicle and held us at gunpoint in the middle of an abandoned soccer field.

Such was the first simulation I found myself in during SSAFE training at the National Police Academy in Managua, Nicaragua. The training, organized by the United Nations, was aimed at preparing NGO workers for situations that could compromise our safety and, perhaps, our lives.

The risks that international development and aid workers face are real. In Nicaragua, chief security threats include robbery with intimidation and/or violence, assaults, riots, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, landslides, inundations, floods, fires, volcanic ash, lava streams, and pyroclastic flows, just to name a few.

But fear not! Despite the seemingly endless list of horrors, Nicaragua is a wonderful country to live in and is still the third best place to go in 2013. After Costa Rica, Nicaragua is the "safest" country in Central America. Limiting our focus to homicides, Nicaragua has a murder rate of 13.6 homicides/100,000 inhabitants. This is compared to a rate of 38.5 homicides/100,000 inhabitants in Guatemala, 69.2 in El Salvador, and 91.6 in Honduras, which wins the title of "most dangerous country in the world." (The U.S. homicide rate is a mere 4.8 homicides/100,000 inhabitants).

When it comes to security, we can't assume we're safe based on homicide statistics alone. For instance, I lived in Honduras for two years and nothing ever happened to me (while one Peace Corps volunteer was shot and wounded on a bus, resulting in Peace Corps' removal from the country). Prior to Honduras, I lived in Chile, the safest country in Latin America, with a homicide rate of 3.2 homicides/100,000 inhabitants. Yet Chile was the only place where I have ever been violently assaulted and robbed (by a gang of five men, no less).

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, natural disasters are an inevitability. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which resulted in an estimated 220,000 deaths, and the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile that same year (525 deaths) are testaments to that. In Nicaragua, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake in 1972 claimed 20,000 lives, injured 15,000, and destroyed 85 percent of all buildings in Managua.

On June 15, 2013, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake 50 kilometers off of Nicaragua's Pacific coast shook Managua for about 18 seconds. I was in the middle of a class when the building started to tremble and was surprised by how long it took me to realize that the earth was shaking. Thankfully, my Nicaraguan classmates helped keep the peace, encouraging us to follow proper earthquake protocol while exiting the building in an orderly manner.

One of my peers, a Nicaraguan woman who had lived through the 1972 earthquake and several subsequent tremors, predicted the most recent quake's magnitude to a tee.

"That felt like a 6.5," she said. "I'd bet money on it!"

Had the epicenter of the earthquake been Managua, like it was in 1972, the effects would have been devastating. According to the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER), if the 1972 earthquake was to repeat itself today, approximately 9,000 people would lose their lives. While Managua is better situated now, with one or two-level buildings dominating throughout the city, many of its structures still do not comply with earthquake-resistant building codes. Unfortunately, Managua sits on an enormous seismic swarm, and seismologists predict that another quake should occur in the near future, based on historic trends.

It was only appropriate that our second simulation at SSAFE training would test our response to an earthquake. During what we were told would be a fact-finding investigation in a local community, the building we were in started shaking and people around us began shouting, "Terremoto!"

Our team leader told us to hit the ground and cover our heads and necks. The advice was good, but remaining in that position while we waited for the building to collapse on us was not. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, during an earthquake people should seek cover under a sturdy table or desk. Apparently, standing in a doorway is to be avoided, since doorways are not necessarily stronger than other parts of buildings and do not always protect people from the main causes of injury -- falling or flying objects. If an exit is close, it is wise to take it, getting out into the open and staying away from things like facades, wires, sinkholes, and fuel and gas lines.

The last simulation involved getting ambushed by a mob of angry protestors. The situation was not so dissimilar from one I encountered as a tourist in Peru in 2009. At the time, Peruvians had lit fires to block the road to Machu Picchu in response to the government's attempts at water privatization. I remember having to communicate peacefully with the protestors, but as a tourist my negotiating power was slim to none. International workers can and should negotiate with local leaders in these types of situations, especially if they can prevent a collapse into violence.

Though I completed SSAFE training, I'm still no expert in security, as my performance went to show. By the end, I had technically died three times in the first two simulations alone and narrowly escaped kidnapping in the third. Despite my failures, I feel much more prepared for potential threats. My senses have been sharpened, as proven by the sudden movements I now make to protect myself every time I hear any sort of bang. My friends tease me, telling me I have to relax. But the truth is that we never know when these things might happen, and it's better to be prepared for the worst should the unwanted ever unfold.