Emergency Preparedness 101: How to Evacuate Safely

Two things before we start this basic how to evacuate safely discussion.

Please note that this is a beginner look at emergency preparedness. It’s for those who are just beginning to think about how they or they and their families will handle an emergency and isn’t the place to show off how awesomely prepared you are and how you’ve got this down to a science. Yay, you, be nice if you have suggestions.

Additionally, note that we’re at what is hopefully the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of this writing. Some of the advice here will relate to that. After the pandemic is officially over masks may not be necessary, other sanitation suggestions will always apply to shelter situations where many households are staying in fairly close quarters.

Ready?

Often we have some warning before evacuations. Living in hurricane country, I’m pretty sure that “cone of uncertainty” is responsible for a lot of stress eating in the late summer and fall. (That’s the peak of the season.) If you live in an area known for flooding, you can generally see the weather patterns that will bring the heavy rain that can cause the water to rise, or dam inspectors may find stress fractures that indicate a dam is no longer safe prior to it giving way. Those of you who live in wildfire country know which way the wind is blowing, so you may have a couple of hours before having to leave.

But, there are also times when we don’t have a warning that we’ll have to evacuate, a chemical spill on a highway or train tracks, a fire at a chemical plant, the aftermath of a tornado, or earthquake are all examples that come to mind.

What to do?

Have an evacuation plan.

Where will you evacuate?

First, have conversations now. What friends or family members could take you, your family members (if you don’t live alone), and your pets, on short notice, if you have to evacuate? Which friends or family members could you take in if they had to leave their homes on short notice? Offers of reciprocation make these conversations much easier to have.

Will it be comfortable? No. Will it be a good time? No, everyone will still be stressed out of their minds, but at least there is one less thing to worry about, a safe place to stay.

Remember, if you have to evacuate and combine households during COVID-19, you need to mask up, until you are absolutely sure no one is carrying the virus, to avoid spreading it between households. How you manage this will depend on what resources are available where you evacuated to. If there is testing available, great! Just remember there is a window between when you catch the virus and when it can be detected. If everyone has been lucky enough to be vaccinated and had enough time for the vaccination to have taken effect, according to the CDC this is not necessary. (I am hoping this will soon be the majority scenario).

What if you don’t have friends or family you can use as an evacuation destination?

Pick three different motels that fit your needs in three different towns an hour or so away from your home and store their direct phone numbers in your phone (and in your readiness bag). When you are making your evacuation plan, think about the main reasons you would need to evacuate and choose the directions you would travel based on those needs. If you live in hurricane country, choose motels that are inland, but perhaps not right off of the interstate. If you live where wildfires are an issue, choose in a direction away from the general prevailing winds.

Then when you have to evacuate, call them as soon as you are on the road to reserve your room(s). By doing your research now, you are way ahead of the game. Check once a year to make sure they are still in business and update your list accordingly.

I can’t afford a motel.

It’s okay. You are exactly who evacuation shelters are made for and there is no shame in that. Your government has made plans for you, please don’t put off going if you need to use one. If you wait until conditions deteriorate, you may not only put your life in danger but any first responders who have to help you.

If you are a pet owner and must take your pet with you, pay attention to which shelters take animals, most only take service animals (not support animals). You must also supply everything for your pet, the shelter does not provide for your pet.

How will you evacuate?

Consider your transportation.

Look, I’m human, I’ve played the I’ll get gas in the morning game, too.

It’s not smart.

Try to always keep 1/2 a tank of gas in your car OR if you have the SAFE storage space, keep a rotating supply of gasoline at home. This is not advice for apartment dwellers, sorry folks.

It’s essential to rotate that gas on a last-in-first-out basis; gasoline does not store forever, gas with ethanol has an even shorter life-span, so have a few storage containers and rotate through them regularly. (Use them in your lawnmower, top off your car, etc.) and then fill them back up. Number the cans to keep track. If you have to evacuate, top off your car and bring any extra full cans with you. Traffic may be terrible.

Know more than one route to your destination. For example: if you are being evacuated because of a chemical spill on the nearby highway, you will not be able to use that as your route. If you are leaving to escape wild fires, your usual route may be in the fire’s path and you may need to go a different way.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, you either need to have more conversations with friends/family or learn the emergency routes of the public transportation system closest to where you live.

And finally, we’re back to your go bag or as one reader suggested, your readiness bag—I really like that idea. What goes in that? I’ve got you covered.

In addition to your readiness bag, I strongly suggest taking a quick tour of your home and using your phone’s video capabilities to record as much of the contents of your home as is safely practical in the time you have. This includes, the contents of your refrigerator and freezer. This will be a handy reference if, you have to file an insurance plan after the event has passed.

A simple tip to tell if the power has been out and restored while you are gone is to freeze a small paper or plastic cup of water. Once the water is frozen, place a coin on top. When you return home, if the coin is no longer sitting on top of the ice and is instead either covered by a layer of ice or at the bottom of a cup of water, you know that the power has been out for an extended period of time during your evacuation.

What suggestions, do you have for creating a basic How to evacuate plan?

Interested in further reading? Check out Ready.gov.

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3 thoughts on “Emergency Preparedness 101: How to Evacuate Safely”

  1. 25 years ago (Geez I can’t believe it’s been so long) my family moved from NJ to London, England due to my dad being transferred for work. Because it was a corporate move – we had to inventory EVERYTHING before it got packed, I mean literally down to the # of forks, how many pink glasses, how many pairs of socks the 9 year old owned etc. My mom took photos of as much as she could. Thank goodness nothing was lost or majorly damaged during the move (or the one back to the States 7 years later) but that process has now become ingrained in her. She’s kept up that inventory since 1996 – maybe it’s not 100% accurate, but it’s good enough for an insurance claim if the house was ever destroyed. Any big-ticket item (over $500) or any irreplaceable item (think hand woven oriental rugs) that have come into the house in the last 25 years have been inventoried. They did 3 more corporate moves within the US before Dad retired in ’08, and having that inventory already complete saved a ton of time and headaches. The only thing the movers ever lost? My dad’s giant replica of a fish he caught in Brazil many years ago that hung in his office (NY, then London, then Houston, then NY again) that was ‘misplaced’ during the Houston-NYC move. When we called the moving company, the woman told him ‘oh I’m sorry sir, we don’t insure pets’. Yeah because our pet sailfish has been missing for 2 months and we’re just now asking about it. I mean seriously the thing is like 7 ft long, how do you lose that? It did get located eventually and now hangs in his home office.

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  2. Instead of waiting to take pictures of your home before evacuating, do it now and save it to a thumb drive or cloud storage. Include closets, basements, garage, etc. It will be invaluable to getting a good insurance settlement if you ever have your home destroyed by fire, flood, or tornado.

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