How To Prepare for an Emergency Evacuation

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Written by: Rebecca Graham | Best Company Editorial Team

Last Updated: February 24th, 2020

So far on the blog, we’ve covered how to prepare for a hurricane with flood insurance and home preparation tips. The final topic for this year, emergency evacuations, applies to hurricane preparation but also to a number of other situations that necessitate evacuations, including fire. Recently, it’s been a sober season of fire destruction with the Butte County California Camp Fire death toll at 86, and that number would be astronomically larger without the evacuation of the almost 14,000 destroyed residencies in that area. 

While some specific evacuation instructions vary depending on the disaster — for example, when evacuating in the line of a fire, you want to shut all windows and doors but leave them unlocked when generally it’s best to lock up — these principles can apply across most emergency situations. 

father and daughter

Do I have to evacuate when a natural disaster strikes nearby?  

It depends. If you reside in a mandatory evacuation zone, then yes. If you haven’t been given an evacuation order or you’re in a voluntary evacuation zone, then you can hang tight and see how things progress. However, you should still take the steps necessary to prepare for evacuation because alerts, orders, and, of course, the weather, can quickly change. 

Stay tuned for hurricane and other disaster updates on TV news channels and radio stations such as The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio, and sign up for your community’s warning system.

Chuck Frank, the director of the Emergency and Disaster Management programs at the Metropolitan College of New York, has assessed response and recovery efforts for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). He noted that the evacuations during Hurricane Florence were “timely and very well executed” due in part to the fact that “people knew that storm surge was the demon in the details and did not seem to be second-guessing as the storm dropped from a Category 4 to a Category 2.” 

Frank advises residents to start preparing early to take proactive measures and to not just watch weather reports in the hope that projections will change. 

In short, leave when you are told to leave. Delaying evacuation can put you in a situation where you are battling evacuee and emergency response vehicle traffic, fallen logs, or rising flood waters. If you do encounter flood waters, do not walk, swim, or drive through them or ignore safety barricades.  

communication device

How do I get in touch with my family after an evacuation? 

Prior to evacuation, study evacuation zones, evacuation routes, and shelter locations with all family members. Make an evacuation plan that includes multiple routes to leave town in case some routes are impassable. The need to evacuate may arise suddenly, so keep a list of places you could stay, such as a shelter, motel or a friend or relative’s home. 

Assuming cell towers are in operation, you can communicate with separated family members through mobile phone calls, texts, or social media. Text messages go through faster and are more reliable because they use up less battery and phone lines are often overloaded during a disaster. If possible, fully charge your cell phone prior to evacuating. Better yet, purchase and pack high-speed portable charger. 

It’s also a good idea to establish a shared out-of-state contact person to whom each family member can reach out to report on their own status and check on others. Some emergency situations necessitate sudden evacuation measures, so give young family members a contact card with phone numbers to carry in their backpacks while at school. 

Unfortunately, cell phone communication isn’t a given when it comes to emergency communication. Many preppers take confidence in knowing how to operate Amateur Radio, also known as ham radio. Amateur Radio operators can talk with people in a line of site up to 50 miles. It does take some effort to obtain a license and you need to program in the frequencies you’ll use ahead of time, but it is invaluable to be able to reliably communicate when on-the-grid phone resources are not available. 

emergency backpack

What should I pack in an emergency supply kit? 

An emergency supply kit or bug-out bag equips you with survival essentials that keep you alive and even allow you to thrive in perilous situations. Emergency supply essentials include: 

  • Food and water
  • First aid kit and face masks
  • Legal documents such as deeds, mortgage statements, bank statements, insurance policies, birth certificates, and passports
  • Prescription medicines
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • Cell phones and portable power chargers
  • Basic toiletries
  • Weather-appropriate shoes and clothing
  • Small photos or other keepsakes you absolutely cannot replace or live without

An emergency supply kit should be easy to transport. If something is too heavy to lift and impractical to travel with when things are fine, it won’t do you much good when times get tough. Backpacks work well for most items. If you have the option of traveling by vehicle, consider storing longer-term food and water in a wheelable suitcase or tub that can be moved with a dolly.  

Dr. Steven W. Swann, a seasoned trauma surgeon and medical director for North American Rescue's Audio Bleeding Control Kit, provides insight regarding hurricane-specific first aid kits. “Winds can turn everyday objects into sharp projectiles and polluted flood water can be filled with broken glass, making large bleeding wounds a real possibility,” Dr. Swann explains. Therefore, he recommends including large bandages and dressings, gloves, and scissors strong enough to cut through jeans. 

adults holding hands

How do I prepare myself and my family emotionally before and during an evacuation? 

Of course, no one can be 100 percent prepared for an emergency, and it can be impossible to predict how we will respond emotionally in certain situations, even if we have all of our ducks in a row when it comes to emergency transportation, communication, and packing. However, there are methods to alleviate the stress of evacuation. 

Mental health expert writer and former psychotherapist Emily Mendez of On The Wagon describes potential mental struggles in the midst of an emergency.  “You may experience anxiety because there is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen. You might wonder about what will happen to your home and worry about your loved ones and their safety.” 

Mendez says that having a solid plan can reduce anxiety, even if that plan needs to be changed. “Find out what kind of help is available during a disaster and what you need to get assistance,” she suggests. “It is also helpful to remain hopeful that things will turn out okay. Trust in your ability to get through whatever the storm [or other disaster] throws your way.” 

Author and retired school superintendent Lois McGuire provides five recommendations from her blog regarding preparing children emotionally for emergency situations: 

  1. Be informed. Discuss age-appropriate information, explain what might happen, and read books about the subject if possible.
  2. Be prepared. Create and discuss your family emergency plans with your child. McGuire explains that giving your child a specific task to complete “will emphasize the importance of working together as a team in order to accomplish a goal and will give them some sense of control.”
  3. Provide calm support. Acknowledge your children’s feelings and explain that it’s normal to be anxious when you don’t know what the future holds.
  4. Get back to normal. As much as possible, do your best to return to regular routines when the storm has passed, realizing that the new normal might still be quite different than life before the disaster. Set realistic goals and timelines for rebuilding your new life as a family.
  5. Assist those in need. McGuire reminds parents that there will always be others who have had major losses due to natural disasters and it can actually help your family when you find ways your family can serve others. 

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