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Tips for evacuating more safely and efficiently


One of the most common statements I've heard from local emergency management officials is "Run from the water, hide from the wind".  This essentially means if you're not in danger of flooding, plan to shelter in place until the storm passes.  Their reasoning is you're probably better off hunkering down if you're residence is not in likely to flood, since the process of evacuating is so comparatively dangerous.  Though that is good advice most of the time, as we found out in the Harris County (including Houston) region during Hurricane Harvey, there are rare occasions where even inland flooding may necessitate evacuation.

The most important advice I can give is to stay aware of the news and weather as it may affect where you live.  It was reported that at least 15 lives were lost in Bolivar Peninsula during Hurricane Ike, and I believe most or all of those persons could have survived if they'd stayed informed and evacuated when the orders went out.

The evacuation of Galveston and Harris Counties before Hurricane Rita was the largest evacuation in US history.  An estimated 118 people died in the evacuation.  Photo Credit: FEMA

Preparing for Evacuation


Planning for an evacuation should begin long before you think you may need to leave.  For example, you should have your vehicle checked out before the beginning of hurricane season each year, and keep it well maintained in case you need to leave on short notice.  We've become accustomed over the years to hurricanes that form out in the Atlantic basin and slowly meander their way toward the United States.  However some storms, such as Hurricane Alicia in 1983, can form in the Gulf of Mexico and move inland in just a few short days.  With Alicia, most residents had barely a day or two to prepare for this compact but powerful Category 3 hurricane that struck Galveston at around 2:00 AM.  So for the entire time during hurricane season (which runs from June 1st through November 30th) you need to be prepared to evacuate on very short notice.

In addition to keeping your vehicle properly maintained, you should keep at least a half tank of gas whenever possible.  I always teach in my seminars that gasoline is the most precious commodity before and after a hurricane, and stations can run out of gas very quickly when a storm threatens your area.  If you have a safe place to store gasoline, such as a barn or shed away from your dwelling, it doesn't hurt to keep a few cans on gasoline on hand.  I prefer safety cans that are much safer to store fuel and have less chance of catching fire due to the flame arrestor in the nozzle.  Also, if you store the fuel for more than about 90 days, you should add a fuel stabilizer, such as STA-BIL 360.  Otherwise, the fuel will quickly degrade and may not be suitable for use in an emergency.

When you pack your vehicle for an evacuation, you should carefully think through all the things that you will possibly need for the journey, and resist the desire to overload your vehicle with unnecessary clutter.  Keep in mind that you can usually buy clothes and other necessities when you are away from the immediate danger posed by the storm.  You should also refer to the extensive Auto & Evacuation Checklist on this site for additional ideas of things you should pack and do before an evacuation.  Then, make a list of things to take and actions to perform before heading out on your evacuation.  This will not only make packing your vehicle easier and quicker, but will help prevent you from forgetting important items that you may need.

As you pack your vehicle, take time to put your items in the vehicle in a logical order.  For example, emergency repair tools, the cooler with soft drinks and food, as well and paper towels and napkins should be easily accessible.  When possible, the cooler should be packed inside the vehicle instead of the trunk or bed of a truck so the ice will last longer.  And a hard-learned lesson from the Hurricane Rita evacuation: Bring several rolls of toilet paper!  If you can find an facility where you can actually get to a toilet, there's it is highly likely the toilet paper will be long gone.

You should assume that during a mass evacuation, such as the one before Hurricane Rita in Harris County, cell towers will be completely overloaded with little chance of you being able to use it for communication or navigation.  Even though the GPS in your phone doesn't require a cellular signal to operate, it does require cellular data to download the maps. I recommend regular old paper maps or a stand-alone GPS for navigation as opposed to relying on a cell phone or tablet for navigation in an evacuation.  If you are evacuating with another person in a different vehicle, you may wish to take a pair of Family Radio Service (FRS) walkie-talkies along for communication.  I prefer the non-rechargeable ones where you can change batteries along the way, since most vehicles won't have a power supply to recharge the radios on the road.

If you are evacuating with your family pets, you'll also need to be prepare for their needs as well.  One way you can make the trip more tolerable for both human and animal is to mildly sedate your pet with veterinarian-prescribed tranquilizers.  Hopefully, your pet will be able to sleep—or at least be more relaxed—for most of the ride.  Also, if you have room in your vehicle, a pet carrier is a great way to limit your pet’s mobility as well as allow it to feel more secure.  Here are a few additional things to consider when evacuating with your pets:

  • Food, water, and a bowl for each

  • Pet carrier, leashes, and harnesses

  • Chew toys and treats

  • Litter box and cat litter

  • Medications

  • Copy of vaccination and medical records (you'll most likely need to board you pets if you have to stay in a shelter, and they typically require the vaccination papers before doing so)

  • Be sure to compile a list of pet-friendly hotels along your evacuation route should you need to spend the night along the way

There is considerably more material in the Evacuation chapter of my book than I can get on this site, so you may want to consider purchasing a copy of my book.  For example, in the book I show how to build an emergency roadside portable toilet that actually offers a bit of privacy (worth its weight in gold in an evacuation, since most businesses will either be closed or overrun with evacuees).  It also includes many other of my first-hand lessons from the largest evacuation in US history, as well as lessons learned from numerous others who attended my seminars and provided feedback.

To learn more about emergency evacuation before a hurricane, tropical storm, or flood, check out my paperback and eBook on Amazon!

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