A reader asked me to look at some of the issues facing us when we have to evacuate from our homes. As usual, it’s a mixture of preparation and commonsense. And it’s one I really recommend you prepare for rather than just putting it on your to-do list. Having all the pieces in place could be useful for everything from a house fire to a nuclear alert.
Community evacuations are more common than you’d think. There are hundreds each year. When they become necessary, local officials usually provide information to the public through the media. They may also come door-to-door. In some circumstances sirens or telephone calls are used. The amount of time you have to evacuate will depend on the disaster. Many, such as a house fire or a mudslide, allow no time for people to gather even the most basic necessities.
You must have plans in place that cover all eventualities. Think of the scenarios. Your family is separated, you or a family member is disabled, you have houseguests, or pets. Do you have enough vehicle space for everyone and everything? Do you know the way out? What’s your destination? The importance of advance planning cannot be overstated.
Planning for evacuation
Ask your local emergency management office about community evacuation plans. This may not be as easy as it seems – it took quite a few calls for me to find out which department was responsible for this, let alone what routes our county was proposing. Learn the evacuation routes and mark them on a map – even if you know the area, you may start to panic in an emergency. If you do not own a car, make transportation arrangements with friends or your local government. Leave early.
Have an evacuation/emergency plan. Do not get on the road without a place to go. Regular readers should already have their family plan in place. Determine how and where you would go. Consider different scales of evacuations. In a hurricane entire counties would evacuate, in a chemical spill the area would be smaller. If you have pets, plan what to do with them. You probably can’t take them to an evacuation center.
Assemble a disaster supplies kit or “grab bag” containing the items listed below. This list covers more than just getting from A to B. It covers the eventuality that you will be stuck somewhere, in the open, unable to move for a while. It is better to be safe than sorry and carrying a few extra provisions may make all the difference to your comfort level during this stressful time. You may not wish to go to a mass evacuation center and the self-reliant way is to have the items necessary to support you and yours. Leave the bag where you can grab it on the way out the door.
Local map showing evacuation route and all back streets. Maps for further afield to get you to your pre-arranged getaway safety destination and number two option.
Cell phone car charger
Cash – enough to buy gas and supplies all the way to your destination. Do not rely on credit cards.
Document pouch x 2 (originals and copies, travel, medical, financial, etc.) in separate places).
Water and food. Canned is fine for a couple of days.
2 x Flashlights with spare batteries and bulbs
Waterproof/windproof jacket and pants outer clothing
Large trash bag
First Aid kit – especially ace and triangle bandages,
Feminine hygiene items
Large sheet of plastic 6’ x 6’ – plastic tablecloth is fine, for solar still and damp protection.
Water containers (Clean fruit juice or water jars)
Bic lighter/ matches
Radio (Battery powered)
Small chunks of fire starter block
Basic toiletries – heavy on the soap, it’s great antiseptic. Dental floss – doubles as sinew for binding and fishing.
Back pack (in case you have to walk anywhere, you’ll need your hands free.)
Fleece or aluminum sleeping bag
Saucepan/fry pan camping kit.
Car jack, spare tire and jump leads.
Safety triangle and flares.
I strongly recommend that the items you put aside for emergencies are duplicates – not things that the family will take out, use and never replace. This list is comprehensive; you can adapt depending upon your circumstances.
If you live somewhere where there is a risk that you might lose your home from flood, erosion, fire, etc then you should think about your “treasures”, the irreplaceable objects or photographs that you really would miss. Nowadays, you can buy web storage space – I use iDisk from Macintosh – where you can store scans of documents, old photos, etc should yours be destroyed. If you have small heirlooms, jewelry etc., try and keep them in something indestructible like a water/fire safe, so you might be able to retrieve them afterwards.
Know how to shut off your home’s electricity, gas and water supplies at the main switches and valves. As you can see from the photo, water mains valves tend to be the “daisy” variety, which just need turning. It might be stiff so keep a wrench handy. It will be mounted on a pipe coming in from outside, near the mains supply. The gas valve is located on the entry pipe coming into your gas meter. As you can see, mine is dusty, which means it is probably stiff and will need a wrench to close. ONCE CLOSED, DO NOT OPEN. Only qualified gas technicians are permitted to reconnect the supply of gas. The electricity supply can generally be cut off from the breaker box. The single switch at the top of the panel is usually labeled MAIN. Throw this and you cut off the power. You can restore this yourself, you don’t need a technician.
Keep a can of fuel. Do not store in your home or in the trunk. Store wisely. Gas stations may be closed during emergencies and unable to pump gas during power outages.
Follow local instructions on radio. If the danger is a chemical release and you are instructed to evacuate immediately, gather your household and go. Take one car per household when evacuating. This will keep your household together and reduce traffic congestion and delay. Take your Potomac biochem masks (as reported in issue 6 of SRFW). Wear sturdy shoes and clothing that provides some protection, such as long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a cap.
If you have more warning, secure your home. Lock doors and windows. Turn off water, gas and electricity at the mains. If a hard freeze is likely during your absence, turn off the water main, drain faucets and turn off the inside valves for external faucets and open the outside faucets to allow them to drain. Leave a note describing where you plan to head and what time you left.
Get your grab bag and your cell phone. Leave ample food and water for pets if you’re leaving them indoors.
Leave early enough to avoid being trapped by severe weather. Follow recommended evacuation routes. Remember shortcuts may be blocked but keep your local map open in case you need to detour around breakdowns. Be alert for washed out roads and bridges. Do not drive into flooded areas. Stay away from downed power lines and don’t get out the car if there is water on the ground. Your car’s tires are grounding the source – you won’t.
Local authorities and weathermen can make mistakes, including underestimating an emergency situation. Go with your gut. Evacuate if you feel you and your household are threatened or endangered.
Returning to your home may require that you check for gas leaks, water damage and electrical damage. Again, watch for shocks. Don’t restore the electricity if there’s floodwater on the ground
The Humane Society recommends we take our pets with us, as companion animals depend on us for their survival. If you and your pet can’t stay together, call friends, family members, veterinarians, or boarding kennels in a safe area to arrange foster care.
Identify your pet. Securely fasten a current identification tag to your pet’s collar with your details and the phone number of a friend or family member who is well out of disaster range. That way, anyone who finds your pet will be able to reach a person who knows how to contact you.
Photograph your pets. Carry photos of your pets for identification purposes. Transport your pet safely. Use secure pet carriers or a good leash or harness.
If you’re taking your pets: bring food, water, bowls, medications and pooper-scooper resources. Disposable cat litter trays are much smaller than regular ones and a valuable emergency supply addition. They are available from supermarkets such as Safeway.
If your disaster plan relies upon a hotel as your final destination, make sure you have the numbers of pet-friendly hotels in your grab bag emergency document pouch. Emergency shelters do not admit pets. If the hotel has a no-pets policy, ask the manager if the hotel can waive the policy during the disaster
Wildfire evacuation instructions are a little different:
Leave the lights on in your home. If the power supply isn’t broken, your lights will act as a beacon to firefighters if you’re off the beaten track..
Leave your doors and windows closed but unlocked as firefighters may need to gain access. Looting is less of a problem in a fire as the police tend to secure the area.
Open the damper on your fireplace to help stabilize outside-inside pressure, but close the fireplace screen so sparks will not ignite the room.
Close outside attic, eaves, and basement vents. This will eliminate the possibility of sparks blowing into hidden areas within the house.
Shut off any natural gas, LPG, or fuel oil supplies at a point as far from the structure as the plumbing will allow.