Some people like haunted houses; I like to prepare for emergency evacuations. (To each his own, I guess?)
I’ve written before here and here about disaster preparedness. What began as a coping mechanism for some of my chronic anxiety became a bit of a hobby for a while. And though I’m not stockpiling rice and beans at this point, I still enjoy the act of emergency preparation.
Right now, our government is issuing evacuation orders for residents along the Southeast coast. People are weighing the options of whether or not it’s worth the fuss to evacuate, whether or not they can afford to leave, where they could possibly go, and what they should take with them.
I’ll probably never need to evacuate my home. I know that. But I’ve read too much apocalyptic fiction to not at least entertain the idea. Plus, emergencies really do happen, especially extreme weather. So whether it’s a snow storm that could mean no milk on the grocery shelves for three days or a novel-worthy economic collapse, it doesn’t hurt to visit the issue as a family and do some basic preparations “just in case.”
First of all, it should be said that there are emergency situations wherein the best plan is to stay put. Preppers call this “bugging in” and the government calls this “sheltering in place.” Most of us have done this at some point in our lives for a few hours or overnight during a snow storm or power outage. And, unless you’re talking about a mass-damage scenario like a city-leveling earthquake or a hurricane, it’s probably short-term. As long as you can keep yourselves warm and fed for three days, you’ll be quite alright. (Long-term survival gets a bit trickier. I’m not going to get into that right now.)
But what if you can’t stay home? Or if you’re forced to leave? I have three bits of advice for those interested in better preparing their family for an evacuation or other emergency scenario.
Have your things in order.
A few years ago, I created a comprehensive Emergency Binder for our family and I (try to) update the info once or twice a year. The binder includes current family photos of us as well as close extended family (for identification purposes), plus personal and legal information, medical information, home and mortgage info, financial info, details about and photos of valuable personal items for replacement, etc. It is stored in a safe place (I ain’t telling where) with other things I’d like to grab in an emergency like hard drive backups of our computer and family photos, hard copies of important documents, etc.
I also keep track of where important keepsake items are so we can take them with us if we needed to. As of now, this stuff is not accessible enough to take within minutes, but definitely within a few hours. On my list of home projects is consolidating some of my most precious keepsakes and heirlooms into one single bin for this reason.
Know what to bring.
Because my family is into the outdoors and camping, we have a lot of the kind of gear that could keep us alive in an emergency and I keep it all together and organized. This means that tents and sleeping bags and camping stoves are all clean and tidy and packed in an easy-to-find place so I can take what I need when I need it. There is one particular small (water resistant) plastic bin with things like our walkie-talkies, emergency weather radio, extra flashlights, batteries, are fire-making tools. (Most of this stuff would be more likely used for bugging in, not evacuating.)
But, on the same big shelf as our gear are both A) emergency bags for each person in our family for a quick evacuation and B) emergency bins for longer-term evacuation.
These emergency bags–“72-hour packs” or “bug out bags” if you’re into the lingo–are backpacks packed with basic comfort and survival gear, enough to last a few days. This is the sort of thing you’d grab in a super urgent situation like a home fire or any other “Quick, we need to leave now!” scenario. Everyone I’ve seen online has a little different spin to their bags but ours each include both survival gear (like water, snacks, a pocket knife, headlamp, safety whistle, poncho, emergency blanket, first aid, etc.) and comfort items (like a sweater, socks and underwear, a toy and/or book, toiletries, etc.). Every family member also has a laminated emergency info card with important names, phone numbers, addresses, etc. Our toddler has a few cloth diapers and covers (because they can be washed and reused unlike disposable diapers).
Yes, these emergency bags would save our lives if the situation was that severe. But, in most situations, these bags would simply provide a little bit of comfort and security for our kids if they were suddenly separated from home. (The emergency info cards, for example, also include a few family photos.)
The emergency bins are just packed with our normal camping gear like flashlights, cooking tools, etc., but also include extra items like a change of clothes for each person, extra non-perishable food and snacks, water filtration, and comfort items like books and comfy blankets. These bins build on what’s already in the emergency bags and the intent is to always have everything packed and ready to grab so that, if we ever decided to load up the car and leave town in a rush, we could just throw on our backpacks, grab the bins, and have everything that we need.
What we bring depends on the situation and urgency so I’ve made myself a checklist to take out the guess work. It starts with “Immediate Evacuation” and expands into a larger list for a 30 minute evacuation, a one hour evacuation, and an impending evacuation. It is laminated and I keep a copy next to my bed on the third floor, on the fridge on the second floor, and also on the first floor. As the list gets larger, things are organized first by the things the kids can do themselves (put on socks and sturdy shoes, grab a favorite stuffed animal, etc.) and then by the levels of our home so I know what to grab from each floor of the house as we head toward the door. (Every family’s list will be different but I can share one to get you started.)
Know where you’re going.
Depending on how long we need to stay and how far we need to travel, we have a few options of where to go. I’ve made it a point to know how to get to places like my mother in-law’s house (a likely place for nearby relocation), using multiple routes, without using a phone for directions. I even know the best walking routes if things got really bonkers and we had to load up our strollers and travel on foot somewhere (roads were blocked, etc.). Part of our emergency binder includes contact information for family in other parts of the country for longer-term relocation. (And, Lord helps us, if we had to walk across Indiana to find my brother in Michigan, we could do it. Ha!)
If walking across the country like The Road seems overwhelming, start realistically. Print out copies of phone numbers and addresses so you aren’t crippled if you lose or can’t use your phone. Keep a decent amount of gas in your car, buy a road atlas, and know how to use a compass. Also: make sure your car always has basic emergency supplies like first aid, a blanket, and snacks (which is a good idea even if there’s never a large-scale emergency). Then, no matter where you are when there’s an emergency, you can just continue on to your destination.
But, really, what are the chances of needing to enact your emergency plan? It really depends where you live. Are you in flood or hurricane zone? Tornado alley? Near a fault line? Is your home vulnerable to forest fires? Do you need to be prepared for civil unrest?
And what you prepare really depends on your family makeup. Elderly, children, and pets all have particular needs. When my babies were really young, for example, I always kept a can of baby formula in the house because, even if I was exclusively breastfeeding, there was always a chance I’d be separated from my baby in an emergency. The formula samples came free in the mail. It cost me nothing.
Maybe this sounds expensive or overwhelming. Well, it doesn’t need to be. The best way to start is to start small with things you already have in the house and building up from there. Designate a single closet or shelf or drawer for emergency supplies you may need at any time. Find a few old backpacks to pack as evacuation bags and replace them with nicer bags when/if you can. Keep a little extra cash in an envelope to use if computers are down or banks are closed or you need to pay someone for a favor. Organize any camping or survival gear so it can be accessed quickly when needed, rather than pulled out from a crawlspace somewhere.
If you have kids, introduce the idea of preparedness in ways that are realistic and non-threatening. Let them pull out their emergency bags and bins and see what’s inside, but let them know they are not for play (because they need to stay intact). Let them help you trade out the clothes every year when they outgrow them. They’ll be happy to eat the snacks every six months when you replace them with fresh ones. If they are old enough to follow directions, prepare them for the possibility that you may need their help if there is ever an emergency, even if it’s just to watch the baby while you pack the car.
You don’t need to go all out Prepper to feel prepared for an emergency or natural disaster. Just think more realistically about how chaotic things can get as emergency situations roll out and how quickly you may need to get your act together. Do the work of preparing now so that, if you need to, you can just grab the bags and go.
(P.S. This is not comprehensive information. Our government, The American Red Cross, etc. all have great info online about how to prepare for an emergency. Just google it. You’ll find all sorts of wise and wack-o advice. Heck, you might even learn how to build your own underground bunker or properly filter urine for drinking. It’s a wild prepper world out there, folks.)