Evacuating from a hurricane involves more than just getting into your car and driving away from the coast. Of the estimated 120 deaths associated with Hurricane Rita, 107 of them were related to the mass vehicular evacuation rather than the storm itself. With hurricane watches being issued for the Mid-Atlantic and a major hurricane approaching the Bahamas, we thought it was a good time to review the proper steps an individual should take when evacuating from a storm in a motor vehicle.
...Your Risk Hurricanes rarely appear out of nowhere and modern forecasting technology typically gives citizens days to prepare. If you live in an area on or near the Atlantic Coast or the Gulf of Mexico, it's possible that you are at risk. If you live hundreds of miles inland, like in Oklahoma, you don't need to worry. Michigan? Yeah, probably not an issue for you either. Check with your local Office of Emergency Management or state government for information about whether your house is within an evacuation zone. Below are examples of hurricane evacuation maps:
...Your Threat If it appears that a hurricane could head your way in a few days resist the urge to immediately panic. A storm deep in the Atlantic could take as long as a week to reach the United States coast after being named. Check with the National Hurricane Center, your local weather forecasters, newspapers and television to see how likely the threat really is and the timing of the storm.
...Your Vehicle The stress of an evacuation isn't just felt by your family. It is also felt by your car. Make sure that your vehicle is in good operating condition, fueled up and able to drive at least a few hundred miles. Things you'll need:
- A full tank of gas
- Insurance information and maps
- Properly inflated tires with a spare tire
- Phone charger
- Functioning A/C (very important, especially when traveling with elderly or children. Also, if you have to turn off your car to save gas you'll want to cool down when you get moving again)
- Money, specifically cash, to fill up your car multiple times
...Your Family & Pets During the Rita and Katrina evacuations there were families that spent nearly a day in their cars, with an average time on the road of over 10 hours for Rita. Think about what your family and pets need to survive for at least one day in a car and possibly for multiple days on the road. This list below is just a start and may vary based on the age and special needs of the people traveling.
- Ice in a cooler if possible (it gets hot)
- Non-perishable food, snacks
- Blankets and pillows
- Music, games, cards and anything else to distract yourself and others
- Toilet Paper — you may have to go on the road
- Sanitary gel like Purell, see above
- Pet items such as a leash
...Your Documents As opposed to merely driving off for a regular road trip, leaving your home during an evacuation means, God forbid, you may not have anything to return to and you may have to register with the government for help or seek medical care. These are the basic documents you will need, though you should also consider other important information.
- Drivers license and Social Security card for all those traveling
- Health insurance information
- A copy of your homeowner's/renter's policy, just in case
- Certificate of vaccination for pets, in case you have to board your pet or enter a shelter
- Photos of your house if you have time
...Your House Assuming that you aren't suddenly caught off guard by the storm, it is important to protect your house from damage and secure items like patio furniture that could turn into missiles during a storm. The National Hurricane Center has a great guide outlining how to secure doors and windows.
...Your Routes Every coastal state has their own evacuation route that shows, for the area, the best way to evacuate. These are large highways built to handle large traffic loads and, typically, designed to be adjusted for hurricanes. Unfortunately, during a mass evacuation these roads can become crowded and it may be better to take a different route. Assuming you have the option you should plan multiple ways of escape. Try to avoid smaller roads you don't know well, since construction, flooding and other hazards can slow you down. Always prioritize official hurricane routes first because these are the areas where emergency personal will set up relief stations with fuel and water. In some situations, local officials will set up contraflow lanes in order to alleviate traffic, something that won't happen on other roads. During storms, most local authorities will waive tolls on toll roads and open up all of those lanes. Examples of state evacuation routes:
...Your Final Destination With a hurricane on your doorstep your first instinct is to get away, often with little concern as to where you are actually going. If you have family nearby — but further inland in a place that is safe from storms — then that is often the best place to stay. There's no need to spend a day on the road if there is a safe location just hours away. If you have no friends or family to stay with, consider, as early as possible, booking an affordable hotel safely inland from where you are. You may have to try for a while as hotels along the route are quickly booked. If you can't find a place to stay or can't afford a hotel, the Red Cross and other organizations will set up shelters during a major storm. Check the radio for shelter locations.
...Your Departure Criteria One of the biggest challenges for emergency planners is the presence of "shadow evacuation" situations, when a large mass of people who do not need to evacuate suddenly do, clogging up the roads for those who really need to get out. If you live far inland in a well-built structure in an area that rarely floods, then you may not need to evacuate from the path of a weak storm. Consider the threshold for when you stay and when you go so that you avoid panic when a storm gets closer. Meteorologists use the Saffir-Simpson scale to determine the strength of the storm. Is it safe for you to stay during a Category 1 storm? What about a Category 3 storm? Check with local authorities to see what, if any, threshold your area may already have in place. If local authorities order a voluntary or mandatory evacuation then you need to go as quickly and as safely as possible.
...Quickly To The Threat If an evacuation is ordered or it seems likely that your threshold for evacuation is going to be reached soon, quickly gather your friends, family and safety material. Something important to look for is a hurricane watch or a hurricane warning. A hurricane watch means hurricane-type conditions are likely within the next 24 to 36 hours. A hurricane warning means conditions are likely within 24 hours. If you are within a hurricane watch and the storm is stronger than you think you can safely handle, then that's a good indicator that you should leave.
...Carefully To Sudden Changes Forecasters have gotten much better at predicting landfall for hurricanes and traffic planners have gotten much better at preparing roads for mass evacuations, but that doesn't mean either are perfect. Listen closely to the weather radio and news because the path of the storm might change and you could find yourself driving somewhere that's in the path of the storm. Before Hurricane Alicia, our family fled from the south Texas coast to Houston to avoid the storm. When we arrived we found out that the storm had changed directions and was now heading towards Houston. Thankfully, the place we were staying was far enough inland to be safe. During the Hurricane Rita evacuation we were following our planned route north when the radio announced that all toll lanes had been opened for the remainder of the evacuation. We were able to change our route and likely saved at least an hour in travel.
...Calmly When Confronted With Traffic And Communication Failures Traffic is going to happen. There's just no getting around it unless you leave exceptionally early or the storm is minor. If you have a properly prepared car, you've considered all the routes and everyone in the vehicle can stand the trip then the best option might be to just continue forward as opposed to turning back or wildly deviating from your safe routes. Listen to the radio for guidance on how to avoid traffic or to get time estimates. With everyone on the roads and jumping on their cell phones at once it is possible that it may be difficult to get through when the service is overwhelmed. We learned during Rita that, typically, text messages will get through when phone calls will not. If it isn't an emergency message try talking with people via messaging.
...Only When Cleared By Authorities Once the storm has passed your instinct is going to be to race back home to see how your property fared. If your area took a direct hit it may not be safe to do so. There may be no power, no water, destroyed bridges and standing flood water waiting for you. Your authorities will tell you when it is safe to return. ...With An Eye For Debris & Water Once you've been cleared to return home there may still be debris on the road. Be a vigilant driver and watch out for downed trees, debris and especially be wary of fallen power lines. One of the more frequent indirect storm deaths involves individuals driving over power lines and electrocuting themselves. If you see high water also be careful and turn around, don't drown.
Other ResourcesThis is a brief guide meant to get you thinking about what to do when hurricanes threaten your area. Your local news media and authorities will know better about your local situation and you know best as to what you can and cannot do before a storm. Rash decisions are often bad decisions. The more preparation you make the less likely you are to be in a situation where you'll make a rash decision. Links
- FEMA Evacuation Guide
- Red Cross Evacuation Plans
- Nola.com tips from evacuees
- Disaster Planning For Elderly And Special Needs
[Photo Credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images, Evacuation From Hurricane Rita]