Dealing with Disaster: A Brief Guide to Emergency Preparedness

As a resident living fairly close to the Gulf Coast, I'm familiar with evacuating for a hurricane. There's no way around it — evacuating for a natural disaster is a pain. But, there are things you do to make the process less stressful. Here's a short list of the things I consider when evacuating.

The most important thing is to have a plan.

Where are you going to go?
My wife's job requires her to be back to work as soon as the storm blows through, which makes it tricky for us to evacuate &madsh; we can't go too far away. Our evacuation route is decided based on where we think the storm is going to go. For instance, when Hurricane Gustav came in well to our east, we headed west to my sister-in-law's house. When Hurricane Ike came in to our southwest, we headed north.

During an emergency, your local government will have an evacuation route that they want everyone to follow, but if you leave early enough you can go pretty much wherever you want to go.

The most economical way to evacuate is to stay with friends or family. This is the best way to go because it's hard to find an empty hotel when everyone else is evacuating. Just be sure you're a good guest. Don't overstay your welcome. If you don't have friends or relatives that you can stay with and you don't have money for a hotel, consider a shelter.

What are you going to pack?
For the most part you need to pack like you're taking a vacation. If you need to evacuate for a natural disaster or other emergency, consider the following:

  1. Clothes and toiletries. Be prepared to be away from home for at least a week — more likely two.
  2. Important papers. I use one of those portable filing boxes to store our most important papers (insurance information, social security cards, birth certificates, employee benefits information, etc.). (Some of these documents may be stored in a safe deposit box.)
  3. Pets. Don't forget Fluffy. Be sure and take a bottle of water and some pet food. Also, if you have an outside pet, you might want to give a good scrubbing before you load it into the car. I don't like traveling with a dirty, smelly dog. Washing the dog is my kids' job.
  4. Food and water. There's no need to go overboard but it is a good idea to pack some bottled water and maybe a few canned goods.
  5. Computer. This is easy if you own a laptop. It's important to be able to go online to check in with your local news station and newspaper for important information.
  6. Road atlas. Never leave home without one.
  7. Money. It's a good idea to have some cash on hand. I usually take $300, which isn't a lot but is better than nothing.
  8. Phone numbers to your neighbors. I have the cell phone numbers of most of my neighbors so that we can check in with each other to get status reports. One of my neighbors called me to tell me when our power was back on.

Finally, be sure and check on your older neighbors. Are they evacuating? If you have room, take them with you.

What are you going to do with the things you leave behind?
As important as the things you take with you is what you leave behind. Proper preparations can save hassle when you return.

  1. Board up the house. For the first time ever, I boarded up some of the windows of my house. I never did this before because I thought it was too expensive to do. This year I bought six sheet of 1/2-inch plywood and one bag of clips and spent over $114. I then spent an afternoon cutting the pieces to fit my windows and marked each one for storage. When I boarded up for Ike, it only took me a few minutes to secure the boards. [J.D.'s note: Not every disaster requires boarding up, of course.]
  2. Take an inventory of your stuff. My wife went room-by-room and took pictures of everything we owned. Chances are good that you won't need to use these pictures but you never know. I also have an itemized list of my CD collection.
  3. Unplug all your appliances and electronics. I do leave my answering machine plugged in so that I can check in to see if I have power (if the answering machine doesn't pick up, I don't have power).
  4. Pick up loose items in the yard and empty out the shed. One of the biggest problems with hurricanes, tornadoes, and other wind storms is all the debris flying through the air. (And in the case of flooding, there's plenty of debris in the water.) You can do your part by moving all your patio furniture other loose items into your garage. This is a great job for the kids. Don't forget that portable basketball goal.
  5. EMPTY THE REFRIGERATOR! For some crazy reason, we didn't empty our refrigerators for Hurricane Rita. BIG MISTAKE! By the time we got to come back to check out our house, our power had been off a week. I can't tell you how bad the smell was!
  6. Lock the house. I usually lock the garage doors and unplug the garage door openers.

A little preparation before the disaster can save a lot of headache later.

What about AFTER the emergency?
This is a whole topic by itself but I will say that if your area is hit by a hurricane, tornado, or flood, it could be weeks before you get back power and drinkable water. You have to decide if you're going to go back and rough it or if you are going to stay away.

Because I'm a big wimp, I always opt to stay away. I don't have a generator and am not really interested in buying one. I realize that not everyone will have the option to stay away if their job requires them to be back as soon as possible.

You may also be interested in reading The Simple Dollar's recent guide to surviving a natural disaster.

J.D.'s note: Kris and I don't have any sort of emergency preparedness plan. Oregon isn't subject to many disasters, but we do have the occasional flood or earthquake. JLP's experience is a reminder that advance preparation beats future regret.

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deepali
deepali
11 years ago

There is some good stuff in here, but I think you need to make it clear that this is a plan for evacuation in the face of a hurricane (or other forecasted/predicted weather pattern). It’s also only a plan if you plan to leave well before any sort of “formal” evacuation. Also, you forgot to include medications. As someone with training in preparedness, mitigation, and response, I can tell you this isn’t any good for any other type of emergency (particularly the unexpected kind) except in the sense that it makes you think. In fact, evacuation is sometimes the worst… Read more »

Miranda
Miranda
11 years ago

Thanks for the great post! We have created a plan that includes my son as well. We have practiced various routes out of the house in case of emergency, and he knows where to go to meet us. We are considering getting him one of those cell phones that only calls home and my cell phone so that if we are separated when something happens, he can get a hold of us.

I also like the idea of having cash. In a big emergency, the electronic systems that offer access to banks may be down.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

Also a good idea to have the bottled water and batteries on hand, and plywood if applicable, rather than joining the last-minute rush to the stores. And, as my grandfather used to say, the car runs just as good off the top half of the tank.

dogatemyfinances
dogatemyfinances
11 years ago

An obvious oversight is medicine. Regular daily medicine and emergency medicine is part of any emergency plan.

Ayrk
Ayrk
11 years ago

The one thing on that list that I think is most important is the $300 cash, ideally in a mix of bills.

Last winter, half our town was without power (250,000+ people) for over a week. We were lucky that my in-laws had power but we only had about $20 in cash lying around the house. If we had needed to buy something from a store without power, we’d be sunk. No ATM or credit card.

Ever since then, I’ve kept a smalls stash of cash for just such an emergency.

JW
JW
11 years ago

I’m also a big believer in keeping some cash at home. I think it was Trent who advised spreading it out in a couple different spots around the house–smart.

Great post, JLP, as this is something we should all take to heart. Even if we don’t live in areas prone to natural disasters, we live in a time when other types of disasters could hit anywhere and as J.D. says, better to be prepared.

Jenni
Jenni
11 years ago

Don’t you need to turn off stuff in the fuse box? Turn off the gas? Stuff I have only read about, and I think some of them were in that list of 100 of Popular Mechanics. And a radio, the kind with the wind up, in case of a tornado or something, and everything is pretty much knocked out. Somehow they work. The Red Cross does one of these trainings. I don’t remember it all, but like most, I took the handouts so I could refer back to them later, should I need them.

Ryan K from Going Carless
Ryan K from Going Carless
11 years ago

I live about 8 miles from Three Mile Island. Twice a year they send out a large pamphlet that has much of this information on it. It even has safe points where we are to go depending on where we live (co-incidentally mine is in my hometown).

There are certain radio stations we are supposed to tune to and everything.

I’ve been meaning to pack an emergency bag.

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

One thing that would be worthy of consideration would be to get certified as an amateur radio operator and add a handheld radio along with spare batteries and a charger that will plug into your car to the list. Getting licensed is easy – your local library system should have a copy of “Now you’re Talking” or you can buy your own (or borrow one from your local radio club). Once you’ve studied the book the test is easy to pass (all multiple choice, no morse code needed). You can pick up a used radio on eBay for only a… Read more »

Rich
Rich
11 years ago

JD, with all of the financial crisis–and the cutting of rates today by major banks–can you provide some of your younger readers thoughts about what to do with student loan debt? Newly-consolidated loans are locked at 6.8%, which is pretty hefty. Paying off early isn’t necessarily the best option, since credit is going to be tougher to come by and some of us want to own homes eventually. Are there good “consolidators”–either the term of art or a less regulated loan buyer–that will take these loans at a lower rate, at least for people with great credit and no real… Read more »

KC
KC
11 years ago

Hurricanes seem to be the disaster du jour of late – as they should be. But remember other disasters can happen just about anywhere. I’m a NC native so I know a thing or two about hurricanes. But for the past decade I’ve lived in Memphis and all we worry about during hurricane season is flash flooded and perhaps being overwhelmed by evacuees for a few days. But we did have a freak windstorm (locally dubbed Hurricane Elvis cause it happened a week before Elvis week here in Memphis) with sustained winds over 100mph a few years back that knocked… Read more »

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

Great points!! I especially like list #2. However, taking inventory of what you have can and should be done when there’s no emergency looming. (and then make a backup of it and store it outside of the house. outside of your town is even better!)

Heidi
Heidi
11 years ago

I think this is a fantastic resource! I want to thank you for posting it. The only real issue I see is that it is so targeted towards disasters for which you CAN evacuate…for those of us in earthquake-prone areas (California, Puget Sound, etc.), you won’t know you’re having the disaster until, well, you’re having it. Urgently important notes to consider for those of us in earthquake zones: 1. Know where the gas shutoff valve is in your house and TURN IT OFF if you smell gas. 2. Have an out-of-state relative/friend that your family members can contact to check… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
11 years ago

This is a good list. I particularly like the tip regarding neighbors. I think more people need to start thinking about emergency evacuation/preparedness plans. Even if they don’t live in hurricane, earthquake, or tornado prone areas, disasters can happen. Floods, fires, windstorms, major snow storms, lightening, and the like, can strike nearly anywhere and leave people without power, phone, and water, often for days or even weeks on end. Other things to consider: Dogatemyfinances mentioned medication. Absolutely. Flashlight and extra batteries, in the car and house, in case you need to evacuate at night. Living in a flood prone area,… Read more »

Desi
Desi
11 years ago

I wouldn’t empty the fridge. You can always clean it if the food is bad. I had to clean my house after Katrina. But if the hurricane misses and nothing happens, you’ve wasted so much good food.

And get as much cash as you can get your hands on. During Gustav, no one had working ATM’s or debit card readers. I had $200 and it didn’t get us too far. It was spent all on gas for the generator.

MrsMoney
MrsMoney
11 years ago

I think this is a great post. I live in the Midwest/South and we had hurricane force winds here which took power out for days! I wished I had an emergency kit and it definitely taught me a lesson!

Mikey
Mikey
11 years ago

JD, don’t you live in the shadow of some active volcanoes? Growing up in Seattle, I remember two things from school: tsunami drills, and volcano drills. I think, no matter where we live, we perceive it to be safe, because nothing has ever happened in our lifetime. But in the big scheme of things, our lives are pretty short. I had this same discussion with someone from Maine recently. He claimed his area was immune to any kind of disaster and he needed no plan. Although he lived at the sea shore, he had never seen a tsunami, therefore one… Read more »

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
11 years ago

Mikey, if Hood blew Portland wouldn’t be in great shape but it would certainly be nothing compared to the Toutle River area in 1980 or surrounding areas to Mt Rainier. I think we’re farther from Hood than Seattlites are from Rainier. Also, don’t forget that serious volcanic activity (i.e. St Helens) has several weeks of warning. The only people left surrounding Mt St Helens were the ones that refused to evacuate, Like Truman. I have an huge fear of The Big One hitting when I’m on the wrong side of the river or while I’m crossing it. The low bridges… Read more »

Kimmy
Kimmy
11 years ago

Instead of throwing out all the food in your fridge before a storm even makes landfall, seal everything up in heavy duty garbage bags (the kind used for lawn debris or contractor bags). This way, if the storm moves and you don’t lose power, or if you only lose power for a short period of time, you won’t have thrown away food. If you do get hit and power’s out for several days, then you just throw the bags away. It will still smell, but since you’re just tossing a few bags, it won’t take nearly as long as cleaning… Read more »

Mikey
Mikey
11 years ago

@pdxgirl, I was 300+ miles from St. Helens (in Pullman), yet we had so much ash that they declared an emergency and closed the University. Your comment actually illustrates my point about our perception of risk. How much distance from a volcano IS enough? Is it safe to live by the sea? We base our feeling of security on our experiences, but I think we have all seen over the past few years that as a species that is not working out very well for us. Anyway,I wish you the best and hope you (and my brother in Tigard) have… Read more »

CoolProducts
CoolProducts
11 years ago

It seems like a bunch of common sense, but I assume that in the heat of the moment amidst all of the panic and rush, simple things are overlooked. This is a great list to print off and go over if you’re one whose subject to evacuations.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

I remember the earthquake we had back in ’89, which, seeing as I live near San Francisco, is still the most likely type of disaster that we’d have. Almost none of this advice applies. It’s all sort of hurricane-specific. Unless your house actually falls down in an earthquake, which is exceedingly unlikely, you really don’t have to do much that’s special. You don’t actually have to go anywhere, so you don’t need to worry about clothes, important papers, pets, your computer, a road atlas, neighbors phone numbers, etc… Basically what happened in ’89 was we lost power for three days.… Read more »

shevy
shevy
11 years ago

The point is, everyone could be subject to evacuation for a variety of reasons. Some of those are natural events that are predictable based on where you live, like hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. and pretty well every part of the country is at risk of one or another of those. But there are also ones that could happen anywhere, with little or no warning like a huge fire, or a chemical plant explosion, a plane crash in a residential area, etc. In JD’s case, sitting on the Ring of Fire doesn’t just mean volcanic eruption. Earthquakes are always a possibility… Read more »

Doug
Doug
11 years ago

Funny someone in Maine would think that. He should be more prepared. In New England we can expirence a little bit of everything. I have even heard there is a major fault line here and the buildings are not designed for the big one. I keep my hiking equipment ready to go just incase. You never know what may happen without notice.

Another useful item is a cell phone. Towers can be fixed faster than wires and first responders often want them repaired quickly for their communications.

Jean
Jean
11 years ago

If it’s possible, share your food with your neighbors; this of course will depend on many things including the disaster type, length of planning time available, etc. Granted, food may be the last thing on your mind in a disaster but in the case of hurricanes, there is typically a pretty good size lead time to get out and it’s easy enough to add this to the list. When I evacuated for Hurricane Ike in September, I gave the contents of my freezer to my neighbors who rode the storm out (they had a massive cooler and got ice). I… Read more »

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
11 years ago

Here’s the sort of thing where a tiny amount of preparation would go a long way:
http://www.katu.com/news/30621124.html

If this woman had a duffle with a couple pairs of pants and clean socks/undies in her hall closet she’d have a small amount of comfort at the moment. I have no idea if she did or didn’t, but if she didn’t everything she owned is probably destroyed. Sure she could go out and buy what she needs, but who wants to deal with that when house just slid down a hill?

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

Of course, for those of us who live alone, emergency preparedness also includes having enough canned chicken soup and kleenex to get through the flu without having to go to the store.

Someone
Someone
11 years ago

So, does anyone have evacuation advice for those of us without cars? We generally rent one when we need one– but I imagine that in the event of an evacuation there would be a sudden shortage of rentals, since EVERYONE who doesn’t own a car would want to rent one all at once.

If an evacuation becomes necessary, how do we avoid going down with the ship?

Kathy
Kathy
11 years ago

Great post! Another source for a good list is http://www.Flylady.net, people, pets, pictures, pills, papers etc….. She sends it out regularly to her list of almost 500,000 and it is on her site.

PizzaForADream
PizzaForADream
11 years ago

I can relate big time as we were impacted by a hurricane recently. We left the house and didn’t return for quite some time. Fortunately, we only lost a few things from the fridge when it was all over. It amazed me how many people rode it out despite warnings to the contrary.

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

I don’t know what that guy from Maine is talking about. Sounds like a flatlander to me! I live in Northern New England where our big disasters are ice storms and blizzards and the rare rogue hurricane. When something like that happens – the best and only option is usually to stay put. I’m a hiker and climber, so when we lose power for a week or two, I just bring the gear upstairs and we all camp out in the living room, snug as bugs in a rug. Having a basement stocked with non-perishables, spare fuel, and plenty of… Read more »

Mike Roberts
Mike Roberts
11 years ago

Great article! Like JD I to live in Oregon, and there just aren’t many natural disasters around. In my How to Rich blog I always talk about financial planning in case of emergencies, but this article is an important reminder that things can change quickly. Whose really going to be thinking about money when a hurricane is knocking at your door?

plonkee
plonkee
11 years ago

I’m another person without a car, although my most likely natural disaster is flooding, and they don’t usually know to evacuate you until it’s too late for a car.

d jones
d jones
8 years ago

I know this is posting way late, but I live on the Gulf Coast (MS, where Katrina actually hit), and just wanted to add my $.02. Start stocking up on canned / emergency foods in March as well as start using up the perishables in your freezer. In September, you can start working on using up your canned goods and replacing your freezer stock. Try not to keep much more than 6 months’ worth of either, since the food needs to be rotated anyhow. Always try to keep your yard policed and don’t let junk accrue, that way, come time… Read more »

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