When a storm looms on the horizon and hurricane watches and warnings are issued, residents of hurricane flood and damage zones may be advised to evacuate to a safe location and wait out the storm. Knowing how to evacuate safely and efficiently can lessen the stress of the dangerous event, and understanding how to evacuate properly can help residents protect themselves and their property when they can’t stay home.
A Bad Evacuation
When Hurricane Floyd advanced on Florida in 1999, my husband and I lived in Jacksonville and took heed of the advice to evacuate. We opted to head south to Tampa, away from the storm’s predicted northeasterly track, but because we were not prepared to evacuate properly, the trip across the peninsula was much more devastating for us than the storm itself. We’d only lived in Jacksonville for a year – having moved to the city after the previous hurricane season ended – and weren’t familiar with all the evacuation routes, so much of our time was spent wrestling with a road map instead of putting more distance safely between us and the oncoming storm. Furthermore, our car had a defective radiator fan and a broken thermostat, which meant we drove six agonizing hours in heavy traffic with the heat on and the windows rolled down in the late summer humidity to keep the car from overheating. These and other mistakes, however, can easily be overcome if hurricane zone residents make preparations before hurricane season even begins and keep up their preparedness when storms draw near.
Before the Storm
Before a storm is even a tropical depression hundreds of miles away, it is important to understand several things about evacuation plans. First, major cities and coastal areas all have different risk zones – homes in low-lying areas on the coast or near major waterways, for example, will be at greater risk than homes on high ground, and therefore will be asked to evacuate sooner and more frequently. Before hurricane season begins, homeowners should learn which evacuation zone they are in and under what circumstances should they consider evacuation.
Next, plot several evacuation routes. Hurricanes can strike from different directions, and having planned routes away from major risk zones can help individuals choose the most efficient way to leave if necessary. Furthermore, having different routes planned will help you work around the heaviest traffic jams and impassable areas. Become familiar with back roads and alternate routes away from major highways and interstates that may become clogged and slow the closer the storm gets.
When mapping an evacuation route, include stopping points such as hotels (pet-friendly ones if necessary), storm shelters, and gas stations. These facilities can be critical to a successful and easy evacuation.
Each spring, before hurricane season begins, it is a wise idea to get a thorough tune up on all vehicles that may be used for evacuations. Be sure to have fluids topped, tire pressure checked, and any major repairs taken care of so they do not hinder evacuation efforts. Also check the spare tire and purchase a gas can to keep in the car if the situation becomes dire.
When a Storm Approaches
When weather centers begin to issue hurricane watches and warnings, it is time to prepare to evacuate, even if that drastic action may not be necessary. Check evacuation routes for road construction or closures that can create traffic jams and detours, and be sure the car is fueled up for a quick departure.
Not only should the car be filled with gas, but it is essential to fill it with important personal items that should be evacuated as well. Hurricane kits may be packed that include medication, food, blankets, and other emergency supplies. Bring along copies of vital documents – birth certificates, prescriptions, insurance papers, and property deeds – to be able to prove your address in case traffic is restricted to homeowners only when you return.
Do not wait until the last minute to evacuate. When the storm is only hours away, early thunderstorms and other poor weather can hamper evacuation efforts, and increased traffic on the roads will slow your path away from the storm. Ideally, you should plan to evacuate 24 to 48 hours before the storm’s predicted landfall, though if you will need to travel further to reach safety or if you are in a flood-prone area, leaving earlier is prudent. As you leave, be sure to let family members and friends know where you plan to evacuate to so they don’t worry about your safety.
Returning After an Evacuation
After the storm has passed, many people cannot wait to return home, but rushing back into a recently devastated area is not always wise. Severely damaged areas may be sealed off for several days, and basic utilities such as electricity, water, and telephone service may not be restored for up to a week or longer. By waiting an extra day or two to return, you help keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles, service technicians, and city officials.
When you do return, drive carefully and be alert for debris such as broken tree limbs, downed power lines, clogged drainage pipes, displaced wildlife, and other hazards. Inspect your home carefully for damage before entering, and do not enter a building that appears unstable or excessively damaged until it can be professionally inspected and declared safe.
Once home, stay off the streets and do not be tempted to walk or drive around the neighborhood to see storm damage. Hidden hazards can be dangerous long after the storm has passed, and unnecessary traffic will slow recovery efforts. Use safe food and water supplies and follow instructions from emergency personnel at all times until restrictions are lifted.
Because hurricane season is a full six months, it is entirely possible that individuals in high risk areas may need to evacuate multiple times each year. Always keep evacuation plans updated and ready to implement, and your hurricane evacuation can be a breeze rather than a full category five gale.