Surviving the city: Emergency lessons from a Red Cross expert

Secrets from the guy behind Red Cross NYC's community preparedness program

Red Cross workers at a NYC emergency

Out of the ten most populated urban centers in the U.S., New York City is ranked as the hardest city to evacuate, according to a 2018 study. The study says, "[NYC] has low marks for exit capacity, auto availability, roadway intensity, and land area." In other words, we live in a cramped environment surrounded by water — one of the worst scenarios for getting out quickly. (Los Angeles and Chicago received the next lowest marks.)

So, what to do if you're one of the 8.6 million folks in the greater New York area and something bad goes down? Our suggestion: Take emergency advice from a New Yorker in the know.

Let us introduce you to Jason N. Lyons, who works for the American Red Cross Greater New York. His title is a regional manger for Individual & Community Preparedness. It's his job to help us help ourselves. Lyons prepares people to deal with disasters ranging from house fires to major storms, hurricanes, and acts of terrorism. (The Red Cross pro calls emergencies like earthquakes or terrorist events "sudden impacts," since there's usually no prior warning.) It's a big job. No wonder he's tough.

Red Cross worker Jason Lyons
Man with a plan: The Red Cross NYC's Jason N. Lyons

Lyons lives in Queens with his family, and he's spent more than a dozen years in emergency management, working in NYC and across the Caribbean with the British Red Cross.

"One of challenges we have in New York is the sheer number of people," says Lyons. "We literally live on an island on top of one another. In the case of an emergency, roads are going to be jam packed. Stores get cleaned out. Everyone rushes to get gas. You've got to realize the number of people who will be affected."

But, says Lyons, a measure of preparedness will go a long way, even in a city as crowded as NYC. Here are his tips for getting you and your family ready.

How to actually make an evacuation plan

We always hear this: Make a plan. But what exactly does that plan look like? It's easier said than done, that's for sure. For this, Lyons offers some of the most detailed advice we've ever received.

"The reality is that families are rarely in the same place together. The dad and mom may be at work in different boroughs, and the children may be at separate schools. If there's a sudden event, everyone has to know where to meet." Remember, Lyons stresses, your cell phone and internet may very well go down, so don't count on communicating right after a large-scale emergency.

NYC: Not an easy place to get out of in a hurry

  1. Start with an emergency contact. Lyons suggests that each member of the family learns the phone number of an emergency contact who is outside their immediate area. "If communications are down in the Bronx, then I can call Jim who lives in Brooklyn. Dad will also call Jim and tell him he's fine. The daughter calls and says she's fine too. Jim relays all that information back to the entire family." That phone number should be memorized, even by children.

  2. Create a meeting point in the neighborhood. The most likely emergency is a home or apartment fire. Everyone in the family should know where to meet once they get out. Ideally that would be a neighbor's house that can be easily reached. "Whose doorstep can you show up to without them even knowing you're coming? Pick that person, and then be sure to share the plan with that person." Practice that plan, especially with children.

  3. Pick a meeting point in another location that's further away. In the case of NYC, says Lyon, you should find a location in another borough. "If you live in Queens, have an emergency meeting place at someone's house in Brooklyn. Anywhere other than the immediate community." Ideally it could be reached by mass transit, or even by walking.

  4. Figure out a location to evacuate even further afield — like another state. "If there’s a severe impact in New York, you should know where you can go that's further away. Perhaps it is in New Jersey, or Philadelphia. Have that plan in place in case there's an extended period you'll need to be away."

  5. Practice that stuff! " I encourage everyone old enough to use the phone to actually call their emergency contacts, and be taught how to dial 911. Practice evacuating the home, and establish house rules for emergencies. Every building has its own way of evacuating. So everyone in the house should know what that pattern is."

Expect city gridlock during an emergency evacuation

What to know if you have to evacuate

If you do have to leave, here are things to think about beforehand.

  1. Get out early. The best solutions for a successful evacuation from NYC — or anywhere, really — is to evacuate early. "In cases of a severe storm or hurricane, we are usually notified prior to the event. So if you at all possibly can, evacuate early. Because everything will be affected, including mass transit. Even walking in city can be difficult because there are so many people rushing around. Don't wait it out until it's too late and you can't leave."

  2. Practice getting out of town. "Actually take the evacuation route. Make it a weekend thing. Figure out the route and then do it, by car or bus whatever. Get a general idea where you're going and the alternate routes. Remember that in case of a real emergency, the GPS and phone service might be down." Lyons also recommends putting routes on your phone. Services like Google have offline maps, which work even when you don't have service.

  3. Be wary of complacency. "New Yorkers are used to world-class first responders. Fire department and EMT are usually at your home in minutes. We take these things for granted. In an emergency these resources can be strained, so we need to be personally prepared for a massive emergency."

Putting together an emergency kit

This is another thing you always hear: "Put together a kit." But the reality is that it's hard to figure out what you really need. (Preparation Concierge is devoted to this very thing! Start with our Simple List.) Asked about his own go bag, Lyons says, "I live in Queens. I’m a preparedness junkie. I have three or four go bags. Things that you really need include flashlights, extra batteries, a hand-crank radio, personal documents like social security cards in watertight containers." Here are other items that he suggests putting together.

  1. An extra cell-phone battery pack. Keep it charged! (We like the Anker.)

  2. Contact information. We tend to keep all of our contact info on our phones, but in case of emergency you may lose that phone. "Good old paper works as a backup."

  3. Water. "One of the most important things to have in your home is stored water. I always stress that you shold stockpile as much water as you can. When a city gets impacted by a storm or earthquake, the water systems often go down. Pipelines are in the round, and can get broken. We also have survival straws, devices from which you can drink straight from the source. I have one in each kit, just in case in case."

  4. Maps. "We are so comfortable with technology that we forget we need a backup. But things like cell phones are often the first thing to go down. New York is a complex place to live in, and without GPS it can seem like a maze. That’s why I have real life paper maps. I’ve been in places impacted by storms, and all the road signs are down."

  5. Nothing like a photo. "Having personal comfort items can really make a difference. I have a small waterproof pack where I protect family photos. In times of stress, they give me comfort."

For even more information...

Know who’s in charge in case of emergencies in NYC. NYC Emergency Management is the authority when it comes to evacuation and large-scale evacuation centers — such as we saw during Hurricane Sandy. Agencies like the Red Cross may be called in to provide additional assistance.

Get emergency apps. The Red Cross has a number of emergency related apps, including severe weather and early emergency alerts. Get them here.

Donate to the Red Cross. Preparation Concierge supports the Red Cross. You should, too. Thanks to Jason Lyons, who can be found @JsonLions.

About us: Preparation Concierge is devoted to emergency planning and disaster preparation. We offer users level 101 information and advice , and a smartly curated list of gear, food, and water solutions . We take a particular interest in urban and suburban areas — these populations are especially fragile and susceptible to disasters, and are often the most unprepared.

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