During an emergency or disaster, should you stay home or evacuate? If you do leave, where are you going?
3 TYPES OF SHELTERS
The Rolling Stones put it pretty well in the song Gimme Shelter: “Oh, a storm is threatening, my very life today, if I don’t get some shelter…” But you'll need to think this stuff through before the storm hits (even if it's the metaphorical type of storm).
The primary shelter situation is your Home Shelter (or a shelter-in-place situation like a workplace or a school), where you can sit out many disasters if the situation permits. Ideally you'll already have socked away supplies like stored water, food, and sanitary supplies. Lights and warmth go a long way, too.
An Away Shelter is a place that you’ve previously designated as the location where you and your loved ones will meet. It should be far away enough that it is likely to be outside the hazard zone of what you are facing — but still reachable by vehicle or even foot if necessary. This shelter, too, should host lots of supplies. And perhaps even longterm solutions in case can't return home for some time.
Third-party (Government) Shelter. These are shelters provided by the local or federal government. While important, and a viable option, we tend to think that well-prepared self sufficiency will put you in a better situation. We hugely respect all the work that public agencies do, but FEMA and the like are easily overtaxed in large-scale disasters. Then you can pat yourself on the back and say, "You're doing a heckuva job..."
THE UPSIDE OF SHELTERING IN PLACE (HOME SWEET HOME)
The upside to the Home Shelter? You're intimately familiar with your surroundings, and it mitigates the risks of moving. Risks on the street can include panicked crowds and traffic jams (and accidents) — all chances to get lost or hurt. Better to stay out of the chaos if possible.
With luck, you'll have a community of neighbors who can band together and help one another through the situation. History has long shown that survival rates go way up when you can rely on a greater group of people who share supplies and knowledge. So, hurray for the Home Shelter.
But there's a danger here, too. Familiarity also breeds inertia. Too many people stay in their homes even during situations where authorities have counseled evacuation. This is especially troublesome when we have ample warning, such as in cases of hurricanes and wildfires.
"Discretion is the better part of valor. If the authorities have mandated an evacuation notice, LEAVE."
If the authorities have mandated an evacuation notice, please do leave. Forget the knick-knacks and get out. Discretion is the better part of valor. We can't repeat this enough. Better to head off to place without trees to catch fire, if at all possible. Even more so if you can get away when commercial flights are still viable. Use those frequent filer miles. That's what they're for.
You'll have to make the call yourself, and you may have to make it earlier rather than later: You don't want to be fleeing when the storm is already upon you, or the trees next to your yard are on fire.
Lastly, consider this: If you choose to stay, do you and your family have enough water and food and other essential items to last days, weeks, and even months? (We don't call it "preparation" for nothing.")
EVACUATING: GET YOURSELF TO AN AWAY SHELTER
We're going to save advice about evacuation for another time. But your choice of an Away Shelter can be equally as important as the choices you've made concerning your own house or apartment. An away shelter could be your country or beach house; a family or friend’s house; or even your cabin deep in the woods.
Here's the tricky bit: You're just never going to know how far that Away Shelter should be, or in exactly what direction. Storms can travel up and down the coasts and far inland, and man-made hazards could spread hundreds of miles. (Radiation and chemicals leap to mind.)
"The 2nd location should be geographically isolated from your Home Shelter: If you live at the beach and a hurricane is on its way, going 20 miles up the coast isn't likely to help."
You'll need to be smart and intuitive when choosing the place to escape to. The analysis should take in the most likely hazards in your area, knowing that you can never be 100 percent sure. If you live in a flood zone in Houston that was underwater in 2016, or a locale in California that gets hit by wildfires every year, it is best to choose an Away Shelter well outside those flood and fire zones.
Our suggestion is that the second location be far enough to be geographically isolated from your house to separate yourself from the catastrophe. If you live in the Los Angeles' Palisades, for instance, just going further up or down the coast 20 miles isn't like to help. Head inland.
AWAY SHELTERS: EXAMPLES FROM REAL LIFE
Here's how some of our own contributors and advisory board members approach Away Shelters. Our founder lives in New York City, but has a modest country house in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania. It is less than 100 miles west as the crow flies. He and his family can reach the area by a number of roads and routes — and even by backpacking if absolutely necessary. (We've got a GREAT go bag and gear all packed. See those suggestions for the best go bag gear here.)
At least three major East Coast hurricanes have hammered both NYC and PA in the last decade, and both locations have been affected at the same time. But, sequestered in the Poconos with a fireplace, running water courtesy of streams and rivers, and plenty of places to pee outside was far better than staying in Chelsea with no electricity in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy came barreling through.
Similarly, an advisory member lives in Boston, but has a house in the Berkshires (a somewhat lengthy 127 miles, but also a pretty straight shot west), and another is based in downtown Austin, but has a rustic bolthole in the Hill Country.
We highly suggest that you have maps to all of these locales (like real paper maps), and think about methods of getting out of town. Know that traffic will likely be terrible, so consider alternate routes. A dry run (so to speak) is a very good ideas, as well.
THE END ANALYSIS
When it comes to unpredictable things, you have to be quick on your feet. That means looking around you, critically, and figuring out what kinds of emergencies are most likely to affect you and your family. And then realize that, well, we never know.
BUT, if you've got essential items stocked at home, and a good idea where to if you need to leave — and a go bag for every member of the family — you're going to be far better off than most anyone around you.