As with any emergency, handling a home evacuation with confidence comes down to being as prepared as possible. With the right preparations, everyone can get to safety without making missteps along the way or getting too stressed. Although there is no way to fully ease stress during an emergency, preparations can help.
So, explore what to do before, during, and after an evacuation to get ready to handle this situation with ease. Also, be sure to take a look at what to bring along for the ride, so you do not leave anything important behind. To get started, use this guide to learn how to prepare to leave your house or the city as needed to stay safe.
The need for home evacuations can arise for many reasons. And they happen much more often than many people even realize. Wildfires and other natural disasters, along with manmade situations like chemical spills, can all lead to evacuations.
Since these situations can happen anywhere and at any time, all households benefit from having a plan. A home evacuation plan prepares everyone to quickly leave the home and make it to safety. When fully detailed, it provides all the steps household members need to take to safely exit any room they are in and make their way outside. Then, it covers how to properly leave the area and reach a place to ride out the disaster.
Even if an emergency situation never arises, simply having a plan in place provides immense peace of mind. So, it is well worth the time and effort it takes to make, as disaster could strike at any time.
Without a proper home evacuation plan, chaos reigns supreme, leading to confusion and stress. People may not know just how to respond or fail to act at all, leaving them in a potentially dangerous situation.
To act as a guide, the evacuation plan must spell out:
The plan should also state who will act as the leader and provide guidance to the other household members. Name other potential leaders as well, in case the first person in the chain of command is not home or otherwise unable to fulfill that role. Also, determine who will gather up the pets and bring them to the meeting point.
When the plan clearly defines all these areas, people can respond in a logical, organized manner. This helps keep injuries, property damage, and other problems to a minimum.
Just having a plan is not quite enough, however, as household members need to practice the steps at least once a month. During this process, everyone can memorize the steps and learn to speed through them without missing key tasks.
As they complete the drills, the entire household can gain confidence in the plan and perfect their response, so they can get out fast when time is of the essence. The ability to stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of danger increases as well, keeping stress at a manageable level.
Home evacuation plans explain how to exit the home, where to go after a disaster strikes, and how to get there safely. A good plan consists of a procedure document, map, and checklist. For all these documents, everyone should participate in the creation process to stay on the same page. Kids can even join in by drawing up their own maps to match the household’s copy.
A home evacuation plan starts at the inside of the structure, providing a safe route outside. To route those paths, perform a walkthrough and list all the exits in every room. Then, write out a clear procedure list for exiting the home, and draw up a map to go with it. If the home has a second story, then escape ladders should be a part of the plan with the map clearly showing their location. Upon finishing the map, display a copy in a highly visible area of the house, such as the living room or kitchen.
To bring everyone together after a home evacuation, every household needs to have a meeting point, such as:
Good meeting spots are easy to find and familiar to all members of the household.
The plan will need to go beyond describing what to do to exit the home to exploring the process of leaving the area. It should start by explaining the difference between disaster types and state when to bring along supplies.
In the case of a house fire, for example, everyone should leave the home as quickly as possible without stopping to grab anything. When there is some warning, however, like before a hurricane hits, then it may be best to grab the emergency kit and go bags before exiting.
Also, identify the preferred evacuation vehicle in case the situation demands leaving town. The vehicle should always be well-maintained, have at least ¾ tank of gas, and contain an emergency kit in the trunk.
Then, clearly spell out the main and backup routes to use when evacuating the area. Mark the preferred routes on a map and encourage household members to use a radio to check for warnings before leaving. Include other routes out of town just in case you cannot use the main roads. Make a copy of the map to store in the vehicle, and place the original with the evacuation plan. Create a checklist of items to bring as well, placing it with the other documents for quick reference during an emergency.
In case a disaster happens when not everyone is at home, assign a secondary meeting point well outside of the area. Also, encourage them to memorize the phone number of a specific friend or family member in a different state. This will give them someone to check in with if they cannot make it to the designated meeting spots.
Household members should meet once a month to go over the evacuation plan and practice going through the steps. During the practice sessions, problems with the steps will become clear, allowing you to make changes as needed to perfect the plan. Once everyone makes it outside to the meeting spot, remind them to never reenter the house after making it to that point.
As the household practices, get out a stopwatch to record response times. Write the times down on a sheet to celebrate improvements. With each session, you should see response times improving as each person grows more comfortable and less stressed.
There are many reasons for evacuations, but they are not all made equal. Some demand that people immediately leave the home, while others require departure from the city.
Fires, carbon monoxide leaks, and structure damage, for example, all demand you leave the home as quickly as possible. In these situations, everyone just needs to exit fast and make it to the meeting spot to await the next steps. Sometimes, they can return to the home when the fire department or other officials deem it safe to do so. Other times, it is necessary to stay somewhere else on a temporary or permanent basis.
Widespread disasters, on the other hand, require not only exiting the home, but leaving the area for an unknown amount of time. Volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and other natural disasters are the most common reason officials issue orders to evacuate. When those situations happen, the government may tell you to evacuate any time before, after, or even during the event.
When these orders come through, officials usually give a timeframe to abide by. Leaving by the given deadline is important in keeping everyone in the household safe from harm.
When faced with a home evacuation, following a predefined sequence is the best way to respond. The sequence allows for quick response times and confidence in the process. Here’s what it looks like.
The detection phase identifies the problem and indicates the possible need to leave the home or even the area. When a fire occurs, you might just smell smoke, while watching the news may tell you of a hurricane on the way.
Next comes the time to make a decision on whether to evacuate or shelter in place. A fire demands you leave immediately, for example, while sheltering in place is best during an earthquake.
At the alarm phase, it is time to alert all household members of the need to leave the home or area. If citywide evacuations are in effect, let your neighbors know too if it is safe to do so.
Reaction is when everyone starts following the evacuation procedures to safely exit the home. Use any of the routes on the map to find an appropriate exit and make it to the meeting place.
The move step is only needed if the household must travel outside the area to safety. Everyone can come together to decide if that is necessary and get ready to go.
During this final phase, you will travel on the main or alternate routes to the next meeting spot. Then, seek refuge elsewhere until the disaster is over.
By responding in this manner, everyone reduces their risk of injury and other incidents as they evacuate the home and travel outside the city.
When a disastrous event occurs, immediate response times allow you to make it to safety without incident. Knowing how to respond before, during, and after can help you move through the steps with purpose and in record time. Take a look at the following areas to learn how to proceed through all the stages of a home evacuation.
Creating the home evacuation plan, map, and checklist was the first step in preparing for a disaster. As long as your plan clearly defines how to exit the home, where to meet up, and what routes to take out of town, it will serve your household well.
You do need to go even further in your preparations by:
Here’s how to proceed through those steps.
Start by creating an emergency kit and personal go bags for the household. The main emergency kit should contain food, medical supplies, and other essentials for the entire household. Keep it in an easily accessible part of the home such as the garage or mudroom.
If there are pets in the home, make sure their travel crates, leashes, and collars sit near the main emergency kit. Each person in the home should also have a smaller bag of supplies of their own, as should the pets.
In addition to the go bags, create emergency kits for all the vehicles. Include food, water, and a first aid kit along with other emergency items. Make the kit in the main evacuation vehicle a little bigger than the rest to cover the entire household’s needs. If a developing situation points to a potential evacuation, take the time to fill up the gas tanks of all vehicles in the household. Grab cash to use at motels, restaurants, and other locations along the way, just in case debit or credit cards fail to work.
If anything happens to the home and its contents, you will likely need to show the insurance company proof for your claim. They will need to know just what belongings were in the home and the overall condition of the structure. Therefore, start by taking pictures of every room and the exterior of the home. Then, keep them updated on a yearly basis. Also, write down the make, model, and serial numbers of all your electronics, including computers, TVs, and phones. Write down the names and approximate value of everything else in the home from couches and bedroom sets to fine china and collectibles.
At the end of this process, verify the insurance coverage is enough to cover all losses. If not, increase the coverage amounts by speaking with the assigned agent.
Disasters have the potential to destroy important documents needed to drive a car, travel out of the country, or even prove who you are. To avoid these problems, you must make copies and keep the originals in a safe location.
Documents to copy include:
Also, take note of all checking and savings account numbers along with retirement account information.
Consider opening a safe deposit box at the bank to store the original documents for later retrieval. Place the copies in a fireproof safe in the home plus in the main emergency kit. In addition, scan the documents into a computer and upload them onto a flash drive. Store the flash drive in the kit, too, ensuring all documents are close at hand when you need them.
During widescale evacuations, city officials may open emergency shelters to all residents. You cannot rely on that alone, however, so it is important to find alternatives that will work for the entire household. If there are pets in the house, this is even more important since many emergency shelters do not allow them to stay.
In that case, figure out if you could potentially stay with friends or family out of town or look for low-cost motels that accept pets. Then, write down the addresses of all those locations, keeping a couple alternatives on hand if the first does not work out.
Along with these steps, remember to practice the evacuation procedures on a regular basis. Make it fun by taking the 10-minute evacuation challenge each and every month. This challenge teaches all household members to make it out of the home and to the meeting point in the shortest amount of time possible.
Whether the situation happens suddenly or with warning will influence how you should respond. Fires and gas leaks, for example, demand that you immediately leave the home without taking the main emergency kit, go bags, or anything else. You should only alert household members and grab your pets before leaving. Then, upon exiting the home, call the authorities and request help.
For widespread disasters that come with little warning, only take an extra moment to grab the go bags before exiting the home. Once everyone arrives at the meeting place, hop in the vehicle and take the preferred routes. Remember to take a moment to check the radio for updates about traffic conditions.
If the situation is a widespread disaster and comes with some warning, however, then there are other steps to take, including:
When time allows, take a moment to turn off your utilities, as this can prevent further problems down the line. Depending on the home’s setup, you may need to turn the valves on the gas and water meters to the off position. Plus, switch off the main breaker at the breaker box to keep electricity from flowing to your home.
When flood waters are rising, prevent excessive damage to belongings by placing them on the upper level of the home. Do not complete this step if the waters are rising too fast and there is not enough time to leave safely afterward.
In the event of a tornado or other high wind event, consider taking the time to secure the storm-proof shutters or cover the openings with plywood. Also, take down any birdhouses and other hanging décor as they can fly off and cause damage. Only perform this step if you have enough time to do so and get out of the area by the deadline.
When it comes time to leave the home for any length of time, pets need to go, too. They are not safe to stay home alone, as anything can happen during the disaster. So, secure them in travel carriers, pet seatbelts, or in the cargo area behind a gate to evacuate them to safety as well.
Before leaving, lock all windows and doors to the home, though it will not help to set the alarm with the utilities off. Looters often break into homes after everyone leaves on evacuation orders, so this is an important step. If the windows are normally kept locked, then this will only take a couple minutes to complete.
With these additional steps done, follow the evacuation plan as written, but remain flexible to making changes when needed. If you cannot use the main route out of the city, for example, then switch to an alternative to travel without incident.
After a home evacuation, stay out of the city until officials issue a statement that it is safe to return. This can take days to weeks or longer, depending on the extent of the damage in the area.
Once they state you are safe to come home, do not make a mad dash back to your property. Exercise great caution while traveling local roadways and entering your home in case there are any hazards.
While traveling back home, look for:
If you notice any hazards along the way, call local authorities to alert them to the problem. Although they may already know about the issue, it may help to provide additional information that aids in getting a quick fix.
Upon pulling into your driveway, do not just rush inside either. Look around the property for signs of a problem, including structural damage, using all your senses to guide you. Watch out for smoldering embers, water leaks, and other issues caused by damage during the disaster.
If you notice any problems, do not enter the affected area. Instead, call for help. In the event of severe damage, move to a safe location once again until authorities or a contractor can fix the issue.
After determining the home is safe to enter, do not start cleaning up right away. Instead, take pictures of any damage to give to your insurance company. They will want to see the state of the place to determine if they will cover your claims. With pictures in hand, give the insurance company a call and file a claim if needed to repair the home.
Remember to throw out all spoiled food in the fridge, freezer, and cupboards. Also, do not drink the tap water until officials have deemed it safe to do so.
By taking the right items along for the ride, the home evacuation can go much more smoothly for all involved. The number of items you take will depend on how much room there is in the vehicle. Focus on food, water, and medical supplies above all else, then fill in the gaps with whatever else you can bring. Here’s a look at all the things you might possibly take with you.
Food and water sits at the top of the list of most important things to have during a home evacuation. When it comes to water, have at least three gallons per person or pet. This serves as a three-day supply to keep everyone hydrated as you travel to a safer location.
For a four-person household, this would require keeping 12 gallons of water ready to go. Reach that goal by having four three-gallon bottles in the trunk of the assigned evacuation vehicle. Also, consider packing filters or purification tablets to quickly make found water drinkable. Unscented liquid bleach works as well when used at the rate of 1/4 teaspoon for cloudy water and 1/8 teaspoon if completely clear.
For each person and pet, keep a three-day supply of non-perishable food on hand as well. For people, excellent emergency food items include:
Look at the labels to ensure your food adds up to at least 2,000 calories a day per person for three days at least. To make eating easier, bring disposable utensils of all kinds plus paper plates.
For pets, pick up at least two cans of food per day, depending on their size and activity levels. If this is not possible, a five-pound bag of kibble per pet will suffice if switched out every six months to keep it fresh.
Although they are non-perishable, rotate out all food items at least once a year to ensure they do not go bad. Place the items in the pantry and replace them with new stock to remain prepared through the years.
With the right tools on hand, you can deal with any situation that comes your way during a home evacuation. To decide what to bring along, think about the many different scenarios you might experience.
If you cannot find somewhere to stay, for example, you might need to set up camp and build a fire, which requires matches and other supplies. Or you may just need to navigate dark areas, which is possible if you have a powerful flashlight and batteries.
Tools you might want to bring include:
Along with these tools, make sure to have a hand crank radio in your supplies. This radio allows everyone to hear local traffic, weather, and other news when phones and other devices fail to work.
A first aid kit is another important item to have when evacuating the home.
In this kit, make sure to add:
Include over-the-counter medications to reduce fevers, treat allergic reactions, and relieve pain. Be sure to add household members’ prescription medications to the kit as well. They should have enough of each medication for a week, if not longer. When possible, keep an extra prescription for the medication on hand in case you need to fill it at a different pharmacy.
Beyond first aid and medication, add toiletries and personal hygiene items to the supplies. Toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, and soap, for example, are all smart to bring.
Since credit and debit cards could fail to work as systems go down, always have cash on hand during an emergency. Tuck away at least $100 in the emergency kit, though more could help in securing a place to stay for the night or longer.
In order to get a room at a motel or other location, it is also necessary to have ID cards. Keep an extra in the kit, if possible, for each person in the household. Extra keys can also help in case the household gets split up during evacuations. Give everyone a key to the house, mailbox, and all vehicles along with any other important keys.
Every person needs to have at least a few days’ worth of clothing that will work in all weather conditions. Consider packing up items that are easily layered so you can wear them together or separately as needed to stay comfortable. Include an emergency poncho as well to keep clothing warm and dry when it rains. A garbage bag can work in a pinch, however. Do not forget to pack hats and gloves along with many extra pairs of socks.
With their travel carriers, leashes, and collars near the emergency kit, you can easily evacuate your pets. Their collars should have ID tags with not only your contact info, but your veterinarian’s as well.
If the pets have medical needs, their ID tags should reflect that info, including the name and dosage of any regular medication. Consider microchipping your pets, too, as that device can get them back home safely if they escape without their collar on. In addition, take photos of your pets and put copies in the emergency kit. This will allow you to be able to alert animal control and put up flyers if they go missing.
Beyond their travel equipment, create a kit with pet-specific first aid, including:
Then, add their food and treats to the bag plus any toys that will keep them busy on a long car ride. Also, bring along waste bags or disposable litter trays, crate liners, and garbage bags.
Although you can keep it with the rest of the household’s supplies, they will need one gallon of water per day for at least three days. And at least two cans of food per day or five pounds of kibble per pet to sustain them until you can settle in a safer area.
Similarly, caged animals will need supplies specific to their needs and in enough quantities to sustain them for three days. Bring along enough bedding, hides, and warming devices as needed to keep your animals comfortable during the ride. Use a carrier or temporary cage to transport them safely, only opening it in an enclosed area.
Since they could suffer damage during the disaster, backup all computers, tablets, and phones to keep their data safe and secure. You can use specialized backup programs to easily restore their operating system, programs, and documents. If this is not important to you, then at least backup the documents by storing them in the cloud. Google, Microsoft, and many other brands all offer affordable cloud storage that allows you to store several terabytes of data.
To keep the devices you bring working properly, remember to pack extra chargers in your emergency supplies. Bring chargers that work in the car and at the wall to cover all your bases, no matter what situation you end up in.
If time allows and you have the space, feel free to bring along any irreplaceable items in your home. Family heirlooms, photographs, and other items that you cannot replace are well worth the effort to gather up. Make it even easier by storing them in an easily accessible area, such as on a cabinet in the living room.
While some items are replaceable, it takes considerable time and effort to do so, such as:
To avoid the hassle, keep them all in a fireproof safe you can grab on your way out of the house. That way, you keep the documents available right when you need them, allowing you to move forward with your plans without delay.
Store all your legal documents in the fireproof safe as well to prevent their destruction in a disaster. Everything from birth certificates and tax returns should go with you to avoid having to replace them in the future. Or, place them in a safe deposit box ahead of time for additional protection from difficulties later. Although smart, that move does make them harder to access in the meantime.
If you have not already taken photos for insurance, do so before evacuating, but only if there is enough time. The photos come in handy when making an insurance claim upon returning. Adjusters use them to accurately pinpoint the value of the items in the home. Without the photos, the insurance company may just use a ballpark figure based on the inventory provided to them.
If you cannot stay with family or at a motel, sleeping outside may be your only choice. If faced with that situation, it is wise to bring along camping supplies that will keep everyone warm, dry, and comfortable.
Items to bring include:
When you need somewhere to sleep but do not have a tent, see if you have a clothesline and tarp instead. You can clip the tarp to the clothesline to create a temporary shelter that will work for a couple nights. Make it even more secure by driving stakes through the corner of the tarp and into the ground.
Since there is so much to remember, be sure to create a checklist to go with your home evacuation plan. When creating this checklist, first identify all the categories of items you might bring. Then, list each item separately and include the amount next to it.
To make the process of packing up easier, have most of the items already stored in an emergency kit and go bags. This way, you can ensure your household members have all the essentials if time does not allow you to go through the checklist before leaving.
A go bag complements the main emergency kit by including all the essential items, but on a smaller scale. Instead of having three days of food and water, for example, a go bag only needs to have a gallon of water and one day of food. Each person should have their own go bag they can grab in case of an emergency. To create these personal kits, use a heavy-duty duffle bag or suitcase that can hold up to 40 pounds.
In addition to a day’s worth of food and water, add:
Also, make sure the go bags have a first aid kit plus extra prescription medication for that individual. Add over-the-counter medications for pain relief, allergic reactions, and other ailments as well.
Before packing up, put food, medication, and clothing in resealable plastic bags. This will help protect them from moisture and insects during storage. Then, load up everything in an organized fashion by starting with the heaviest items first.
Once the go bags are all packed up, all you have to do is store them somewhere accessible. To prevent the food and medication from going bad, keep everything in a cool, dry location. Choose somewhere far from vents, windows, and doorways to reduce drafts and temperature changes. The storage location should also be far from the reach of pets and children.
Consider storing the go bags:
Keep the go bags in the chosen location at all times. Note the location in the home evacuation plan to keep everyone familiar with where to find their personal emergency kits.
Have each person grab their go bags during practice drills, especially while working on response times. Since they are usually quite heavy, grabbing those kits can complicate matters and slow the process down a bit. This is especially true for those who have to wrangle pets as well.
Since disasters can occur at any time and anywhere, start preparing now to avoid being caught off guard. Create the home evacuation plan and gather up supplies to be well on your way to being fully prepared. Then, practice the plan on a monthly basis, if not more often, to help ease everyone’s fears and optimize response times.
As you move through these steps, your efforts will improve your chances of staying safe during natural and manmade disasters of all kinds. If you get stuck, return to this guide anytime to learn about what to do before, during, and after a home evacuation.