Lessons for Hurricane Evacuations
Last year, Kathlyn Smith of Texas shared with me some of her hurricane experiences. She’s a single mom in her 50′s and has managed to ride out two recent hurricanes, Ike and Rita, on her own. A portion of this interview is in my upcoming book, but I thought you might be interested in her entire story. In the comment section, tell us the main thing you learned from this interview!
Survival Mom: How many evacuations have you experienced?
Kathlyn: Three – Hurricane Alicia (1984 ); Hurricane Rita (2005); Hurricane Ike (2008)
Survival Mom: In regards to Hurricane Ike, when did you decide you would evacuate?
Kathlyn: I work on Galveston Island but could not leave work until our office was secured for the hurricane, could not leave until Thursday evening before the storm hit on Friday night/Saturday morning. I wanted to get on the road Thursday, but could not due to the huge traffic jams on the major thoroughfares. Police prevented taking back roads to get out of town. They wanted everyone on the freeways.
By Thursday night the news reporters and weather people had frightened the general public to the point that those who lived north of Houston at elevations of 250-300 ft. got on the roads ahead of the people who were forced to leave under mandatory evacuations so they were stuck in traffic for hours. Lots of cars ran out of gas so stations were closed because the owners/operators had left to secure their own properties. Cars out of gas were pushed off the road and the people in them were just left by others, including the elderly and infirmed.
When I evacuated before Hurricane Rita, it took me the better part of a day to drive what should have taken about an hour. Again, gas stations were quickly out of gas and people were fighting over gas at the pumps.
During Hurricane Alicia (1984), we got stuck on the road in our car with an 18 month-old as the storm passed over. Again, we left in plenty of time but did not anticipate the problems with traffic.
Survival Mom: Did you think about staying home and what changed your mind?
Kathlyn: I ended up staying home for the duration of Hurricane Ike due to the massive traffic jams but left immediately after because of the lack of power and the potential that it would be out for as much as 21 days in 100 degree heat. I had water from the storm in my home and did not feel that it was safe to stay. I mopped up what I could and turned the A/C down so it would come on if power was restored.
Survival Mom: What do you pack for evacuations?
Kathlyn: If you live on the Gulf Coast for any period of time, you learn to keep prepared for the next storm. The stores are stripped within a couple of hours and are filled with frantic people looking for something to drink and eat. The cash registers and electronic pay systems are quickly overwhelmed and eventually shut down. Take cash with you. Even if you are able to find something, you will stand in lines for hours. The same thing goes for gasoline and ice – try to keep you auto as full as possible ahead of a storm in case you can’t get what you need.
I pack the following:
- Food, perishable & non-perishable snacks & “real-food” like sandwiches, fruits & vegetables that can be eaten raw. Try to stay away from salty foods that will require more to drink and make more frequent bathroom stops. The most perishable foods are eaten first. We are campers so I almost always have freeze dried, dehydrated & things that are easily eaten without cooking. Fresh fruits and raw vegetables should be eaten first. Items such as granola bars, dried fruits are good & unsalted nuts are filling and can substitute for a meal. Get the freeze dried meals from places like Mountain House that have the built-in heaters. You can add water from a bottle, pour it into the bag with the food and 25-30 minutes later you can have a pretty decent meal. Never underestimate the value of a good tasting, warm meal for morale.
- Water & drinks – I carry two cases of water in the back of my SUV all the time. Kids get tired of water really quickly so the kool-aid & other flavored products you can buy in packets sized for the amount of water in the bottles really helps. Cokes will dehydrate you faster than water, tea or fruit drinks so try to stick to those.
Gasoline in containers that you can strap to the top of the car with bungee cords or strapping materials. I take enough to re-fill my car and extra in case someone else is in need. You do not want to place gas in the car along with the passengers. First it is flammable, and second, it emits fumes that make the passengers sick.
- Money – Cash may be the only thing accepted after power is lost. Also, the cash machines will be emptied in no time at all. Keep money in the house to take with you, again, you don’t want to waste time sitting in lines or make yourself a target of someone who needs cash and cannot get it by any other means than taking it from you.
- Clothing – appropriate for the weather and enough for at least 3 to 4 days, depending on room. This includes protective shoes & socks. I work at the medical center down here and lots of folks wear flip flops. There were injuries to their feet due to stepping on storm debris & getting wounds when they returned to the island.
- Don’t forget bedding & towels especially if you have a large family. Your friends & family may not have enough and we heard reports that some of the hotels could not keep up with the demand after a couple of days.
- First Aid Supplies – Realize that if you are in the hurricane zone others who live there will be in similar situations as you. While they tried to keep the hospital emergency room open, there was no way to send ambulances, helicopters and other rescue transportation for 12-15 hours. Learn basic first-aid as you may be on your own for quite some time.
- Pets & their supplies. In previous evacuations, one of the things many people found out was that they could not take their pets with them on public means of transportation so many stayed with their animals. This changed a bit for Ike and people were told that they could bring their pets, but they had to be in appropriate transport crates (pet taxis no boxes), must have their vaccination records with them, and bring their leashes and food & water. Some people turned their animals out to fend for themselves and others left their animals in the house or the garage to starve to death when they were unable to return for longer that they thought. Many of the animals left with others (shelters or boarding facilities) in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike were not returned to their owners for various reasons. Animals left at shelters were considered abandoned when the people who owned them were not able to get back or contact the shelters when they thought they would. Contact was impossible for several weeks due to cell towers being out & service overloads, so was internet contact. People were not allowed back to their homes for over 3 weeks. Many of these poor animals were shipped to other SPCA’s & shelters when the food ran out and were adopted out in other parts of the country. My fur babies go with me no matter what.
Survival Mom: Had you made any preparations prior to this or was it a rushed event?
Kathlyn: Like I previously stated, many people who have been through this before keep supplies ready so I was, for the most part prepared, and all I had to do was pack my containers the car, get gas in the gas cans and head out. Getting the patio set and all my potted plants inside the garage was harder and took longer than I thought it would, mainly due to the extreme temperatures and the fact that I was doing this by myself.
The main problem was the getting on the road because of all the traffic. I decided not to get stuck once the roads were jammed and waited the storm out at my home then got out of here.
Survival Mom: In retrospect, was that sufficient?
Kathlyn: Yes, the only thing I ran out of was wee-wee pads for my Yorkies, and I was able to get them in New Orleans while I was staying there with my daughter.
Survival Mom: Did you pack anything that you didn’t need?
Kathlyn: No, not really. There is limited room for the essentials so start with them and pack the unnecessary stuff last, if there is room.
Survival Mom: What do you wish you had packed?
- More gasoline. It took me almost 5 hours to get out of Houston and I had used most of my standby gas by the time I was able to find a station to refill near Baton Rouge. Most of the stations between here and Baton Rouge were not open and the ones that were had long, long lines – blocks long. You must have enough fuel to get yourself out of the disaster area – that may be more than one tank full, depending on the range of your car. Consider covering your gas supply with a tarp or something to make it not so obvious to others that you have gas with you. I heard on the radio reports that people were pulling weapons and taking gas, money and other supplies from those who had it on their cars. The veneer of civilization is thin, especially in situations like this.
- I also wish I had a Garman or other navigation device for directions. While I had my cell phone with me and this kind of service through Verizon, some of the towers were damaged and I could not get reception in many areas. Some of the main roads were closed and traffic had to re-route. I just followed the pack and was able to find my may back. It would have been less stressful if I had one of those with me, especially after dark.
Survival Mom: Describe your experience with the evacuation.
Kathlyn: It was a very stressful situation. If there is any way to shelter in place and be safe, that would be optimal. I am planning to purchase a natural gas driven whole house generator to make that more of a possibility. The heat, lack of comforts of home and being trapped in your car makes everyone cranky. After I was able to get on I-10 headed east from Houston to New Orleans, I followed the National Guard as they cleared I-10 of debris. There were abandoned cars, cars containing bodies of people, dead animals of every description and huge amounts of vegetation. I was able to follow the guard unit until the Texas border with Louisiana then I was on my own along with some other drivers headed the same direction. The roadway was blocked much of the way so you had to travel slowly and weave in and out to avoid hitting items in the road.
You can’t predict what others will do in similar situations with a lot of stress. We heard reports of fights at gas stations because someone cut in front of someone already in line, people pulling guns and robbing people of money and supplies. I kept my automatic loaded and under the front seat in case I needed it. Thankfully, I did not although none of us in New Orleans left the house without protection. They were still recovering from Hurricane Gustav from just a week earlier.
Survival Mom: How did your kids cope with everything?
Kathlyn: No children at home with Ike. During Hurricane Alicia I had an 18 month-old. She did not like being confined in a car seat and diaper changes were hard in a fully loaded automobile. She slept after crying it out but until then it was stressful for us all.
Survival Mom: What did you do to try to make the whole experience less traumatic for them?
Kathlyn: I would bring more to entertain her. Today’s cars are sometimes equipped with video players and older children should bring their video games and movies. There is comfort in things familiar so let them bring some old movies and games as well as some newer ones. When she got older we kept a little plastic box where we stored new color books, colored pencils (crayons melt in the heat down here), stickers and the like. Each child should have their own so as to avoid arguments.
Survival Mom: What did you learn from this experience?
Kathlyn: If you are leaving, plan to leave early, before a mandatory evacuation is called. Make your plans in advance. People will call hotels and motels to reserve rooms in advance of the storm, so there may be nothing available, even if you can get there.
Even if there are evacuation plans for targeted times to leave you cannot plan for others leaving outside of their window. There will be traffic jams and you don’t want to waste precious gas and patience sitting in traffic.
Be ready – spend the days ahead of the storm preparing your home by boarding windows, and getting your bug out supplies ready to go. Decide what you will take and what must stay. After you have decided and packed what you are taking you can spend some time to place items that must stay into waterproof containers, place furniture on top of canned goods wrapped in foil or plastic bags and cover with waterproof tarps.
Hurricane Rita hit the summer before my daughter’s wedding. We were making her gown and her bridesmaids’ dresses. I had hundreds of dollars of silk and lace that I was not leaving behind as well as my sewing machine and other things critical to make the gowns. I could not replace them so I had my sister park her small car in my garage and drive my big Expedition filled with supplies, the fabrics and machines. While everyone else was looking for boards and plylox hurricane clips I was searching for PVC pipes to wrap the silk around to keep it from becoming creased!
Survival Mom: What advice would you give to moms who may face a future situation?
Kathlyn: Prepare ahead of time so that you will not be in a panic. Your children will pick up on your anxiety. Convey to your children why you must do this and let them know you have a plan. Allow them to help to the degree that they are able. Let them pack their own things to take for entertainment. They will probably ask a lot of questions so be prepared to answer them.
Survival Mom: Is there anything else important you would like to add?
Kathlyn: If you are leaving, plan to leave early, before a mandatory evacuation is called. Make your plans well in advance. People will call hotels and motels to reserve rooms in advance of the storm, so there may be nothing available for many miles, even if you can get there. Consider what you will do or where you will go to ride out the storm. Lots of folks headed in the direction the storm eventually took after leaving the coastal area and spent the storm in parking lots because there was no place for them to stay.
Even if there are evacuation plans for targeted times to leave you cannot plan for others leaving outside of their window. Don’t wait for mandatory evacuations orders to be called. There will be traffic jams and you don’t want to waste precious gas and patience sitting in traffic.
Be ready – spend the days ahead of the storm preparing your home by boarding windows, and getting your bug out supplies ready to go. Do this early as high winds and rain bands can be experienced days before the storm arrives. You don’t want to be on a ladder trying to install covers on second floor window if there is a stiff breeze.
Decide what you will take and what must stay long before you plan to leave. After you have decided and packed what you are taking you can spend some time to place items that must stay into waterproof containers, place furniture on top of canned goods wrapped in foil or plastic bags and cover with waterproof tarps.
Remember that nothing is as important as the lives of your family and loved ones so prepare for them first – including the pets.
Survival Mom: Is there anything you’ve done to make future hurricanes and evacuations less traumatic?
Kathlyn: Some things I have done to make it safer for me to stay or easier to leave:
Note that all of this was not done at one time but over the course of the last several years:
- I hired a handyman to make custom storm windows out of 5/8” polycarbonate (Lexan). These are permanent and stay up year round. You can’t even tell they are there because they are so well installed. I do not have to board up every time there is a storm in the Gulf. While they may or may not be bulletproof they do not shatter like glass to allow access into the home. This will help deter looters since they cannot obtain access to my home by simply breaking a window.
- In a few months I will have polycarbonate placed in my storm doors for the same reasons as stated above.
- I had a metal roof placed on my home. It has a Kynar coating on it to make it look like standard shingles so the HOA is happy. The roof locks into place and is installed with screws – not nails – to make it more secure. While it is a bit more expensive than a regular roof, I did not have to replace my roof after Hurricane lke like the neighbors did.
- I have a system to brace my double garage door to keep it from being blown down in the event of a storm. The system is easy to put in place and I can do it after I have everything in the garage.
- I will be installing a whole house natural gas generator later this year in order to have power to the whole house in the event of an electrical outage. This will make it easier to shelter in place if I have to.
- I have placed power strips with surge protectors on all of my appliances to protect them from a potential power surge when the electricity is restored.
- I keep most of my bug out supplies in Rubbermaid containers so I can pack those items into the car with little or no notice. This includes supplies for the people and pets.
- I keep gas cans filled with gasoline and a stabilizer so that I don’t have to wait in line for gas. The gas can be used throughout the year for the car or for lawnmowers & other gas powered uses then refilled as used. The tarps to cover them and bungee cords to secure them are stored near them in a Rubbermaid container.
- I keep cash hidden in the house so as not to have to wait in line at an ATM.
- I keep and rotate food supplies for emergencies. If I must shop for something, I do it early and a little bit at a time, again storing much of it in a Rubbermaid container.
- NOTE: Plastic containers should have flat lids (some are rounded) so that they are secure when placed one on top of another and do not fall if the load shifts – lesson learned the hard way ~:o)
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