How to evacuate and find emergency shelter during a pandemic

If you prepare now, it'll be much easier to get up and get out.

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Storm season is here, but the pandemic doesn’t care.

Emergency preparedness will need to look different this year, but thinking ahead and staying informed will help you stay primed and ready if catastrophe strikes.

Assess your risk ahead of time

Before you make a plan, you’ll need to know exactly what disaster risks you face where you live, says Jonathan McNamara, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.

By staying vigilant about what may happen and when, you can adjust the intensity of your planning accordingly. Find out which disasters may affect your area and how often people near you have had to evacuate or take shelter. Interactive maps like this hazard map from Columbia University can be a good starting point, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers free software for those who want to more comprehensively assess their risks.

Factors other than location can put certain populations in even more danger. “People with chronic conditions or those without access to reliable transportation may be more impacted by a disaster,” says Jennifer Horney, a University of Delaware epidemiologist who specializes in disasters and disease outbreaks.

No matter how much risk you face, it’s important to know your evacuation zone. Your local county or state emergency management department likely has a zone look-up tool on its website.

Build your emergency kit

“We’re really encouraging people this year to build two kits: A two-week emergency supply kit and a three-day evacuation supply kit,” says McNamara. Ideally, you should prepare these long before you need them, checking back only to keep your items up to date and ensure that nothing has expired, he says.

Your two-week supply kit should be kept at home in case it’s not safe to leave. It should include things like non-perishable foods, enough water for each person to drink a gallon a day, and one month’s worth of prescription medications. With the pandemic in mind, you should also pack some disinfectants, hygiene products, and masks.

The three-day evacuation kit is more of a “grab-and-go” bag to take with you as you seek shelter elsewhere. If you need to flee your home with little to no notice, you’ll want to have a bag ready to throw in your car. You’ll want extra clothes, masks or other face coverings, cash, and again, one month’s worth of prescription medications.

McNamara also suggests building a digital preparedness kit. Having extra battery packs, chargers, and power adapters on hand will ensure that you can stay in contact with family members, while also keeping your kids placated on their various devices. Keep your essential files backed up in the cloud and on a flash drive that you can always keep with you—originals should be stored in a waterproof and fireproof document bag, or in a bank safety deposit box. It might be good to pack extension cords and power strips, too—power outlets could be in short supply wherever you end up.

Finally, be ready for gas stations to be closed and keep a full spare gas can in your car or garage to get you to your planned shelter location.

Do not neglect other health factors

Storm season always comes with indirect impacts on community health, Horney says. Children may miss vaccines, people with chronic conditions might not make their appointments, various regulatory checks could be delayed, and medication shortages can occur. All these effects will be exacerbated by the pandemic, she says.

The best thing you can do is be mindful of any medical conditions you or your loved ones have, and know the medications everyone needs, says Schmidt. If you don’t have extra meds on hand, make sure you have a physical list with you so that once you get to a shelter you can communicate your needs to the medical personnel on site. It would be good to have a flash drive with your medical history on hand as well, Schmidt says.

Stay informed and connected

a person using their phone while also writing in a notebook
If your phone works, you can use it to keep on top of everything. Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Keeping up to date with disaster developments in your area will ensure you are not blindsided by warnings and evacuation calls. “The last thing we want—and we see this year after year—is that people do ignore warnings and then find themselves in a very dangerous situation that could threaten their lives,” says McNamara.

To stay informed, look to your local emergency management department. Check their website or Twitter for updates. The Red Cross, ready.gov, and FEMA have a plethora of online resources and guides to help with preparedness and kit-making. The Red Cross also has emergency apps that can walk you through disaster preparedness and sign you up for local emergency alerts.

“Our focus is putting preparedness information right in the palm of people’s hands,” says McNamara. Making evacuation decisions in the heat of the moment can be overwhelming, but looking to authorities for guidance can remove a layer of complication from your decision-making and eliminate confusion, he says.

Know where you’ll go

It’s important to know ahead of time where you’ll go to take shelter. If the time comes for you to evacuate, you won’t want to be scrambling for a place to stay while anxiety and adrenaline run high. The most typical shelter options for evacuees are hotels, public shelters, or with friends or family.

“If you can shelter at home, or with family or friends, we encourage you to do that,” says Shannon Davis Weiner, director of emergency management in Monroe County, Florida. “That is a safe bet, and that is your best bet.” Her county includes the Florida Keys, a 120-mile-long island chain that’s particularly vulnerable to hurricanes.

Heading to your parents’ or best friend’s house may be preferable in more normal times, but the pandemic has made everything more complicated. If you’re considering staying with people you know, find out whether anyone is particularly at risk of being severely affected by COVID-19, and see how that affects your plans.

If you need to seek out a public shelter, it’s important to know where the nearest ones are and how you will get to them, Weiner says. Monroe County, for example, is arranging shelters within its borders and in neighboring Miami-Dade County, for island residents who need to seek mainland shelter in case of more severe conditions—so county residents will have multiple options to choose from.

When considering hotels, keep several options in mind, as they may not be open when you need them, McNamara says. Understand that having children or pets could affect the locations available to you. The pandemic has put financial strain on many households, too, so know where you have the means to travel to or stay. When in doubt, head to a public shelter. Organizers there can then direct you to available open hotels.

Don’t be afraid to go to a public shelter

Shelters evoke an image of crowds huddled together in shared space, a daunting environment in the midst of a pandemic. But emergency organizers have trained for this and are taking the risks of COVID-19 in stride. So if you’ve been to a public shelter before, know that this year will look different.

The Red Cross and other non-profit organizations know what it takes to handle disasters and disease outbreaks at the same time, says Cheryl Schmidt, an Arizona State University professor who trains nurses in disaster preparedness. Schmidt was with the Red Cross in 2009 and 2015 when the organization had to manage hurricane shelters during the H1N1 and swine flu outbreaks, respectively. Shelters this year will likely implement many of the strategies they adopted then, like handing out masks and hand sanitizer and creating isolation areas for people with symptoms of disease.

“You should absolutely not feel scared to go to a public shelter,” assures Weiner. “If it’s not safe for you to shelter at home or with family, then we want you to come to a public shelter.” Convincing people to use public shelters is difficult, even without an ongoing pandemic, but it may be your best bet during an evacuation, she says.

Every person who comes to a Red Cross public shelter will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, says McNamara. It doesn’t matter whether you are presenting symptoms, have pre-existing medical needs, or are afraid of getting sick—none of that should prevent you from seeking out a public shelter if you need to evacuate. “We want to ensure that anybody who needs to seek shelter in advance of any type of disaster can feel comfortable knowing that there’s a place for them to go, and that it feels safe for all parties,” he says.

Local governments are preparing, too. As soon as you get to a public shelter in Monroe County, for example, there will be a health screening and a temperature check, says Weiner. The county’s plan includes: a face mask, hand sanitizer, and wipes for everyone; more shelter space; additional staff for disinfecting the area; isolation areas and dedicated staff for anyone with symptoms; and more medical personnel, she says.

Anticipate adjustments

“From the Red Cross’s perspective, I can’t think of a protocol we haven’t had to modify,” says McNamara. For example, shelters previously fed evacuees by sending staffers into crowds to pass out food. This year, he says, meals will probably more closely resemble takeout from a restaurant, with prepackaged single-serve meals delivered at a distance.

Another pandemic-specific challenge will be how to safely provide emotional support in a shelter. When close contact can spread disease, we cannot physically comfort each other, says McNamara—no hugs allowed. People will need to figure out how to comfort each other while still staying safe and distanced.

Managing the pandemic in tandem with disaster relief will be a challenge, especially with limited funds and workforce. “Local public health agencies and emergency managers are always trying to find the right messages and the right resources to fill any gaps in knowledge that people have, but the size of those gaps, given COVID-19, may look very different,” says Horney. This year may expose exactly where our system for protecting people is weakest, so it’s best to be prepared.