Can you evacuate in ten minutes?

Could you evacuate your home in ten minutes?  Would you be able to save your critical documents, family heirlooms, important valuables?

Watching people displaced by Hurricane Isaac and the wildfires out west, who are fleeing their homes in many cases with nothing but the clothes on their backs, it strikes me that we haven’t really learned much from Katrina seven years ago, or the disastrous wildfires of the past decade.  Many people still aren’t prepared to evacuate their homes in just a few minutes, either from the failure to consider that it might be necessary or, perhaps, an unwillingness to accept that a situation where they could lose everything might arise in their lives.

I used to be like that, until nine years ago.  While I didn’t lose my home, my family photos, or any belongings that couldn’t be replaced, it was a very real possibility that I would, one for which I had not prepared.

My apartment complex was struck by lightning.  Not the ordinary (if there is such a thing) bolt of lightning in the midst of a summer storm, which has happened as recently as last month.  No, this was one of those over-powered, bolt-from-the-blue, no-way-to-prevent-it strikes.  A hugely-powerful burst of lightning that hit my building first (they think) and blew out not just our complex’s transformer, but transformers throughout the area, plunging the complex and surrounding neighborhoods into blackness – and creating a major problem for the power company.  I was later told that, because of the way the transformers blew, the power wasn’t completely off to some of the buildings, and was still occasionally surging through the wiring, with the potential for a fire or explosion.

I was prepared for the power going out.  It had happened before – we lost power one winter for several days.  I had a flashlight nearby, and knew not to open the refrigerator doors to keep the food from spoiling.  I did open the door to my patio (the top floor of a brick building without air conditioning gets very warm, very quickly), and settled back on the sofa to wait for the power to be restored.

I don’t know how long it was, but later, still in the dark, someone began banging loudly on the door.  I had to struggle back up and limp over to answer it (in a spectacular bit of unfortunate timing, I was in a walking cast with a broken foot). 

The fireman at the door told me I had to leave the building.  The surges had reportedly blown power meters off some of the buildings, and the fire department wanted to evacuate in the event that a fire started or one of the appliances exploded.  I had ten minutes to leave and if I hadn’t left by then, someone would be back to get me out.

Ten minutes.  What should I take?  Could I find the things I wanted in the dark?  How would I carry them?  In the end, I grabbed my purse, a contact lens case, the last photo taken of my parents, the book I’d been reading, and left.  No clothes, ten dollars in my wallet, and the car had less than a quarter tank of gas.

I had just enough gas to drive to a friend’s home, where I spent the night on their sofa, under the watchful eyes of their pet rabbits, drifting in and out of sleep.  Had my building caught fire?  Was my computer alright?  Would the fire department let me back in tomorrow, or would I have to buy some clothes and move into a hotel?

As I said earlier, fortunately nothing too serious occurred.  The power company must have gotten things under control rather quickly, because by early morning, the fire department allowed everyone back into the buildings. 

I didn’t lose anything that was irreplaceable. The strike and power surges did kill most of the electrical appliances – refrigerator (the food spoiled), stereo system, and so on.  Oddly, my TV –which was turned on at the time of the strike – was fine, but the surge protector had blown and actually had scorch marks on it.  The things that most mattered – family photos, books from my childhood – those things were still safe. 

I had time, waiting over the next three days as the power company restored service, to look back and realize I had been totally unprepared for this to happen.  Because I live outside of Philadelphia, where we rarely encounter situations requiring a widespread evacuation, I naively assumed it was something about which I didn’t need to worry.  I had created disaster recovery plans for my company, in the event that we lost a production facility or the corporate headquarters to fire or flood, and yet I hadn’t done the same in my personal life.

But as I learned that night, you may have to flee your home for many reasons, all of which are out of your control.   Wildfires, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, terrorist attacks – and somehow I’d managed to conveniently overlook the nuclear power plant a half hour away.

So I decided to prepare for something like this to happen again.  And I urge everyone to do so. 

What have I done?  Well, for starters, I have a ‘go’ bag.  A change of comfortable clothes (jeans, two tee-shirts, extra underwear, sneakers, cotton sports and wool hiking socks).  I add in a sweatshirt or fisherman’s sweater, change tee shirts from short-sleeve to long, depending on the season.  Toiletries – travel toothbrush and toothpaste, mints, shampoo and soap, hairbrush and band, contact lens solution and case, lotion, the things I use every day.  I also carry a small bottle of Eucalan, in case I need to wash out clothes by hand.  The bag serves two purposes – emergency preparedness and spur-of-the-moment trips.  It sits in my closet. 

I always carry a small flashlight and multi-tool in my purse (which is embarrassing when you forget you have them and walk into a government building).  At home, I know exactly where to find my large flashlight and spare batteries, passport, eyeglasses, iPod and power cords for the cell phone & laptop – because they’re in the same desk drawer, along with a plastic bag of matches.  I still have a battery-powered radio, just in case.  I keep my back-up hard drive packed when possible, so all I need to do is put the laptop, hard drive and the contents of that drawer into the computer bag I pull from the closet.  It’s right next to the go bag and my spare hiking boots, and under the all-weather coat I would take with me.

Family photos?  Everyone has copies of the most important ones, but just in case, I’m now scanning those birthday and holiday and vacation photos from the pre-digital age into the computer, and saving them both to the back-up hard drive and the cloud.  Same with my important papers – the drawer has an envelope with a copy of my bank and credit card information, birth certificate, lease, health insurance cards and vital records, and other papers that might be relevant.  I’ve saved a copy of that information digitally as well.  I’ve also got a record of web-sites and logins.

Realistically, you’re not going to be able to grab everything in your home, so you have to decide beforehand 1) what’s valuable to you and 2) is it feasible to save it.  I love the beautiful painting that was a passing-the-bar gift, but I know there’s no way to carry it.  For me, letters from my late mother, a treasured book from my childhood, a few significant but small items, my jewelry, that’s what I’ll be taking.  I have a list right in the go bag so I know what to grab (and can do it quickly).   I can fit it all into the go bag or my computer case.

Include two very important items on that list – a pillow and toilet paper.  Seriously.  You will definitely need those, and my experience has taught me that you can’t keep it in the car’s trunk – wet weather makes a pillow smell moldy and ruins the toilet paper over time.  Drop the toilet paper in a large plastic or garbage bag to keep it usable and snatch a pillow off the bed.

My car’s trunk always contains a portable, and well-stocked, first aid kit; rain slicker and umbrella; gloves and hat; old sheet and blanket.  There’s a toolkit; garbage bags and cloths; duck tape and twine; pop-up containers of glass cleaner and hand-wipes.  I rotate out a couple of gallon jugs of water.  In the glove box you’ll find a notebook and pens and spare sunglasses, and there’s always a box of tissues in the back seat of the car.  These things come in handy on ordinary days so make sure you replenish them when (not if) you use them.

Then there are the things you don’t think of, but should plan on taking anyway — like entertainment.  Your computer, iPod or phone battery isn’t going to last forever, and you may not be somewhere you can safely recharge, so odds are you won’t be able to watch your iTunes movies or read books on Kindle.  I always have a couple of paperbacks and some scarf knitting projects hanging around.  Find something that will keep you occupied for awhile – game, books, puzzles.  Your sanity will thank you for it later.

And remember food – you don’t know when, or how quickly, you’ll reach a safe spot. I always have some instant oatmeal and soup, snack bars, some type of sugar-based candy (for a quick pick-me-up when caffeine-deprived).   Again, these things come in handy in the normal course of life, and can be quickly grabbed off a shelf if you have to leave.

Always have cash (small bills and coins) on hand, and have the car’s gas tank filled at least halfway.  As I learned that night, when the power goes out, debit and credit cards are useless – and the gas pumps are not going to be working anyway.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that, for the first and only time, on that night I saw my car’s red light for an empty gas tank turn on, just as I arrived at my friend’s house. 

Most importantly, have some way to contact your family and friends to let them know where you are and that you’re alright.  My cell phone is programmed with the important numbers, but if you’re likely to forget someone’s information due to stress, write it on a piece of paper and stick it in the go bag. 

It seems like a lot of work, but when I did this, it only took me about an hour to arrange everything.  You just need to be organized and remember to replenish anything you use.  There is one more step, and that’s a longer, more time-consuming one: make a complete list of your possessions. 

If the worst happens, and you lose your home, a replacement-based renter’s/homeowner’s policy will pay for new things.  But you have to submit a list to the insurer of what you’ve lost.  It’s okay to know you had a TV, but more helpful if you can say I had a Sony 32-inch HD model whatever, that I got for $500 at Target.  This step takes some work — and needs to be updated regularly.  My list has everything from the big items like furniture and electronics down to small things like dishes and the number of suits I own.   I’ve even taken pictures of big-ticket items, jewelry and anything unusual like that painting. 

The list, like everything else, is printed and in my bag and saved to the cloud.  And it serves a second purpose as well — making sure you have adequate insurance.  If you have $40,000 worth of belongings, but only $20,000 in replacement coverage, well — that doesn’t work out, does it?

Hopefully, I’ll never have to make use of these preparations.  But if I do, at least I won’t be hyperventilating over what to pack and whether I have enough gas to get out of the area.  The mere fact that I’m being forced to evacuate from my home will produce more than enough fear and stress for me.

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