I'll not soon forget the night I was working as a TV news producer, cranking out the 10pm newscast with a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast. I answered the news hotline and a frantic woman was on the other end. She wanted someone to tell her what to do, where to go.
As a news producer, I gave people the facts, information that they could use to make a decision for themselves. It wasn't my place to tell this woman whether to stay or go or whether she should head north, east or west, just as I cannot write here what you should do in the event a hurricane is coming your way. I can tell you what to consider when you're making up your mind what to do.
Where are you?
If you're a few miles inland, not in a flood zone, in a well-built house, you can probably ride out the storm at home. You'll want to have at least three days worth of food and water for the humans and animals that share your life. Flashlights, a radio, and extra batteries. Fill up your car and get an extra can of gas in case it's a few days before you can fill up again. Extra gas if you have a generator. Refill your prescriptions if you need to, stock your first aid kit, and it's not a bad idea to have a couple of tarps and a rope on hand in case you have some damage. Board up your windows and pick up anything in your yard that could become a missile in 150mph winds. Be prepared, and you'll probably be just as safe as you would in the closest school.
Sometimes you have to go
If you live within a mile or two of the coast, you may be at risk of storm surge aka inland flooding. The best way I can describe storm surge is to tell you that it's the highest high tide you will ever experience. It is a wall of water, with waves on top, and it can literally sweep a house off its foundation.
The residents of Grande Lagoon subdivision in Pensacola, Florida, learned that from Hurricane Ivan. About 30 residents stayed in their waterfront homes during the storm, and several died.
Even if you don't live right on the coast, if you live in a flood zone, chances are you'll be dealing with high water. Rivers crest and drainage systems are quickly overtaxed, especially when branches and other debris start blowing around. [Photo: Flooding after Hurricane Floyd]
Rising flood waters not only put you at risk of drowning, it's an unsanitary situation that could lead to infection or disease.
Is anyone in your household dependent on electricity? If someone relies on an oxygen machine or other medical equipment, keep in mind that it's very rare not to lose power in a tropical storm. It's not impossible that your power will stay on, but I wouldn't count on it.
If it's really difficult for you to evacuate, call your power company NOW and talk to someone about their priorities in a massive outage. They may be able to put you on a "medically necessary" list, ensuring that your neighborhood is one of the first to be restored. Bear this in mind: power crews can't just rush in. Downed trees have to be cleared. New poles may have to be erected.
Keep in mind, too, that if something happens during the storm, an ambulance cannot get to you. Even after the storm passes, you may not be able to drive your own vehicle out. Can you survive in isolation for hours or days? Are you in physical condition to clear your own road if necessary?
These are the things you should think about now, not when the storm is a few hours away from landfall.
Where should you go?
For information on free public shelters in your area, call your county emergency management or public information office or contact the American Red Cross. Special needs shelters may be equipped to provide electricity when medically necessary, but that's the only thing that's provided. You need to bring with you: food; water; flashlights and radio; batteries; bedding; small toys, games or books; hand sanitizer or wipes; probably even toilet paper.
Websites such as BeReady.gov provide checklists that you can print to make sure you have the essentials. Develop your own list, too: medications and personal comfort items, important documents (insurance, identification, deeds, etc.), and pet supplies.
What about Fluffy?
Bear in mind that most shelters don't accept pets, only trained helper animals. If you don't feel safe in your house, please don't leave your pets there, either locked up or running loose. Arrange to board them with your vet. Ask local emergency officials if there is a pet-friendly shelter in your area and encourage them to support one. If you're traveling out of the area, call ahead to find out which hotels and motels will accept pets. Be sure to explain that you're evacuating; some hotels will make exceptions during emergencies.
The Bottom Line
Only you can decide whether it's safe for you to stay in your home. You know the condition of your house, how well built it is, and whether the neighborhood is prone to flooding. You know the special needs of your family members and your own physical condition. Your decision may also be based on the strength of the approaching storm. As sturdy as our concrete block house is, my husband stayed here through Hurricane Ivan and he doesn't want to do it again!
Consider the factors carefully now and come up with a plan and a check list. You don't want to get 200 miles down the road, in the heavy traffic of an evacuation, and remember you left your medication at home or you forgot to turn off the gas. Your plan should cover every step of preparation:
Secure your home
Cover windows, pick up loose objects and lawn furniture
Unplug electronics that could be susceptible to power surges
If you're at risk of flooding, move items to upper shelves or the 2nd floor
Food, medicine and supplies
Important documents and photos of your home and belongings
Irreplaceable photographs, computer back-up drive
Small games or toys to keep children occupied
Pets and supplies
Emergency phone contact list (don't rely on mobiles, in case battery dies)
If you wait until the storm is approaching or some other disaster strikes, you will forget something important. Prepare now, so that the thinking is done when you are calm and have plenty of time. When the storm is imminent, you'll be able to act quickly and efficiently, secure in the knowledge that you are doing what's best for your family.