Home evacuation plans are usually set to include the members of your family, your pets, all your basic needs, some special memorabilia, and of course, your car.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for a large percentage of the population who either don’t have access to a personal vehicle or are unable to drive. Some of the most vulnerable groups are school children, the elderly, and those with functional and mobility issues, but the problem also extends to those living in large cities where public transportation is more convenient than owning a car. In New York City, an estimated 54% of households did not own a vehicle in 2016- that’s roughly 4.5 million people in just one city!!
From a rational perspective, you could argue that a vehicle would be the most convenient and efficient form of transportation during an evacuation. Although partly I agree with that statement, the truth is that vehicles are not always the most dependable choice. For instance, some people fail to gas up prior to evacuating, therefore they become stranded with their car’s tank left on empty.
Another problem we can face is traffic. Evacuating cities in the midst of a natural disaster can cause major setbacks to the plans established by the local government. Time and time again, people have experienced the worst traffic of their lives as they have tried to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
A very recent example of this is the Camp Fire. In the early hours of November 8, 2018, the residents of Paradise, CA woke up to a massive blaze and embers flying in all directions. The fire approached the city so quickly that no one was given enough time to properly evacuate. While people drove away as fast as they could, the visibility was extremely poor due to the thick smoke and the traffic was heavily congested, so many had no choice but to abandon their cars and run for their lives as the fire approached them from multiple directions. This fire was one of the most destructive and extreme disasters we have seen to date, yet it serves as a great example of how difficult it is for the local government to organize a smooth evacuation.
City evacuation plans are not always able to accommodate the high volume of vehicles leaving the city in such short time.
When planning ahead for emergencies, we should be thinking of the alternatives to our usual forms of transportation. If plan A fails, you’ll have to move on to plan B, if that fails also, move on to plan C, and so on.
Alternatives for evacuating without a vehicle
Keep in mind- these alternatives are merely suggestions but are by no means a “one size fits all” type of deal. They will work for some people but not for everybody, depending on the emergency situation and a person’s physical ability.
Consider them as options, but plan for what will best suit your circumstances and capabilities. You may also want to think about taking several different modes of transportation to reach a safe destination.
1. Fleeing on foot
In the event of a power outage or major gridlock, you may have to resort to evacuating on foot. Do you remember the 2003 blackout in the East Coast? An approximate 50 million people were affected by the blackout, and a grand majority of them resorted to walking home since the subway and metro lines were out of service.
In a more extreme scenario, a lot of the people who survived the Camp Fire literally ran for their lives as the fire approached them faster than their cars could drive away (due to the traffic jam and poor visibility).
All of this to say that if your legs are your only method of transportation to get to safety, be prepared to walk or run! When evacuating on foot, make sure to walk in pedestrian-designated walkways and sidewalks. Do not walk in the middle of gridlocked traffic.
2. Carpool with a neighbor
Making a mutual evacuation plan with a neighbor that has a vehicle is one of the best options. Connect to your neighbors either in person or through social media.
Next Door is an online community, much like Facebook, where you can connect with your neighbors. People post all sorts of helpful information on there, including neighborhood watches and safety updates. In the event of an evacuation, you can write a post in the hopes that someone will be able to assist you.
If you're in Los Angeles, CA, there's a program called RYLAN (Ready Your LA Neighborhood) that connects neighbors in the same block so they can support each other during a disaster.
I recommend signing up and connecting with your neighbors ahead of time. In the early stages of a voluntary evacuation, some people might still be checking their accounts but once mandatory evacuations kick in, leaving a post requesting help might be too late.
3. Get a ride from friends or family members
Having a designated friend or family member to help you evacuate is a great idea, considering that going to an evacuation center with someone you know and trust might be a lot less stressful and easier for the purpose of reunification.
4. Use a non-motorized means of transport
Anything on wheels will get you moving faster than by foot, most of the time. Use a bicycle or skateboard if you have one. When riding through the city, be careful of pedestrian and vehicular traffic to avoid collisions.
5. Use a motorized means of transport
Evacuating on a motorcycle, moped scooter, electric-assisted bike or wheelchair is going to become convenient in saving you time and energy.
Evacuate early to avoid getting stuck in traffic jams and to prevent accidents. Since motorized wheelchairs are not street-legal, make sure to plan ahead of time which routes have sidewalks that you can use to get to a safe location.
Tern Bicycles are convenient because they are motorized bikes that have storage capacity and allow seats to be added in case you are traveling with children.
6. Take public transportation
During weather-related emergencies, the local or federal government will typically subsidize public transportation rates to get people to shelters for free. Public transport may be available in the initial stages of an evacuation but may not be an option afterwards if the transit is heavily affected by the disaster.
Find a nearby bus line, metro, or intercity train that is open to transporting people to evacuation centers. Specialized paratransit services, shuttle buses, and school buses will very likely be another option used by the city to maximize transportation efforts during evacuations.
If rail transit is available, you may want to consider this option first since it might be the fastest way to get to safety. The rail system usually does not share roads with cars so traffic should not become an issue.
7. Take an Uber or Lyft
Uber and Lyft have stated that they will offer discounted (or sometimes free) rides to evacuation centers during a natural disaster, however, both of the ride-sharing services require mobile phones to work. If phone lines are down, the services will be suspended. If you are considering to rely on an Uber or Lyft to take you to a shelter, make sure to evacuate early.
8. Shelter in place
Sheltering in place will be the last choice you have when all the other options have failed or are no longer available. Unfortunately, this was the last resort for a large number of people who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Prior planning is strongly advised so that those who choose to evacuate but are unable to on their own will not get left behind.
Resources for evacuating without a vehicle
1. Get government assistance
- 211: Two-one-one is a service that connects you to all types of resources, including assistance during times of natural disasters and emergencies. Much like a 911 call, when you dial 211, your call will be sent to a local dispatcher (depending on your phone’s area code, it might be best to dial from a landline phone). Call 211 or visit 211.org to have them connect you with the local services that can help you evacuate.
- Community Emergency Response Team (CERT): CERT trains citizens to become first responders during an emergency. Since preparedness is heavily emphasized by CERT, I recommend you contact your local chapter to connect with the members and find someone who lives near you that may be able to assist you during an evacuation. You can find your local CERT right here.
- Citizen Corps: Like CERT, Citizen Corps is a community of citizens that are trained in first aid, emergency preparedness practices, and disasters, both natural and man-made. Members of the Citizen Corps Council understand their responsibility in assisting those in need during crises. You should contact your local Council to see in which ways they may be able to help you during an evacuation. They might offer different services than CERT. You can find your local Citizen Corps Council right here.
- Local police department: If you’re unable to find assistance while voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders are being enforced, call your local non-emergency police phone number to have them connect you with a reliable service that can pick you up.
2. Seek advice from your health practicioner
If you have health or mobility limitations, ask your doctor for information on how you can find a service that will accommodate your needs during an evacuation. Certain buses are wheelchair accessible and some drivers are trained to help move people, but you have to find the appropriate services long before an emergency occurs.
3. Get insight from this evacuation guide
June Kailes, a Disability Policy Consultant, wrote this detailed guide on evacuation preparedness for people with disabilities and other mobility limitations. If this sounds helpful to you, you can check out her guide here.
Some important things to consider
1. Service animals
Service animals are increasingly being used to assist people with physical needs and mental health issues. Some shelters have strict policies pertaining to pets, service animals included. Make sure to include your animals in your evacuation plans, especially if you will require assistance.
2. Make your needs known
A huge concern for many cities is identifying the people who lack transportation and successfully evacuating them to a safe location during a disaster.
If you need assistance in evacuating, you should get familiar with your neighbors and find someone who may be able to incorporate you in their evacuation plan. Another good community resource is your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Citizen Corps implemented throughout the United States by FEMA.
3. Sign up for a special needs registry
A nationwide special needs registry is not currently available, but there might be one in your city! Since I couldn’t possibly look up every city across the United States, I recommend you Google the name of your city followed by “special needs registry”. Contact me if you’re struggling to find one and I’ll do my best to help you.
4. Locate a city evacuation assistance program
During Hurricane Katrina, many people had no choice but to shelter in place when evacuating was no longer possible due to the lack of transportation. As a result, hundreds of people lost their lives due to drowning and other weather-related illnesses.
Since Katrina, the city of New Orleans has established an evacuation assistance program called Evacuteer which provides transportation for residents who would otherwise not be able to evacuate by their own means. The city has established 17 “Evacuspots" throughout the city, where there are low-income communities and where the demand for public transportation is high. Although Evacuteer is specific to New Orleans, you may be able to find a similar type of assistance program that services your community.
5. Universal mobility as a service
AARP’s Jana Lynott has presented an App that allows people to find transportation based on a person’s specific needs (disabilities or mobility issues) and the current traffic data, ensuring that every person gets from point A to point B safely and quickly. This idea was presented in 2018, and while it’s unclear if there is any progress being made for the launching of this service, I believe we can expect to see some achievements like these in the future.
6. Determine how you will be returning home
Evacuating from your home is only half of the struggle- finding a way to return is something that also needs to be planned for. Once you have determined a couple of different solutions for your transportation needs to an evacuation center, determine whether those same services are able to bring you back once the threat of the disaster has passed.
7. Take only what you can carry
The heartbreaking thing about evacuating your dwelling place is that you can only take so much with you. If you have a car, you can fill it up with the necessary basics and then some. But if you have to rely on public transportation, an assistance program, or your legs to take you from point A to point B, then bringing only the essentials is vital.
You have to be able to carry everything you take with you at the time of the evacuation. Some of the essentials you should take are:
- Personal identification
- Important documents, such as the ones that have been specified here
- Food and water, including enough for your children and pets, if applicable
- One or two changes of clothes
- A personal hygiene kit, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, moist towelettes, etc
- A first aid kit similar to this one
- Medications and their prescriptions
- A flashlight and extra batteries
- A dust mask
- A local map
- Your phone and its charger
- A whistle. In case you need to call out for help, a whistle will hopefully be loud enough so someone can hear you.
- Playing cards or a book for entertainment
Depending on the forecasted emergency, an evacuation notice may take you by surprise or may give you ample time to get ready. In both cases, you should be ready to go with a backpack and at least the minimum supplies to get you to a safe evacuation zone.
While evacuating with a vehicle sounds ideal to the masses, it might not be the most effective mode of transportation. Even if you own a vehicle, you must always have a second (and third) back-up option in mind to get you and your family to safety.
If you don’t own a vehicle, I hope the suggestions and resources listed above were useful in finding a service or neighbor who will be able to assist you in a time of need. Every city is different in terms of what services are offered. If you have a location-specific question, I would love to help you find the resources available in your area. Send me a private message via the form on our Contact Us page or drop me a line in the comments below.
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