Why You Can’t Plan on Remaining at Home

No matter how good your preparations, there will still be times you cannot stay in your home. You might need to evacuate before a disaster – either making a run for it when fire is coming or flood waters are raging, or a more “leisurely” evacuation in advance of approaching disaster, such as a hurricane or distant tsunami. On the scale of things, leaving for an evacuation isn’t too bad – providing you have a house when you return! It becomes more difficult when you are unable to stay in your home after a disaster. Your home may be damaged or destroyed, you may be afraid to stay indoors (aftershocks make the great outdoors seem pretty attractive), you may be caught away from home, or you may not be ready to cope with loss of power, water, or supplies. In these circumstances, you need to find shelter elsewhere.


Evacuation traffic from Hurricane Rita. Photo by Ashish.

Evacuation traffic from Hurricane Rita. Photo by Ashish.

We All Need Somebody

Where you shelter depends on many factors, including timing, transportation, money, social network and your need to remain near-by for employment or schools. Staying with friends or family is definitely the best solution when possible. People are often willing to help those they know in a disaster situation – as long as you don’t stay too long, are willing to sleep on the couch or floor, and maybe contribute a few bucks towards food. They might even put up with your pets. Don’t waste precious time in the midst of evacuation by hunting through contacts for a good address. Make a list of possible “friends” in advance, based upon their location and your knowledge of local hazards – don’t choose people likely to be affected by the same disaster as you.

Motels are good options, providing they are outside the affected area, you can afford them, and are quick to reserve – beds within a reasonable distance are often limited. Many hotels allow pets in a disaster setting, but check this and make a list in advance. You may need to pay in cash if credit machines are not working – one reason for always having cash on hand.

For both motel and friend scenarios, you probably need a car with plenty of gas. After an evacuation announcement, everyone descends on gas stations. You have better things to do in the few minutes or hours before evacuation than wait in a long line of cars. Always keep your tank at least half full!

Camping isn’t Just For Vacations

If you can’t live in your house because of damage, consider camping in your yard (if you have one) – my preferred plan. Although this requires advance accumulation of gear, advantages include possible access to your emergency stores, convenience for home recovery, and a known location for those trying to find you. You will avoid crowds and unpleasant conditions at shelters or group camping areas. A camping plan won’t work in atrocious weather, but in the summer, think of it as a recreational adventure. It also won’t work if you don’t have a yard (duh!), the gear (jerry-rigging a tarp shelter is rarely worth it), your place is far away from disaster assistance, or if you have specialized needs.

Introduction to Shelters

Thousands of hurricane Katrina survivors from New Orleans are bussed to refuge at a Red Cross shelter in the Houston Astrodome.

Thousands of hurricane Katrina survivors from New Orleans are bussed to refuge at a Red Cross shelter in the Houston Astrodome.

Then there are shelters – the mainstay for people unable to stay at home. The Red Cross, the government, and voluntary (often faith-based) organizations all run shelters, located anywhere from churches to schools to giant sports facilities. Many locations are predetermined, but not publicized – agencies don’t want people showing up at a shelter site until open and ready for business (up to 5 days for larger Red Cross shelters). Shelter types include emergency evacuation shelters (3 days or less), short-term shelters (up to 2 weeks), and long-term or mass shelters, when alternative temporary shelter cannot be found. The longer you stay, the greater the resources and amount of space per person they’ll try to provide. There are even “refuges of last resort”, such as the Superdome in Hurricane Katrina, where  20,000 refugees crowded together for shelter. Refuge spots give some protection from the elements, but are not designed to meet needs such as sanitation, safety, or supplies. Avoid them if at all possible.

During an evacuation, and after a disaster, check radio, TV, internet, and even social media (if available) for shelter information. The Red Cross has a Find A Shelter website . You can also search for open shelters by texting SHELTER and a Zip Code to 43362 (4FEMA) – for example, text “Shelter 97302”. Some cities have you report to evacuation centers, and then assign you to a shelter (attempting to keep populations evenly distributed).

Shelter Guidelines

Every disaster in the United States teaches us more about providing temporary shelter for tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of people. As a result, there are good shelter guidelines out there. The problem is getting guidelines actually implemented in a disaster situation, when reality overwhelms ideal.

Cot City in preparation for opening a shelter - can you tell how much has to be prepared before people arrive? Photo by Linda Bisset

Cot City in preparation for opening a shelter – can you tell how much has to be prepared before people arrive? Photo by Linda Bisset

In an ideal world, a shelter should have separate sleeping areas for single men, single women, and families (including an arrangement that puts children in the center of the family area, providing the greatest protection). Short term shelter guidelines suggest 40 feet per person (a 5×8 foot space), with one toilet and sink for 20 people and one shower for 48 people. You might get more, you might get less. Shelters offer 2 meals a day and snacks (food items in sleeping areas might be outlawed to prevent pests). There must be power, by generator if necessary, and adequate heat and air conditioning. There are rules of conduct for shelter residents, with controlled access in and out to help with safety. Pet shelters are required at the same site or near-by. For longer term shelter, child-care and recreational activities are recommended.

Shelters serve as a source of information for residents, with posted information on disaster relief, and regular shelter meetings and updates. The shelter registration process helps reunite families. Ideally, mental and physical health care is available on site. Shelters should meet accessibility criteria for persons with disabilities or functional needs.

The Real Shelter Experience

It all sounds pretty good on paper, and sometime it works in real-life. However, realize that in the best circumstances, you still live in a giant room with potentially hundreds of people. Your personal space consists of a cot (if you are lucky – sometimes you just get a mat), with an extra 1 ½ feet at the end of the cot and 3 feet next to the cot. Hygiene is difficult to keep up, and outbreaks of influenza and norovirus are common. Ventilation and temperature control are adequate for safety, but not necessarily comfortable. There is little to do other than talk or read a book – no wasting generator power on TVs and video games.

A Red Cross volunteer multi-tasks. Remember that almost everyone involved in a shelter is a volunteer - BE NICE! Photo by Ozarks Red Cross.

A Red Cross volunteer multi-tasks. Remember that almost everyone involved in a shelter is a volunteer – BE NICE! Photo by Ozarks Red Cross.

In a large disaster, shelters pop up all over, and are not necessarily planned in advance, nor well-managed. The Red Cross has a long-standing contract with the government to provide shelters, including strict management rules. However, Red Cross shelters are usually very large and they struggle with newer guidelines, particularly functional needs access and providing for pets. There is minimal official oversight of shelters, other than initial public health inspection – like everything in disasters, there are simply not enough staff to go around. Health care in shelters depends largely on volunteer groups like the Medical Reserve Corps, and is by no means guaranteed. Plans for medically fragile patients requiring shelter are often non-existent.

Shelters are a Last Resort

I like to think of shelter care as a necessary evil (sorry, Red Cross). There is no other solution to massive numbers of displaced or homeless people after a disaster. However, I highly recommend advance planning to reduce the chances that you personally will need shelter – preparedness goes a long way. Look at your home environment now and figure out how to stay there without power or water, and with minimal support. With adequate problem solving, hopefully you will only have to leave your home for evacuation or if it is structurally damaged or unsafe. Next find all other options for temporary shelter such as family, friends, and motels. Consider whether camping in your yard is feasible if your house is damaged. Your plans for living indoors without food and water might translate to outdoor living with proper gear.

If you must use an emergency shelter because there is no other safe environment, come prepared. Bring blankets, medicines, extra clothes, toiletries, and other small personal or recreational items (that’s what go-bags are for). Even basics in shelters can be hard to come by (at least until donations start rolling in). If you bring your own, you won’t have to worry. Leave large objects and valuables at home – they’re safer there than in a shelter.

Be a good shelter citizen. Keep your area clean, and volunteer for shelter chores. Be a leader for other shelter residents, encouraging neatness, participation and tolerance of shelter difficulties. Visit disaster assistance resources, keep looking for alternative shelter, and start your own home recovery process as soon as safe. Hopefully I won’t see you there!

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

  1. Marc Nishimoto says:

    Nice article Sheila. The picture of the traffic evacuation from Rita reminded me of cars running out of fuel during a major snow storm in Seattle a couple of decades ago. In these cases, I would see the tank as half-empty rather than half-full.

    • disasterdoc says:

      I worry about that – how far does half a tank of gas really get you? One hopes it is enough to reach another location with less demand and crowds. But what if you end up running out of gas in a worse location than your initial spot (particularly if you spend a lot of time idling in evacuation traffic)? I guess if nothing else, you need to be prepared to shelter in your car (a topic I specifically chose to ignore in the blog post!).

  2. Great article Sheila! You really covered many of the essentials regarding shelters.

    • disasterdoc says:

      Thank you – it’s always hard to find the right balance of good and bad news. Official shelters are unfortunately necessary. I am currently spending a fair amount of my time looking at ways to improve health care in shelters, as that is a huge issue. At the same time, I really just want people not to end up there at all. Talk about a dichotomy!

  3. rhon64 says:

    Shelters good for disasters….bad for homeless who gotta work….been through 3 jobs so far. Failed due to the junkies allowed full run of the shelter….no more shelter for me it’s ruining my work rep!

    • disasterdoc says:

      I’m sure shelters are not great for anyone, disaster or not. Agencies that run homeless shelters are often separate from those who run evacuation or disaster shelters. There are different goals, different rules, a different group of people, and different funding for homeless shelters, so it’s not surprising that they act differently. Homelessness in general in our society is a huge problem. It worsens in emergencies. For example, the homeless also end up in disaster shelters, and it can be very difficult to find a way for them to move on. Disaster assistance focuses more on those trying to return to their homes than it does on people on the fringe of society even before the disaster.

      I’m glad you’ve found an alternative that allows you to live and work! I’ll knock on wood for you that it continues!

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