In November 2018, the terrified residents of Paradise, California tried to flee the rapidly approaching Camp Fire. Many of the 27,000 citizens took to their cars only to be stuck in a colossal traffic jam as the heat and flames drew near. At least seven people perished in their vehicles in the fire, which took 85 and left thousands homeless.
The problem of too few exit routes for too many people is not a problem unique to Paradise. According to a 2019 report by USA TODAY Network-California, some 350,000 Californians live in areas with high wildfire risk and have the same or fewer evacuation routes as Paradise.
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The story of Paradise is a harsh reminder of our need to know where to go and not to go during a major disaster. It also reveals the truth that crowds of people can put you in more danger than the emergency itself.
The year 2020 has thrown us wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, record-breaking heat, and an unusual storm called a derecho – not to mention a pandemic and civil unrest. It is hard not to wonder what’s next as we try to prepare for our families’ safety. What are some places to avoid when the proverbial SHTF? Here is our list.
1. Traffic Chokepoints
If you live in a location with only one bridge, road, or tunnel, you need to plan ahead. As panicked people flock to these bottlenecks, you could put yourself in danger. Pay attention to early warning signs so you can get out of the city fast, or think about whether you’d be safer if you stayed put. Have a well-stocked emergency kit in your vehicle at all times.
Here is what to include:
- Tire sealant, roadside flares, reflective tape, or safety triangles
- Jumper cables
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- First aid kit that includes pain relievers, bandages, adhesive tape, antibacterial wipes, and antibiotic cream
- Non-perishable food such as protein bars, granola bars, or trail mix
- Bottled water
- Emergency blankets, hand warmers, hats, and gloves
- Windshield scraper, snow shovel
- Rock salt or kitty litter for tire traction (or chains if you frequently drive in the mountains)
- Fire extinguisher
- Trash bags
- Tow strap or rope
- Duct tape
- Battery-operated or hand-crank radio
- Car escape tool
- Rain ponchos
- Paper maps
- Phone chargers
- Extra clothes and socks (diapers and baby wipes if you have an infant)
Here’s an even longer list of supplies to keep in your vehicle.
During a disaster, hospitals become overcrowded quickly. The staff will be overwhelmed, and you may put yourself at further risk of infection IF YOU wait there for treatment. Unless you have a life-and-death situation that you cannot possibly handle yourself, avoid the hospital until things calm down.
3. Grocery Stores
During the pandemic shut-downs, we have seen what panicked people do during even the hint of a crisis – they hoard food and household supplies. And they can get rude and unruly while doing it. Your best bet is to maintain a well-stocked emergency pantry that will tide you over until the crisis is over.
4. Gas Stations
When people want to flee an emergency situation by car, they will be desperate for a fill-up. Get in the habit of keeping your fuel tanks at least half full or more. Store extra fuel in gas containers at home and your bug out location.
5. Public Transportation
Depending on the type of emergency and your location, trains and buses may become some of the most unsafe places to be. You could become trapped in underground stations or hurt in the rush of a panicked crowd. Airports also will become chaotic when flights are canceled.
6. City Centers/Downtowns
We know that downtown can quickly become the centers of looting and violent behavior. If the disaster is an earthquake, then tall buildings, bridges, and the areas surrounding them will be unsafe. If the emergency is a terrorist attack, dense urban areas are often targeted first.
7. Shopping Malls
Be wary of indoor shopping malls, which can entice looters during a lengthy emergency. Besides, shopping malls are usually in some of the most crowded parts of town. You want to avoid the whole area if possible.
8. Sporting Goods Stores
Sporting goods stores, hardware stores, and other places that sell guns, ammunition, knives, baseball bats, tools, and other weapons could become very dangerous locations. These are items to keep at home so that you will not be unprepared when a crisis strikes.
“Prescription drug shortages are a major public health problem, and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has the potential to further precipitate critical shortages of essential medications,” according to a May 2020 report by The American College of Medical Toxicology.
Since having cash on hand is a good idea during a crisis, many people will head to their banks. If banks limit their hours or have to close entirely due to a power grid failure, they could become unsafe places. Always keep some cash on hand in a safe place at home for use during emergencies.
11. Large Gatherings
It may seem comforting to visit family and friends to draw strength from each other during a crisis. However, you can be more mobile and flexible to meet changing situations when your group is smaller.
Security measures likely will fail during a power grid failure. Keep your distance from prisons in your area and avoid driving near them during a crisis.
Now that you know the places to avoid when SHTF, here are some other emergency preparedness tips:
• Make sure your phone is set up to receive alerts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The organization has an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) that includes text messages. You can choose the types of alerts you receive and the devices you receive them on.
• Establish a family meeting spot. Ideally, you should pick four places to meet up if you get separated. They are an indoor spot (like the basement), a neighborhood spot everyone knows (like corner mailbox or a big tree), a regional place (your church or a neighbor’s house), and an out-of-town location (a relative’s home or a famous landmark).
• Make a communication plan. Write down emergency contact phone numbers, medical and insurance information for each family member, work and school addresses and phone numbers, planned meeting places, and an out-of-town relative’s name, phone number, and address.
• Complete emergency cards for everyone. An “in case of emergency” (or ICE) card lists important information like name, sex, blood type, prescriptions you take or any allergies you have, and emergency contact information. The AAA has a free template for these cards, which you should keep in your wallet and car glovebox.
• Fill bug out bags for each family member and tailored to their age and needs. A basic bug out bag includes bottled water, non-perishable snacks, flashlight, first aid kit, whistle, face covering, antibacterial wipes, trash bag, bandana, multi-tool, paper map, cash in small denominations, and cell phone charger. Add personal items, such as extra socks, t-shirt, toiletries, toys, games, or books.
• Prepare vital documents. Keep your essential records (birth certificates, passports, legal documents) in a safe place at home, but package them together in a zippered bag so that they are easy to grab in a hurry.
You can’t place it in a bag, but probably the best thing to take along with you during an emergency evacuation is your common sense. People make bad decisions when they panic. Keeping a level head will help keep you and your family safe.
Learn to trust your instincts about people and places. At the same time, plan for the worst, but wait to be surprised by the good in people. We’ve all seen plenty of the good and the bad in people during this turbulent year. But our country is filled with good people.
An op-ed in The New York Times last March drove home this point. Jon Mooallem, the writer of the article, “This Is How You Live When the World Falls Apart,” researched the aftermath of the devastating 9.2 earthquake that hit Alaska (and much of the Northwest) in 1964.
“You’d be forgiven for feeling pessimistic, for dismissing what happened in a small Alaskan city long ago as quaint, and far less possible in our society now,” writes Mooallem. “And yet: In the 56 years since the Great Alaska Earthquake, an entire field of sociology, disaster studies, blossomed around the Disaster Research Center, with sociologists parachuting into scores of other communities after natural disasters around the world, and it’s stunning to look back and recognize how much of the resilience, levelheadedness, kindness, and cooperation those sociologists saw in Anchorage turned out to be characteristic of disasters everywhere.”
Maybe, just maybe, we can still do that today.
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