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Storm Evacuations – Where to Go, How to Go


This weekend’s weather headlines remind us of the reality and occasional need for storm evacuations.  Evacuations in coastal locations due to life-threatening hurricanes, as seen in Texas late this week during the approach of Hurricane Harvey, affect the most people.  More frequent, but usually affecting fewer people, are evacuations in rugged forested areas where the threat of wildfires is increasing.  The need for evacuation, however, can arise anywhere.  In many areas of the Plains and Midwest, flooding would be the weather hazard most likely to necessitate evacuations.   In any location, man-made hazards such as chemical spills or power plant accidents can also cause the need to flee.


Individual Households Decide

Even when not recommended by local officials, individual households may decide to find temporary refuge based on their circumstances.  When facing a wind-driven snowstorm (sure to drift our road shut) on the heels of a significant ice storm, I left our rural home with my family — including two infant sons — on Christmas Eve 2009 for a warm and well-lit hotel room in town.  In less dramatic weather, some might even choose to leave home for a few days’ visit to relatives to escape unpleasant hot or rainy spells.  On a longer time scale, some escape the Northland for warm-weather climates during entire seasons.  Ultimately, we may see people relocating permanently due to the perception of changing climate patterns.


Very Short Lead Time

One challenge of an evacuation is the very short lead time.  We seldom can foresee the need to escape very far in advance.  Yes, it is true that certain seasons of the year bring more risk and are named accordingly (such as hurricane season, wildfire season).   With most locations going many years (even decades) between events of this magnitude, the high-impact events always seem to come as a surprise.  A significant question when escaping from hazardous weather….how long you are likely to be away, and what will be left upon your return.  Some mega-storms can literally sweep away entire neighborhoods, while other hazards to life or comfort would not highly impact the property left behind. Another important question is whether your belongings are organized for a quick escape.  Do you know what to take, and are you able to find and organize those items quickly?  If there is a certain level of preparedness built into our lifestyle, an evacuation could become a lot less stressful, and might even take on the nature of a mini-vacation for our family and loved ones.


Direction of Escape – Do Not Follow the Crowd

Another key when evacuating is the direction of escape.  When getting away from a hazardous situation, do not follow the crowd when many people are making similar choices.  In advance of Hurricane Ike in 2008, throngs of Houston residents escaped in the direction of Dallas on Interstate 45.  In this situation, a faster escape route may have been to initially travel parallel to the coast, and then later turn inland toward less congested havens.  Knowing where and when the greatest numbers of people will be trying to go, we can seek a better way — either by varying our destination or the timing of our departure.


Getting Better Results

Sometimes, “thinking outside the box” means getting better results.  Most residents of New Orleans relaxed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina weakened some before landfall, and were further put at ease when initial breaks in levees appeared manageable.  During the same storm, others along the Mississippi Gulf Coast complacently remained in coastal residences.  Though the strongest winds missed those folks, a catastrophic storm surge swept away buildings, costing many lives.  We always do well to ask ourselves what is unique about an event, and what unexpected things may result.  For example, one unique aspect of Hurricane Harvey — for which many had not prepared – will be the unprecedented flooding of coastal communities.  The prolonged storm surge has worked to block floodwaters from inland rivers reaching the Gulf of Mexico.  When offering a prayer for those affected we would do well to ask inspiration to plan for our own big storms.

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