Evacuation: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I hate evacuating.  A lot. Like I had trouble reading Mary Alice Monroe’s book “Summer Guests” because of evacuation memories.  (You should read it though.) Evacuation is, however, part of the basic price of living in this part of the world.  And every time I pack up and prepare to haul out of town, I am reminded of exactly how lucky I am.  

Let’s all agree managing evacuation logistics from Dewees Island is a first world, overprivileged problem. I know that there are plenty of people who live in harm’s way and can’t afford or manage to evacuate, like those in the Bahamas.  I cannot imagine what it must have been like to have that monster storm basically stand there for 36 hours. I can’t imagine the abject terror or the daunting thought of trying to rebuild after so much destruction. I am hoping I will have the resources to help those truly harmed by a storm that might miss us when we all come out on the other side. (For suggestions, scroll to the bottom of this post.) Even folks from Charleston county don’t have the luxury of hitting the road for another city because of financial constraints, transportation issues, or employment requirements.  So I am well aware that we are the lucky ones. My evacuation reluctance really comes down to the fact that I wouldn’t otherwise choose my cat as a traveling companion.

So back to my packing.  It’s a pain, mostly because I like to get the timing of things right, and mother nature certainly finds a way to remind us all that we’re not in control of much after all.  If we pack up too early and the storm switches direction, we’ll have had all this stuff that normally lives outside taking up residence in the living room, piled up in 5 foot stacks.  I keep trying to focus on the fact that this is a good chance to make some organizational changes. I keep trying to control the timeline. I’m not actually successful at either. Here’s my best advice for timing.

Stuff to do LONG before storm season:

  1. Make a list of places you might evacuate to.  We have not been to the same place twice for a variety of reasons.  Places where you have friends are great. However, I find traveling to a friend’s house with a cat a little trying.  Try to look at the LONG range forecast of the storm and don’t go that direction. (Easier said than done.)

    When this is the forecast, it gets hard to decide where to go…
  2. Know your re-entry plan.  If you’re a Dewees or IOP owner reading this, you’ll need to go to IOP city hall with proof of residency and get a sticker.  If there is some massive devastation, you’ll need it to get back past a security checkpoint on the bridges. Other islands and neighborhoods may have their own rules.
  3. Gather those all important documents in one place and back them up in the cloud or somewhere else.  Passports, marriage licenses, social security cards, birth certificates, vaccination records for people and pets, etc.  I have these in a plastic accordion file that I can grab and go. I have also left them behind more than once, so make a checklist.
  4. Back up your computer, your photographs, your documents, etc.  Think about using a laptop… I finally traded in my desk computer for a laptop and it was MUCH easier to evacuate this time.
  5. Verify your insurance.  Are you covered for wind and hail? Are you covered for flood? If you are evacuating a full-time residence, does your coverage provide loss of use? Are your golf carts and boats covered?  
  6. Get a carrier for your cat. I’ve left town while a brand new carrier was headed to me with two day shipping and the governor pulled the evacuation trigger before I was expecting it. If you don’t have pet ID tags, get these too. 

Stuff to do when it looks like a storm track is headed straight at you, even if it’s a week or two away:

  1. Anything above that you didn’t get to yet.
  2. Start eating up stuff in the fridge and freezer.
  3. Fill a mug, glass or cup and put it in the freezer. Eventually you’re going to stick a coin on there.
  4. Fill the gas tank in your car and keep it full.
  5. Clean off the porch furniture.  Mud daubers and spiders might have built little homes on the back of that wicker couch or porch swing.  I hate discovering these when they hatch or emerge from inside my family room when I’ve been out of town for a week. You want them to have time to dry before bringing inside, so give them a good once over. Do the same with decorative lanterns, pillows, etc.
  6. Prepare to board up. Locate and prepare your shutters (ditto the mud daubers and spiders) if you have them.  For a list of types people use on the Dewees Island, click here. If you have storm doors and windows, be sure the tracks are free of debris too.
  7. Laundry and dishes.  Trust me on this. You want to come home to clean sheets, and clean dishes. Even if you cleaned your porch furniture, your home will pretty much look like it’s been trashed by gremlins.  And if the water or power is not in service when you return, you’ll be glad of all that clean stuff.

When it looks like an evacuation is probable.

  1. Plan. Look at the storm track and decide where to go.  Every storm is different. Either get a paper map of the highways or take screenshots and put them on your tablet, phone, or laptop.  Waze might send you off the beaten path and sometimes there is no signal there. An actual map that does not rely on cellular or wifi data is a good idea. In addition, go to SCDOT and find out about a lane reversal~ it may be worth printing the list of exits from the reverse lanes.  Wifi or cellular coverage is by no means certain.
  2. Top off the gas tank.
  3. Download whatever apps will make your time a little better.  Besides the usual social media ones, think about SC511, an app with cameras along the highway so you can check the traffic in real time up ahead.  News2, WCBDWX, and Channel 4 storm tracker, so you can watch the local news from wherever you are.  (The weather channel is likely to stick a reporter down on Lockwood Blvd where there is always water at high tide and make everything seem too alarming.  Better to stick with those forecasters and anchors you trust!).
  4. Find the chargers for everything and plug them in: computer, camera, phones, batteries, chargers, etc.
  5. Begin to think about packing.  My kids are old enough to pack for themselves, but you’ll need to pack things in several categories:
    1. Stuff that can’t be left behind in case your house is destroyed (documents, back-up hard drives, family mementos, jewelry.)
    2. Stuff that you, your kids, or your pets absolutely need for either the journey or the destination: medicines, food, bowls, drinking water, leashes, entertainment, pillows, a blanket, snacks, battery chargers, books, etc.  Load up your content: e-books, videos, playlists, whatever. Plan on 3-5 times the normal travel time to your destination. During hurricane Floyd’s evacuation, it took some neighbors 18 hours to get to Columbia. If you end up in a reverse lane, exits are not open everywhere: only about every 10 miles or so.
    3. Stuff you’ll need wherever you are going.  I am a complete failure at this, by the way.  If you’re going to the mountains, take a fleece and a raincoat and hiking boots.  If you’re going to Florida, take swimsuits, sunscreen and a beach umbrella. My general strategy is to stuff a pile of clean laundry into the bag and hope for the best.  This has not actually worked out for me. Last week, my husband looked at me and said, “none of those things actually go together.” For him to notice at all should demonstrate that I was not wearing clothes from the same season, mood, and level of formality. 
    4. Did I mention snacks for the journey?  I try to take everything in my fridge and convert it to some sort of handheld snack: you might need it in the car.  Apples, cheese, chicken salad, hummus, and lemons all made the journey with us, as well as a huge bag of celery sticks.  I also throw a couple of beers in there. You know, just to keep the other stuff cold.
    5. Electronics: I have a huge camera bag that I fill with hard drives, camera, binoculars (I am hoping to go birding wherever I go) and every charging cable known to humankind.  My laptop and other “essential” work items go in too. I also stuff anything else in there that needs a little cushioning.
  6. Document. Be sure you have an insurance video that documents your stuff.  Your phone is fine; you’re not trying to get an academy award for this.
  7. Bake hurricane go-away cookies.  For more information on this warm, gooey, batch of home-cooked magic, click here.

I often find myself wandering aimlessly through the rooms, imagining that room as the one on tv, knee deep in muddy water, with the insulation hanging in shreds and the owner weeping over some heap of sodden goods. I ask myself if anything in that room sparks joy.  This is not the time to go all Marie Kondo~ first of all you don’t have the brain cells, and you don’t have time to think about, well, anything. Stop thinking and keep moving.

Hurricane Flags on the IOP connector. Photo credit Vannessa Carter

When an evacuation is ordered:

This is sort of when all hell breaks loose, and all of your actions from this point until you get to your destination will be hurricane related.  And even though you have been watching the hurricane predictions non-stop, and you know to tune into the governor’s press conference, the evacuation order will take you by surprise.  Every time.

  1. Secure your home.  Bring in anything that can become a projectile in a storm: outdoor furniture, grills, plants, cushions, birdfeeders, hoses, etc.  Tie down things that can’t come in. Put up or roll down shutters, lock windows and doors to keep them from blowing open. If you have a spot you know has leaked before, put something absorbent there.  (We ordered these but they didn’t arrive in time, so we’re prepared for next time.)
  2. Pack for your pets: you started this before, but make sure you have a litter box, scoop, poop bags, bowls, food, toys, leashes, drinking water, beds, treats, some garbage bags, and some nature’s miracle and some paper towels.  I seriously considered bringing a dustbuster this time and wished I had one in the hotel. Be sure they have collars with your contact info. I even read an article that suggested writing your name and number with a sharpie RIGHT on the dog or cat so if they somehow escape your control, someone can find you. Before your cat figures out what is going on, stuff him in the carrier.  Be aware that feeding your dog the leftover cat food on the counter can have gaseous results that can make the teens in the backseat literally cry. Do it anyway.
  3. FOOD. Pack your cooler; fill water bottles for the journey. There will be stores and restaurants where you are going, but you might be in the car for a long time.
  4. WATER: be sure all faucets are off.  Fill the tub with water to use for flushing toilets when you come back. We have some old camping equipment that we can use for water as well. Fill a bunch of jugs/pitchers/bottles with drinking water.  Some of your drinking water can go in the fridge to help keep it cold if the power goes out. Don’t buy water now: In the amount of time it takes you to go to the store and get some you could have filled every drinking glass in your house and put it in the fridge. Some can go into re-used juice cartons or water bottles and put into the freezer; again it can help keep other items in there cold and you can drink it when it thaws. (Don’t get me started on the garbage issue with purchased water.) While you’re back in the freezer, stick a quarter or other coin on that cup of frozen water from before. (This is a low tech hack to let you know if the food in the freezer is safe to eat when you get back.  If the coin has migrated to the bottom of the cup, your food has probably thawed to the unsafe level.) Some of these are great jobs for a kid. One of the last things you’ll do is turn your water off.  
  5. Unplug anything non-essential that can be affected by a surge.  So basically everything. We leave our wifi running with some backyard cameras, and we know we’re taking a risk. 
  6. If you’re on Dewees, you will need to get your golf carts to high ground.  We usually put at least one over on the helicopter area and the rest are under our house.  We don’t leave these plugged in. Use the shuttle cart system to get your stuff to the ferry so you can get a ride to the other side. You may find sending packed things over to the parking lot now somewhat helpful.
  7. Secure any boats.  If they’re on Dewees, you’ll need to get them off.  If they are on a trailer downtown, it will take you several hours to get it securely under cover, during which time your wife may decide to provide shuttle service for everyone else catching the ferry while serving iced coffees with bourbon to make the morning go more smoothly, because she doesn’t want to make the cat stay in a crate in the car in 96 degree weather. Just sayin’.
  8. Take a shower.  It’s like 100% humidity and hot and buggy out.  You’re probably covered by dirt, bug spray, stains, and coffee (see above.) If you’re going to be in your car for 11 hours, you’ll be glad you took this extra step. Your passengers will too.
  9. Turn off propane or gas to the house; secure tanks. Flip your water to off.  Turn off circuit breakers to anything unnecessary. 
  10. Be sure to know when the last ferries are leaving and catch one of them.  Keep your pets on a tight leash; there might be a bunch of other animals on there. One time I was on the ferry with eight pets and their already exhausted owners: a lizard, a fish, three dogs, and three cats.  Also some toddlers, so that was fun. Bring a heavy dose of patience.
  11. Move the cars you are not using for evacuation to higher ground.  I know fellow owners who have left cars at the Mount Pleasant shopping area, friends houses, parking garages, etc.  The news will have a list of parking areas where you can park for free.
  12. Get on the road. To get to the reverse lanes on I26, take 526 to the eastbound Charleston exit and it will put you on the outbound (normally inbound) lanes.

While gone:

Dewees owners stay in touch with each other with our private facebook group, but even if you’re not an owner, we usually set up webcams from our back porch you can view them on this blog.  It’s a little weird to try to enjoy your hurrication, but you have to disconnect from the news in order to stay sane.  We’ve had some great times in Knoxville with Dewees friends, surfing Cocoa Beach, visiting friends in Spartanburg, and scoring free tickets for evacuees to the Atlanta Braves games.  We watch the storm closely, and are usually headed back as soon as we know we can get all the way here.

Thinking about helping those ravaged by hurricanes?  We’ve written about Water Mission on this blog, and the founders of that company have strong ties to the Bahamas. You can see more about them or donate here. 

Currently every dollar going to the Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian is being matched.