Some might consider an evacuation a “bug-out” situation. Personally, I consider a "bug-out" as leaving without an intent to return, at least not for a while. I think the most likely "bug out" would be assuming a breakdown in society, where you want to leave before things get bad, or before bad becomes worse.
While an earthquake or other serious emergency could potentially lead to such a break down in society, the evacuation to be discussed is assuming you will be able to return to your home when it is safe to do so. In other words, the evacuation is expected to be temporary.
For me, I generally consider a bug-out as completely voluntary (meaning the government is not going to tell you to “bug out”) where an evacuation is usually advised or mandated by the local government, emergency management, or law enforcement.
Evacuation - Best On Your Terms
If an evacuation is expected, it is much better for you and your family to evacuate when, and to where, you choose. Being forced to evacuate quickly limits what supplies you can take. Being required to evacuate to a specified location also limits what resources you can bring, what you can do, and it subjects you and your family to the requirements of the evacuation facility.
As for the evacuation, it’s much better to be prepared to leave and go where you can be more comfortable. This is also an important consideration if you have pets you don’t want to end up at an animal shelter.
You should also be aware that most emergency or evacuation shelters/centers/facilities do not allow pets. This is for the health and safety of those in the shelter as well as for the animal. Pets brought to the center are usually taken to a designated animal shelter.
Evacuations are not my first choice of action, unless there is a clear threat that endangers life by remaining in place.
If an evacuation is recommended or ordered, it’s best to leave as quickly as possible. Delays in leaving will make it more difficult to leave as roads will get more crowded. Few communities have good evacuation plans, and, in most places, evacuations can become messy, chaotic, and are poorly managed and coordinated. The last thing I want is to be stuck on a road for hours (or days) trying to evacuate to safety.
If there is a very real threat, and I have ample notice, I would want to leave as quickly as possible. The longer the delay in leaving, the harder it will become to actually evacuate. This is where advance preparation and planning is vital.
There are two general categories of evacuation: voluntary and mandatory. These are exactly as the names imply. There may be more "official" names, but I find these more descriptive and useful.
Under a voluntary evacuation, residents are advised to evacuate, but there is no legal requirement to do so. You need to evaluate your own condition, preparedness, and other factors to determine if evacuating is the better option.
If you need to evacuate, this is the preferred way as you can usually leave when you want to, though it's best to not wait especially if you think it might become a mandatory evacuation.
A mandatory evacuation means you are required to evacuate. Whether or not you choose to do so is still your choice. While law enforcement could become involved, the reality is lives are at risk by staying and there probably won’t be any help if the situation worsens. The safety of you and those in your care should be your primary goal. This is ultimately the reason for being prepared, to get you safely through an unexpected situation.
In recent years officials have become more cautious about issuing mandatory evacuations, except for specific locations that are immediately threatened by an emergency or disaster situation. The logistics and time it takes to evacuate a large population can actually endanger more people than allowing those not in the area of immediate threat to shelter-in-place. Issuing a recommended, or advised, evacuation notice to the surrounding areas that may be threatened provides a warning but leaves the choice up to those in the area.
Your preparation planning should identify evacuation options, including primary and alternative routes leaving the area, and where you will be evacuating to. Ideally, you’ll have another place you can go to, such as a relative or friends home a few hours from the danger zone.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuations can further be categorized as either a rapid (emergency) or noticed evacuation.
Under a rapid evacuation you are basically told to leave, and to leave now. Maybe winds shifted and a wildfire is suddenly consuming your neighbor’s house and threatening yours. Maybe a dam broke and the flood is on its way. Rapid evacuations are usually mandatory as there is substantial threat of injury or death.
I read a very direct warning to evacuate that occurred when Hurricane Harvey was threatening one area in Texas. KSBW-8 reported emergency management officials in Tyler County, in east Texas, warning of “imminent and deadly flooding” and “residents near the area must evacuate immediately” (East Texas county tells residents 'GET OUT OR DIE!'). Tyler County Judge Jacques Blanchette reportedly wrote on a Facebook post:
"Anyone who chooses to not heed this directive cannot expect to be rescued and should write their social security numbers in permanent marker on their arm so their bodies can be identified. The loss of life and property is certain. GET OUT OR DIE!"
There have also been some emergency situations where residents were not ordered to leave, but they just had to understand and accept they were on their own and emergency assistance would not be immediately available.
Rapid evacuations can also be self-initiated, meaning you decide to evacuate without any official mandate or recommendation. Maybe you believe a situation is going to break down and you want to leave before things get worse.
What I called a “noticed” evacuation is when you are given notice to evacuate, usually a time frame during which it is recommended that you evacuate. Often these are voluntary evacuations. Noticed evacuations may have a short-time, as in you have two hours to leave before the wildfire reaches your home. Or, they can be over a longer time frame, as in the case of a hurricane threatening to come on shore in the next two days.
In the case of a hurricane, it will be monitored for several days and residents in the path are usually given an evacuation notice. These evacuations often begin as voluntary, but as the threat and risks increase the evacuation may become mandatory, particularly for those in the direct path of danger.
Your best line of defense is to be ready to take advantage of a noticed evacuation, so you can take as much as you can with you.
Unfortunately, an earthquake usually doesn’t give you much notice. Normally it just shows up uninvited and unexpected. As a result, if you need to evacuate—due to your home not being safe or an earthquake induced hazard threatening your safety—you will probably have little advance notice. Most likely it’ll be a grab and go situation. Just hope you can take your vehicle so you can take more than just the basic kit with you.
Evacuation and Earthquakes
Unlike many disasters—such as hurricanes, wildfires, or a lava flow—earthquakes rarely provide any kind of warning they are coming. This is probably why so many people seem to be really fearful of earthquakes.
Here’s the additional reality, which I mention in other places in this book: Most people survive an earthquake. And, unless you live or work in an older building (pre-1980) or happen to be near the epicenter of an earthquake, it’s not likely the building will collapse on you. The biggest immediate hazard during an earthquake is an unsecured object falling on you. This is why you need to take cover when the earth shakes.
If you’re fortunate to live in an area that uses an early warning system and/or app (like those mentioned here), you might get as much as 30 or 45 seconds before the real shaking starts. That’s enough time to make sure you and your loved ones are in a safe place, and maybe turn off the stove. You may even have time to exit an older building to get to a safe location. But it’s not likely enough time to actually evacuate, unless you are completely ready to grab your pack and leave, although you may still want to find a safe place to take cover when the shaking starts.
The real evacuation, if needed, is after the tremor stops. If there is any doubt in the safety of the building you are in, you need to leave as quickly, and safely, as possible.
It may be that the earthquake has caused other hazards that threaten your location.
Your best plan for an evacuation after an earthquake is a rapid one.
A Comment About Government Camps and Shelters
Some people figure they will just go to a FEMA camp or emergency shelter in the event of an emergency. Most who end up at these shelters do so because they don’t have food. For some it’s lack of water or being unprepared for the emergency, but for most hunger drives them to the shelter.
If at all possible, you should not be so unprepared to the point that you (or your family) needs to go to one of these shelters. This is not because they’re necessarily a bad place. Many of the volunteers who help do a fantastic job.
The problem is the government is not really well prepared to handle a large number of people in an emergency. That has been evident in the aftermath of previous massive disasters, one of the worst examples being the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. In the case of the Superdome, it became a trap that was poorly prepared to handle the scope of the disaster and large number of people, including the ill and injured.
The reality is these camps and shelters need to be highly controlled due to amount of people. Even with control, there will still be some crime within the confines of the camp. Additionally, being in close proximity to hundreds of others also increases the chances of the spread of disease. Imagine being stuck in a camp or shelter while attempting to maintain social distance and wearing masks...not something I want to do.
And, this was mentioned earlier, if you happen to have pets, they will not be allowed in the camp or shelter.
You and your family will be much better off if you are prepared for the emergency, disaster, or catastrophe by having food, water, shelter, supplies, and a plan.
If you need to evacuate, you need to do so as quickly as you can and, ideally, to a place of your choosing.
Getting Prepared to Evacuate
On getting prepared for a possible evacuation, my advice is to have different levels of evacuation preparedness.
The first thing to be aware of is you may be able to evacuate by vehicle. But what if you can't? Or what if the road becomes impassable?
Is the evacuation on foot? Or could you evacuate on bikes?
The first, most basic, level of evacuation preparedness is having the 96-hour pack ready to go for you and all those in your care. Then you can grab and go with minimal notice. The packs can be carried or tossed into a vehicle.
From this level you can add additional packs, bags, or bins that extend the usefulness of your 96-hour packs.
If you have bikes, a rack (or several) could be used to strap packs and items to.
For vehicle evacuation you can add more items.
Having expanded kits/bags/packs/bins already prepared and ready to go means in a rapid vehicle evacuation you can quickly throw in your 96-hour packs plus the expanded items. If you still have some time, you might consider other items that could make your evacuation more comfortable, like a sleeping pad, tent (if you'll possibly be outside), and more food and water.
Additionally, know the alternate routes/roads you can take. Most people stick with what they're familiar with and those may not be the fastest ways out. Also, be aware of where bridges and overpasses are. In an earthquake these may become damaged or destroyed.