How to safely shelter in place if you ran out of time to evacuate before severe weather strikes
By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
In the event of an impending emergency, especially natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and wildfires, those facing a direct threat will have to weigh the options of evacuating to a safer location versus sheltering in place.
Experts strongly recommend leaving the area if possible, especially if ordered to do so.
“Generally speaking, with hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, emergency officials will announce whether evacuations are voluntary or mandatory,” said American Red Cross National Spokesperson Vicki Eichstaedt.
“If emergency officials tell you that evacuation is mandatory, you need to listen to that advice and use every available means to evacuate,” Eichstaedt told AccuWeather. “That is absolutely the safest thing that is in your best interest.”
If severe weather is expected and a person or family has the time and resources to evacuate, they’re urged to leave as soon as possible, said Jack Plaxe, a security, crisis and risk management expert.
“Take your emergency go kit and evacuate far out of the path of the storm so that you aren’t impacted by high winds, rain, flooding [or other dangerous conditions],” Plaxe said.
However, there may be times when emergency management officials may advise people to seek shelter where they are. There are also cases of people choosing to ignore mandatory evacuation orders for a variety of reasons.
“If you don’t have time to get out, sheltering in place is probably the best option,” Plaxe said.
In general, sheltering in place is appropriate when conditions require that people seek immediate protection in their home, workplace, school or other location when disaster strikes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Tips for safely sheltering in place
For areas prone to wildfires, some homes are built as part of shelter-in-place communities, which means that all homes in the area were built to certain standards that greatly increase the structure's chances of surviving a wildfire, according to California's Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.
Officials still recommend leaving these communities if a mandatory evacuation order of these areas is in place. However, it may be safer to shelter in place in these communities if residents are unable to evacuate due to hazardous conditions.
For those that shelter in place in hurricane- or flood-prone areas, the safest location is the most interior area of a building, surrounded by walls and not windows, experts advise.
“Glass on most homes will break pretty quickly even if the storms aren’t all that bad, because they can throw around projectiles – anything that’s outside laying around like tree branches that have been broken off or yard furniture,” said Sarah Custer, emergency management director for Clemson University.
Areas like bathrooms or closets are typically the best options for sheltering inside a home for avoiding flying debris, which is a major source of injuries during a hurricane, according to Custer.
People should also head to the highest level of a building, especially in coastal areas, according to the American Red Cross. “We recommend that because of storm surge and flash river flooding,” Eichstaedt said.
However, people living in high-rise buildings should be aware that hurricane-force winds are stronger at higher elevations or floors, according to FEMA.
Ensuring that you’re equipped with enough supplies to last a while is essential, Eichstaedt noted, as it may take some time before rescuers are able to reach you, especially in areas inundated with floodwaters.
She recommended having three gallons of water per person per day, along with nonperishable food, any necessary medications and food supplies for pets.
“Make sure that you have any durable medical equipment that is required for anyone in your home who has special needs,” Eichstaedt said, warning that for people with special needs that involve electricity, it’s very likely that the power will go out during severe weather.
“If you have a generator, it is important that you use the generator outside only and use it only to power only the very necessary items in your home,” she said.
Evacuation checklist: How to get your family out safely in the face of an imminent disaster
Know your zones and routes: How to leave home safely if a hurricane prompts a mandatory evacuation order
Why you should evacuate ahead of a hurricane
Are you prepared for a wildfire evacuation?
3 long-term health dangers that flooding can pose to affected communities
For hurricanes, experts strongly advise against venturing outdoors during the eye of the storm. “It’s important to not go outside when you think that everything is better,” Custer said. “Listen to your NOAA weather radio or your local radio station, and wait for emergency authorities to give the okay that it’s all clear.”
If you decide to go outside after the worst of the event has passed, experts caution against walking or driving through standing water, as dangers could be lurking beneath the surface.
“There could be downed power lines buried in the floodwaters, animals and all kinds of serious hazards in standing water,” Eichstaedt said.
“Basically, we’re asking people to let emergency officials to do their own work,” she said. “Stay in your home until you’re told that it’s safe to venture out.”
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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