Evacuating for a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado, or other major event, is no one’s definition of a fun time. Congested freeways, cramped shelters, and spotty news reports can elevate anyone’s stress level. Add a few children to your evacuation plans, and you have the makings for a major headache.
In truth, evacuations, especially those involving children, don’t have to be stressful events. The fact is that you can turn any evacuation situation into a wonderful adventure, or even a peaceful retreat. The key is your level of preparation, flexibility, and common sense.
Realize that making an evacuation less traumatic for kids involves three key phases: the pre-evacuation, the actual evacuation, and the return home. The following strategies will help you through each one.
- During this phase, “preparation” is the key word.
Before the possibility of evacuating even exists, everyone, including children, should have their disaster go-bag packed and ready. This bag needs to have the following:
- Three days of clothing, including underwear or diapers for infants
- Three days of energy bars or shelf-stable packaged food items, or baby food or formula for infants
- Three days of water
- One week’s toiletries, including toothbrush, hairbrush, toothpaste, and toilet paper
- Two-week’s worth of medications
- A USB flash drive containing medical records and a document inventory device
- One roll of quarters (for pay phones, which are self-powered)
- Photos of each family member
- List of each family member with age and contact telephone numbers (cell phone)
- List of two local and two out-of-state family members, friends, or relatives with addresses and phone numbers
- A favorite toy for children
- Anything else that person might need to sustain for three days.
- Preparation means practice.
Additionally, preparation involves knowing the evacuation routes and having practiced them so you don’t get lost. The more time you spend preparing for an impending disaster, the smoother your evacuation will go.
The Actual Evacuation
- During this phase, “consistency” is the key word.
As any parent knows, the first rule of parenting is that consistency is best. Unfortunately, during a disaster, the only constant is chaos. Therefore, the next closest thing to consistency is something familiar to the child. Since your children already packed their go-bag, they’re familiar with it. As a family, you’ve also practiced your evacuation route, so that’s familiar too. Let your kids participate in giving directions as you drive, as that makes them part of the adventure.
- Know where to go.
One way to greatly reduce the stress of evacuation is to have a solid destination. If it’s a short notice evacuation or if there’s a reason why you need to stay close to home, your local shelter may be your best option. But if you have the time and the resources to go further, pick a real destination. For example, if you know a hurricane is heading your way, leave a day early and go someplace fun. You could go to a theme park in another state, or you could drive up the coast to a beachfront resort or go inland to a mountain lodge. Now you’ve taken a stressor and made it a time of fun and relaxation. You’ve turned the situation into a vacation rather than an evacuation.
- Bring some elements of home.
Since most people who do evacuate do so in the family car, make sure you grab a few more items of familiarity for your kids: a blanket, a pillow, a stuffed animal, a video game, etc. Choose something that will make life a little easier for your children. One great way to add an element of familiarity is to bring your children’s school books. Even though most kids don’t like to admit it, school is a point of comfort. It’s a constant. It always starts and ends at the same time every day. They do the same routine every day. They see the same people every day. During a disaster, you’ve removed the place and the people that are familiar, but you can maintain some consistency through activities. Besides, if you go to a shelter, what else do you have to do with your time? Helping your kids with school work is a great way to bond and keep the disaster from overwhelming the children.
Taking it a step further, since shelters are set up regionally, the other kids in the shelter will be from your children’s school district, meaning they would use the same text books and be on the same lesson plans. You could gather some kids in similar age groups and form a sort of home school environment, where the kids stay on top of their lessons and have as little disruption from school as possible. Chances are you’ll have a few parents who already home school at the shelter, and maybe even a teacher or school administrator who can help.
The Return Home
- During this phase, “safety” is the key word.
Whether you’ve gone to a destination or to a shelter, you have to plan for the recovery and return home. Just because officials have said it’s okay to return home, you have to consider whether it’s safe to bring children into the environment. Children often don’t understand that all of the “cool” things that have fallen, like power lines and rooftops, are not safe to touch when they hit the ground. Even older kids may believe what they see in the movies—that it’s okay to touch fallen power lines with a stick and to climb upon crumbled debris.
- Keep injuries from occurring.
Remember that children are not small adults. They don’t have our strength and they are not part of a work crew. While two or three generations ago children worked hard on farms, most kids today do not work hard. They live in air conditioned homes, ride in air conditioned cars, and go to air conditioned schools. Even if they are involved in sports, they may work hard two or three hours a day at most.
Therefore, to expect children to then start clearing the yard of debris for eight hours a day in the heat, or to use heavy equipment or power saws, and expect them not to be injured is magical thinking beyond that of a five-year-old. The number of injuries in children skyrockets during natural disasters, because kids want to help and parents need the help. In reality, don’t let them help beyond their means.
- Curb dehydration and heat/cold related problems.
During any disaster, it’s common for people to experience a loss of power and a water shortage. Depending on the season and the disaster, this is a prime set up for heat stroke or hypothermia, as well as dehydration. While teenagers and adults can get themselves a drink, most drinks today are full of caffeine and sugar, which actually increases the level of dehydration. For every two ounces of a caffeinated beverage you drink, you lose approximately three ounces of water. Water is the best hydration option. If you drink juice or a sports drink, dilute it with fifty percent water.
When dealing with children, realize that they dehydrate at a rate of almost twice that of an adult in the same environment. Additionally, they get an elevated body temperature faster than an adult. Therefore, children need to be dressed lightly or diaper only. If they’re in the sun with no air conditioning, they need heavy sun block and the lightest t-shirt possible to prevent sunburn. If a child begins to look dehydrated (the earliest sign is a loss of tears when crying), bring the child to a cool spot and mist the child with room temperature water from a spray bottle. Don’t dunk the child in water and don’t put ice packs on them. Doing so will only seal in the heat.
In cold situations, children lose heat very fast. Therefore, layer and bundle children so they stay warm without sweating. Sweat increases the rate by which they lose heat. Finally, children often become severely dehydrated in blizzard conditions. Offer them plenty to drink, in addition to any formula or breast milk they ingest.
Easy as 1-2-3
Even though a disaster and evacuation will definitely disrupt your life, it doesn’t need to be the stressful event that it typically is. Make sure your entire family is prepared with their individual go-bag, think of creative ways to maintain a sense of consistency, and take precautions to keep everyone safe upon the return home. When you use these suggestions during every phase of the evacuation process, you’ll find that a disruption to your routine can be an adventure—one that you brag about to family and friends for years to come.