Step 6: When to Leave

Perhaps the most important decision is not what to bring, but when to leave.  The best time to evacuate is well before the need arises.  The worst time to leave is in the height of the evacuation.  So the earlier you can evacuate, the better.

Let’s look at the real world example of Hurricane Frances, one of three hurricanes to strike Florida in the summer of 2004.   The state police stopped inbound traffic and used both sides of a major interstate highway for outbound evacuation traffic.  Despite this, there were delays, accidents, breakdowns and bumper-to-bumper traffic.  It took 10 or 12 hours to make a trip that would normally have taken three hours.  Along the way, there were frequent shortages of gas and food, and hotels and motels along the evacuation route were filled.  People were frustrated and angry.

People who left ahead of the official evacuation had none of these problems and easily found hotel rooms in safe areas.  People who had their own supplies faced fewer problems, but were still stuck in traffic.  We see the same behavior in the evacuation of Houston in 2005 and other coastal cities due to hurricanes.

Keep in mind that during these evacuations, many people chose to stay behind.  In an evacuation due to a nuclear accident, chances are that no one would willingly remain.  That would mean even more traffic and congestion.  So monitor the news and prepare to evacuate before the official order is given.

From a time of day standpoint, anecdotal evidence in hurricane evacuations suggests that many people leave in the late afternoon or early evening.  Perhaps they want to finish work or wait until the kids get home from school.  Maybe they need to finish preparing the house or doing that last minute shopping.  In addition to crowded conditions, you now have drivers that are tired and worn out.

We recommend leaving as early in the morning as possible.  Better to get six solid hours of sleep and leave at 3 a.m. than to leave at 7 p.m. and be exhausted before you get to your destination.  Plus leaving earlier will mean less traffic and more resources on the road.  Use your own judgment based on local conditions and reports, however, and remember that it is better to evacuate too early than too late.

Now that you know where to go, how to get there and what to bring when you leave in a hurry, you can take a look at long-term survival planning. The next chapter covers the three basics of any survival plan: Water, food and shelter.