9 Tips for Surviving an Emergency Evacuation

Monday, 8/17/20 started out like any other day. I made a strong cup of coffee and sat outside on the deck with my husband and 2 dogs.  It was then that we noticed there was a slight smell of smoke in the air. We began feeling nervous, looking around for hints of where the smoke was coming from. By the time we finished our morning coffee, the Lead Plane started buzzing by. We looked at each other and headed inside. Soon Air Tankers and helicopters joined the cacophony and we knew something big was amiss.

We looked online for news about the fire at Yubanet.com, Mynevadacounty.com, and our local radio station, KVMR. The name of the fire was the Jones Bar Fire and Jones Bar, the road it was named after, was only a few miles from our house as the crow flies. And, of course, that’s how the fire burns. We quickly kicked into gear deciding what was most important to take. We had done some preparation planning, but not nearly enough. The news wasn’t updated as often as I would have liked, but the frequent drone of the planes let us know the situation was extreme.

Shortly after noon, we got our Evacuation Warning. Having lived in CA for many years now, we don’t believe in waiting until the last minute to leave. Reports of the fire were getting worse and worse and the Evacuation Areas were expanding. Our day no longer held any semblance of normal. We had been putting food together, filling a cooler, prepping the animal food and supplies, gathering important papers, our overnight bags, photo albums and computers, and backup drives, as well as thinking about where to go.

We hadn’t really planned where we could go. Luckily, we have friends who have a vacation home far away from Nevada County. We confirmed their place was available! Our emergency boxes and gear were ready to go. We loaded 3 cars with the most important items, as well as 2 excited dogs and 2 very unhappy cats, and left our home wondering if we would ever see it again. We each took a last look as we drove away.

We travelled for several hours to reach our destination and unloaded the cars, exhausted and emotionally drained. It’s a beautiful home on several acres and we felt lucky to have a temporary refuge where we could all be together. Leaving our animals was impossible to consider. We knew we were lucky to have time to get what we did and to have an extremely comfortable site to settle into.

The only problem is that our nerves were a wreck. What was happening at home? I continually scoured the internet for news. I wondered if my behavior was helping or hurting me. I gradually realized that the drama of the evacuation and the fear of losing our home to the fire had a huge impact on my sense of safety and well-being. I shifted my focus and began reading about how to care for myself and my family while evacuated from a natural disaster. In some ways, my ability to focus on this seemed like both a luxury (I didn’t have to run from the fire or search for a safe place to stay) and a distraction from obsessing about the fire and the worst that could happen.

Here’s what I learned.

1. Try to keep to a routine. Your environment will be different so you will already be out of your usual routine. Adjust as needed, but try to get back into predictable schedules as quickly as possible. Routines are grounding and help us feel safe and as if the world is a predictable place. When evacuated, it doesn’t feel so. Children in particular benefit from the security of routines, but adults need them too.

2. Mindset matters! Focus on any good you can find in the situation: we are all together, we’re safe at the moment, children have their favorite blankets or toys, or even this is a good meal. Take the time to feel grateful for whatever you can and encourage others to do the same. Focus on what you have, not what you fear losing. This is an effort to think more positively about a negative event and it can help you get through it.

3. Focus on things you can do, not on the inability to do anything to prevent the crisis. What we focus on becomes a dominant force in our experience. Doing what we can helps us feel stronger and more enabled to face what we need to in order to manage this disruption in our lives.

4. Limit comfort foods, as well as alcohol and drugs. When our lives seem to be in chaos, we often feel the need to indulge in various unhealthy foods that we might not normally eat in an attempt to give ourselves something “good” in the face of feeling stressed.  The impulse is understandable, but overindulgence can make us feel out of control and even worse physically. So, don’t go hog wild, but recognize that you may need to pamper yourself a little bit during a crisis.

5. Try to sleep the same amount as usual, approximating your typical schedule. Sleep is something we often take for granted, but research has found it makes a big difference in our performance during the day. When in a chaotic situation, we all need our best selves to come forward. Sleep can help that happen. If you have trouble sleeping, try not drinking and avoiding screen time a couple of hours before bedtime, keeping the room dark and cool, having warm milk before bed or when you wake up in the night (it actually does help), and eating a light protein snack before bed.

6. Communicate with friends and family about your experience and discuss how you’re doing. When life is stressful, many of us feel like isolating, but that’s the last thing we should do. Staying close to those you care about provides the comfort of intimacy and gives others the opportunity to express their support. Relationships aren’t just about sharing fun times, but also about helping each other get through the bad ones. Encourage children to do the same and provide opportunities for them to connect with friends and family who are not with you, keeping social distancing in mind.

7. Make time for journaling or other self-expression. Although this might seem like a luxury, it is actually an effective tool for self-care. Traumatic events generate lots of emotion. Journaling can be a powerful way to access the layers of feelings about what’s happening. If journaling is not for you, there are many other ways to use this tool. Play music, draw, create cartoons, play games that encourage players to make statements about their current feelings, knit, or write stories. What you do is not the important part, it’s more about giving yourself the room to explore your emotions and how they might be affecting your day to day experience.

8. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Monitor your thoughts and if you find yourself saying mean things about the way you are handling the situation, try to think about what you might say to comfort a friend who was behaving similarly. Sure, there may be things that need changing, but that doesn’t make you’re a bad person. Our thoughts can often run away from us and turn self-critical out of frustration and fear. Learning to monitor our internal statements and adjust them to become more supportive can improve the quality of our lives, no matter what the circumstance.

One final note, if you have to leave your home in an evacuation, be sure to take your dirty laundry basket. It holds all your favorite clothes! ?