One of the greatest challenges in becoming an expert on survival is that we have to learn so many things vicariously. Waiting until you need to know them, so that you can survive is dangerous; but the tuition in the school of hard knocks is just too high; with a failing grade meaning losing more than any of us can afford.
Oh, we can study, train and try things out, but until we actually face a survival situation, we really don’t know how well they’ll work. We’ll just have to trust to our training when that time comes, hoping that we’ll actually get it right. But the very risk that entails means that we have to continue striving to become better, learning more, developing new techniques and improving our skills.
There are many ways we can do that, but one that few take the time to do is analyzing current events and disasters, seeing if we can develop a plan for surviving through them. Such is the recent situation with the dam in northern California.
In case you haven’t heard, erosion caused a gaping hole to form in the spillway, 200 feet long and 35 feet wide. This happened at a time when the reservoir was already filled to overflowing by an unusually wet winter, making it difficult to lower the water level in the reservoir. But when the water started flowing over the emergency spillway, it caused unacceptable erosion in that area too. Continuing to allow the emergency spillway to erode carried the risk of the spillway collapsing altogether, sending a 30 foot wall of water onto the town below.
The problem with the emergency spillway was that it wasn't capped with concrete, but was just a normal hillside. While the engineers who designed it had calculated that it could withstand water flowing over it four times greater than what was happening, it wasn't proving sufficient to the task. The calculated risk in not capping that hillside with concrete wasn't paying off and was creating a situation of real danger.
With only the lip of the emergency spillway capped in concrete, erosion could have catastrophic results. Once the erosion hit the breaking point, there would be nothing to stop a large section of the hillside from breaking away, sending a 30 foot high wall of water downstream. Entire towns would be washed away in that flash flood, ending or destroying the lives of thousands. Evacuation was clearly in order.
This is the sort of scenario which makes for an exciting movie plot line, but isn’t the type of thing you want to wake up to in the morning. Even worse than waking up to it, is finding out that the situation is so grave, that you only have one hour to evacuate. What do you do?
Standard Prepper Answer
This is just the sort of situation for which bug out bags have been created. Grabbing your bag and getting out of Dodge is often the best solution to such a situation, where staying at home merely lowers your chance of survival. That's the answer we've come up with and that's the plan that most of us would rush to implement. Bugging out would protect our families.
Of course, bugging out requires more than a bug out bag, it requires a plan as well. That's why I and other writers have encouraged preppers to develop a complete bug out plan, including an ultimate destination to head for and routes to use in order to get there. The more astute preppers develop alternative plans as well, in case they can't implement their primary plan.
But for most of us, bugging out means going to some remote location, where we would be safe from marauding gangs of unprepared people. Our bug out plans are built with the idea of a general collapse of society in mind. In such a case, it makes sense to head for the hills and get away from people, but does it really make sense to do that when all we're concerned about is a wall of water engulfing our home?
What’s Wrong with the Standard Prepper Answer
General evacuations, like the one implemented in Northern California or the one issued in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina, aren't about a breakdown in society or the associated loss of law and order. Rather, they're about avoiding the dangers of a natural or even man-made disaster. You're not fleeing people, as much as things. In that case, is it really necessary to head out to a cabin in the wood?
Granted, if you happen to be fortunate enough to own that cabin in the woods, it might be great to head for it anyway. If nothing else, the evacuation could serve as a practice run, while giving your family a nice vacation. But that's not the situation for most of us.
The prevailing wisdom in prepping circles today, which I've helped to promulgate, is that you're better off bugging in, than bugging out. That's mostly because of the resources you have at home, compared to the difficulty of surviving in the wild. Unless you own that cabin in the woods, chances are poor that you'll be able to survive in the wild, unless you are extremely well trained and have a huge portion of luck in reserve.
We are accustomed to living in an ordered society; one which provides for our needs. The vast infrastructure and supply chain that our country has developed has stolen our self-sufficiency. While many preppers are actively working to become self-sufficient once again, that self-sufficiency requires being at home, where they have access to all the preps they have made.
No matter how well you've transformed your home into a homestead, evacuation rips all that preparatory work right out of your hands. You're left with nothing more than the knowledge that you've accumulated and whatever items you can manage to carry along with you.
In such a situation, surviving the event has to include rebuilding your life in the aftermath. If your home is destroyed and everything in it lost, you need somewhere else to go and the means to rebuild your life. A bug out bag isn't going to provide enough for that, no matter how big and well stocked it is.
How is a Mass Evacuation Different?
Bugging out is not a new subject in prepping and survival circles. Rather, it is something that we all talk about and hopefully plan for. After all, we create bug out bags for that eventuality. In most cases, we plan on heading to a remote area where we can hide from everyone else and survive the current emergency. Hopefully, that remote area is one which we've been able to prepare and stockpile with supplies.
For many scenarios, bugging out to the wild makes sense. But as we've just discussed, a mass evacuation isn't one of those scenarios. The main things that make it different are that everyone else is bugging out too, and that we aren't leaving to avoid other people. That is a huge difference; it means we don't have to avoid contact with others.
In such a case, it would actually make more sense to implement an alternate bug out plan, in which we are bugging out to another urban area or rural community, which is not affected by the disaster we are facing. While wilderness survival may have a romantic appeal to those who have never had to do it, urban survival is actually a whole lot easier.
However, the others who are evacuating may not be the people you really want to mix with. No, I'm not being snobbish here, I'm referring to safety and survival. Every community has a criminal element and a larger element who are teetering on the edge of criminality. They will be evacuating as well, mixed in with the rest of humanity. These people will still be what they've always been and use the opportunity to their advantage, seeing what they can get from the other evacuees, either through intimidation, trickery or outright theft.
The vast majority of the people who evacuate are going to end up in some sort of refugee center, possibly a school gymnasium with little more than cots and a feeding line. That's not ideal. Not only does it not give your family any privacy, but such centers are often ripe with petty theft, sexual harassment and rape. Not an environment you want to take your family into.
So, rather than heading for such a refugee center, you're better off going a bit farther down the road, to the next town or community. Of course, you won't have the government providing you with "free" shelter and food in such a case, but you will have the security of being able to protect your family.
Part of your bug out planning should include an alternate bug out plan, for this sort of scenario. That means scouting out a community, far enough from your home to work as a safe haven, but close enough to your home to travel to in a reasonable amount of time. Ideally, it shouldn't be the same place where others are likely to evacuate to, simply so that you'll have an easier time of finding the resources you need. Dumping several thousand extra people on any community puts a strain on existing resources, such as hotel rooms, restaurants and stores.
Facing the Moment
For the people living downstream of the Oroville Dam, leaving their homes in the evacuation quite possibly meant leaving behind everything they own, with the probability of never seeing any of it again. If the emergency spillway failed and that 30 foot wall of water came crashing down on their home, the homes would be crushed and their belongings spread for miles downstream. Even if they could eventually return to dig through the wreckage, it is doubtful that they would find much of what they had left behind.
That's what those people were facing in that moment, and that's what you and I would face, if we were ever faced with the same situation. What do you do? Is grabbing your bug out bag and running enough?
Survival thinking always has to travel along two lines at the same time. One line is dealing with the current situation and how to get through it. The other is thinking down the road and seeing what you're going to do to get yourself out of survival mode and into a better situation. This part of survival is about making your situation better, developing a sustainable lifestyle.
If you run off into the woods to survive a disaster, your immediate need is to survive. That would mean creating some sort of temporary shelter, finding enough firewood to keep warm, finding drinkable water and hunting for food. But if that's all you do, you'll never get out of survival mode. You need more.
That's why mankind has developed farming and domesticated animals. Those actions are part of the long-term branch of survival thinking. Farming and animal husbandry give us the ability to procure food more efficiently than hunting and gathering does. This, in turn, gives us the ability to do other things to better our lives, such as building more substantial shelters, with furniture and other things to make our lives more comfortable.
If all we do, when faced with that moment of evacuation, is to grab our bug out bags and go, we're only operating along one track of survival thinking, that of surviving the moment. We have totally abandoned the other track. That moment's decision could prove disastrous.
The problem is, we are rarely offered the luxury of careful thought in such situations. The circumstances demand action, not reflection. So we react, and how well we react is either determined by our training and planning, or by nothing more advanced that just dumb luck. I certainly don't want to depend on luck for my future.
Some of the evacuees from the Oroville Dam evacuation were interviewed after they got to a hastily prepared refugee center. Their responses were along the line of "My spouse and I grabbed whatever we could and stuffed it in the cars. Then we left, as quick as we could." That's not an uncommon reaction in such a case. The mind shuts off and we react on instinct, doing whatever seems best. Often, that means doing what we see right in front of us, nothing more.
But the things that are right in front of us may not be the best things to take. If we grab our bug out bags and whatever else we see, we'll probably grab more food and clothing, both of which are good. But we'll also grab some things which will be totally useless in our efforts to survive.
Planning for the Moment
The solution, of course, is to do the same thing that emergency planners have done for decades, prepare a plan. It is much easier to figure out what to do in an emergency from the comfort of your office or dining room table, than it is while you're trying to usher your family out of the house. So, take the time to think though what you'll need to do and what you'll need to take, if you ever have to be part of a mass evacuation.
Checklists are wonderful tools, helping to ensure that we don't forget something important in the rush of the moment. Written in quieter times, they give us the luxury of reflection, but they also give us the luxury of revision. Both of these help ensure that the checklist that we create is more complete and more accurate than anything we could possibly produce at a moment's notice.
Preparing for an Evacuation
If we accept the possibility that we might be involved in a mass evacuation at some point in time, then we need to prepare ourselves for it. Building a checklist and having a bug out plan are important parts of that, but they aren't the only parts. There are things we will need to put in place, so that we have the ability to put our plans into action, when the time comes.
The first, and most important, is preparing our bug out vehicle. This doesn't necessarily mean having a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, with massive mud tires and a heavy brush bar. If you want that, no problem, but you don't necessarily need it. Those huge tires and brush bar won't help you on the highway, just if you go off road.
By preparing your bug out vehicle, I am referring more than anything to an ongoing task of making sure that the vehicle you will be using is ready for travel. You want to keep it well maintained, with everything working, good tires on the wheels and the oil change up to date. That way, it will be ready to go at a moment's notice.
There's something else that vehicle needs too... fuel. One of the things which we saw with the Oroville evacuation was that the gas stations quickly ran out of fuel. That's not surprising in the least, but at the same time, it was an unwelcome event. At least some of the people who evacuated ended up forced to abandon their cars and take off on foot, when they ran out of gas.
You need to have a stock of fuel on hand at all times. This is a bit tricky, as gasoline doesn't store well for prolonged periods of time. You can keep it for about six months, without it degrading, and another six months if you use a fuel additive. But that's about it.
The solution is to rotate your stock of gasoline, so that you always have good gasoline on hand. Simply dump the gas you have stored into your car's tank and use it, and then refill your gas cans with fresh gas for the next six months. It's a bit of a hassle to do this, but not all that much.
The other thing you need to have on hand for an evacuation is cash. Unless you're planning on going to that emergency refugee center I was talking about earlier, or you're going to camp out in some out of the way place, you're going to need to pay for someplace to stay, something to eat, and probably a whole lot more. Except for the airfare, it's going to be a lot like paying for a vacation, expensive enough that most of us don't just have the money sitting in our bank accounts.
Creating Your List
The harder part of preparing for an evacuation is preparing the things you're going to need to take with you. If the bug out bag isn't enough? What else will you need?
The answer to that question falls into two basic categories: things to survive and things to rebuild your life. Your bug out bag will help with the first, but probably isn't going to do much to help with the second. For that, you'll need different things. But if your home is destroyed, they are going to be essential to your family's well-being.
So, what sorts of things should you include?
- Gasoline - Not only should you have enough gasoline on-hand to fill your vehicle before heading off, but the more gasoline you can bring along in cans, the better. You don't know how long you might be stuck in traffic, watching your gas gauge needle get lower and lower.
- Clothing - The typical bug out bag doesn't include much in the way of clothing. You can make it for three days without adding that extra bulk and weight. But if you're going to rebuild your life, you'll need clothes to wear. Not only that, but you'll need clothing which is adequate for interviewing for a job.
- Coats - You don't want to forget things like coats, hats, gloves and scarves. That's easy to do, especially if you leave in the middle of the day and it's warm out. But things cool off at night, and you may not be in a shelter when nightfall comes.
- Valuables - While the term valuables may mean different things to different people, we all have things that are important to us. Within reason, you'll want to take as many of those along with you as possible. Not only can these items often be sold, giving you much needed money to survive, but they become an important touchstone in rebuilding your life.
- Photos' & Other Memories - An important part of rebuilding your life is keeping in touch with your family's traditions and the important events in your lives. Photos are compact, especially in digital form, but will go a long way towards making anyplace feel like home.
- Family Heirlooms - You probably won't be able to take your grandmother's china cabinet with you, but if you have smaller, more portable mementos of your family, you'll want to consider taking them along with you. Things like that are irreplaceable.
- Important Papers - Perhaps one of the most important things you'll need for rebuilding your life is proof of who you are and what you own. This means taking important papers along with you. Fortunately, they can be scanned and carried on a flash drive or CD. That saves space, but is sufficient to prove their existence. You'll want to include: birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, diplomas and professional certifications, property deeds, car titles, medical records, and children's school records.
- Extra Food - Chances are, you'll be away from home more than three days, even if you do get to return. Taking food along with you, as well as a means of cooking it, will save you the cost of having to eat all your meals in restaurants.
- Camping Gear - If you have a tent and sleeping bags, it would be good to bring them along too. That way, you can set up camp anywhere, rather than having to get a hotel. This can save you money on the short-term, giving you more flexibility.
Of course, all of this stuff takes up room, so you're going to have to think your list through carefully. You may as well use every bit of cargo space that your vehicle has; but it's best if you don't have things strapped on the roof to attract the attention of others. As I mentioned earlier, there will always be those who want to take advantage of the situation.
Packing clothing in large plastic bags, rather than suitcases, makes it possible to push them into the odd-shaped corners and crannies in your trunk. While you might not want to pack all your clothes that way, packing some in that manner allows you to make better use of your space.
When push comes to shove, you might still end up having to abandon your vehicle, especially if it breaks down. In that case, you're going to have to leave most of this behind, hoping that your vehicle can protect it. So your bug out bag is still necessary and still the core of your evacuation preparedness. That's the one thing you're going to have to grab and take with you, if you have to leave everything else behind.
Timing is Everything
As many of us have said all along, when the evacuation order comes, the roads won't be able to handle the massive amount of traffic it will produce. In California, traffic was moving at less than five miles per hour most of the time. This led to people running out of gas and probably a few cars overheating. The highways were littered with abandoned vehicles.
However, it is possible to avoid getting stuck in all that traffic. More than anything, you can do that through beating the rush. Keep your ear to the ground about dangerous situations developing. If it looks like something is happening which will lead to a mass evacuation, get out early. Trust your instincts and don't wait to see what's going to happen. Waiting will put you right in the midst of the mess.
If you don't manage to get out early, then you should probably wait and get out late. There is risk in that, in that whatever situation is causing the evacuation could happen while you are waiting. But if it did, you'd probably just be caught in traffic. That's really not a better option.
No matter what you do, there's still a chance of getting stuck in traffic. If that happens, you might be better off getting off the road and waiting it out, rather than sitting there breathing the carbon dioxide of the cars in front of you. A lot will depend on whether the situation gives you enough time to wait out the traffic, but if it does, that will allow you to save your gasoline for when it will do some good.Of course, the other option is to avoid the traffic all together, if you can. Do some scouting, to see if there are alternate routes that you can take for your evacuation, which are not commonly known. While you can be sure that there will be others taking those same routes, the vast majority of people will take the highway. Secondary roads or even dirt roads might be quite a bit quicker than sitting in five mile an hour traffic.