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How NOT to evacuate a family of 7 when a hurricane’s coming


The next time you're forced to flee a life-threatening storm like Irma, do yourself a favor and learn from my mistakes.

Like 6 million other Floridians, my family evacuated from our home in Southwest Florida to escape the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Having grown up in Texas, I know how to handle tornadoes that strike without warning, but hurricanes are something entirely different. Well, not entirely — they’re basically water tornadoes that flatten houses and flood cities and spawn actual tornadoes just for funsies.

But by far the worst part of hurricanes is the anticipation. For a solid week, we lived our life in 6-hour increments of updated forecast models. Trying to decide whether or not to evacuate is far more complicated than I could have guessed, as we had to take into account protecting our house, our things, my husband’s job, the kids’ school, our car, and a thousand other details that can’t be abandoned in a hasty flight — at least, not if you want to have a life to come back to.

Unfortunately I have no practice taking all these things into account. I did try, but my rookie evacuation skills have given me a list of lessons learned and proved endlessly amusing to my family and friends here in Texas. Since I’m basically a giver, I figured I could share the wealth a little in case you ever find yourself face-to-face with evacuation.

How not to evacuate: A handy checklist

  • Do not try and save time by telling your kids to pack their own clothes while you pack yours. Even if you tell them to line their backpacks up for approval, you will not approve them. You will not even notice them until you get to your destination and discover that your 4-year-old has packed 3 pairs of his brothers’ shorts and 9 Lego heads … and nothing else.
  • Do not congratulate yourself for remembering the electric toothbrushes unless you also remember the chargers for said toothbrushes.
  • Do not pack the latest load of your laundry and figure that will suffice, or you will end up with nothing but work-out clothes and a lone pair of cutoff shorts. Even as an evacuee, you will not want to attend Mass in a sports bra, tank top, and cutoffs.
  • Do not turn the fridge all the way to cold and say to yourself, “at least when the power is back we will have a fridge full of food to come home to.” This is idiotic.
  • Do not spend 2 hours gathering all important documents, have your husband spend 45 minutes carefully sealing them in waterproof contractor bags, and then leave them on the kitchen table.
  • Do not ensure that a neighbor will have access to your house if necessary through the door inside the garage. Even if you have a keypad to the garage door, it won’t be very helpful if the power goes out for weeks and your neighbor has offered to, say, clean all the rotting food out of your refrigerator.
  • Do not spend an inordinate amount of time packing two bags of healthy food for the journey. It’s an evacuation. You absolutely will stop at every Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A along the way and subsist entirely on sugar and caffeine.
  • Do not buy extra beignets from Cafe du Monde for your family in Texas. They don’t travel well, and someone will break a tooth.
  • Do not attempt to take the back roads as a shortcut through Louisiana at midnight after 24 hours of driving. You will not be able to tell if sketchy hitchhikers are real or a hallucination, which will keep you awake but will also bring back long-repressed memories of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Above all, do not panic when the forecast Cat 4 hurricane swings away from the east coast, strengthens to a 5, and makes a beeline straight for your little town. Your neighbors will pull together, face the hurricane with courage and grace, and work tirelessly to care for each other and their neighbors who evacuated.

Hurricane Irma taught me a lot, but the best lessons had nothing to do with how to leave. In fact, fleeing the hurricane taught me how much I want to stay. I learned that my town has become my home and that I love that weird, swampy little Catholic town more than I thought possible. I realize now how much my neighbors mean to me and how little I show them that, and I can’t wait to get back and help put our home back together again.

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