How to Create a Safety and Evacuation Plan for Your Family

Keep your family safe with this panic-free guide to natural disaster readiness.
By Christina Vercelletto




We can’t change the track of a tornado. Scientists haven’t figured out how to morph a Category 4 hurricane into a Category 2. Natural disasters are out of our control, and that can be terrifying.

But by creating a plan — in advance — you can control how a disaster affects your family.

Jim Judge won’t sugarcoat how crucial a disaster plan is. He’s on the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and is the emergency management director of Volusia County, Florida. At most, he says, it will be the difference between life and death. At least, it eases the stress that overcomes families in the wake of a disaster.

Yet so many of us procrastinate. “Half of Atlantic and Gulf Coast residents don’t have an evacuation plan,” Judge notes. “And as if the flooding, twisters, and wildfires we’ve had in the past year aren’t enough, there are man-made threats. We just had a huge propane explosion only seven miles from my house,” he shares.

One of the big excuses is the belief that somebody — FEMA or the Red Cross — will come and help. “And we will,” says Judge.

“But in a catastrophe like Katrina or Sandy, everything is impacted: fuel deliveries, ambulances, police, firefighters. You’re going to be on your own for a good three days.”

Think of it this way: 30 years ago, nobody used car seats. Then the public was educated, the risks sank in, and now we have a new standard. “Now is the time for preparedness to be the new norm,” urges Judge.

Deep breath: We’re not here to freak you out. We’re here to show you how manageable this is. Believe us, starting to prepare for a situation like this will be a relief, and a way to lower your family’s anxiety. “One of the best predictors of how a child will cope is how well his or her parents handle the situation,” says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a member of the American Psychological Association Disaster Response Network. “They need you to be in control.” But you can’t be, without a plan.

Ready to start? We’ve got a doable timeline that will get you where you need to be. Trust us, it’s worth every minute you’ll put in.


1. Know your risk. No place is 100 percent safe. If you’re not sure, find maps and data on the likelihood of different natural disasters at

2. Sign up for Wireless Emergency Alerts at You’ll get a text message if there’s a warning — say, of a flash flood — for your area.

3. Figure out where you’ll go in an evacuation. Put the numbers of nearby-ish hotels that can accommodate your family, including pets, into your contacts. Down the line, if it looks like an evacuation might be ordered, book yourself a room. You can always cancel later.

Next Weekend

1. Start assembling your Go Kit (scroll to the bottom for a list of essentials). That’s what you’ll take if your family has to evacuate quickly. To keep it from busting your budget:

  • “Stop at Goodwill or the Salvation Army,” suggests Judge. “You can find a battery-operated radio for $3. I picked up a battery-powered TV that was also a radio for $12.”
  • Wash out plastic milk, juice, or iced-tea containers as you empty them. Stash them, and they’ll be ready to fill when needed, says Judge. This saves you the expense of buying large quantities of pricey bottled water.
  • Pick up nonperishables as they’re on sale.

2. Review all your insurance policies. Look for holes that could leave you vulnerable. Are you covered for emergency housing expenses? Floods? Homeowners insurance rarely covers flooding, so you may need a separate policy. If you rent your home, buy renter’s insurance. The owner’s policy will not cover your belongings.

Two Weeks From Today

1. Call or visit your insurance agent with any concerns you came up with during your policy review last week.

2. Buy a few gas cans. No power can mean no gas, both for cars and for generators. If fuel is rationed, you’ll need gas cans to buy the limited quantities. Stores will likely sell out. (Speaking of gas, if you hear a big storm is brewing, gas up your car and get $300 in small bills from the bank).

One Month From Today

1. Your basic Go Kit should be complete. Now, consider expanding it beyond the list. For example, if you can’t return to your home right away, you’ll need more clothing for your family. An easy way to handle: Next time you’ve got a bag of clothes to donate, store it in the trunk of your car instead. Swap it out periodically. That way, you’ll always have clothing that will fit.

2. Have everyone memorize a landline number. Whoever has one will be your family’s point person if you’re separated and cell towers are out.

3. Resolve to plan long-term. What we’ve given you are first steps. At, you’ll find links to what else you need to do. Much of it depends upon where you are. Tackle it over time. “Put the American Red Cross list on the fridge. Set a deadline of six months to get through it, and mark your progress as you go,” urges Judge. “Make it part of daily life, the way buckling up in the car is.”

Your Go Kit Essentials

  • a gallon of water per family member
  • a change of clothes for each family member
  • nonperishable food like canned goods, peanut butter, crackers, and dried fruit — enough for at least three days
  • medications
  • a can opener
  • a flashlight
  • batteries in packages
  • a battery-powered radio or a crank radio
  • a few quarters for pay phones
  • copies of Social Security cards, birth certificates, and your homeowners policies
  • phone number of a relative or friend with a landline
  • a first-aid kit

Jobs for the Kids

The more your children are involved in the process of preparing, the less scared they’ll feel. Here are a few ways they can help:

  • Have them scan the aisles for sales on canned goods and other dry goods.
  • Put them in charge of a “quarters only” piggy bank (you might need them for pay phones or vending machines).
  • Let them fill an old backpack with toys, crayons, paper, and books to keep in the car.


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