When You Have to Evacuate: How to Survive in a Disaster Shelter

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No matter how prepped you are for emergencies, there is always the possibility that you may have to evacuate your home and leave the majority of your preps behind. From fires to flooding, riots to unrest, to chemical spills or SHTF, to keep you and your family safe you need to know how to survive in a disaster shelter.

Let’s face it, being stuck in a disaster shelter is usually the last place you would want to be. Staying with friends or family, camping out or even bugging out to your hidden bug out location is safer and more comfortable than being in a shelter with limited supplies, staff, and strangers. But sometimes it’s necessary.

What Is an Evacuation or Disaster Shelter?

An evacuation or disaster shelter is a temporary shelter for people to ride out a short term disaster. They may be run by the Red Cross or other volunteer organizations, such as churches or small community organizations.

The main thing to keep in mind is that these shelters operate on limited funds, limited (often donated) supplies, and volunteer labor. Don’t expect three meals a day and all the amenities of home.

When Should You Evacuate to a Disaster Shelter?

If you find yourself in a position where you must leave your home and have no other safe options or places to go, a disaster shelter is a reasonably safe place to weather the storm.

Many times, by the time you receive the mandatory evacuation notice, it’s too late to evacuate. By then the roads are clogged with cars and at a complete standstill. Being stuck in a car on a low lying road susceptible to flooding is not a wise survival move.

Even if your bug out location is 20 miles away, it doesn’t help you if you can’t reach it safely (or at all).


Who Should Evacuate to a Disaster Shelter?

A disaster shelter is a reasonable alternative if you’re a single parent with small children and limited resources.

It’s a must for people who need special assistance, including the elderly and people with special needs.

If you have a health condition or an injury, a disaster shelter can provide better access to health care. Even if there are no medical personnel available, you’ll have a better chance of getting emergency medical support to a shelter than to your flooded house at the end of a flooded street.

Check On Loved Ones In Assisted Care

If you have loved ones in nursing homes or assisted care, don’t just assume their facility will take care of them. Always check to make sure.  They may need a safe place to shelter with medical support.

Plan Ahead and Be Prepared

Many shelters, especially those with medical support or special assistance, fill up fast. If you know that you will need them, get there early as soon as they open.

Many other shelters will reach capacity very quickly once the crisis draws closer. As soon as the shelters begin opening, keep track of where they are and how you can reach them, especially if you plan to wait until the last minute before moving.

Knowing which options are still available can help you to reach a disaster shelter safely without wasting precious time trying to make it to a shelter that’s already filled to capacity.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes even a disaster shelter can be damaged requiring everyone there to be moved. Fires can shift course, hurricane winds can blow roofs from buildings, and floodwaters can rise unexpectedly.

Just because you’re in a shelter doesn’t mean you’re safe. Keep informed and alert. Always be prepared to move at a moment’s notice if needed.

Pets and Disaster Shelters

Many emergency shelters will not accept pets, however, some will. If you have pets and will need to evacuate, make sure you know the pet-friendly shelters in advance. Also, get there early because they will fill up fast.

Some shelters will allow you to bring your pet but will take the pet from you and put them in a different area. Call ahead before you go so you know what to expect.

Pet Bug Out Bags

Make a bug out bag for your pets. Make sure all vaccinations are up to date and carry proof with you because they may be required at the shelter. Bring a leash, pet carrier, pet food, and medications.

Being in a shelter is stressful for everyone, including pets. Treats, calming sprays, and chews can go a long way to helping you and your pet make it through your shelter experience as peacefully as possible.

disaster shelter

Safety and Security in a Disaster Shelter

Disaster shelters are usually run on donations and volunteers. Unfortunately, this also means that there are usually limited supplies and even fewer volunteer helpers. In a crisis, they will have their hands full just trying to meet the basic needs of the people in the shelter.

Be prepared to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Don’t depend on anyone else to do it for you.

While a crisis brings out the best in a lot of people, there are always a lot of other people who are looking for an easy way to take advantage of others. An evacuee in an emergency shelter is an easy target.

Vehicle Security at a Disaster Shelter

When you bug out, you tend to carry your valuables with you. Thieves know that and are quick to make the most of the opportunity.

While it’s safer to keep your valuables in the car than in the shelter itself, your car (and your wide-screen TV in the back seat) are easy targets.

Hide and cover any valuables left in your car. Don’t talk about your stuff or what you have outside. The person you’re talking to may be safe, but another person overhearing it may not be.

If it’s covered by insurance and you can secure it at home, consider leaving it there before taking it with you to a shelter.

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Personal Security at a Disaster Shelter

It’s up to you to keep yourself, your loved ones and your possessions safe in an emergency shelter. This means safe from theft and safe from attack.

Keeping Your Stuff Safe in a Disaster Shelter

Be practical. Don’t flash around expensive jewelry, video games, cell phones or cameras. Keep your stuff out of sight and out of reach of others. In fact, don’t carry anything that you can’t stand to lose.

Carry important items like your cell phone, wallet, and money in a fanny pack or belt purse. This keeps it safe and close. When sleeping, tighten the strap and cover it with your shirt to make it harder for someone to get to it without waking you.

Keeping Yourself and Your Loved Ones Safe

In any group of people, things can happen. Rapes and sexual assaults can occur anywhere and at any time.

Don’t depend on the few volunteers at the shelter to provide round the clock security services. Unfortunately, predators are everywhere and it only takes a few moments for them to strike.

Stay Together

Keep your children together and know where they are at all times. Don’t let them wander away out of sight.

Assign everyone a buddy to keep track of. Remind them that you’re all in this together and it will be over soon but in the meantime, they have to take care of each other.

Be Aware Of Your Surroundings

Always be aware of what is going on around you. Practice situational awareness.

Follow your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable around someone or in a certain area, go with your gut.

If the restroom situation feels uncomfortable, go with a group of others. Avoid situations where you may find yourself alone or trapped.

Learn self-defense techniques and be prepared to use them if needed.


If you have to evacuate and have no other options, an emergency or disaster shelter can save your life and the lives of your family.

Just remember, the shelter is there to provide shelter from the storm and enough supplies to get you through the worst of the disaster.

It’s up to you to plan for and prepare for your evacuation and protecting yourself and your loved ones while you’re there.

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