If you think this can never happen, just ask the homeowners and surrounding farmers of Fort McMurray, Alberta or Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. It happens, and many times it’s not just fires we have to worry about. It can be floods, chemical spills, pipeline leaks, train derailments, or even toxic clouds from industrial plants miles away. The thing about disasters is that you rarely see them coming. The only weapon we have is preparedness.

So as the news of the evacuation sinks in, you’re suddenly filled with a sense of panic. Where do you even start? What could you possibly pack in one hour that would even make a difference?

This could have been so much simpler with a little advance preparation.

To prepare, I want you to grab the biggest duffle bag you can find, hockey bags are great for large families. A key point to remember is that you may be initially  evacuated to a temporary shelter or massive staging area. It may be days before you are able to reach a motel, or the home of family and friends.

I want you to start a ‘Family Care Bag’ or FCB. What you can’t prepack, I want you to jot down on a master list and leave it in this bag. This way, in an evacuation, you just add the items off your list. With a little planning, you should be able to prepack at least 80% of the necessities listed below.

In this FCB, we will start with the 10 essentials.

  1. It may seem stupid to even record this, but include the wife’s purse and husband’s wallet, and family cellphones on your FCB master list. You have no idea how many people flee their homes without these essential items.
  2. If you’re unable to fill dual prescriptions to keep on hand in your FCB, at least record the medications and the doctor’s name/phone numbers. Prescription meds should be the first items you grab during an evacuation notice, but in case you can’t, you’ll at least have the exact list of meds you need to replace. Severe asthmatics or diabetics must have at least some emergency prescriptions prepacked for their survival.
  3. Back-up cell phone chargers for all adults living in the house. Generic models can usually be purchased for $25 each, and they’re crucial to prepack. Preopen the chargers and make sure they work. Include a cigarette/power point adaptor so you can plug electrical cords into your vehicle’s dashboard for charging.
  4. Basic first aid kit, including over-the-counter pain medications and antacids. Back-up eyeglasses, even the over-the-counter brands will do in a pinch. Make sure you have a pair for each wearer prepacked in your FCB.
  5. If you have infant children, diapers/pull-ups, wipes, and powdered formula w/bottles using disposable liners are essential plus a six pack of bottled water and box of granola bars. Always include menstrual products if applicable. The rule is: 3 days per female.
  6. A change of clothes for each family member is advisable, but if the family is too large, have at least 2 days worth of underwear for each. Panties/shorts, bras, and socks fold down to almost nothing, especially when packed in labelled Ziplock bags with the air sucked out through a straw. Also, a cheap pair of canvas runners for each family member is a must.
  7. Toiletries. This includes one bag with shampoo, bar soap, hand sanitizer, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, and a brush/comb for the family to share plus a handful of garbage bags. If any adults in the house are diehard smokers, throw in 3 days worth of cigarettes/lighter per smoker.
  8.  In a large Ziplock bag, I want you to tuck a photocopy of your farm’s/house’s insurance policies. Also record the legal descriptions for each piece of land you own and your bank account numbers. In the same bag, include a pad of paper, pens, and a written list of your doctor/vet numbers. And don’t forget an envelope of cash, $200 minimum in 20 dollar denominations. In a pinch, this will fill up your gas tank and buy your family some food. Don’t assume your plastic will always work in an emergency situation.
  9.  If you have small pets that you plan to grab, your FCB is where you’d pre-store 3 days of their dry food in resealable plastic containers. Always have collars and leashes for any pets you plan to take, even if they’ve never worn them before. Carrying cases are bulky, collars/leashes are best and might spell the difference between being able to load your reluctant pets in your vehicle, or not. And they’ll be a necessity for taking your pet for a poop in a strange location.
  10. Plan to lock up your home and garage. Have an information sheet ready in a Ziplock bag tucked in your FCB. Clearly preprint your family name and cell phone numbers on this paper. Before evacuating, finish the page. RELOCATION: Fill it in if you know where you’re going. Even a direction you’re heading is better than nothing. FAMILY: Who is with you, and who was missing before you evacuated. DATE: Date and time of evacuation. ** (We can’t always assume that the entire family is going to be home during an emergency evacuation. You can see why posting this information could be crucial for reuniting). Securely tape this to your front door before you leave.

After you’ve finished packing the FCB, I want you to grab a large plastic tote-box with a lid. This is your secondary box, and it can be crucial should your residence sustain serious damage. We have our last 10 items.

  1. During the evacuation, pack your business/family laptop and power cords. If you also have a desktop model, I want you to just grab the modem and lay it down in the box. Don’t worry about screens, keyboards, printers, or power cords. This modem is for information recovery, not convenience. (Note: Many desktops have cords that are secured with screws. Find the appropriate screwdriver and keep it taped to the side of your modem at all times. If you have a written list of passwords, photocopy and prepack in the box.  
  2. A spare digital camera and charger if you don’t have a cell phone with photo capabilities. Adequate models can be purchased for $50. Make sure it comes with an appropriate memory card.   
  3. A small extension cord or power bar can solve so many problems if sharing power outlets during an evacuation.
  4. Flashlight with extra batteries, pocketknife, scissors, duct tape, and 2 clean margarine-sized plastic containers with lids. Don’t ask, just pre-pack them. You should still have room for some granola/energy bars and a six pack of bottled water.
  5. Portable radio with extra batteries, or a crank-up emergency radio which can be purchased at most hardware stores. Don’t count on cellphone reception to deliver accurate news updates.
  6. Always have a spare set of vehicle and house keys hidden outside in your yard, mindful that you can still reach them in deep snow. A note in your CFB as to where the keys are hidden may prove invaluable when you’re scrambling. ** (More than one farmer has rushed outside in a housefire, and then found their family in danger from exposure when they were unable to enter a vehicle, or another warm building).
  7. If you have small children, a couple toys, coloring books/crayons, and even storybooks can temporarily soothe frightened kids.
  8. Three or four large garbage bags, kitchen-catcher bags, and large Ziplock bags. They fold to nothing, and can be invaluable for dirty clothes, garbage, or soiled diapers, etc.
  9. During an evacuation, always make sure every family member leaves the house with proper footwear and a coat. It maybe warm when you evacuate, but the weather changes, and so does your location.  
  10. If possible, especially during winter months, never let your vehicle’s gas tank fall below half, and always carry an emergency road kit. Lineups at gas stations could hamper your evacuation.

If you have large pets that your unable to fit in your vehicle with your family, at least set them free. You might be afraid they’ll run away, but you owe them a fighting chance at survival. A bag of dry dog or cat chow slit open and thrown underneath a tree at least 10 meters from the house or any out buildings might be enough to hold them over until your return.

Penned livestock should be left with at least 3 days of food and water. Do your best, but always remember family comes first. If pressed for time, choose water over food.

You must make a conscious effort to PREPACK as many items as possible off both lists. You’ll never have time to compile a fraction of these items if you’re issued an evacuation order and haven’t prepacked.

If tragedy strikes and you only have minutes instead of an hour, load up your family first, grab your FCB as is, and then run.    

IMPORTANT: Every year on your birthday, replace all pet and human food, spare batteries, and over-the-counter medications. Make sure clothing and diapers still fit. Check that hidden keys and phone chargers are still correct. Update any passwords, insurance policies, banking information, or prescription lists. 

Emergencies and community tragedies strike at the most inopportune times. If you’re prepared to the best of your ability, it won’t alleviate all the problems, but it just might help you handle the situation as safely as possible for the ones you love. 

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