From the Homefront: Hurricane evacuations

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

Lindsey Zackman and her family recently left their home in the path of Hurricane Harvey, as did Morgan Knauss and her family.

The McNally Family was evacuated from Cuba in 2016 to avoid Hurricane Matthew.

The McNally Family was evacuated from Cuba in 2016 to avoid Hurricane Matthew.

Shea McNally left their home in Cuba when Guantanamo Bay was evacuated for Hurricane Matthew, and Marci Williams fled her home in Savannah.

Stacey Bilodeau was one of many families who had to leave when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, and she returned with one extra member.

Coast Guard life often means living in areas ripe for natural disasters. Each of these Coast Guard spouses learned from their experiences, and offered advice for making getting through an evacuation as smoothly as possible.

“In my honest opinion, I always think it’s better be safe than sorry,” Zackman said. “Homes and material belongings can always be replaced but your family and pets cannot.”

One of the most important things to remember is that if you are in the path of a natural disaster, you must follow Coast Guard regulations if you want to receive reimbursements for evacuation expenses. The area or district command is responsible for authorizing official evacuations. Families can evacuate on their own, but they may not get paid back for the costs.

That official order will contain specific information about which units are involved and where to go. There will be orders for active duty members and separate orders for family members. When it comes time for filing for reimbursements, the claims will be separate, too. Depending on what is included, reimbursements will cover travel, lodging, and food – similar to PCS orders.

Hurricane Harvey 2017

As Hurricane Harvey took aim at Texas, Zackman and her family of five (plus two dogs), decided to leave. At first, they planned to stay because this was not their first experience facing down a hurricane, going as far as to stock up on nonperishable food and water. But when Air Station Corpus Christi gave permission to evacuate, they packed up and left.

They gathered up the kids, pets, and belongings and drove a few hours away to San Anotonio, Texas. Even as they were leaving, Zackman said she was not sure evacuating was the right decision. There were so many unanswered questions: Were schools going to close? When would the power come back on? Would their house be standing when they came back?

“Once we were to the hotel and the category had increased to a four I knew we did the right thing,” she said.

If it happens again, she said, she would set a marker at which her family will evacuate.

“Looking back now I think my husband and I need to determine what specific category of hurricane we would decide ahead of time to leave,” Zackman said. “Leaving it up in the air was a very difficult choice whether to stay or go.”

Morgan Knauss, her four kids, and their dog evacuated from their home in Texas to get out of the path of Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Morgan Knauss.

Morgan Knauss, her four kids, and their dog evacuated from their home in Texas to get out of the path of Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Morgan Knauss.

Knauss has been through evacuations before, so when Harvey started barreling her way in Corpus Christi, Texas, she was ready. But she knew she would have to go it alone. Her husband is an aviator and part of the crew that moves Coast Guard air craft out of the path of the storm.

Knowing that she might have to take their four kids and dog to another location quickly, she started to prepare.

“We had prepped the yard and I made sure our ‘go folder’ had all our important documents in it though just in case,” she said.

As Harvey gained strength, Knauss made her evacuation plan. She was going to head west, to Laredo, Texas.

“I made a final decision to leave about 30 hours before landfall. We were on the road within two hours of making that choice,” she said. “When I saw that the storm was predicted to strengthen into a Cat 3 and put a direct hit on Corpus, I was not sticking around.”

That early planning kept her stress level a little lower.

“Thankfully my kids (and dog) have turned into great little travelers,” she said. “We got on the road before a lot of people did and managed to avoid traffic that other people hit.”

They stayed in a hotel and watched the storm from afar. They were anxious about how their neighborhood would fair. A neighbor posted a live Facebook video of her neighborhood, showing each house along the route, so that those who left could see the aftermath.

“We were able to see our homes and it was such a relief knowing they were still standing with minimal damage, from what we could tell,” she said.

She’s grateful the hurricane didn’t veer just a few miles off is path.

“I feel incredibly lucky,” Knauss said. “Had Harvey made landfall just 10 to 15 miles south my home may not be standing right now.”

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew’s path of destruction in 2016 went from the Caribbean up the Eastern seaboard. Coast Guard and Navy families who were stationed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba were evacuated ahead of the storm. McNally and her family were part of that evacuation.

“It was really stressful,” she said “especially as far as prepping everything ahead of time.”

They prepared their home, made sure their boat was safe, and then waited for the evacuation.

To add chaos and confusion to their situation, during the week before the storm, the McNally’s daughter had been placed in the special needs program, and they were told they would have to relocate to another duty station that would allow her access to appropriate medical care. So they were waiting for unexpected emergency orders at the same time they were facing a hurricane evacuation.

They knew that soon after their return, whenever that would be, that they would have to arrange for a move.

“Everything was kind of last minute,” McNally said. “Everything was hurry up and wait.”

On their son’s first birthday, the McNallys were evacuated with five other families, including pets. They were flown to Air Station Miami, and found a hotel there. But then Matthew started to move into that area, so they moved the whole family and the dog farther inland to ride out the storm.

After a week, they went back home to their home in Cuba. Within two weeks, they moved away.

Meanwhile, up the coast, Williams and her family were awaiting Hurricane Matthew’s arrival in Savannah, Georgia. She decided to evacuate with her two children, which her husband stayed back.

The destruction to the Williams’ home in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Photo courtesy of Marci Williams.

The destruction to the Williams’ home in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Photo courtesy of Marci Williams.

“I was honestly sad to leave without John, but as a Coast Guard wife of 19 years, I knew he’d be taking care of his guys and helping at the air station,” she said.

Williams had no idea how long she would be gone. She just knew that if she left she could not come back until the evacuation order was lifted. She packed extra clothes and water, and found a hotel room for the night.

She traveled with another Coast Guard spouse and her children, and they tried to keep it as light-hearted as they could, considering the potential impending devastation. The families left ahead of the mandatory evacuation order, which meant that they could find a place to stay and they were not stuck in traffic, she said.

They stayed in Atlanta for more than a week, she said, and the aftereffects when they returned were shocking.

“It looked like something out of a movie when we returned. Debris, trees down, no power for a while,” she said.

The damage included their home. A tree went through the roof of their bedroom, landing on their bed, and crashed through windows on the upper floor.

“The devastation to our rental house was terrible,” she said. “It took nine months and over 40 different construction workers to fix the roof, attic, master bed room, and master bathroom.”

Hurricane Sandy

In October of 2012, Bilodeau and her family were stationed on Fire Island, New York, when Hurricane Sandy started to makes its way toward them. They thought they had their evacuation plans set, but it all went awry.

The Bilodeau family, just days after they were finally allowed back to their home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo courtesy of Stacy Bilodeau.

The Bilodeau family, just days after they were finally allowed back to their home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo courtesy of Stacy Bilodeau.

Stacy and her husband, and their 18-month-old daughter heeded the Coast Guard’s evacuation order, and had plans to make their way to a more secure place in Terrytown, New York. They had hotel reservations and their bags were packed.

Biodeau was 28 weeks pregnant, and just to be on the safe side, she suggested a quick stop at her doctor’s office.

“Before leaving to drive out that far, I suggested to my husband that we go to Stony Brook, New York, and check to make sure everything was okay with our son before we go all the way to Terrytown,” she said. “Well, things were not okay, and we ended up having to be induced into labor and having him during Super Storm Sandy.”

Upon leaving the hospital, they had to find a place to stay. By that time, the hotels were either full or without power. Luckily, a hotel was able to make space for them.

As the destruction from the storm unfolded, it got more difficult to get by.

“We were cut off from so much; gas was low or sold out. There was no power, so no way to pay with credit cards for anything,” Bilodeau said. “Supplies were low and people were going crazy. People had guns at the gas pumps, fighting over bread at the stores.”

By the time they were allowed to go back home, they had little food in the house (most of it had gone bad), and the water was not drinkable. The Coast Guard provided potable water, and the neighbors relied on each other to get by. The memory of it is actually a positive one, Bilodeau said.

“Even though it was crazy, our little Coast Guard family that was all stationed on Fire Island came together,” Bilodeau said. “We all cooked together and helped each other out. I had a new baby boy, and our family was safe. It has also made us more prepared for major storm events.”

Advice:

All five Coast Guard spouses lent their advice to others who may face the decision to evacuate:

Before the storm:

  • Keep your car fueled during hurricane season – trying to get gas to leave for an evacuation order can be challenging.
  • Get your home ready to withstand the storm, whether or not you will be there when it hits.
  • Make sure you have appropriate insurance coverage
  • Develop a plan for evacuation
  • Gather emergency supplies and put them in one place with all the lists and reminders you need if you end up evacuating.
  • Make a list of all of the documents you would need to take (birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, prescriptions, pet immunization records etc.). In an emergency, it is hard to remember what you need.

If you must evacuate:

  • Choose one person, preferably outside of the area, to be the contact person for the family. Everyone relay their whereabouts to that one person.
  • Take out cash – credit cards may not work everywhere.
  • Make activity kits for kids. Your evacuation location may be stormy, too, and there will be a lot of down time.
  • Make arrangements for your pets. They need a safe place to ride out the storm. If that is with you, make sure your evacuation location takes pets.
  • Keep track of what you spend and keep receipts. You will also need to know if the expenditure is for the family or for the active duty member – reimbursements are separate.

Resources:

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

District 8 Family Evacuation Guide: This document has detailed lists for supplies to gather ahead, what take if you must evacuate, what you need at a shelter, and tips for entitlements and reimbursements.

District 7 Hurricane Information: This page has helpful links to hurricane-related information, as well as updated official District 7 messages about storms.

Reimbursement rules and regulations: The Coast Guard Pay and Personnel Center has put together the necessary forms, explanations, and guidelines for getting reimbursed after an evacuation.

Emergencies can be difficult for the whole family. Previously, we have written about how to explain emergencies to kids, or how to respond to a variety of emergencies, and how to get medical help when you are away from home.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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