For a couple of years, I worked in disaster relief. Mainly, I worked in shelters during emergencies like hurricanes. I loved the work but unfortunately, there is only so much time in a day. Between my full-time job and responsibilities at home, I had to take a break from it. However, the experience was unbelievable and incredibly rewarding. You get to meet some wonderful people and it always feels good to make a difference doing something worthwhile. There is extensive training involved but it’s worth it. I decided to share some of what I learned from working in the shelters. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to utilize one, these tips should help make the experience a little better.
A shelter’s function is to provide food, shelter, supplies and first aid to a large number of people in an emergency situation. Keep that in mind if you ever need to go to one. It is not a hotel. Shelters are typically set up in school gyms or similar venues. There is a good chance that you are going to be in a large room with a lot of people you do not know. You will encounter a diverse group of people. Depending on where you live, what the disaster is and where you need to go to seek a shelter will determine whether you know anyone there or not.
Picture a school gym with rows of cots about one foot apart. This is where you are going to sleep with a roomful of strangers. You may or may not have access to showers right away. This depends on the facility you are in. Be prepared to wash up in a sink in a public bathroom, at least temporarily. If you can make alternate plans, you should. Stay with friends or relatives or travel to a hotel. A shelter is a place to be utilized when there are no other options. This is why having an emergency plan mapped out in advance is so important.
If you cannot make other arrangements and you find yourself needing the service of a shelter, here are a few tips:
1) Get a good Backpack – Buy a backpack that is only used for this purpose and have it packed and stored somewhere that is easily accessible in an emergency. You only want to bring what is necessary and try to fit it all in your backpack. The reason I recommend this is because you want to be able to carry all of your belongings with you at all times. Buy one with several zippered pockets inside the pack and consider a lock of some sort. I would also get a couple of Carabiner clips to attach to the pack. You can use these to hang your towel and washcloth to dry if need be. If you are going in a group, then you can take turns leaving someone to stay with your belongings. You are responsible for your belongings. There will not be anyone available to watch your stuff. That is why mobile is much easier. A backpack can be taken to the bathroom with you. It also will fit nicely under your cot and you can put the leg of your cot through the straps to ensure it stays put or use it as a pillow.
Above are a few pictures of my emergency Backpack. It is an Eastport Multi Compartment Skater Backpack (with high density padded straps). You will notice that it has two large straps that velcro across the front. They are perfect for hanging things to dry. You can see in one picture that I hung a towel on one of them. It also has a huge inside pocket that is almost the entire surface area of the front of the pack. The side has pockets to carry bottled water and snacks.
2) Packing – Keep in mind that you may be there for several days and may not have access to laundry facilities. I recommend that you bring hygiene supplies as well as a towel and washcloth. Ladies, if you will need any feminine hygiene supplies, bring them with you. There will not be any available at the shelter unless there is a dispenser in the restroom. I would also bring one of those small fleece blankets that you can usually buy cheap at a store like Walmart or on Amazon. They are warm, light and roll up very small for storage. You will receive a blanket at the shelter but I would still highly recommend bringing one of these with you. Include a trash bag to store your dirty clothes in. This way they will not soil your clean ones while in your backpack. Or better yet, when you are preparing your pack, take old or cheap clothes that you would be fine with throwing away.
3) Identification and cash – It is very important to make sure that you have identification on you, picture identification specifically. You always want to have some cash on hand. After a storm there may be no electricity and the only way you can buy anything is with cash. How much is a judgment call on your part. Never pull out your cash in a shelter. Let me repeat that, NEVER pull out your cash in a shelter! If you need to access it, then go somewhere where you cannot be seen like a bathroom stall. I have a pair of socks that have zippered pockets in them. They are perfect to store money, credit cards and ID. They are always on your person and separate from your backpack.
4) Medications – If you take medications, bring them with you along with a list of your medications that includes a list of your health conditions. Most shelters have medical personnel. You need to report to them and give them a copy of your medication list and let them know of any health problems. An example, if you are diabetic, the staff at the shelter needs to know that you may need supplemental food and that you may need refrigeration for your insulin. Be as cautious with your medications as you are with your money. If you are low on any medicine, when a federal state of emergency is issued for your area, your health care provider and pharmacy may be able to provide you enough medicine to cover you for 30 days.
5) Pets – You will not be able to bring your pets into the shelter with you unless it is designated to allow pets. Check your local shelters to see if pets are allowed. Do not assume shelters accept pets. This is a huge issue and I know that a lot of cities and towns are trying to or have come up with something for the pets. Click here for more information on preparing your pets to evacuate.
I hope that you find these tips helpful. It is not my intention to scare or discourage you. As I said in the beginning, you will meet some wonderful people in a shelter. I just think that it is important to have realistic expectations and be prepared. If you need to take shelter from an emergency, the situation is stressful enough as it is. Walking in unprepared and not knowing what to expect can make that much worse. For the most part, people are respectful of each other and come together during a crisis but that is not always guaranteed. A little preparation can make your experience a whole lot better.
Let us know if you have any other tips to help survive in a shelter.
Check out our other related posts:
- Sheltering in Place
- Preparing your pets to evacuate in an emergency
- Preparing for Power Outages
- Emergency Planning – Should I stay or should I go?
- Emergency Preparedness – Alerts & Warnings