shelter during disasters

SHELTER is one of the  “Big 3” – in the “Top 4”

of the Basic Essential Needs for Survival.

Did this opening statement confuse you a bit – Good.  It is supposed to.

Now, if you have been following along in the Practical Disaster Planning program this statement will make sense to you.  It was written to help you remember the Top 4 Basic Essential Needs for Survival.

If you haven’t been following along in the program, then click here to learn more about how Practical Disaster Planning can present you with an easy to follow system that will help you get your family disaster plan together quick and easy.

As a review… The Top 4 Essential Needs [Air, Shelter, Water & Food] all have critical time periods associated with them.  If you do not address these essentials within the time periods specified – you can die. Those time periods are in varying time units of 3.

  • 3-Minutes for Air
  • 3- Hours for Shelter
  • 3-Days for Water
  • 3-Weeks for Food

However, regarding shelter – it really depends upon where you are located and the situation at the time.  If you are in South Carolina on a beautiful summer day, then you can easily survive for 3+ hours.

If you are in North Dakota during the peak of the winter season – there is a good chance you won’t even last the 3-hours.

So this time span of 3-hours for shelter is used as a guideline so the experts could rank the Basic Needs for Survival.  Bottom Line:  Shelter is critical and you cannot overlook the importance of making sure that you have it covered in your family disaster plan.

Also, shelter is more than just the structure or building that you are in. Shelter is a broad term that covers anything that offers you protection from the environment.

  • You are cold – you need to get warm.
  • You are hot – you need to get cool.
  • You are wet – you need to get dry.
  • You are in the sun – you need to find shade.

family-in-shelterShelter can be divided into 2 main categories:  Physical Structures and Clothing.


Structure: Being that the majority of us live in the city or suburbs, our house or apartment will be our primary shelter. However, being that shelter overall is so important; we must recognize it and give it a high priority. You may be forced to leave your homes due to your building becoming unsafe (examples; due to a fire, earthquake, etc.) or you may need to evacuate the area for safety reasons (wild fire, hurricane, nuclear accident, etc.).  You must have your safe destination shelters decided on and arrangements made before you need to leave to your secondary shelter.

What you wear: Clothing, Shoes, Gloves, Glasses, etc. What you wear helps you control the impact that the environment is having on you and your family. Making sure that you have the correct clothing for your specific situation is very important and needs to be addressed in your overall plan.

Let’s address Shelter as a Structure first.


As stated earlier, your house, condo or apartment will be your primary shelter.  If you are traveling, your primary shelter may be the hotel or motel that you are staying at.  These are your primary shelters, but you need to be ready if the situation dictates you must get out of your primary shelter or area.

Emergency Shelter: Certain events like Tornadoes, Terrorist Attacks, Social Chaos, etc. may dictate that you need to find shelter immediately from your environment.  Any type of shelter will be better than nothing during these events.  Look for stores, public buildings, businesses, and private residences; anything that will protect you from the dangers of the environment. Any (normal) human being will understand the situation and should offer you shelter until it is safe to go out.

Bug-In or Bug Out: You need to have your safe shelter options decided on before the event happens.

First of all – the decision to Bug-In or Bug-Out will need to be made by you.  You should be listening to the local authorities and pay attention to what they are advising.

  • Hurricane heading your way and they are advising to evacuate – then Bug-Out.
  • Winter Storm heading your way – you will probably be better of Sheltering-In-Place. Just make sure you have enough supplies and resources to last at least 2-weeks.
  • Train Accident where a chemical spill has impacted the area – that depends upon the types of chemicals that were involved. The authorities will have experts advising what the best position you should be taking.
    • For some types of chemicals it may be better to Shelter-in-Place because your home or office shelter will offer you better protection than if you went outside and became exposed to the toxins as you tried to evacuate the area.
    • Other types of chemicals may permeate right through your shelter walls and the authorities will advise you to evacuate as quickly as you can.
    • If you are NOT an expert in the toxicity of all the different types of chemicals out there – then listen to the experts and what they have to say about the situation. An emergency radio will be critical so that you can listen for these instructions.

If you decide to Shelter-In-Place, then make sure the structure you will be staying in has the structural integrity to hold up to the event that is about to happen.

Just use some common sense:  Remember the story about the 3-Little Pigs: Do you want to be in the House made of Sticks when the Wolf comes calling – or do you want to be in the House of Bricks?

Things to consider about your shelter selection:

  • safe-shelterIs the shelter structurally safe?
  • Does the shelter have good quality tight windows and doors with good seals?
  • Is the shelter located in a safe zone – or can it be impacted by other inferior buildings, structures, or other land objects that can diminish the quality of your shelter if things fall onto or are blown into your shelter?
  • Is the shelter located in a safe zone when it comes to the neighborhood? Is the area prone to people [The Bad People] who may take advantage of a disaster event and come to your shelter to take what you planned for? Or maybe even do you or your family harm?
  • Does the shelter area offer at a minimum; 3 routes that you can use to evacuate the area if need be?

Note: These considerations are only for the structural integrity of the shelter and the area that the shelter is located in.  Having the correct types and quantities of resources and supplies that you will need to survive, while you are inside the shelter, will be covered in other areas of the program.

Once you have determined that your house, condo or apartment [your shelter] is structurally sound and is located in a safe area, you will then want to decide on a “Shelter Room” within your shelter. Designate a specific interior room as the “Shelter Room”.  This room should be either have the smallest and fewest windows or better yet – no windows. 

A Shelter Room will be a critical asset to have, especially if you have determined that you live in a High Risk Level area for one of the following types of Disasters: Pandemics, Wildfires, Hazardous Materials, Nuclear Accidents, Terrorism, and/or Social Chaos.

Focus on making this room as the most sealed off room in the house.  This is where you will hunker down until it is safe to come out.  This may seem like a complex and daunting task that will be very expensive and difficult to pull off – but in reality – it is not.  You can seal off a room in about 15-minutes with just some common inexpensive items you can find at the local hardware store or home center for a few dollars.

Steps in sealing off and creating a Shelter Room can be found on our page for Hazardous Materials.

Important Note:  As you seal off the room to protect yourself and family from the toxins on the outside of the shelter – you will need to address the air quality inside the Shelter Room.   This is going to be a sealed room and if you don’t have a method to remove the toxins located inside the room – you run the chance that the concentration levels of these toxins will increase to a level that can make everyone inside sick – or worse.  The best way to control the air quality within a sealed room is with a HEPA Room Air Filter.  Depending upon the disaster event type itself – [ Pandemics, Wildfires, Hazardous Materials, Nuclear Accidents, Terrorism, Social Chaos, etc.] – the HEPA Room Air Filter will be a critical component in your Shelter Room.

Check out these pages regarding “Breathable Air”, “Protecting Your Air Supply” and “HEPA Room Filters” for more information on these topics.

So to summarize your structural sheltering requirements – if you decide to Shelter-in-Place.

  • The shelter building should be structurally sound and actually be able to protect you from the outside environment.
  • The shelter should be located in a safe area regarding both;
    • Safe from other buildings or structures falling onto it or be blown into it.
    • Safe from potential threats from the “Bad People” that would want to do you or your family harm or take your things.
  • The area must offer at least 3 routes that can be used to escape – just in case you do need to evacuate.
  • Have a Shelter Room designated and have the supplies available and ready to seal off the room – if it becomes necessary.

If the situation dictates you have to evacuate – you need to have shelter options addressed in your Bug Out Plan.

evacuation-pictureShelter options can range from very simple solutions – like going to a local relatives or a friends house for a couple of days …

… to much more complex solutions – like evacuating the entire area and looking for shelter a few hundred miles away.

Whatever the scenario – you should have several shelter options thought out and planned for before you need to bug out.


Note: It is very dangerous to Bug-Out if you don’t know where you will be going.  That is the reason your shelter options MUST be addressed prior to any disaster event happening.  Being forced to evacuate without knowing where your next shelter will be is creating a dangerous situation for both yourself and family.  Knowing your sheltering options is a critical step in any disaster plan.  


It will be critical to have a Bug-Out-Bag ready to go, if you need to evacuate locally to a relatives house or it you need to go long distance.  A prepared Bug-Out-Bag can be a life saver.

You should have a few shelter options identified for:

  • Local Evacuation – within 10 miles.
  • Intermediate Evacuation approximately 50 to 100 miles.
  • Long Range Evacuation at 300+ miles.

Local Evacuation Shelter Options:  

Staying with local relatives or friends:  This is a very common option.  Make sure to discuss this option with the people you would be staying with before any disaster event happens.  Don’t forget to discuss any pets, children, special arrangements or any other topics that the hosts should be made aware of up front.  It would also be a good idea to offer a reciprocal agreement to them in case they are ever in a situation where they may need to evacuate.

Also, if you do choose this option, remember you are a guest in their home. Bring your own toiletries, towels, food, etc., so that you don’t become a burden and abuse their hospitality.  You want to make your inconvenience as convenient as possible on them.  This is where your Bug-Out-Bag will come into play.

Your Car / Truck:  Depending upon your situation, you may want to consider your vehicle as a potential shelter location.  This obviously depends upon the size of your car/truck and how many people you are trying to shelter.  Sometimes, you may have no other choice, like if you’re coming home from work during a winter storm and you get stuck on the road.

Your vehicle, while not really the best shelter, can make a better than nothing shelter.  At least it will keep you dry and out of the wind.  Just make sure that you have an emergency car kit stored in your car for these types of events.

Your office or place of work:  Depending upon the disaster event, you may need to shelter where you work.  If a nuclear, chemical, terrorist, social chaos, etc., event happens while you are at work, it may be much safer for you to stay inside the building where you work, rather than attempt making it back home.  If this is the case, then an Emergency Work Kit and a Get-Home-Bag will be very valuable.

Also, discuss emergency shelter options that your employer can offer.  Can they offer a secure place for you to store your emergency work kit? Are they willing to store a couple of cases of bottled water, blankets, flashlights, food, etc., to make sure that their employees will be safe if they can’t leave the building?

Tent-Pic-OptimizedTents / Camping:  Sometimes you can bug out very close to your primary shelter.  An example would be where an earthquake has potentially damaged the structural quality of your home and it may not be safe to stay in [at least not until the authorities have checked it out and advised it is safe to go back in].

In a situation like this, if you have open space available in the area (like your yard, neighbor’s yard, a park, etc.) it may be feasible to temporarily pitch a tent and stay local to your home.  Obviously, this option depends upon the area and the safety of the area.

  • Safe from potentially falling debris from any structures that may have been damaged
  • Safe from compromised utilities like gas and electric lines
  • Safe from security issues associated with individuals roaming the area that may cause you harm

Also, think of the tent as a temporary shelter that you can use until you can find a more permanent type of shelter.  It doesn’t have to be an expensive one – just one that will keep you sheltered from the environment.   A tent is always good to have options.

Again, this is only a decision that you can make. But don’t wait until the disaster event happens to make this decision.

Many people in California who needed to evacuate due to the wildfires used this option.  Several local governments opened up fairgrounds, parks, schoolyards, etc. so that people could set up their tents until it was safe to go back into their area.  The number 1 reason they chose this option is because they were able to keep their animals with them.

Not just (pets like: cats, dogs, etc.), but also goats, sheep, rabbits, you name it.  Now before you attempt to go to one of these types of campgrounds, check with the local authorities to make sure the animals that you will be bringing are acceptable.  Don’t forget to bring the animals medical and vaccination records.

One of the benefits of using these public camping sites was that some of them were patrolled by the police or a private security services – so there was security on hand, and some had resources available like food and water.  It is highly advisable that you have some actual camping experience under your belt before you attempt this option.

Public Shelter:  Another shelter option you may want to consider is going to a public shelter as you wait until it is safe to return to your home.  This is a tricky decision to make.  Public shelters can range from dangerous, unhealthy, depressing shelters to a place that you can go to get a clean bed, hot meal, and a shower if you need to go. Again, do your homework beforehand.

The Red Cross offers a shelter locator page at  All you need to do is enter your address and it will advise you of the “OPEN” shelters in your area.  Note:  This information is updated every 30 minutes.  The site will give you the address of the shelter, the occupancy rating and how many current occupants it has.

Local Hotel and Motel: If you need shelter for just a few nights, a local motel or hotel might just be the thing you are looking for.  You will need to take into consideration any special considerations you may have.  Like pets, handicap family members, etc., and then make sure that the places have what you need.  Do your research beforehand.

To cover all of your options when it comes to an evacuation; you should identify 3 to 5 hotels / motels in your immediate, Intermediate and long range areas for evacuation.  This may take a half hour or so to identify these places, but during an evacuation, seconds count.  Record their addresses, phone numbers and print out their exact directions from your home to their place.  Periodically check up on your selections – just to make sure they are in operation.

Understand that there may be hundreds, and possibly thousands, of other people attempting to evacuate at the same time as you.  Already knowing exactly where you are going and knowing that the place will be able to cover your special needs will be a huge weight off of your shoulders.  This will allow you to focus on what you need to do during the actual evacuation, rather than where are you going and where are you going to be staying.

Here are some websites that will help you identify potential hotels/motels for your 3 zones:

Hotels near my location:


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