How to Revise Your Emergency Plan Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Here are the precautions you should take if you need to prep for a natural disaster and evacuate

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Mother Nature doesn't always check the calendar—or pay attention to the news.

In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its Atlantic hurricane season forecast, projecting an “extremely active” 2020. This update followed a rough start to summer, with devastating floods in Michigan, wildfires in the Florida panhandle, and a turbulent tornado season in the Midwest.

And as of Sept. 10, wildfires continue to rage across the West, burning millions of acres.

That’s concerning enough in normal times, but during the coronavirus pandemic, evacuating when a natural disaster strikes becomes even more fraught—and logistically complicated—by the added worry of potential exposure to infection.

“Natural disasters won’t wait, so I encourage you to keep COVID-19 in mind when revising or making your plan for you and your loved ones,” said Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a May press call announcing the forecast.

More on Emergency Prep

Indeed, in light of the pandemic, you might need to adjust the emergency plans you made in previous years, says Greta Gustafson, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross. First, ask folks outside your area whether you could stay with them in the event of an emergency.

Ideally, you are staying safe yourself and finding loved ones who are also taking appropriate precautions and are not at high risk themselves. Remember that if you or the people you are staying with have been recently exposed to COVID-19 or are showing symptoms, you should quarantine in a separate room upon arrival.

The Red Cross and FEMA are also revising their normal emergency procedures.

Because of the need for social distancing, large congregant shelters like school gymnasiums are no longer the first option, though in the event of a large-scale evacuation they may become necessary: “Instead of opening large shelters, we’re prioritizing individual hotel rooms or dormitory-style rooms to make sure people have a safe place to stay if they can’t return home after a disaster,” Gustafson told CR.

The New State of Preparedness

The Red Cross recommends gathering your supplies now, because they may become less available once a storm is predicted or approaching. If you dipped into your emergency stash—canned food, bottled water, and other nonperishables—during the quarantine, make sure to replenish the supplies you used. It’s also a good time to check with hotels, motels, and campgrounds to see whether they've opened. And find out whether your local emergency management agency has adapted its sheltering plans, based on any stay-at-home orders or loosening quarantine restrictions.

Red Cross’ Gustafson recommends putting together two emergency supply kits—one for sheltering at home and another for evacuating. In both cases, plan on assembling a one-month supply of the prescription and over-the-counter medications you depend on. Keep your meds in a separate bag so that you can easily grab them no matter where you go. Here’s what the Red Cross recommends for each scenario.

Stay-at-Home Kit (2 Weeks of Supplies)
Gather everything you need to stay at home for at least two weeks, including food, water, household cleaning and disinfectant supplies, soap, paper products, and personal hygiene items. Don’t forget to stock up on face masks, something we didn’t have to think about in previous years.

Even if you don’t have to evacuate, you may be without power for an extended time. If you have a portable generator, make sure it’s in good working order and that you have a supply of gas on hand (gas stations may not be operational if they lose power, too). And make sure your carbon monoxide detector is in working order.

If you don’t have a portable generator, now is a good time to consider buying one. A portable generator can keep four to six appliances and electronic devices running—refrigerator, window air conditioner, TV, phones. Always place the generator at a minimum of 20 feet from your house, with the exhaust vent directed away from any windows or doors. More on top-performing portable generators below.

Evacuation Kit (3 Days of Supplies)
Your to-go kit should be a lightweight, smaller version of your stay-at-home kit that you can take with you if you must leave your home quickly. Include everything you need to be on your own for three days, such as food, water, personal hygiene items, and cleaning and disinfectant supplies that you can use on the go (tissues, hand sanitizer with 60 percent alcohol, and disinfecting wipes). Make sure that you have enough face masks for everyone in your household.

If You Need to Go to a Shelter

Gustafson says that the Red Cross is doing its best to ensure its shelters are safe. “Our goal is to provide anyone in need after a disaster with a safe place to stay, where they feel comfortable and welcomed,” she says. “To help keep people safe, we will work with local officials to put in place additional precautions.” Those include:

  • Setting up a health screening process for everyone coming into a shelter.
  • Creating an isolation care area for anyone who is sick.
  • Providing masks, tissues, and plastic bags. (It’s also a good idea to bring your own.)
  • Following social distancing practices, as much as possible, by staggering meal times and adding extra spacing between cots, chairs, tables, etc.
  • Providing additional hand-washing stations, in addition to normal restroom facilities.
  • Increasing wellness checks to identify potential illness, including self-monitoring and checking temperatures of both shelter residents and staff.
  • Enhancing both cleaning and disinfecting practices throughout the shelter.

Keep in mind, Gustafson says, that face coverings are not a substitute for physical distancing. Continue to keep about 6 feet between yourself and others, whenever possible.

For more on emergency preparedness, see our Storm and Emergency Guide and go to FEMA’s website, To track storms and forecasts, go to the National Hurricane Center’s website, at

The Safest Portable Generators

If you’re shopping for a portable generator, Consumer Reports recommends buying newer models that are designed to emit less carbon monoxide, or that have automatic shutoff sensors that turn off the units when dangerous levels of carbon monoxide are detected. CR members can read below about three generators that have at least one of these safety features and also are recommended by CR.

Mary H.J. Farrell

Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.