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Lou’s Evacuation Emergency

January 28, 2013 (Updated: March 17, 2014)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

A few years ago, Southern California wildfires forced hundreds of families to leave their homes. While local agencies did an outstanding job of setting up shelters to house those who were displaced, many people found out the hard way that they were completely unprepared for evacuation, including a patient I’ll call Lou.

After living on the border of a national forest preserve for more than two decades, Lou and his wife, Evie, were awakened in the middle of the night. Firemen at their front door told them that a nearby forest fire was burning out of control and heading their way. Now they were under mandatory evacuation orders and had 10 minutes to get their things together.

In the panic that followed, Lou and Evie managed to collect their medications and scoop up their cat and dog, but that was about all. “The power was out, so we were doing all this in the dark. There were a lot of things we couldn’t find, like the boxes of photographs with a lifetime of pictures — vacations, grandkids, our wedding,” Lou told me when he recounted the story during an office visit. “We left so much behind — insurance documents, tax information, all my woodworking tools, and Evie’s jewelry. When you have 10 minutes to evacuate in the middle of the night, it’s just not possible to remember everything, let alone find it.”

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As Lou explained, there’s no time to think in a crisis. “One of the neighbor kids fell when he was running to help us get our things in the car, and we couldn’t even find a simple bandage to put on his knee. I know we had some, but when you’re in a panic, you’re just not thinking clearly.”

Lou and Evie had insurance, so, even though their house was completely destroyed by the fire, they were able to start over. “It was nice to have the insurance money because we had to replace everything — kitchen utensils, clothes, furniture — you name it, it was gone. All the things we take for granted and assume will be there — poof! The fires took it all.”

As a result of that terrible learning experience, Lou says he now has a first-aid kit handy for minor emergencies. But just as important, he has a bag with extra clothing, toiletries, a checkbook and additional ATM card, spare pairs of glasses for both Evie and him, and copies of important documents. “It takes months to replace so many things, and then there are some that are irreplaceable, like photos and jewelry,” he explained. “We never thought anything like that would happen to us, but you just never know. Last year, my cousin in Vermont lost his house to floods. So I’m on a mission now to make sure everyone knows that it can happen to them, and the best thing you can do is prepare for it.”

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