There's a basic, all-important decision that often has to be made in the face of impending crisis. That is, flight or fight ... bug out or dig in ... run or stay put.
We need to be prepared for either side of that equation. It's great to have all your stored food, tools, supplies, etc. that fill up your basement, because there are plenty of scenarios where all those resources will serve you well. But there are also a myriad of cases where the smart money picks up and gets out of Dodge. In that kind of situation, it's often going to need to be done on a moment's notice, so we need to have some resources packed and ready to go.
It's not always easy to make the right decision. Some folks have a hard time leaving their homes and possessions behind if there is a danger they will be destroyed.
One memorable example was an old fellow named Harry Truman who, in 1980, refused to leave his lodge on Spirit Lake in the shadow of the building eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington. He had run the lodge since 1928, and his stubborn refusal to abide by evacuation orders was given much media attention at the time. Of course he and his beloved lodge were lost in the catastrophic eruption ... his body was never found.
It's not at all unusual for stubbornness or ignorance to prevent folks from recognizing the nature of impending risks and to accurately assess their options. Paralysis is far easier to give in to than to leave it all behind. How many folks lost their lives to Hurricane Katrina because they chose not to evacuate, in spite of the most urgent warnings given by authorities? Certainly many hundreds ... perhaps thousands.
Sometimes, warnings do not leave any time for thought or regret. I suspect that immediate-threat situations leave less time for people to decide to stay put and instead demand their logical, instinctive responses to rule.
For example, there were some who recognized the coming tsunami a year ago and took immediate action that saved their lives. Wildfires or forest fires often provide some small window of opportunity for evacuation for those in their path. People who see an approaching tornado do not dally and over-think their options--they either get into their available shelters or they flee if none are available, depending upon their proximity to the funnel cloud.
The list of potential threats would be endless. Sometimes, we are given days to mull over our course of action. Sometimes only minutes.
And of course, there are plenty of events where no warning is given ... such as major earthquakes, industrial accidents, terror attacks, and on and on. In those events, survival can be affected by instantaneous reactions ... but of course in some cases, nothing can prevent the worst from happening.
The bottom line is, when we are given fair warning of impending disaster, we must be physically and mentally prepared to make the right moves.
I'm going to condense and simplify our choices to try to apply them to most situations, though of course you will be best served by keeping a clear head and calm demeanor in order to think through what must be done when you are faced with a potentially life-threatening situation. In most cases, your options would fall into one of these categories:
1. Dig-in. If you are at home or work or on other familiar ground and you know your available resources and shelter will provide you with what you need, this is often the wisest choice to make (and the one we often spend the most time building up in our preparedness activities). If you have a hardened, storm-proof shelter with supplies in stock, and you do not face a flooding or fire risk, or there is not an air quality situation that makes staying put a losing proposition, then you may very well opt to "stay home." After all, if most others are having to evacuate the area, you could find yourself in a dangerous gridlock or panic situation out there secondary to the major risk, but just as dangerous. So, if you are well postioned to stay right where you are and the risk is appropriate to your preparations, then stay put.
2. Bug-out. If you have no decent shelter and supplies available where you are, or the threatening situation will overcome your position (as in fire, flood, toxic gas), then you must pick up and go. If you are adequately prepared for this kind of event, you will have some needed resources packed and ready to go--in your closet, under your desk, and/or in your vehicle. Commonly called a bug-out bag, you'll want to have at a minimum, some drinking water, food, a change of clothing, cash, credit card, ID, a contact list, flashlight, first aid kit, needed medications, a surgical mask to filter airborne particles, a multitool, and cell phone. This list can be greatly expanded depending on your situation. (In the north, smart folks have blizzard bags in their vehicles that include blankets, food, matches, hand warmers, etc. in case we are ever stranded in our cars in the cold.) Figure that everyone should have at least a 24-hour emergency bag with them wherever they are. Many have a few bags ready to go that provide care and sustenance for a week or more. The Katrina aftermath was a good example of the wisdom in that approach.
3. React. No-warning disasters or threats require some mental acuity more than anything else. If there are adequate physical preparations on hand, that can often be of great use as well. I am thinking here in terms of a violent assault, a home intrusion, or a sudden geophysical act of God. Other potential scenarios could include a major transportation or industrial accident that releases toxicity or radiation into your area ... or an act of war that would include a chemical, biological, or nuclear event. If you have previously trained or prepared or thought through your options, you will be ahead of the game. If you are surprised with a situation that you have no ability to deal with, good luck. Don't obsess, but give some thought to your potential risks and figure out now what you might be able to do.
Above all, try to stay calm and within your capabilities as you try to deal with a situation. A human's heart rate reaches a certain level usually seen in "panic situations" when normal brain activity is impossible. (Think mass crowd panic.) Do not assume that you will always think or react rationally. Preparation, mental and physical, can help and will often mean the difference between life and death.