What It’s Like in FEMA and Red Cross Emergency Shelters

Last Updated: October 13, 2022

When it comes to hurricane and other natural disaster preparedness, most people focus on getting supplies for hunkering down at home.  Or they carefully plan for evacuation.

One key aspect of planning is missing here: preparing for a stay in an emergency shelter, such as the shelters run by FEMA or the Red Cross.

Yes, You Could End Up in a FEMA Shelter

No one wants to believe that they’ll end up in an emergency shelter.  We’ve seen images of them on the news and those shelters do NOT look appealing.

But the reality is that many people have no choice but to go to a FEMA/Red Cross shelter.  This includes people who prepare.

You might end up in an emergency shelter if:

  • You don’t have a car and must rely on transportation provided by the city to evacuate.
  • You don’t evacuate on time and it becomes unsafe to leave.
  • Your home becomes unsafe and you have to be rescued. The rescuers will take you to a shelter.
  • You can’t afford to evacuate (it typically costs about $1,000 to evacuate)


Don’t think you are invincible.  No matter how “prepared” you are, you could still end up in a FEMA shelter.  So make sure you are also prepared for a stay in the shelter!

What It’s Like in a FEMA Shelter?

emergency hurricane shelter

Even though FEMA gets a really bad rap, they generally do a good job of keeping people safe during disasters (though I suspect I’ll get a lot of backlash for writing that).

However, there are obvious pitfalls in their disaster planning.  We see this every time a disaster strikes and victims/evacuees are left without basic supplies.

My favorite story about an emergency shelter occurred during Hurricane Harvey.  When Zachary Dearing, a civilian with no medical or disaster training, arrived at the school being used as a shelter, he asked who was in charge.

He was shocked to find that there was NO ONE running the shelter.  As he said,

“The city named this as a shelter but did nothing to organize it.”

Instead of panicking or doing nothing, he took it upon himself to organize the shelter.

Dearing got together a group of volunteers.  He put them on 30 minute shifts checking people inside, including the many evacuees with medical needs.  The volunteers raided the classrooms for supplies they could use, and Dearing got the people in the shelter to pool their food and water so everyone could be fed.

Despite the fact that there was no power in the shelter (people were sitting in the dark since there was no backup generator) and no official organization, everyone managed to stay calm thanks to Dearing’s efforts.

Most emergency shelters do have staff running them and provide supplies.  However, I tell this story to show that you never know what to expect at an emergency shelter.  You’ve got to be prepared for anything.

Where are FEMA and Red Cross Shelters?

FEMA evacuation shelter in school

Most storm shelters are high school gyms, Civic Centers, or churches.  The conditions at these can vary drastically.  Don’t expect any of them to be comfortable.

As part of your disaster preparedness plans, you should look up which shelters are in your area.  You might even get lucky and have several nearby shelters.  Then you can pick which ones look the best, and also coordinate with friends/family so you all go to the same shelter.

You can Find a Shelter on the Red Cross website.

How Many People Will Be in the Shelter?

red cross emergency shelter

You could be sheltered there with hundreds of even thousands of other people.  If the shelter gets full past capacity, you might be sent to another shelter.

Expect about 20-40 square feet of space per person.  It will be crowded, loud, and you won’t have any privacy.

What Supplies Are Provided in Emergency Shelters?

Cots and Blankets:

Often, shelters will provide cots and blankets for evacuees.  However, there is no guarantee that there will be any cots or that there will be enough.  If you don’t bring your own cot or sleeping mat, you will be stuck sitting and sleeping on the cold floor.

FEMA shelter in North Dakota
This flood evacuation shelter in North Dakota actually has a lot of space for evacuees, but not many cots if it starts to fill up.

Food and Water:

Shelters will usually provide food and water.  However, it could take 24+ hours before any supplies arrive.  It’s also unlikely that you will get a hot meal until the storm has passed; shelters don’t use open flames when the storm is still raging.  If you don’t want to wait out the storm hungry, then it’s best to bring your own food.


The worst part of an evacuation shelter is probably the bathroom situation.  There can be dozens of people sharing one bathroom and the lines will be long.  You are expected to have your own toiletries.  Things can get gross when the shelter runs out of toilet paper and soap!


Most emergency shelters will have a backup generator so they stay lit even when the power goes out.  However, this isn’t always the case.  You’ll want to have a flashlight or emergency lantern so you don’t end up sitting in complete darkness.

What If I Have Special Needs, like a Medical Condition?

special needs evacuation shelters

If you have any special needs, the staff at the emergency shelter will try to accommodate them.  People with disabilities can usually be accommodated at emergency shelters.

However, if you have medical needs, then you should go to a Special Needs Shelters (SnNS) instead. These are different than normal FEMA/Red Cross shelters.

You may need to register ahead of time for the shelter.

In addition, there may be specific eligibility requirements to go to a Special Needs Shelter.  It is important that you research these shelters before a disaster hits so you know where to go.

Are Pets Allowed in Emergency Shelters?

There is a lot of misinformation floating around about whether pets are allowed in FEMA and Red Cross shelters.  In general, the answer is NO.  You cannot bring your pet with you!

What generally happens when evacuating with pets is this: You bring your pet to the emergency shelter.  The pet should be crated.  The staff will then take your pet to a pet shelter.

There are some emergency shelters which let you stay with your pet.  However, there are usually strict rules. For example, many pet-friendly evacuation centers require you to pre-register your pets.  You may also need proof that you live in the area (one more reason to have emergency documents in your evacuation kit), your animal’s vaccinations and medical records, and certain supplies.

pet evacuation shelters
A woman is rescued with her pet. The pet might not be allowed in the shelter with her.

Whether you are sheltering in place or evacuating, you will need to have these items prepared for your pet:

  • Pet food (don’t forget a can opener if bringing canned food)
  • Additional bottled water
  • Carrier/Crate: Most shelters won’t accept pets if they aren’t crated.
  • Leashes, collars, or harness
  • Litter box for inside carrier
  • Plastic bags for pet waste
  • Pet bedding
  • Pet medical records in waterproof binder: You will likely need proof of vaccinations for your pet to be allowed in evacuation buses or shelters.

What Should I Bring with Me to a Shelter?

You aren’t required to bring anything with you to a FEMA/Red Cross shelter.  However, remember that supplies might not reach the emergency shelter until long after the storm has passed.

If you bring certain items with you, then your stay there can be a lot more comfortable and less stressful (especially if you have children).

Why You Need an Evacuation Kit Packed

Everyone should have an evacuation kit packed and ready to go.   Even if you think you will be going to friends/family or a hotel, you still need an evacuation kit.  Why?

Evacuation plans don’t always go according to plan.  You might set out to a family member’s house only to get caught in traffic.  With the storm approaching, you might end up being taken to a FEMA shelter.

Or, all the hotel rooms might be booked.  You could end up sleeping someplace like a furniture store (like these people did).  You’ll want to have basic supplies packed so you stay comfortable and calm.

Evacuation Supplies Checklist:

*Marks optional items

  • Waterproof backpack/dry sack
  • Emergency documents: See a list of them here
  • Contacts list
  • Sleeping bag – read about survival sleeping bags
  • Sleeping pad or mattress
  • Bottled water
  • Food
  • Hygiene Items:
    • Baby wipes
    • Toilet paper
    • Soap
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Toothbrush and toothpaste
    • Feminine items
  • Prescription medicines
  • Several changes of clothing, pajamas, and a robe
  • Shower shoes
  • Rain jacket
  • Waterproof wader boots
  • Emergency radio: Read about them here
  • Cash, in small bills
  • Flashlight and extra batteries – Read about: Best handcrank flashlight 
  • First aid kit
  • Spare glasses and case
  • Map of the local area
  • Several plastic bags
  • Baby items
  • Pet supplies
  • *Comfort items
  • *Charging kit
  • *Water purification method
  • *Self-defense items
  • *Extra set of keys
  • *Earplugs and eye mask
  • *Tent If the shelter allows you to set up your tent, you’ll be grateful for the privacy. Read: best tents for survival.

Tips for Preparing for an Emergency Shelter Stay:

  • Remember that you might be wet when you arrive. If your backpack isn’t waterproof, then your change of clothes might be wet too.  Without any dry clothes or blankets to keep you warm, you could get very cold.
  • Have your evacuation kit packed: If you wait until the last minute, you’ll likely forget something important – like how this mom forgot underwear for her kids when evacuating!
  • Consider diapers for young children: The lines for the bathroom can be very long. Your children might have accidents while waiting.
  • Pack comfort items and distractions: Having toys for young children, playing cards or board games can relieve a lot of tension.
  • Bring earplugs and an eye mask: It will be loud and the lights will be left on. These will help you sleep.

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