How to Escape New York During a Catastrophe

How to Escape New York During a Catastrophe

by K.C.

About two years ago, we moved our family to New Jersey so that my wife and I could pursue jobs based in New York City. Our commute is about 23-25 miles each way and as a result, we use public transportation to bring us back and forth from work.

Since our move, we have experienced an earthquake, a “snowpocalypse” and two hurricanes; the most recent being superstorm Sandy, which wiped out key transportation and electrical grid infrastructure; some of which is still being repaired like Hoboken station.

Additionally, New York is the unfortunate target of terrorists, even as recent as this past October, a Bangladeshi man was charged with trying to blow up the Federal Reserve building in New York.

About a year ago, my wife and I took a long overdue “couples getaway” and as we were driving along the California coast, we were listing to the radio and one of the stories was about 9/11. Our conversation turned to that fateful day and how would we have managed to get home if we were working in the city, remembering the pictures of thousands of New Yorkers walking out of the city across the myriad of bridges.

It’s easy to forget that Manhattan is an island with restricted access dependent entirely on a system of tunnels, bridges and water taxis to access the city. Couple this with the fact that there are about 66,000 people per square mile and you find yourself in a potentially difficult and dangerous situation should a disaster occur.

With this realization, we decided that we needed to assess the situation and determine an emergency plan with the objective of getting us off the island and to our home 23 miles away without access to personal vehicles. Like any large, complex problem, we decided to break it down and create a critical path to make a plan. We netted out 6 key questions to explore:

  1. How will we find each other?
  2. How will we communicate with one another and/or family?
  3.  What modes of transportation can we plan for?
  4. What are the best exit point(s) off the island to get us to our home in North NJ?
  5. How long will it take us to get home; the best and worst scenarios and how will we navigate home?
  6. What should our get home bags (GHB) contain and what are the legal restrictions we need to be mindful of?

Below, I will outline our conclusions, but I will be leaving out certain details for obvious reasons. However, I hope that the questions and conclusions might help other folks that are in similar situations. Also, it will be great to get your collective perspectives on the plan that might help us refine/upgrade, etc.

How will we find each other?

My wife and I work in different parts of the city. I work in the Flat Iron district and my wife is up past Grand Central Terminal. The total distance between us is around 1.5 miles so not too far. However, a lot of times, either one of us are out and about meeting with clients all over the city and neither of us would know that we were out of the office should an emergency ensue.

As a result, we realized that we should predetermine meeting a meeting spot should a situation arise where we needed to evacuate the island. As we started to evaluate a meeting spot, we realized that we needed more than one due to the fact that the spot needed to be predicated on when and where an event occurs. For example, what if we picked Times Square and that is exactly where an incident or emergency occurred?

As a result, we segmented Manhattan into two zones, North and South, with the rule that if an issue or event happens in one zone, we would meet in the “safe zone.” If no actual event occurs in either of the zones, and we are facing a general evacuation, then we would meet in the north zone, assuming our exit points are still operational (more on that later). Within these two zones, we have picked a spot to meet.

At first, our inclination was to meet at some popular tourist attraction. After thinking about it, we realized that this was a bad idea and that we should identify two places close to the river but away from popular tourist attractions. From this spot, we would assess our exit options off the island.

There is the reality that one of us might not be able to make the meeting point for a myriad of reasons. The cold truth is that it could be a reality and that our highest priority is getting back to the kids. With that in mind, we established a “waiting window” that if one of us didn’t show up within that window of time, the other would start navigating towards home alone with the hope that the other would make contact later and rendezvous along the route home, assuming we are able to.

How will we communicate with one another and/or family?

When the earthquake hit in August of 2011, it was impossible to make calls with your cell phone. Texts had a 50/50 chance of getting through. The landlines seemed to work fine but if you were calling a cellphone from a landline, odds are you would get a busy signal.

Also, if there was a more dubious situation, a common tactic for police are to shut down cell service as a means of crippling signals that might be used for coordination and/or other outcomes. Walkie-talkies are an option but with all the tall buildings, success for long-range contact will most likely be slim.

Our first objective is to establish contact with each other before obtaining contact with our family at home. With communication being impaired on the island, we realized that we need to start heading to our predetermined meeting place, with an objective of initially cutting straight west over to the Hudson riverbank as soon as possible, regardless of which meeting zone we pick, so that we would maximize the ability of either grabbing a cell phone signal from the NJ side of the river or getting a better signal for the walkie-talkie.

In terms of contacting our family, it is our assumption that we wouldn’t be able to get a line of communication until we got off the island and into New Jersey. We determined that my wife’s sister, who lives between our home and Manhattan would make a great relay and would be our back up plan should we not be able to call home. We do have a set of walkie-talkies at home but we highly doubt that they will be useful 23 miles out.

We have instructed our children’s caretaker to monitor the walkie-talkie but set the expectation that it was possible that they wouldn’t hear from us until we got close enough for a clear signal. The most conservative expectation we decided to set was that odds are that if the situation is really bad, you probably aren’t going to hear from us and that our care taker’s main objective is to contact the children’s grandparents (live just a few miles away) and bring them to our home ASAP so that she can get to her own family.

Also, we can’t expect a non-family person to prioritize our kid’s welfare so we wanted to make it crystal clear that she should get our kids taken care of ASAP. We also set expectations about how long it could possibly take for us to make contact given a worst-case scenario, both to help the family calm and to enable the grandparents with timelines should they need to make critical decisions. More on timelines later.

What modes of transportation can we plan for?

There are three segments to the journey home we needed to plan transportation for:

  1. Getting to the meeting spot
  2. Traveling from the meeting spot to exit point off of Manhattan
  3. Travel from Exit point back to home

Next, we discussed what modes of transportation we might have access to (or could acquire in advance or at time of need) during our journey home, keeping in mind that we take public transportation back and forth to work (e.g. no car):

  1. Feet
  2. Folding Bikes
  3. Good Samaritan with car/Hitch Hike
  4. Limited Public Transportation
  5. Paying off a taxi driver
  6. Paying off a boater to ferry us across the river

Each one of these options is going to be dependent on the severity of the emergency. For example, if the emergency is minor, the odds of leveraging taxis, boats and public transportation are high. If the emergency is major, we will be stuck with feet, folding bike or possibly a Good Samaritan.

A Good Sam is very unlikely if you have spent any time in NYC. Pregnant women and older folks are constantly knocked around on the subway just to take a seat from them. It’s not very often you see a gentleman here in NYC! Anyway, like most folks, we hope for the best but plan for the worst. With this in mind, we came to the following conclusions:

  1. Feet: We will be doing a LOT of walking and we need to take this into consideration with our GHB
  2. Folding Bikes: These mini folding bikes are very popular here in Manhattan. Very common to see in someone’s office by or under their desk. I found 3 folding bikes in Manhattan with small cargo racks for under $175.
  3. We had three major concerns when it came to the folding bikes:
  4. Would the bikes make us a target in a major emergency?
  5. What if one of us didn’t have access to our bike (attending a meeting out of office) and had to proceed on foot? Could two of us fit on a tiny mini bike and would the benefit in speed make up for any gear we would have to leave behind (assuming both GHB’s couldn’t fit on a mini bike with two riders)
  6. My wife is a complete klutz and has no coordination…..

In the end, $300 spent on used folding bikes seemed like cheap insurance to us and provided alternate transportation for normal situations where maybe taxis or subways were undesirable.

You might be asking yourself why I am not more bullish on the subway option. I was at first but that was before the post-Sandy transit experience. People are losing their tempers, yelling, etc and this is over silly things like making room for a passenger to sit.

The thought of being stuck underground, packed like sardines with super aggressive New Yorkers in an emergency situation didn’t seem to be a smart move. So regardless if there is a minor or major emergency, I am avoiding the subways. Plus, for some reason, I prefer the options available above ground vs. below ground.

What are the best exit point(s) off the island to get us to our home in North NJ?

Manhattan is 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide. There are 14 bridges and 5 tunnels accessible by car and in some cases foot (I don’t believe the tunnels allow for pedestrians under normal circumstances). There are another 11 train tunnels and one train bridge. For access directly to NJ, here are our options:

  1. George Washington Bridge (GWB)
  2. Lincoln Tunnel
  3. Holland Tunnel
  4. NY Water Taxi to Hoboken

The best option is the GWB followed by the Water Taxi. The tunnels possess a unique danger; carbon monoxide poisoning. Even though the underwater tunnels are vented, the fumes build up very quickly.

One day, I rode my motorcycle into the city and instead of taking the GWB, I took the Lincoln Tunnel. What a mistake. When I got to the other side, I felt like I had a hangover that would rival a 3-day bachelor party binge in Vegas.

Although these are options, they aren’t the best options in my opinion. You would have to have a pretty good respirator to make it across without getting sick IMO.

If for some reasons our direct routes are inaccessible, we will be facing a very long and circuitous journey home. If we head north, we will be on the wrong side of the Hudson River and the next bridge is very far away, being the Tappan Zee bridge.

If we go south, our options are to go through Brooklyn and find our way back from there. My bias is to go north as populations are smaller and the chances of finding a cab and/or working public transportation will go up. Also, outside of the direct routes, going north is the next most efficient route even though it takes us several miles north of our home.

How long will it take us to get home; the best and worst scenarios and how will we navigate home?

Assuming we have to walk, there are three likely scenarios where we assume the water taxis will be over capacity:

  1. We have to walk north up the island and then across to the GWB where we will have access to cabs and/or public transportation in Fort Lee, NJ. This is about 10 miles and will take between 3.5-5 hours to make it across assuming minor issues or delays. Assuming traffic back home once we catch a ride, other 1-2 hours making it a conservative total of 7 hours
  2. We have to walk north up the island, across the GWB and then all the way home. Assuming only minor issues or delays, this could take anywhere from 10-20 hours conservatively.
  3. We have to take an alternate northern or southern route through New York to alternative entry points into NJ where we had to walk home. These routes could end up doubling our distance to 40 miles which would most likely take 1.5-2 days assuming we have to stop and sleep for a bit. If we are able to get a ride or other transportation after leaving NYC, we estimate this would probably be anywhere from 10-20 hours but that is a wild guess as there are too many variables with this option.

The net/net here is that we believe that we could possibly not be heard from for 2 whole days or as little 7 hours. Obviously, the time of day we evacuate will also have impacts into timing and also how we prepare our GHB (get-home-bag).

You will probably notice that I didn’t account for the time it would take if we had our folding bikes. We figured if we used walking as our primary transportation option, we would set a more realistic/conservative estimation for friends and family.

This way, if we are gone for one day after a very serious emergency, friends and family won’t necessarily give up hope. But if day two goes by and we aren’t home, it is probably time to start making some assumptions and making decisions.

What should our get home bags (GHB) contain and what are the legal restrictions we need to be mindful of?

The topic of GHB’s have been discussed ad nauseam and we used these resources to build our bags. We have built our bags around a 2-3 day walk, assuming 1-2 overnights with limited access to food and water. Good shoes, medical, etc are all accounted for in our bags. What we ran into as an issue was in regards to options for protection. New Jersey and New York have some of the strictest rules around defensive weapons.

Forget guns; you can’t carry them anywhere; concealed or not. In NJ, if you have a fire arm in your car and you can’t prove you are heading to a gunsmith or shooting range, you will be arrested. Even BB guns, extendable batons and pepper sprays are illegal or require permits and would/could cause issues with authorities if found in the GHB. There is also no reciprocity. I may have a permit for my pepper spray in NY but it wouldn’t hold in NJ.

I also can’t license the same can of pepper spray in NJ and NY and transport it between states (click here to read MD Creekmore’s article on pepper spray). You also have to assume that your bag can and most likely will be searched by transit police, NYC police or military depending on the location (e.g. Penn Station has military, police, etc).

When I brought my GHB into the city, I put it inside my favorite suitcase just so I didn’t have to go through an inconvenience of a search, even though my bag has no items that would violate any law. So what options do I have? Here is what I have put together:

  1. Big Flashlight: Heavy and useful for light. Would zip tie on the bike for a head light, although we have head lamps in our GHB
  2. Ax: You can buy them at the home depot. This is a gray area that I will explain below. Also allows me to chop wood, etc.
  3. Tactical Gloves: These will help my hands a little bit if I have to use physical force to defend myself and also serve to protect my hands for climbing, riding, etc.
  4. Boots with steel toes: These are very well worn and have many hiking miles on them. Good kick to the head, knee or groin will give me an option to run away or defend my wife.
  5. Tactical pen (you can get a free tactical pen by clicking this link).

As you will see, each item is a multi-tasker which keeps the weight down in my GHB and/or gives me more space for other items. Obviously, I have a pocket swiss army knife but you need to be careful what you carry. Here is an excerpt of NYC law:

A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when:

(1) He possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sandbag, sandclub, wrist-brace type slingshot or slungshot, shirken or “Kung Fu star”; or

(2) He possesses any dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor, stiletto, imitation pistol, or any other dangerous or deadly instrument or weapon with intent to use the same unlawfully against another.

Whether a “knife” is a “dangerous” knife may be determined on the basis of three alternative considerations: one, its own characteristics which show that it is primarily intended for use as a weapon; second, a modification, which converts what would otherwise be a utensil into a weapon; and third, the circumstances of the possession which may reveal that the possessor considers it a weapon and not a utilitarian tool.

Read MD Creekmore’s article on Knife Laws in New York City here…

I guess my ax could fall into the camp of weapon if I consider it a weapon. Maybe I will be removing that from my GHB….might be too risky.


Working in NYC can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. But as I outlined above, it poses some unique challenges should an emergency arise that requires you to get home without transportation. Hopefully, my wife and I have planned sufficiently enough to get us home to our kids.

Our next topic for consideration is evaluating our situation should a bigger storm or something awful like an attack hits the island that requires people to flee NYC for long periods of time. Being less than 30 miles from NYC with limited resources in the area (farms, etc) presents scenarios where we might want to get out of dodge…..

M.D. Creekmore

I've been interested in self-reliance topics for over 25 years. I’m the author of four books that you can find here. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about prepping, homesteading, and self-reliance topics through first-hand experience and now I want to share what I’ve learned with you.

10 Responses

  1. Moe says:

    Good article. Perhaps you could make prior arrangement with a boat owner for passage across the Hudson. Or if there are large storage areas at a marina, buying a jet ski and storing it there is another option. Walking across the GWB with thousands of others could be a safety issue.

  2. Penrod says:

    Good article. Thanks! Back in the mid-1980s I spent a couple years in Spanish Harlem, 108th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. It was the Crack Wars era, tho it wasn’t a huge problem where I lived. Some, but not terrible. Still, I made sure I had extra food and water on hand, in case of problems which would have militated against going outside.

    Bridges: There are relatively few problems likely for NYC which would be worse in the short run than 9-11. So far as I know, there were no significant crime problems for people escaping the city on foot or bicycle via the bridges.

    A bigger problem may well have been inhaling toxic dust from the World Trade Centers. One of my nephews and his wife lived near the lower west side of Central Park, and a number of his colleagues walked from Wall Street to their apartment for shelter, covered with dust. I emailed him to suggest he have them strip in the hall, bag their clothes, shower, and wear borrowed clothes while in the apartment, but his too trusting response was threat ‘authorities’ were already assuring the public that the WTC had been built without asbestos. Wrong: the ban occurred during construction, and very large parts of the lower structures were fireproofed with asbestos. That ignored entirely the issue of toxic chemicals from the burning electrical equipment.

    Lesson: Do Not Trust Authorities. Their primary interest during a disaster is to prevent panic, which can kill large numbers Right Now. The possibility that some people will die twenty years later from asbestos simply is not on the priority list at that moment. People need to be willing to evaluate the situation as best possible with limited information and their own decisions, as you are doing.

    Remedy: If one of the disasters one envisions is some variety of a 9-11 replay, good masks should be high on the gear list, as should bottled water for washing out eyes, nose, and mouth.

    Shelter vs Evacuation: if one is in the Flatiron District and a dirty bomb is detonated in Times Square, the best response may well be to shelter in place for a few days. Especially so if the alternative is to walk far on the streets. Any fallout/radioactive contamination which cannot be washed off immediately poses a far greater risk than simply staying indoors in a contaminated neighborhood. If there is no viable alternative to evacuating at least a short distance, a full rainsuit or even a disposable poncho, mask, and swim goggles would let one avoid or dispose of most contamination.

    So, it is important to discuss which disaster scenarios are most likely, as well as those which are most dangerous, and figure out which call for both people evacuating, which may call for one to evacuate and one to shelter in place, or for both to shelter in place apart from each other.

    It might be a good idea to approach colleagues about the possibility of sheltering short term with them, in exchange for their sheltering with you if need be. My understanding is that a lot of Manhattan businesses have addressed the possibility of massive terrorism and how to respond, so this may not seem so crazy to colleagues. Even offering to buy a couple jugs of water and some food to keep with them may help.

    It sounds to me like you have come up with a workable plan suited to your own situation, especially the major child care issue. Good going, and thanks for your article.

    • Salem says:

      Absolutely correct about the toxic dust. A police mechanic who never left Albany died from exposure to the dust on the patrol cars that came back from the city. He qualified for Federal health benefits, but NYS law currently only provides 9-11 benefits for exposure to vehicles owned by the City of New York. State, local, Red Cross, etc. vehicles don’t count with the State.

  3. Billy Bob says:

    Was just outside NYC for 911. Made multiple runs from the NJ side of the GWB to Bergen county areas dropping people off. Had people loaded in the back of my pickup. Getting outta NYC after such an occuranxe would be a disaster. Worked in NYC for a short time. Had a inflatable kayak and a wet suit in my office. Planned on paddleing the hudson to get off the island. Depending on your fitness level maybe an option.

  4. Sandra T. says:

    You might want to readdress the bike issues. A folding bike is a great idea as it is convenient and accessible. An electric bike (my favorite: the Pedego City Commuter)would make it easier to pedal, your distance is about 25 miles before recharge, and you could get a bicycle for 2. Another option would be a cargo type bike. Nihola makes incredible bikes for just about every situation: carrying kids, pets, cargo, someone in a wheelchair, you name it. They are made in Copenhagen, where bikes are literally the only vehicles. Try to find a dealer in your area. The reason that you had so much physical trouble with your ride into work is that you are not used to pedaling that distance. Start working up to doing your commute on a bike daily. Your physical health will be optimum and your way out of NYC will be with you. Most businesses have a place to lock your bike up. Good luck.

  5. George in Winnipeg says:

    Excellent article, thank you. My wife, teenage daughter and I are travelling to NYC this summer for vacation and you’ve given us some very helpful information, especially around travelling around the city. I always feel vulnerable when I fly somewhere as I am limited in the preps I can bring. In this case having a good plan, maps with practical clothing and footwear may be the best we can do but at least it is something.

  6. MaineBrain says:

    My sister’s boss insisted on driving her home from Boston on 9/11, about 30 miles north, rather than have her take the commuter train, even though he lived several miles in the other direction. His father had been some big-cheese law enforcement official who always said, in an emergency, don’t use public transportation. I do worry about my nephew who lives in Manhattan.

  7. 123pieguy says:

    MD – would you please consider using a black and not a light gray text? I have not visited for two months because of the difficulty reading your articles. Still very light gray on white almost unreadable. Be back in a couple months to check again. Thanks. If there is some way I can make it darker on my Kindle I would appreciate any advice.

  8. Bwhntr63 says:

    Although a good article this reinforces a long held view of mine: there is not enough money to ever make me want to work in or even visit NYC or the Gestapo state of NJ. Both of their utterly anti- 2nd amndement, or plain old anti- right to self defense eastern attitudes and laws have convinced me to avoid them entirely. I can tell you evacing would be a nightmare, and even the fact you or your wife are carrying a pack that would seem to have some value WILL make you a target to the punks and gang types that will surely evidence themselves.