Any person who has ever considered the possibility that they may have to “Bug Out’ has probably given thought to evacuation plans, final bug out location, needed supplies and gear, and many other critical areas of consideration for such an event. The one big question that seems to be looming on everyone’s mind is…at what point do I pull the trigger? At what point do I actually make the decision to load up and go?
I’m confident that the question of “when do we leave” is a question that has been on a lot of minds in recent weeks and months because it’s the big question that my buddies and I have been asking ourselves. Let’s face it, it is a big question. For a lot of us who have bug-out plans, we actually love our current dwellings, however imperfectly located. My home is my castle, where family memories have been made for the past 6 or 7 years. It is my place of refuge and leaving it behind is not a decision that I’m going to make lightly. In fact, I will stay in my home (in town) until it is absolutely no longer viable. The question we must ask is, where is that line between staying and going?
To answer that question as best I can (I don’t think any one person actually has the right answer for everyone’s situation), I’ll share with all of you an experience I recently had. As I write this, it is the first part of May 2020, and regardless of how far into the future you are reading this, I think it’s a safe bet to assume you are well aware of the COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued the world.
It will take a little time to tell you about this experience simply because I want to start from the beginning of the planning stages.
In the spring of 2019, we (American Survival Co) planned an international survival course training event in Costa Rica. I’ve worked with my good friend Alberto Lopez who owns Costa Rica Survival before, and we wanted to do a joint Jungle / Coastal survival course together. Alberto is a great friend and having a local resident on board is a great benefit for these classes. Once the course was planned and scheduled, it was simply a matter of the clock ticking down to an amazing trip to Costa Rica! The course was scheduled for March 7-17, 2020.
Fast forward to late January / early February, and we all started to hear more rumblings about how the coronavirus might or might not impact us here in the United States. At that point, I didn’t really get the feeling that the virus was on the radar of too many Americans, and very few people were actually beginning to show concern.
About three weeks out from our trip (around the 7th or 8th of February), I started to pick up on little bits of information coming in from various news sources, and through my network from across the U.S. The things I was hearing were beginning to concern me. At that point, the worst of the virus was still in China, but I was concerned about projections of how the problems in China were going to impact the U.S. as a ripple effect.
The things I was hearing through other “HUMINT” (human intelligence) channels were concerning me as well. Of course, there were a ton of rumors, speculation, and false information circling, but if you build relationships with trustworthy, reliable people who aren’t prone to crying wolf, a lot of B.S. is filtered out before it ever reaches you.
To boil it down as simply as I can, as a general rule, the more consistently you hear a certain thing and the longer it remains in circulation while the other B.S. rumors and speculation gets washed away, the more likely it is that you want to pay attention to it. Sounds super simple right? Well, it really is that simple. The real key is that you have to pay close attention to the information very early on to have a head start before the masses begin to act. Study the information’s likelihood and staying power. Does this piece of information seem to be coming in from multiple sources? Is this piece of information generally consistent in its content? Have I been hearing it for a while now? (It could be a few days or a couple of weeks depending on the information and how serious it is). Using these simple considerations, you’ll be surprised at how much sooner you can “predict” what’s coming than the general public.
So, back to the trip…I was picking up what I considered to be enough intel about what may be coming down the road to at least be concerned about leaving the U.S. for 11 days. My main concern was something happening here in the U.S. while I was gone and me getting stuck in Central America, being unable to keep my family safe. I also had to consider my students! What about their safety and their families? As a leader, it’s critical to give consideration to those things as well.
At one point, I actually considered canceling the trip just because of what I suspected was coming (panic buying, people becoming unruly, etc.), but it hadn’t come to that point quite yet. Ultimately, I decided that the most reasonable course of action based on my concerns was to ensure that we could get out of Central America quickly if we needed to.
So how did we make our evacuation plan?
I contacted Alberto (it’s always great to have a local contact) and discussed our options. I told him what I suspected was coming and told him that if he could use his local contacts and guarantee pickup and evacuation at any time of the day or night, we were a go. Because we had a local contact in the area that I trust, this part actually required very little work on my part other than reviewing the evacuation plan and ironing out any issues that I may have seen. Alberto contacted me once he had assets in place and we went over the plan. Our trip would take us to southern Costa Rica near the Panamanian border to a remote jungle and then eventually to a remote coast for survival training. Multiple resources would be on standby if we needed to use them for extraction ranging from jeeps, boats, and vans from various sources. I made sure to have plenty of cash on hand as well so that if one of our links would have failed, I’d have money in hand to pay a local for a ride, etc.
We also modified the training plan a bit. We could still head off into the remote jungle for training, but it was a must that I would be able to gain access to a cell phone signal at least once a day in order to check comms and evaluate the information I was seeing. I set up unlimited international calling and data before the trip (it cost me $10 per day) so that I could monitor the situation back in the U.S. as well as to see if things were heating up in San Jose, the capital city we’d need to fly out of. With the emergency evacuation plan in place, we were ready to go.
Without a local contact in place, this would have been a lot more difficult and time-consuming. Not impossible but definitely more concerning without established relationships in place to have confidence that your ride will actually show up when you make the call.
At this point, I’m really hoping that you are seeing a trend…pre-planning! We can’t just hope everything will work out on its own. We need to try to identify potential problems long before they arise and have plans A, B, and C in place just in case the worst does happen.
When we arrived in Costa Rica, there was only one confirmed case of COVID-19. We spent the first night in San Jose and departed the next morning on a 6-7 hour journey down the southwest coast. We arrived in the jungle base camp without incident, and the next day and training began. I was able to get cell service in a nearby river (really, what we’d more likely call a big creek) and no, I didn’t misspeak when I said “in” a nearby river. I literally had to stand in the middle of the river to gain a cell signal.
For the next 5 days, I would make my way down to the river in the morning and in the evening to gather whatever information I could through Facebook, texts, news sites, and even a few phone calls. With each new day, I saw more information come to light that concerned me, but it wasn’t enough to pop smoke and bailout yet.
However, on the fifth morning, more information came to light that was cause for serious concern. Not only was panic buying in the U.S. at full force, but it was also starting to happen in San Jose as well. Alberto used his local sources to gather information as well, and the sum total of information we were coming up with just didn’t look good. For example, a huge portion of Costa Ricans earn a living through tourism. That morning alone, 8,000 excursions had been canceled according to the network Alberto was tied into. If half of a country’s economy is directly related to tourism and tourist spending stops abruptly, how long do you think it takes to impact the local economy and the people? Things like that can create desperate people who become capable of things they normally wouldn’t do. So, we decided to meet with the students and give them a break down of the information we’d picked up. No one thing, in particular, was really a deal-breaker. It was a combination of various information from multiple sources that, when totaled, concerned the team.
I won’t bore you with every little detail, but I do think it’s important to share some of the details so that you can get a bigger picture of what we were seeing. On top of the panic buying (and fighting in some cases) in the U.S. and Costa Rica, international flights in and out of Europe had been halted the night before. For security reasons, I can’t disclose who but, a significantly wealthy and well-known individual had canceled their quickly approaching trip to Costa Rica. This was a person with access to far more and better intelligence gathering abilities than I. I’m talking about a person with private jets, yachts, helicopters, etc. If anyone could get out if things got bad, this person would definitely have the resources to evacuate …and they had canceled their trip. Italy was getting hit really hard with the virus, and the number of cases in Costa Rica had increased from one to 25 over the last 4 days. Some travelers were actually being quarantined in Costa Rica for a minimum of two weeks before they could leave the country. It wasn’t looking promising.
We met with the students and basically told them all the information we’d picked up on. We told them our intent wasn’t to scare them or to freak them out but that it was important that they were made aware of what we were seeing. It was important to make an informed decision about continuing on for the next 6 days or to break camp and head home while we could still get out. Ultimately, all of the students were on the same page, and we made the decision that the best course of action was to get out of there as soon as possible.
I walked down to the river and attempted to call the airlines to find out about changing tickets for an earlier flight. However, a day or two earlier, flights had been restricted from Europe, which ultimately created a situation where the airline’s phone system had become overwhelmed. At the time, I could only assume people trying to get home from Europe had bogged down the system. No problem, I had a data plan! I could just change my flight online! Evidently, the same problem was happening with their website as well, so we couldn’t get any information as to whether or not we could even change our flights. Of course, I became more concerned that we weren’t the only ones in Costa Rica that were picking up on all the information floating around. With it being the height of the tourism season, I was beginning to suspect that a lot of others may have come to the same conclusion, and it would cause a huge bottleneck at the airport.
At that point, our best option was to make a break for it and just hope that we wouldn’t encounter chaos at the airport. Alberto started making phone calls to local assets that were in place and got our evacuation plan set in motion.
About an hour after making the call, jeeps arrived at our jungle base camp. We loaded all of our gear, broke into two groups and headed off to the coast about 16 miles away to make our next connection. We arrived at the beach and waited about 45 minutes before a boat literally backed up onto the beach for us to load up. While we waited, we observed a lot of tourists around the beach going about their day. We’d been in a pretty remote spot without interaction with anyone outside of our group. Obviously, as far as we were concerned, it was time to get out of dodge. On the other hand, here were all of these people without a care in the world. There were no obvious signs of them being concerned or even aware of things happening in the world. This is where human normalcy bias can be dangerous. Let’s pause here to make sure everyone is up to speed on what “normalcy bias” is because its an important concept to understand. The following definition is from Wikipedia and pretty much sums it up.
“Normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, and its potential adverse effects. The normalcy bias causes many people to not adequately prepare for natural disasters, pandemics, and calamities caused by human error. About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias during a disaster. The normalcy bias can manifest in response to warnings about disasters and actual catastrophes. Such disasters include pandemics, motor vehicle accidents, natural disasters like a tsunami, and war.
Normalcy bias has also been called analysis paralysis, the ostrich effect, and by first responders, the negative panic.”
If we had done what most humans do and just queued off of the baseline behavior of people around us, it would have been easy to drop our concerns and go right back to having fun and enjoying our trip. Understanding that normalcy bias has been the demise of countless people is a great motivator for ensuring you don’t fall victim to it. I can tell you with certainty that we were not going to queue off of the baseline behavior around us.
Once we boarded the boat with our gear, the ride took us about 30 minutes out on the ocean before we turned up the Sierpa river in one of the most remote parts of Costa Rica, the Osa Peninsula for another 45 minutes. We arrived in the town of Sierpa and docked at a small restaurant while we awaited our next transfer onto a van that would carry us to San Jose.
After 5 hours of waiting, our transport arrived, and we were off to find out what the situation at the airport was like. It was still a crapshoot as to whether we could get our tickets changed to a sooner flight, but one of Alberto’s contacts at the airport had at least confirmed that traffic hadn’t gotten crazy there yet. When we finally arrived at the San Jose Airport, all was calm. In fact, it was not busy at all. It was about 11:15 p.m. when we arrived and made our way to the ticket counter to see if we could change our tickets. There was a flight that would be departing at 1:15 a.m., and we wanted to be on it if we could. Without any fuss (or additional cost), they promptly changed our tickets to the new flight, and we headed to a mostly empty gate to await our flight out of there. We boarded the plane without incident and were on our merry way. After a short layover in Dallas, we were on the last leg of our journey. A short 45 minutes later, we touched down at our home airport in N.W. Arkansas.
Now that the story is told and you have the details for our considerations and decisions for how we responded, the big question is…did we make the right call in cutting the trip short?
Let’s break it down in what the military would refer to as an A.A.R. (After Action Review) or a Hot Wash.
We didn’t know how bad it was going to get with unrest at home or in Costa Rica, but the dominos were certainly in place to fall. All of the signs were there to see (for anyone paying attention) that the situation could turn bad very quickly.
The day before we were supposed to fly home, the Costa Rican government shut down the borders to the country. There was a lot of chaos with tourists trying to get out of the country, and from what I understand, quite a few were stranded there for a decent amount of time.
In fact, as I write this, there are still Americans stranded outside the U.S. in Central America and some other places trying to get home. We are talking about people being stranded for a period of weeks and even months.
If we’d have stayed the full duration of our trip, would we have been stranded? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s evident in hindsight that it was a very real possibility. What if things had progressively gotten worse in the U.S. while we were stranded in a foreign country unable to get home to our families? It was ultimately an assessment of risk versus reward – simple risk assessment and risk management. It is wise to err on the side of caution, especially when the stakes are high.
Looking back, would I change anything that we did or the decisions we made to evacuate the country? No way! We had plenty of concerning evidence to warrant making the call we did! We are talking about some pretty serious implications had things went the other way, and we’d stayed.
With that story told, I want to come back to where we began this article. How do we know when it’s time to bail? At what point do we abandon our home, apartment, condo, etc. and make a break for safer territory? That my friends is the question of the year for 2020!
I’ll leave you all with something I read in a book by Lawrence Gonzales called Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. In one of the chapters, he talks about multiple groups from around the country who had planned big white water rafting trips. These groups were from different locations and didn’t know each other, but they’d all come to this big river for the white water rafting adventure of a lifetime!
Many of them had planned this trip for over a year, traveled great distances to be there, and had spent a lot of money as well. When the morning came for them to put their rafts in the river (there were multiple guide services being used), the river levels were beyond high. There had been a gully washer, or as some would call it a hundred-year storm that had created conditions in the river that were so rough, there wasn’t even a white water classification for it. As the separate guide companies were evaluating the river with their clients, decisions had to be made.
A few guides took one look at the river and told their boat crews that it was simply too dangerous to attempt as they watched huge logs tumble down the river in front of them. They told the adventure seekers that they understood what an ordeal and expense it was for them get there but that it was just too dangerous to chance it.
The guides made the final call, and they weren’t willing to risk the danger level in the pursuit of a good time.
There were two or three guides, though, that allowed their customers to talk them into putting their rafts in the river and heading off for adventure! Those guides were experienced. They stood there looking at the river conditions and knew exactly how dangerous it was, yet they went anyway. They allowed inexperienced people to talk them into a disastrous decision because they didn’t want to miss out on their fun after all the trouble they’d gone through to get there.
The very people who were in charge of safety allowed people without a real clue of the dangers to persuade them, and the price they paid for that mistake was high. Quite a few people died in the river that day. The dead included guides and adventure seekers alike.
What made those adventure seekers insist on heading down the river even after they were told how dangerous the situation was. There are probably multiple reasons, but one that sticks out to me is that they were over-invested. The guides over-invested in keeping a customer happy and the customers over-invested because of all the planning, time, and money spent leading up to the trip. They were so invested that they weren’t willing to recognize undeniable information right in front of their eyes. Information that was so critical, it was literally the difference between life and death, and they’d simply ignored it altogether in the pursuit of fun.
Hopefully, the time won’t ever come where you have to decide to stay or bug out, but if it does, take the time to evaluate the information you have. Information changes frequently, so use the most current and accurate information to guide your decision-making process. Don’t allow yourself to be overly invested in a plan, idea, or staying home until its too late to leave simply because of something you thought versus the information that was staring you in the face.
I truly hope you gained something from this article and that you take something away from this that you can use to make sound decisions if the time ever comes.