Fleeing a hurricane can be costly. Do you have the cash?

Blue evacuation route sign with arrow

Evacuating your home as a hurricane churns your way is more than a hassle -- it's a big, unpredictable expense.

But as the coast becomes more densely populated from Texas to Florida to North Carolina, it seems liability-leery government officials are increasingly willing to send residents packing.

Since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc along the Gulf in 2005, “mandatory” evacuations have become commonplace.

Floridians in the potential path of Tropical Storm Isaac could become the first evacuees of the season over the next couple of days.

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When that happens, the news features endless footage of interstate highways gridlocked with cars and trucks hauling kids, pets and belongings away from the storm.

But what you don’t hear about is the financial hardships such evacuations can cause.

Evacuation is never cheap. Even if your home dodges the bullet, you could be on the hook for hundreds or thousands of dollars in travel expenses.

First of all, when hundreds of thousands or a million-plus people evacuate a major metro area, there aren’t enough hotels in nearby towns to host them all.

If you don’t have a relative to stay with, it’s not unlikely that you could have to drive hundreds of miles.

When Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, people went as far as Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Atlanta to find rooms.

With the cost of gas these days, that could put you well over $200 in gas for the round trip.

Worse yet, you’re likely to take two cars since you might be bringing along lots of clothes, important documents, heirlooms, the dog and things that can’t be replaced.

So if you’ve got two cars, your gas bill is now double. It might triple if you have a teen who wants to bring a car, too.

Then you’ve got a hotel room that could run $100 a night, if not more, for at least three nights.

And it’s not like you’ve got much time for selecting a hotel. Things start booking up so fast, you basically have to take what you can get, no matter what the price or where the location.

Then you’ve got food. And you can try to pinch pennies, but I know from personal experience when we evacuated to Meridian, Miss., in 1998, that you need a little R&R.

Cram seven stressed-out people in a tiny room for three days, and something bad is going to happen if you don’t get some fresh air. You might catch a movie, wander around the local mall, go to a museum or hit a bar.

It’s not just the cabin fever; it’s sitting in front of the television, panicking and watching the Weather Channel for three straight days, that's going to drive you crazy.

There’s nothing you can do at that point, so you may as well just relax a little bit and try to take your mind off of it. In the process, you might spend a few more bucks.

If you don’t have the cash handy, you’ll more than likely throw it all on a credit card.

When a killer Category 5 is coming straight at you, you’re not going to think about 22% interest rates and debt. You just want to get the hell out of Dodge and be safe. You’ll deal with the bill later.

A bigger problem is that you may very well have some lost income if you’re not on salary. Most employers will cut you some slack on a two- or three-day evacuation, because everyone is in the same boat.

But others may have no choice but to dock your pay. And if you’re hourly and don’t use your sick or vacation time, you’re not getting a dime.

So if you’re making $25 per hour, you’d be out $600 in lost wages in three days.

But things can get worse. Much worse.

All of this assumes that your town dodges the bullet and you can return to an undamaged home and normal life in a couple of days.

That wasn’t the case in Katrina in 2005. Even though our apartment wasn’t damaged, we had no power for about three weeks. We were lucky and grateful that’s all that happened.

I’m young and enjoy camping, so it wasn’t a big deal for me to sweat it out by candlelight and eat meals provided by the National Guard.

But not everyone can or is willing to do that, especially if you have grandparents or children with you.

There’s the prospect that you could be in that hotel for weeks.

At some point, your homeowners insurance may kick in and cover you for what’s called “loss of use.” This is when your home is temporarily uninhabitable.

The insurance company will cover you for living expenses for the time being. But if you’re a renter and don’t have renter’s insurance, you’re on your own.

If it’s a big disaster like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike, you may also find financial assistance through FEMA or nongovernmental organizations in other cities.

But as tens of thousands of people who went through these storms can tell you, it's not always best to count on this help.

In any case, wherever you live, you should always have a good emergency fund in place. But it’s even more critical to have one when you’re living in a hurricane zone.

As most communities along the coasts find out, it is not a matter of whether you will have to evacuate, but when.

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