Go Back to Part 1: The Ultimate Hurricane Survival Guide
Step 14: Prelude Timeline
Finally, let's talk about the timeline. You should be charging all your battery-powered gear and power centers the day before the storm.
You should also be buying ice and gasoline; taping your windows with duct tape or covering them with plywood; filling your bathtubs with water; taking pre-landfall pics of your home and vehicles for insurance and legal purposes; and parking your vehicles on the third elevated floor of an enclosed parking garage.
You don't want to leave your car in an underground garage like the one pictured below, because they flood. That's me again, smoking a cigar the morning after Hurricane Ike in Houston and wearing my old FSU Lacrosse Team coaching rain gear (below left) from Boathouse. It's the driest, lightest and most comfortable hurricane suit I've ever found.
If you're not at home, you should be seeking out the oldest, thickest courthouse-type building you can find. If you're staying at a hotel, look for one with a pool and try to secure a room on the third floor. You'll be using the pool water to flush your toilet. Being on the third floor should keep you above any floodwaters, without wearing you out when you have to carry stuff up and down the stairs all day after the power fails.
If you're working as a reporter, try to find out where the first responders are staying the day before the storm makes landfall and get permission to shelter with them. That will keep you safe and give newsmakers easy access to you.
I always ask the first-responders for a few boxes of MREs and water bottles to distribute as I'm making my rounds. Once they get to know you they're usually pretty good about this.
Officials and responders are going to be in a bit of a confused last-minute frenzy just before the hurricane and things are going to be a chaotic mess. However, once the storm starts to hit they're going to have loads of time on their hands to talk with you.
Some will be frightened too, which can manifest itself in a more aggressive short-term stance with the media.
A manager at the power company in Beaumont, Texas, illustrated this hazard perfectly during Hurricane Rita. He actually ordered me to move my vehicle from their covered garage just as the leading edge of the storm began to move through. He was in such a panic he wouldn't even listen to my explanation - which was that his public information officer had directed me to park there. The same PIO also lodged me in an empty office on a vacant floor of their high-rise office tower.
There was plenty of empty space in the energy company garage. However, I wound up dodging debris as I walked about a mile back to the tower after moving my vehicle to another elevated parking garage in downtown Beaumont (right).
This kind of garbage is yet another illustration of the hazard posed by reflexive rule followers, cited earlier in this column. I realize now that I should never have listened to this particular Entergy executive.
Most business leaders don't act like this. In fact, I actually shared several meals and cigars with then Entergy New Orleans CEO Dan Packer (below right) in the days after Hurricane Katrina. A towering man, both physically and intellectually, he was friggin John Wayne in comparison to his panicky counterpart in Beaumont.
I still recall the first time I met Packer (below right) in downtown New Orleans. I was picking MREs off the ground when he saw the cigar tubes in my vest.
"Padron," he rumbled, staring intently at my chest. "That's a pretty good cigar for a disaster area."
I promptly offered a stick to the big guy in work clothes, without even asking his name.
A few hours later, we were eating steak, drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and discussing the timetable for city-wide energy restoration in the lobby of the battered Hyatt hotel. We did this several nights in a row with debris scattered around our lovely private table in the battered and shuttered restaurant, which reopened very briefly each night just for us.
It was a surreal setting for a meal at a time when there wasn't a single operating restaurant in the city. The hollow tower was like an enormous beehive and long white drapes fluttered high overhead from the rooms on the upper floors with broken windows and doors.
I wound up with several exclusive stories.
Step 15: Aftermath Timeline
You should start Day 1, the first day after the storm, by retrieving your vehicle. The walk to the garage will give you a good idea how bad things are.
As a reporter, I usually hit the bricks as soon as the winds fall to about 40 mph. Non-reporters should wait at least two hours after the storm has passed to give emergency crews a chance to deal with downed power lines and similar pressing hazards.
Keep a sharp lookout for low-hanging powerlines and cables when you're driving immediately after a hurricane, because they're a constant hazard. The cables can lop your head clean off if you're going fast enough, but typically just leave your windshield looking like a spiderweb.
You also need to keep an eye peeled for streetlights hanging low over intersections, especially at night. I screeched to a halt within a foot of one during Rita and it probably cut a year off my life. These lights are a lot bigger than you realize and it's a helluva thing to suddenly see the unyielding steel up close on the other side of your windshield.
The next step is to see how severely you and your loved ones have been hit, and what stores and gasoline stations are open.
This is the time to take some post-landfall pics of your home and vehicles for insurance and legal purposes. It's also the time to visit elderly neighbors, who often are hesitant to ask for help and to leave their familiar surroundings. You don't want to just call them, because a lot of seniors will tell you things are OK when they're not. You want to eyeball them and their place.
Let me be even more blunt: senior citizens will lie to you shamelessly after a hurricane about how much help they really need. They will say they're "fine" when they're not. I don't know why and I don't care. I just know it happens way too often.
You can usually perform these tasks while searching for ice, water, MREs and gasoline. You're going to spend a little bit of each day looking for these items until power is restored.
If it looks like the power is going to be out for a few days, Day 1 and Day 2 are "steak days." Meaning, it's time to hold a cookout and grill everything in your freezer before it goes bad.
This is a great time to get together with your neighbors for a shared feast that can bond you into a mutually-supporting group.
Steak days are the best. There's something magical about seeing each of your neighbors pop up hesitantly with delicacies to share.
Just because it's a disaster doesn't mean you can't have some fun.
Within no time you and your neighbors will be sharing equipment and divvying up redundant chores, like getting more ice and water each day.
If anyone has a generator hooked up to a refrigerator the seniors are going to need to put their perishable medications inside it. The little old ladies in my dad's retirement community also made good use of a shared microwave connected to a generator in the back of a pickup truck, which they used to heat frozen dinners during Hurricane Wilma.
This is the best time to put everything that's gone bad or will go bad in your refrigerator into a garbage bag and move it outside your home. There won't be any garbage pickup for weeks, so you should double-bag your garbage if you have the material.
Step 16: Vehicles and Repairs
You need to be prepared to repair a lot of flat tires after the storm as you drive over debris. The best way is to plug a tire by using a repair kit like the one at right. It's really quite easy. You can use the Wagan power center to reinflate the repaired tire afterward.
If you don't know how to plug a flat, you can use cans of aerosol flat fix, provided you stop driving as soon as you begin to lose tire pressure to avoid tearing up your tires. The flat fix won't reinflate a tire with a huge hole, which is what happens when you drive on a flat for any distance.
Having the right vehicle makes all the difference. Obviously, four-wheel drive trucks are the best solution. Low-slung sportscars are a waste of time.
The more robust a vehicle's offroad qualities, the more likely it is to get you out of a disaster area and back to the world of air conditioning, running water and restaurant food.
This reality was driven home to me by a stretch of highway in New Orleans that had a different make and model of abandoned SUV every 10 yards. Each had failed as the water grew progressively deeper. First there was a Kia, then a Hyundai Santa Fe, Volvo, S-10 pickup, Ford Explorer, Toyota Rav-4, Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Grand Cherokee. There were no mammoth Excursions, Expeditions, F-150s, Broncos or Navigators - and no lifted vehicles.
You need to know two things about your car before driving through standing water: the locations of your air intakes and your on-board computers. As soon as the water tops either, you're done.
I drive a Toyota FJ Cruiser (like the one at left, which I totaled in 2009), as does at least one other experienced hurricane reporter I know. In addition to being a four-wheel drive model with high-ground clearance, my FJ also has a built-in inverter, which is always nice because I can plug electronics right into its outlets without a car charger.
The FJ has two air intakes just under the hood, both of which face upward. One is by the windshield. The other is on the passenger side.
The only problem with the FJ is the location of its onboard computer, which is under the entire dash and in front of the shotgun passenger's shin. If you know where it is you can theoretically wrap it in plastic before driving through floodwater.
I say "theoretically" because I know I'm too lazy to do this every time I drive through floodwater.
The best way to keep from being swamped is to know how deep the water is before you get into it. A lot of people screw this up and think that standing water is only a foot deep, only to discover too late that it's actually over the top of their vehicle.
One way to determine water height is to look for the road stripes, which is something I'm not too lazy to do. As long as you can see them from the driver's seat you should be able to determine how deep the water is. The moment the stripes become harder to see, it's time to get out, get wet and check on foot. Just as the soldiers are doing in the pic at right.
If the water is higher than the door, and your interior is still dry, you'll be climbing in and out through the window to avoid flooding the cabin.
If you have a huge, flat roof rack like the one on my old FJ you can have someone stand on top of it and scan the road ahead for debris as you creep forward. Make sure they have tied a rope to the rack to hang onto.
Once you're actually driving through water it's important to keep moving. Most SUV interiors won't fill as quickly if you're moving at 5 mph or more, instead of creeping, and heading in the same direction as the current.
Driving head-on into a swift current is a bad idea, unless you want to see how quickly you can fill up the interior of your vehicle. That's something else I've learned the hard way.
If you need to lift the air intake on one side of your vehicle a little higher above water level, there's a little trick you can use to gain a few inches. Just put those wheels up on a center median if one is available. I'm not talking about the waist-high concrete wall in the middle of a road. I'm talking about an 8-inch high median with a curb around it.
It's amazing that I have to say that, but there's always a reflexive rule follower in every group who cannot think for themselves.
The other thing to keep in mind is that traffic regulations are a pre-disaster mindset. You may need to drive down the wrong side of a road to get through a flooded or debris-strewn area. Don't worry about it.
You should be even more wary about the other drivers on the road when the regular rules and traffic control devices are no longer functioning. Don't assume they're going to do what you think they should.
The ideal route is almost always an elevated route after a big storm. So, try to make the most of elevated highways when planning a trip.
Another trick is to use street signs and telephone poles to determine where a road is located if it's obscured by floodwaters. You should never drive blindly through these areas.
Wading through hurricane floodwaters can be hazardous. They are frequently contaminated with sewage, oil and gasoline. Floating ant colonies are another menace. One which put a hurt on me during Hurricane Rita in Orange, Texas.
Likewise, you should be prepared to encounter wildlife, like snakes and stray dogs. I've never had any real problems with snakes an dogs because I give them a wide berth. The dogs are almost always friendly and looking for a new master to bond with, but will turn feral and mean after a few weeks.
Even a small feral dog can tear a chunk of flesh out of you when it's in survival mode. This kind of biting and shaking is different and more damaging than the territorial nips the same dog might inflict on a postal carrier during normal times.
The thing to remember is that even a small injury in a post-disaster environment is more likely to become infected, especially if you've been wading through floodwaters. If you sustain a large injury you may not be able to reach help if the cells are down or rescue personnel are overhwhelmed.
Imagine having to walk a couple miles for help after a multi-car wreck because no one came to your aid. That's exactly what happens after a big disaster. You're somewhat on your own, both literally and figuratively.
Step 17: How much is too much?
The painful truth is that some people really do go come unhinged mentally during a hurricane and its extended aftermath. Especially after weeks and weeks with neither electricity nor running water.
It helps to know this happens, even to the best of us. If for no other reason than to realize there's nothing wrong with you when you start to feel short-tempered or overwhelmed.
When that happens, you should get to a more civilized area for a few days if you can. Take a shower, sleep in a real bed with air conditioning, Get some clean clothes and a restaurant meal.
If that's not an option, then just know that you need to work on calming down.
A couple memories stand out in my mind from Katrina.
A popular public information officer with the New Orleans Police Department was one of several officers who committed suicide with their own firearms after several weeks of working 20 hour days. Someone also threw themselves to their death from the upper seating level of the Superdome.
A business owner who became tearful and suddenly blurted out "someone come get my gun before I shoot myself" after wading a mile through floodwaters to his hardware store. Only to discover it had been flooded and looted.
A pair of burly first responders in hard-hit Chalmette, La., who roared into the parking lot of the emergency operations center with a dead pitbull in the back of their pickup. It had been shot through a window of their home by a Louisiana National Guard patrol at a time when many pets in the devastated and largely abandoned area were turning feral.
The two men were built like professional wrestlers, and they were furious and distraught. The driver was streaming blood from a gash in his hand he was completely unaware of. Tears streamed down their dirty faces. No one could calm them down.
"All the people we fucking saved," one screamed. "Ain't we done our fucking part?"
Everyone in the crowded parking lot just ignored them. Waiting for them to calm down.
Then, seeing me: "Ain't we done our fucking part Mister Newspaperman?"
It was as i
f we were all ashamed that there was nothing we were could say or do to make this injustice right.
Then there was the story of the crazed woman who was still holed up in her closet with a shotgun three weeks after the storm.
A month or so later I was in Houston, preparing to drive south to cover Hurricane Rita as most of that city's population was heading north just hours before landfall. I was speaking with an elderly couple who had flown in with me on the nearly deserted airliner.
I was trying to convince them to turn around and fly out as we rode the bus to the rental car center, when a Red Cross employee lost it. He was also just coming off several weeks in New Orleans for Katrina.
"You fucking journalists," he shouted at me. "You're fucking parasites."
Then I lost it, too.
"Yeah," I said. "You've got a big fucking mouth buddy. Especially for someone who spends all their time in an air conditioned hotel room while the volunteers are sweltering away in your pigsty shelters."
Not exactly our finest hour.
Step 18: Suffer Well
The best approach to the entire post-disaster experience is just to stay calm. Life slows down and it's the time to think things through, rather than make rash decisions in the hope they will work out.
There's no room for internal strife. It's hot, people are short tempered and impatient, and sometimes it's actually necessary to explain to them why we can't fuss at each other.
I can be a short-tempered and aggressive cuss even at the best of times, like most New Yorkers, but I try to be a zen-like pool of calm in a disaster. Simply because it works best.
I always tell people we're in an environment where small disagreements quickly escalate into big disagreements, and we just can't have them.
That said, if you prepare for the worst and hope for the best your post-disaster experience doesn't need to be that different than camping.
It's also a great opportunity to find out who is who in a world full of posers and posturing bullshit.
Some people you may not have realized were mentally tough will amaze you with their coping skills, durability, and ability to remain calm in a crisis. Others will be huge disappointments, despite their muscles, weapons and tough-guy bravado.
Kim Kardhasian, Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, Regis Philbin and anyone else unaccustomed to caring for themselves is useless in a post-disaster situation. Conversely, machinists, mechanics, carpenters, electricians, nurses, outdoorsmen and just about any immigrant laborer are worth their weight in gold because they're used to fixing their own stuff.
I still recall one older sheriff's captain in Louisiana who was introducing me to his team two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. He never came right out and said it, but it was clear that at least one big, young, high-testosterone, steroidal deputy had been absolutely useless to him after the loss of air conditioning and running water. Conversely, a tiny female officer and a nerdy male officer had come through big-time, to his surprise and delight.
There was just no quit in the two of them. They suffered well and were still with the captain days after their other colleagues had been evacuated inland. The trio evolved into a tight-knit unit that got things done, as opposed to the attractive, hip, strong-chinned models who grace recruiting posters and TV newscasts.
Another curious post-disaster phenomenon is the over-represenattion of gay men among successful holdouts. I'm not sure why this happens, but it's real.
It may simply be a function of the survivor mindset that comes from being targeted for discrimination and from being a strong individual who rejects societal norms.
A gay couple I met in New Orleans 10 days after Katrina epitomized this phenomenon for me. They were sitting on the porch of their French Street bungalow when I met them, giving directions to emergency responders new to the city.
The rest of their Ninth Ward neighborhood was completely deserted - a veritable ghost-town
However, the street in front of their tidy bungalow was busier than a donut shop. I saw FBI, ATF and assorted state police vehicles stop for directions during my 20 minutes there.
The first responders were all trying to answer emergency calls in unfamiliar neighborhoods where the street signs and cell towers had been destroyed.
Two neighbors and six of their neighbors' pets were staying with this gay couple. That's one of their Great Danes with me in the pic at right. They had two of the gentle giants.
The four people in the bungalow were the remnants of a group of 13 which started the disaster by patrolling their block together with pistols and shotguns to deter looters.
The gay couple looked like tourists. They were clean and tastefully attired in loafers, khaki shorts, sunglasses and loose floral shirts. They had about 60 gallons of waters, a dozen cases of MREs, several firearms, two cars with full gas tanks, and a working landline in their French Quarter art gallery a mile away.
Their biggest problem was being awoken each night by a new group of gung-ho responders seeking to evacuate them. Within a day those same responders, invariably clad in tactical combat gear, would be politely asking them for directions and dropping off MREs and water by way of recompense.
The two gay men were amazingly calm and relaxed - elegant in the face of adversity if you will. And that's really the key.
Stay calm, and understand that help is on the way. It's just going to be a while. The time passes more pleasantly if you take care of those around you, even the strangers.
Humor is a big help, too. Like the crack about my "guns" and the 133 mph speeding pic recorded during Katrina (below right).
Even bad jokes help blow off steam after a disaster. They're also a great way to tell who is who.
The difference between the kind of person who tells a corny joke after a storm and the kind of person who is too quick to be offended by one is the difference between someone with coping skills who refuses to see themselves as a victim, and is worth knowing, and someone who can't wait to be a
victim and is not.
I'm quite fond of the former. I have absolutely no use for the latter.
The bottom line is that things suck immediately after a disaster and you have to learn to suffer well. Whining about every little inconvenience just makes things worse.
In my experience, posers are always exposed.
That's the real silver lining for me and the reason I love covering disasters. It's also the reason I believe you don't really know someone until after you've seen them deal with the adversity of living in a post-disaster environment for a few days.
Cynical Times columnist Victor Epstein has covered 15 hurricanes, four tornadoes and four tropical storms during his journalism career. His favorite MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) is jambalaya. His first-person tale of the body count at St. Rita's Nursing Home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is called Lady in the Hall.