Every hurricane season one of my friends invariably confesses to being completely unprepared for a disaster, even though they live in a vulnerable coastal area. This guide is for them.
It was first published in 2011 as Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the New York City metro area and people were laughing it up and holding hurricane parties. Irene was a bust, but no one was laughing a year later when Hurricane Sandy hammered the same woefully unprepared area.
I’ve covered 15 hurricanes in the field in my twenty-some years in the mainstream news media, and plenty of other tropical storms, floods and tornadoes. I’ve also been hit by at least five hurricanes as a civilian. So I know what you need to do to prepare for a big storm and in what order, from hard-won personal experience.
It’s not just about having the right gear, it’s also about knowing what needs to happen when and why. Time is a factor and once it starts working against you there is no amount of money that can buy you a do-over.
Until you actually get hit hard by a hurricane you know as much about them as a 40-year-old virgin knows about sex. At least with another person.
Cause there’s only so much you can learn from watching the news and movies, and playing things out in your head.
Case in point, water and sewage. Most of you think this aspect of a hurricane is going to be some kind of visual abstract. One of those deals where the water looks fine but has some microbes in it.
That’s not always the case. Once the floodwaters rise above a certain point – dare I call it “the sweet spot” – the sewage which normally runs down your toilet and out of your house can start running into the house in a visible brown stream. In volume. Toward you.
Have I got your attention yet?
1) Getting Your Mind Right
You need to understand that you won’t be able to buy anything immediately before a devastating storm or for many days afterward. That’s why sensible people spend a few hours putting together an emergency kit well ahead of time. As in weeks and months. Even years.
Many of the things you take for granted are going to go away. Like electricity, potable water, stores, clear roads, working phones and internet, and even 911.
Police and fire resources will be completely overwhelmed. There will not be an individual firefighter assigned to you. You won’t be able to call 911 for help and get a timely response for a few days, and no one is going to come get you during the storm when you suddenly realize the hurricane party was a bad idea.
The hospitals that remain open will be overwhelmed. Others will be evacuated and shuttered.
That means that if you’re a senior citizen with health problems you can’t bank on the idea of checking into a hospital or calling 911 when things get too rough.
The best thing you can is evacuate. Always. Preferably two days before the storm makes landfall. That way you won’t get caught on the road in your vehicle.
If you’re unable or unwilling to evacuate you need to understand that the societal safety-net will not be functioning for a few days or even a few weeks. It can take that long to restore power, repair traffic lights and power lines, and get gas stations and stores open again. You may not be able to get out of Dodge on your own terms during this period.
The other dynamic you have to get your head around is that you are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
Disasters are a numbers game. Most hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, and tsunamis will either miss you or weaken before hitting you.
That doesn’t make the unprepared person more intelligent after a near miss. Any more than running through an active shooting range without being hit makes you bulletproof.
This guide is not meant for the storms that miss. It’s meant for the disastrous hurricane that hits your community head-on at full strength, which seems to happen about one out of every 10 times.
It’s not meant to reassure you, make you feel good about yourselves, or give you something to chat about with friends over a beer. It’s meant to work when you need it.
Because when your Come-to-Jesus moment finally arrives, that’s all you’re going to care about. Every device in the world is going to be divided into stuff that works and is useful, and everything else. And every able-bodied person in your world is going to be divided into those who are part of the solution and those who are part of the problem.
I begin with portable power solutions. As technology advances, this section continues to change the most.
The cheapest solution is a jumper pack like the Wagan 400 Power Dome. A device like this can be used to jump-start your vehicle and to fill the tires up with air.
It will run small appliances during an emergency, like fans and lights, and recharge cell phones. It costs about $130 and can be recharged from your car’s power outlet.
A better solution is a solar powered generator like the Goal Zero Yeti 400 (left), which can run you $900 with the proper solar panels. If you have that kind of money you can also buy a gasoline-powered generator for about $600.
Gasoline powered generators have to be kept outside and are loud, which means everyone in your neighborhood is going to know you have one. Solar-powered generators are quiet and can be kept inside.
Generators are the single most stolen item after a disaster. If yours is outside you need to chain it down.
It’s a good idea to have a small inverter that you can use to convert any car battery into a power source. The ideal inverter for a novice is something like the 400 watt Powercup (below right). It only costs about $15.
I use the Powercup to charge stuff up while I’m topping off the Wagan, which can take several hours. The best time to do this is when you’re driving around in search of ice and gasoline after a storm.
In a pinch, you can give this smaller inverter to one of the smartasses who previously made fun of your disaster kit.
Whatever route you go, you’re also going to need at least one gas can, a siphon, several long extension cords and power strips, and lots of duct tape.
If you do secure a generator don’t try to run power from it to your entire house, unless an electrician has already set it up that way. It’s better to just plug in a few devices.
Some generators require a mix of oil and gasoline, just like a gasoline-powered chain saw. Some don’t. The oil serves as a lubricant. Make sure you know where your oil goes and in what ratio before you turn your generator on. Otherwise, you’re going to have a one-day generator.
If money is tight, keep in mind that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse you for generators, extension cords and the like. Provided they’re purchased right before a hurricane or in the immediate aftermath. So hang on your receipts.
You can forget about buying gas cans as a storm approaches, because they sell out very quickly. The best way to obtain gasoline after a big disaster is to rent a new car at your city airport every day, if that’s still an option in your community.
If you need to get on a long line to purchase gasoline from the only service station that’s open, try to get on line at least an hour before they open. That way you won’t be burning gasoline for six hours, waiting for a shot at purchasing 10 measly gallons.
A less costly option when there’s no gasoline for sale is to siphon fuel from the tanks of destroyed and abandoned vehicles. Preferably from a lot full of rental cars at an airport that’s been shut down, or something like that.
Don’t even think about siphoning from a personal vehicle in the aftermath of a disaster if you value your life, because the owners won’t try to understand your greed, immorality and stupidity. They will hurt you if they can, and there won’t be any law enforcement around to save you.
Storing gasoline is a problem after a disaster. You don’t want to keep your gas cans inside because they’re a huge fire hazard, but if you keep them outside there’s a good chance they’ll grow legs. Best thing to do is find an elevated patio or balcony and store them there. Failing that, just make sure you cover them up.
While we’re on the topic of power, make sure you print this article out before the power goes off. I tend to write long, which can be irritating when everything’s fine and wonderful when it’s not.
I can just about guarantee you’ll read this whole thing after you lose power for a day or more. You’re going to have a lot of time on your hands if it happens. So much so that once you finish this column you’ll probably start in on the back of cereal boxes and toothpaste.
3) Personal Safety
Once again, the best thing you can do is evacuate.
However, if you choose to stay you need to understand that violence and thievery are more extreme when people are frightened and the societal safety net is in tatters.
There are more people with firearms than you may realize. They’re also a lot quicker to use them after a disaster when the unprepared and ruthless begin stealing generators, gas cans and fuel.
Speaking of violence, I don’t incorporate firearms into my disaster kit. I’m not saying it’s the right way, I’m just saying it’s my way.
You probably should have a firearm if you already know how to use and maintain one. Otherwise, don’t bother. An unfamiliar firearm in novice hands is more likely to cause problems than solve them.
Everyone should have a pocketknife and crowbar for general use, which can be used defensively in a pinch. A can of pepper spray for aggressive stray dogs is also a good idea.
Tape your windows and/or board them up. Bring in any outdoor furniture and other items that could be transformed into projectiles by strong winds. If you have a pool, you can just toss the outdoor furniture in there for safekeeping. It’s the safest place for them.
Try to view everything around your home as a potential projectile. If there’s a pile of firewood in the backyard, bring it inside or throw it in the pool. Same goes for your barbecue, potted plants and the kid’s bikes.
Finally, if you don’t know how to change a tire or patch a leak in one you should learn how quick, fast and in a hurry before the Internet cuts out. You can buy a cheap patch kit for less than $40, either online or at your local auto supply stores. You can buy the gear and learn how to use it on YouTube in as little as 20 minutes.
It’s a super skill to have and not a hard one to master. For anyone. You don’t have to be a mechanic.
I favor simple lighting solutions utilizing solar power and lithium batteries, because they’re small and light. I also lean heavily on baseball caps with an LED light in the brim (below) and headlamps, which I prefer to standard flashlights.
The reason is simple and crude. It’s much easier to relieve yourself in the dark when both hands are free. A headlamp, or baseball cap with an LED light in the brim, makes that possible. They’re about $15 each.
I prefer a lot of little lights to one or two big lights.
First, because it’s amazing how bright even the smallest light is when you’re in complete darkness. And second, because I enjoy having a lot of little lights to share with the people who used to make fun of my hurricane kit.
I’ve replaced the six zipper pulls on my backpack with small lights and compasses. I usually have two of three pocket-sized lights on my vest, too.
Batteries are hard to purchase in the days before and after a disaster. The time to buy them is months before you might need them.
If the storm is bearing down on you and you still don’t have any batteries and they’re sold out at Home Depot Depot and the like, go to the most unlikely place you can think of looking. Like a toy store.
There’s a good chance they’ll still have some batteries if they’re open.
Navigation is always problematic after a disaster because hurricane and tornado winds beat the hell out of street signs and cell towers.
Yeah, I know. Your iPhone has GPS and map apps galore. Let’s just assume for a second that the cell towers are all down, or your device is out of juice or broken. Now what are you going to do?
My backups include a Garmin GPS, a couple small compasses and an old school, hard copy, paper map.
There’s also a compass built into the dash of my vehicle, along with a temperature gauge and an inclinometer.
The inclinometer is pretty useless because you’ll be hanging in your seatbelt by the time it registers anything. The temperature gauge isn’t much better, although it does give you something to point at when you say “see, I told you it was friggin hot.”
The compass is the real prize.
Some people may not be able to give you a specific address after a disaster, like emergency responders new to the area. They’re more likely to rely on compass headings for general directions, as in “head north until you see the abandoned Wal-Mart tractor-trailer in the middle of the road.”
Officially, the U.S. hurricane season starts June 1 and lasts through Nov. 30. However, since warm water adds fuel to storms, the most severe typically occur in the summer. That means it’s likely to be sweltering when the power fails and your AC and refrigerator shut off.
You’re going to need a cooling solution. I rely on a battery-powered camp fan. It’s often the difference between sleeping at night and tossing and turning in sweaty discomfort. It will only set you back about $10 or $15.
Summer heat is more bearable when you have air moving over your body, and you desperately need a good night’s sleep when you’re working your ass off each day. It only takes a small amount to do the trick.
You can use your vehicle’s air conditioning for emergency cool-downs whenever you feel like the heat is simply becoming too much. However, you shouldn’t sleep in the car with the motor running, even if you can spare the gasoline, due to the risk of being sickened or killed by exhaust fumes.
Another way to stay cool is to hang a wet bandana around your neck. The evaporation process will cool you off. It works with wet T-shirts and vests, too
Don’t be shy about asking for help if you get overheated.
Don’t beat around the bush and don’t ask for too much. The key phrase is “I need help.” It’s not something else.
In my experience, a prepared individual will often help another prepared individual in need. Whereas a lot of prepared people have no use for someone who is still hung over from their hurricane party and just beginning to get organized.
If you’re on the road and unable to find a hotel room, you can sleep in your vehicle more comfortably if you keep the windows open and the engine off. There are mosquito nets for car windows to facilitate this. My favorite is called the SkeeterBeater (below).
You can also just lay a sleeping bag on a picnic table at the nearest rest stop, and lock your car up.
Remember, these are not ordinary times. If you’re having trouble finding a hotel room it’s a safe bet hundreds of thousands of other evacuees are too. Don’t be shy about letting people know you’re a disaster evacuee in need.
In a pinch, you can pull into many state and national parks after dark when the rangers are off. Even those which don’t allow overnight parking. Just make sure you’re gone in the morning before the rangers show up for work.
Wal-Mart also allows people to sleep in their vehicles in most of its parking lots.
You can apply for everything you need from FEMA online at https://www.fema.gov/apply-assistance.
If you don’t have an Internet signal while on the road, stop at a McDonalds for a cup of coffee. They have the best free internet around.
Most truck stops have showers, although they usually charge non-truckers to use them. The fee is typically $12 to $15, but there’s no reason your entire family cannot discreetly use the same shower stall one after the other. Especially in an emergency.
If you’re a member of the YMCA, you can use your national membership to access shower and bathroom facilities at any branch nationwide. Typically for up to a week at each branch.
The best communications solution is a satellite phone, but they’re out of most people’s price range. So, you’re more likely to use what you have everyday: a cell phone and a land-line.
Hurricanes and tornados play havoc with cell towers, making it difficult to hold signals long enough for a voice conversation. The answer is to rely instead on texting, which just takes a nano-second and demands much less bandwidth from damaged cell towers.
I used this technique successfully after getting lost in the mountains outside Taos Ski Village, in New Mexico, during a hike on Nov. 23, 2007. It worked like a charm, despite my being at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet.
Three hikers died on Oregon’s Mount Hood just three weeks later at 9,000 feet because they used voice instead of texting. They got through when they called for help, but couldn’t hold the cell signal more than a few seconds. That’s not long enough to say much in a verbal conversation, but it’s enough time to transmit a book via text message.
Another surprising solution is the land-line telephone. These old-style phones are more reliable than cells after a disaster because they run off wires and work even when the power is out.
My hydration kit includes several cases of water, Powerade and canned fruit; duct tape; several bags of ice; several bottles of Pedialyte; and two Lifestraw personal water filters. It’s built around a 150-quart Igloo MaxCold Cooler.
I pour the ice in my large cooler with the bottles before the storm hits and duct tape it closed. When the power fails, I transfer the contents of my fridge into the cooler, too, and duct tape it closed again. The ice usually lasts two days.
If you use dry ice it can last even longer.
You’re going to want to put a case or two of canned mandarin oranges and fruit salad in the cooler too. They’ll really refresh you after a storm, because the cans contain both the cold fruit and the cold liquid it’s packed in.
You’re going to be filling everything that holds water with potable water the day before the storm hits. From the tub to the sink to the kiddie pool in your living room. Right?
Potable water is the professional term for water which is safe for human consumption. The kind that comes out of your kitchen tap before a disaster.
Sports drinks are better than water in terms of keeping you hydrated. Pedialyte is better than both, but should be reserved for cases of dehydration.
10) Pooping in Style
My poop kit includes a large water cooler bottle, a bucket, a chemical toilet and a bumper dumper.
The large water cooler bottle and pail are not for potable water. They’re for carrying and storing the unfiltered water you’re going to use to flush the toilet.
Most home toilets work via gravity. They don’t require electricity. Just water.
To make a toilet work after your municipal water shuts off you need to remove the top of the toilet cabinet and pour enough water into the tank to lift the float inside. You should be able to flush your toilet normally afterward at least once.
If you don’t see a float, just look for the water line on the inside of the tank and subtract a few inches. The idea is to use the minimum amount of water necessary, unless you have a pool or a lake nearby.
Another approach is to fill the tank almost to overflowing and just lift the handle a little bit. This can get you two or even three flushes between refills.
Some toilets will work if you fill the bowl directly, which is easier than filling the tank.
You’ll have to figure out what method works best for your toilet by trial and error.
Trust me, once the power goes out you’re going to have a lot of time on your hands for experimentation.
It’s important to remember that you neither want to use potable water to flush the toilet nor for cleaning. It’s far too valuable.
In the event you can’t make this work, you can always use the chemical toilet. It works like a regular toilet, except that you have to empty out the waste tank every few days and add new liquid chemical.
The third option in my kit is the bumper dumper. It’s a toilet seat that sticks into your vehicle trailer hitch. You dig a hole, poop into it and cover it up.
11) Personal Hygiene
It’s very important to stay as clean as you can, both medically and psychologically.
This is one of the big differences between being someone who takes themselves seriously and wants to be taken seriously by others in a disaster situation, and being a moron.
You don’t need to grow a beard to prove you’re a survivor or keep wearing the same clothes until you look like Charlie Sheen in the film “Platoon.” You also need to make sure the bathroom doesn’t turn into a pigsty just because people can’t see the urine stains on the floor and the stray specks of feces on the toilet in the dark.
During Katrina, I actually spent 20 minutes in near total darkness on my hands and knees, cleaning up the urine on the bathroom floor of the unpowered, uncleaned and sweltering hotel room my three man team had secured in downtown New Orleans. It was an unpleasant task, but one that made a huge difference to our modest quality of life.
You’re going to need soap, Purell, a disposable razor, baby wipes, a toothbrush, sunscreen, and insect repellent. If you wear contacts, you’re going to need fluid for your contacts; if you’re on prescription meds, you’re going to need a month of meds; if you’re lactose intolerant, you’e going to need Lactaid.
If you use an item when you’re camping or swimming at the beach, you’ll need it after a disaster.
It helps to take a sponge bath before bed if you can spare the water. Don’t even bother toweling off if it’s hot. You’ll sleep better.
If you have women and small children in your group, you’re going to need diapers and sanitary napkins. You need to keep an eye on the kids, too. Try to keep them from running around barefoot after the storm, when there will be nails and broken glass all over the place.
You’ve got a fridge full of food and you need to consume it before it goes bad, because there isn’t going to be any trash collection for several weeks.
That’s why the first days after a disaster are “steak days.” This is the time for you and your neighbors to band together and cook up your most delectable and perishable treats.
If you don’t, you’ll have a big rodent and garbage problem in no time.
Don’t eat your canned food until all your perishable food is gone. You should have enough nonperishable food to last another week or two. By the time it’s gone, the National Guard will probably have buried your neighborhood in military rations and boxes of emergency water.
I never carry military rations into a disaster area with me when I’m reporting because they’re readily available once the government disaster response shifts into top gear.
Each Meal-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) has between 1,200 and 3,000 calories, which is enough for a whole day and then some. If you try to eat one each for breakfast, lunch and dinner you’re going to get really fat, even in a disaster.
MREs are encased in thick protective plastic. You can literally pick one off the ground, cut away the plastic container, and consume the contents without harmful effects.
At home, I use a propane-based camp stove for food preparation when the power is out. You can also use a charcoal grill. Hell, you can burn wood if need be. Even your own furniture.
The point is to survive. Not to be the dead person with the nicest home.
I always include a small container of instant coffee and a box of cigars in my portable kit. The coffee is for me. The cigars are both for my consumption when I need some energy fast, and for trade.
A lot of middle-aged male managers will trade for a cigar in a disaster area, especially military officers and noncoms. So, cigars are more useful than cash in some cases.
Trading with government officials is an art in itself. A lot of them won’t trade with you straight up, because they’re hardwired to think they can get in trouble for anything. However, if you give them one or two cigars and ask for nothing in return they’ll be receptive to subsequent requests for a favor. Provided they’re made after a decent interval.
13) Reflexive Rule Followers
The biggest hazard in any disaster is not the snakes, rabid dogs or the gun-toting thieves and vigilantes. It’s the reflexive rule follower.
These folks can’t think for themselves and are incapable of distinguishing between “being right” and “doing right.” They can literally kill you if you allow them to make decisions for you.
Some normal rules have no application in a post-disaster environment and must be discarded quick, fast and in a hurry. People who embrace blind obedience cannot do this.
Case in point, the New Orleans bus drivers who refused to allow little old ladies to board their evacuation vehicles with dogs and cats immediately before Hurricane Katrina.
Because the normal rules of operation prohibit pets on city buses.
There’s little doubt that some of these women died in their homes afterward with their only companions because they deferred to these reflexive-rule followers. Instead of just getting on the bus and telling the drivers to “fugg themselves.” Which is always the proper response when dealing with a reflexive rule follower in a disaster situation.
By contrast, the Merchant Marine officers of a military sealift ship based in New Orleans took it upon themselves to begin sharing their vessel’s 1 million gallons of gasoline with local fire and police departments without federal authorization. A good portion of the city would have burned down had they waited for the green-light instead of using their own common sense.
My stepmom Naomi almost made a similar mistake the day after Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida in 2008. As the head of her retirement community’s condo association, she was intent on enforcing its normal rules against the use of generators and charcoal grills. Even though her community had no power.
Who knows. The fact that this was a disaster situation seemed to escape this retired elementary school principal. Naomi was just as intent on enforcing the rules as she would have been if the offenders were kids running down a school hallway 20 years earlier.
My stepmom would have lost all credibility if I hadn’t managed to talk her out it. Instead, she wound up using a neighbor’s generator to keep my dad’s meds refrigerated and her fellow retirees wound up grilling steaks that would otherwise have spoiled in the Florida heat.
The same flexible mindset applies to driving on the wrong side of the road to get around high water or debris. You simply have to think for yourself.
Try to understand the spirit in which pre-disaster rules were written as well as the letter of the law, and do what you have to do. For example, I am 100 percent sure that the rule for driving on the right side of the road is not meant to force you to drive into floodwaters, when the oncoming traffic lane is high, dry and empty.
Yet people do it.
Ask yourself what each law is meant to accomplish. I can guarantee you its sponsors weren’t trying to prevent you and your family from fleeing to safety or feeding yourselves after a disaster.
The government is simply overwhelmed immediately after a big disaster and many government employees will put keeping their jobs by mindlessly following every rule ahead of helping you out. There’s no point in getting mad at them – I’m not advocating anarchy – but at a certain point you need to remember: “God helps those who help themselves.”
You follow me?
This is a good time to talk about looting. I don’t care what the legal terminology is, there’s a big difference between looting and taking the essentials you need to survive from a damaged store with no staff from whom to purchase them.
We’re talking about food, water, medical supplies, wagons, medicine, diapers and similar essential items. We’re not talking about the big screen televisions and pornographic DVDs which littered the area around the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
I still shake my head in amazement when I try to figure out what the people who took all those pornographic DVDs – and there were thousands of discs – were thinking. How were they planning to watch them on the crowded sidewalks outside the Superdome with no power?
Personally, I think the takers had to be adolescents. No one else is capable of simultaneously being that horny and that stupid. All of which raises another point: What to do with teens?
I think you have to keep them very busy and under strict adult supervision whenever possible. As long as they’re working on a task, teens are less likely to become despondent or destructive.
So, give them a steady stream of busy work. But be specific. If you need water and diapers, ask for water and diapers. Don’t let your kids decide what’s important or you’re just as likely to wind up with an XBox One, a fish tank, and 15 stray dogs.
14) Whatever You Do, Don’t Do This
In the event you should ever find yourself in a desperate way in a deserted community, it’s critical that you not head over to the airport.
Because we cannot have you breaking into the key drop boxes at the rental car counters. Same goes for U-Haul truck rental locations, local neighborhood car rental storefronts, and the like.
If you do, you should absolutely never head outside afterwards with a handful of keys and click the remotes until you find an undamaged vehicle. Preferably one with a full tank of gasoline.
I dunno. I’m not a reflexive rule follower.
Instead, I just assume the damaged rental location and all its vehicles will be totaled out by insurance adjusters in a few weeks.
You follow me?
15) Attics, Tools, Clothing and Windows
Rule No. 5.78 Million: Stay the hell out of the attic in any kind of flood event. Unless you have an axe up there and are capable of cutting your way out and climbing onto the roof.
Because you think your watery path downstairs and out the front door is going to be clear of debris and lit up like the scenes (above) with Paul Walker and Jessica Alba in “Into The Blue.” All you have to do is hold your breath and try to look sexy, right?
No. That’s not what happens.
In real life, the water is brown and dark. You’re blind in it and tangled in drapes, blankets and electrical cords.
In real life, your wooden furniture follows you up into the attic. It blocks your pathway down through the dark brown floodwaters and you drown up there. Very slowly.
So what say we take a break now and put an axe in the attic, just in case?
Your gear should include a small first-aid kit. In addition to Band-Aids and the like, you’re also going to want DEET insect repellent, Bacitracin disinfectant, and sunscreen.
There’s a wealth of other items worth having if you have the space, time and money to add them. My list includes rainsuits, hiking boots, rubber boots, a couple small towels, wet wipes, a fisherman’s vest, tow straps, eyeglass repair kit, tool bag, and plenty of extra socks, underwear and T-shirts.
You go through clothing fast when you’re wading through floodwater, because it’s usually contaminated with oil and sewage. Floodwater contamination in New Orleans was so bad immediately after Hurricane Katrina that our clothes dried into rigid, vertical shapes when they were hung up to dry. Every hair follicle on my legs became infected at one point.
You should lay in several gallon-sized bottles of bleach. They can be mixed with water to create a boot wash in a small cooler on your front porch. You’re going to step into the cooler for a minute every time you come home with God knows what on you.
You’re going to want a ton of duct tape and rope. How much depends on whether your kit is portable or home-based. If it’s home-based, you should buy more and add tarps, a staple gun and a chainsaw.
I was able to cover my loft windows in the dark with a tarp and staple gun in about 20 minutes at the height of Hurricane Ike in Houston in 2008. Just when it seemed like the duct-taped windows were about to give way at the height of the storm.
The chainsaw is for cutting up the downed trees which may block the roads in your neighorhood. With the right vehicle, you should be able to drag the resulting sections of timber out of the right-of-way with a tow rope or chain.
There seems to be some confusion about whether or not people should still place a couple strips of duct tape across their windows as many have been doing for decades.
The “experts” who say taping is no longer necessary aren’t doing us any favors in my estimation. Their logic is that new home windows are a lot like car windows, which means they’re less likely to cut you when they shatter.
That’s just friggin great.
The first problem with this information is most dwellings don’t have new windows. The second problem is most people don’t know how old their windows are. Especially renters. I know I don’t.
I’ve seen the new windows break and the strips of tape really seemed to help keep the shards together in a useful way. So, pretty please, tape your friggin windows no matter what the talking heads tell you. It could help and it definitely won’t hurt.
The tape gets harder to remove over time and can be a pain after a few days, but a razor-blade scraper will do the job in combination with a bottle of windex and some paper towels.
Step 16) Pre-Storm Timeline
The best thing you can do is evacuate two days before a killer storm is projected to make landfall in your area. Always.
Head inland. If you live in Florida, head northwest toward Tennessee. Stay with a relative or get a hotel room.
The further you get away from the Interstate Highway System the easier it will be to find a vacant hotel or motel room. Sames goes for gasoline if there’s a sudden dip in supplies.
If you’re unable or unwilling to evacuate, then you should begin charging all your battery-powered gear and power centers two days before the storm. Find an elevated parking garage or hill where you can park your vehicles. Be sure buy your ice, batteries, food, water and gasoline while stores are still open. Most will be closed tomorrow.
Because you can still use all this stuff if the storm veers away. So, t’s not a waste of money in any scenario.
If you have an elderly relative in a nursing home or assisted care facility, you need to make sure it has at least two floors or is located in an elevated area. Single-story nursing homes in low-lying areas are a death trap for the elderly during floods.
If your relative is in one, you might want to ask the staff to transfer them to a more elevated location until the storm passes through. You can also call the health department directly and ask your community’s chief medical officer to find another location for your loved one. There’s a good chance they will already be coordinating a medical evacuation effort.
On the last day before the storm you should be taping your windows or covering them with plywood; filling your bathtubs and other receptacles with potable 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 the enclosed parking garage you found. Or, failing that, on a hill.
If you’re a reporter in the field, you should be seeking out the oldest, thickest courthouse-type building you can find. If a building looks like it’s been through a lot of storms, it probably survived them for a reason.
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. 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.
17) Post-Storm 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.
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 Hurricane 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 seniors, because many 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 during a disaster 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 that cookout we talked about earlier 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 neighbor pop up hesitantly with delicacies to share.
Within no time you will be sharing equipment and divvying up redundant chores, like getting more ice and water each day. You’ll also be helping one another with security.
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.
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.
18) 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 below left. It’s really quite easy. You can use your portable 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 a tire starts to go bad. 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 off-road 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.
The best way to avoid being swamped is to know how deep the water is before you get into it. A lot of people screw this up and think 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 out your car window for the road stripes below you. As long as you can easily 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.
Once you’re actually driving through water it’s important to keep moving. Most SUV interiors won’t fill as quickly if you keep moving.
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.
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.
Don’t forget that traffic regulations are a pre-disaster mindset for everyone now – not just you. That means you may not be the only one driving on the wrong side of the road to get past debris and deep water.
The ideal route is almost always an elevated roadway after a big storm. So, try to make the most of elevated highways when planning your trips.
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 that really hurts.
19) Dealing With Animals
If you have a pet dog or cat you’re going to need to take care of them just like any other family member. That means food and water.
You should also be prepared to encounter wildlife, like snakes and stray dogs. I’ve never had any real problems because I give them a wide berth.
The strays 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 ferocious biting and shaking is way different than the territorial nip the same dog might inflict in 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 overwhelmed.
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.
There’s usually a ton of Humane Society volunteers rescuing dogs and cats after a disaster. Sadly, they tend to be quite affluent and have very little use for human survivors.
During Katrina there was a huge Humane Society temporary shelter with 4,000 animals and 800 volunteers outside New Orleans. That’s a staff to survivor ratio of 5 to 1.
I wrote a story that helped The Humane Society break a legislative logjam which had prohibited them from moving rescued animals out of state, while capping the capacity of their temporary shelter at 4,000 animals.
It was a little hard to listen to their people afterward carping about the National Guard’s shooting of feral dogs in Chalmette. Especially given the 100 to 1 ratio at most human shelters and the 17 dead senior citizens I’d just counted inside St. Rita’s Nursing Home.
Speaking of the shooting of feral dogs, it typically begins after about two weeks and is pretty indiscriminate. The only way to keep your pet safe is to take it with you everywhere. Everywhere meaning everywhere.
I know two volunteers in Chalmette whose dog was shot inside their home, in their absence, after they’d spent two weeks rescuing their neighbors. A National Guard patrol shot it through the kitchen window while they were out on another rescue.
The shooter assumed the home had been abandoned and the dog was feral.
20) Knowing How Much is Too Much
The painful truth is that some people really do become unhinged mentally during disasters. Especially after weeks without electricity and 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 buy yourself a restaurant meal.
If that’s not an option, then just know that you need to work on calming down. If someone is raising your blood pressure, don’t be shy about avoiding them.
21) What’s Most Likely to Kill You
Tornado strength winds are a killer and it’s quite common for tornadoes to be embedded in hurricanes. Both types of storms have winds strong enough to turn small pieces of lumber into deadly projectiles.
You don’t want to be outside in those winds unless you’re in an armored car. Even then, not so much. Because the winds can flip a big vehicle over.
The other thing which can kill you are floodwaters. Even the slowly rising floodwaters inside a home can be death on a stick for the elderly and the very young.
Fast-moving floodwaters are a lot more powerful than most people realize and you need to avoid them. Not just because of the water, but because of the debris it carries.
Experienced white-water rafting guides wearing helmets and life vests die every year because they get pinned underwater against piles of twisted trees or crushed by other water-borne debris. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you.