Once again parts of the United States and other geographic regions around the world are in the middle of another hurricane/cyclone season. While the dates that mark the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane/cyclone seasons vary slightly, the threat of major storms in these areas exists from around mid to late May till the end of November. As this writing is being submitted, Hurricane Lane is about to hit Hawaii as a Category 3 storm. If you’ve read this far and are thinking “I don’t live in one of these areas, so I don’t need to read this”, think about this: preparing to deal with hurricanes is similar to dealing with any major weather event or natural disaster, regardless of where you live. Much of the preparation and planning is exactly the same, so there is still a lot of valid information to think about from here on. At this point in my life, I have lived through 9 major hurricanes including the 2004-2005 seasons in Florida, and Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in the Northeast. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of practice dealing with natural disasters of this type, and I have learned a lot over the years.
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The first part of any preparation plan for “survival” of any scenario should start with ASSESSMENT. Everyone has different needs and requirements to live and there is no one size fits all solution. First, you need to think about what the actual hazards of a severe weather event in your area will bring: Do you live in a flood zone? Do you live in an area that will be difficult to evacuate from if roads are closed, or possibly even destroyed? How will the structure you live in hold up to the severe weather that could impact your area? What are things physically in your immediate area that could cause other problems, or make a bad situation worse if a severe weather event or natural disaster occurred?
When looking at the hurricane type of event, most people think high wind is the biggest threat, which causes the most damage. The reality is water is usually the most destructive force. Tidal storm surge, flooding, and extreme rainfalls are usually responsible for the most property damage or loss of life.
You also need to assess your own family situation. Do you or anyone in your family have a medical condition that could become life-threatening if you get cut off from emergency medical services? How long are you and your family able to function with the basic necessities you have on hand now? Most people are very reactive. They think they will have plenty of warning in the case of most storms, but many types of natural disasters can be very unpredictable, and strike with little or no warning. Preparation for these types of events should be done on a blue-sky day. Most people usually wait until the last minute to deal with the situation, and usually, don’t end up as prepared as they could be. Preparation is mostly about safety, but remember that comfort also has a lot to do with it. Look back as recently as last year’s hurricanes, which hit multiple areas very hard. Even those living in major cities were living with the effects of the aftermath for several months. Obviously, your immediate need is to survive the event. After the event, especially in a prolonged state of emergency, personal health and comfort become issues.
Everyone should develop evacuation plans to suit their own circumstances. Notice how I said “plans”. Since everything can fall apart in a disaster situation, you should have multiple ways to evacuate from your area to safety. In the case of most types of events including hurricanes, unless you are completely cut off from any type of mass communication, you have at least 3-5 day warning or notice before a hurricane will impact your area. The reality is that sometimes 3-5 days is not enough time. Consider the following:
1.) During most natural disaster scenarios, gas always becomes scare even several days before an event. If you plan to evacuate by car, that window may close sooner than you think, or you may not get as far away as you would like to go if you run out of gas.
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2.) Airline flights are either sold out or canceled days in advance of a major event. If you plan to fly out, you can’t count on waiting till the last minute. Getting a flight home after the event has passed may take longer than you think if major damage occurred to the airports in your area.
3.) Even if getting gas is not an issue for you, the longer you wait to evacuate, the more difficult and time consuming your trip will become due to traffic and congestion along all the most likely evacuation routes.
4.) Finding a place to ride out the disaster gets more difficult the longer you wait, as hotels and lodging accommodations are booked up and sold out for a radius of hundreds of miles away from the event.
5.) Cash also becomes scarce as ATM machines get cleaned out and banks in the path of the disaster close down. Today most people operate in a cashless society. When the power goes out credit and debit cards become useless and “cash only” sales for goods and services are very common especially for high-value commodities like gasoline. If possible, I suggest having an emergency stash of cash in your disaster kit that includes small bills.
Sheltering In Place
I have always been a fan of the adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Ideally, all preparation should be done on a “Blue Sky Day”. If you plan to shelter in place, depending on where you live it’s obvious that water and food are essentials. Because everyone’s situation is different, I can’t say how much of anything is right for anyone else. My own personal rule of thumb for anything my family can’t live without is a 90 day supply. Why 90 days? If the situation after the natural disaster doesn’t start to improve after 90 days, that means that life as we know it has changed, and at that point, we are talking about a situation which is beyond basic preparedness. If you think 90 days is a bit overkill, I have friends in Puerto Rico who had 90 days’ worth of essentials and it was still not enough to pull them through. They still needed to wait in long lines months after the hurricane for essential items, once their supplies were diminished.
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If you decide leaving is not an option and you are going to ride out the storm at home, here are most important things to think about for sheltering in place before disaster strikes:
1.) Make sure you have a family plan for sheltering in place and make sure everyone knows what their responsibilities are and where they are supposed to be and when. Don’t wait for the day before the storm hits to figure it all out.
2.) Determine what the safest room in your house is, and try to make it safer in case you need to hunker down while the disaster is hitting you. For some people this may be a basement, for others, it may be a small room or a closet. Whatever it is, figure it out ahead of time and see what can be done about improving it if possible. Make sure you put some key essential items in that space in case you get trapped in there for a few days.
3.) Secure your interior and exterior surroundings as best as you can. What do you think the patio furniture chairs on your deck would do a window at 120 mph?
4.) If you don’t have hurricane shutters or impact glass, then make sure you have a way to protect your windows and doors. Plywood and duct tape are fairly inexpensive and are readily available now, but are very difficult to find several days before a storm hits and possibly for quite a while after depending on the severity of the disaster.
Although the list of possible items you need to increase your safety and comfort in a natural disaster scenario seems endless, based on my experience you can break it down and focus on the following items (not forgetting the obvious basic necessities of water, food, and medication/ first aid materials/ clothing) of which if covered will make you a lot better off than the vast majority of the people out there. I am not going to name specific products or bands, just general types of items. Here are my top (10) things to consider:
1.) Have an easy method to purify drinking water. There are many options for this, but the importance of this cannot be underestimated. In addition to this, you also need to be able to have a way to heat water and prepare hot meals from your food storage or reconstitute freeze-dried food.
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2.) At least one battery operated lantern capable of lighting up the main room of your house.
3.) At least one handheld LED flashlight for each member of your family.
4.) At least 1-2 battery powered headlamps. You will never appreciate these enough till you need to work with your both your hands in the darkness.
5.) Battery operated and/or solar powered multi-band radio. Radio is usually the most reliable form of mass communication after a disaster hits. You need information about what is going before and after the event, and the radio can also be a form of entertainment when your power is out.
6.) A good supply of high-quality batteries for whatever size your devices use. Remember C& D cell batteries are the first to always disappear off the shelves. I have never seen or heard of a disaster scenario where AA batteries were completely sold out in the USA. For this reason, I make sure I have some lights that use AA batteries.
7.) Portable solar chargers have come a long way over the last few years, and are a must-have item. These are great for charging personal devices when power is down. Most cell phone towers usually can run several days on their own internal batteries, so if you can charge your own phone, you may never have your cell phone or go down completely.
8.) Tarps, Nails, Hammers, Hand Saw (no electricity means not being able to use or charge power tools) good quality work gloves, pre-cut plywood for doors and windows if necessary, ladders, rope, duct tape. These items will help you secure your house before the storm, and make it much easier to do repairs after it’s over if necessary. I personally know people who spent months waiting for insurance adjusters and contractors to show up after the 2004-2005 Hurricane season in Florida. Spending $60-$70 dollars on several good quality tarps may be the difference of how much damage you can limit, and whether or not you can stay in your house after the disaster.
9.) Today, young or old, most people are going to suffer withdrawal from no use or limited use of electronic devices. Plan ahead and have alternate options (books, games, activities) to entertain yourself and your family — doing this can make a difficult and stressful time much more bearable for everyone.
10.) Although I have one, a generator is usually last on my list because for most situations, setting up a decent generator is costly for the average person. I would not get a generator at the expense of not having anything else on the list above unless my family’s situation required it. As much as a generator can make you more comfortable, for an extended emergency, it’s not really sustainable. Most people I that know who have used a generator during an outage typically burn 3-5 gallons of gas a day. In an environment where gasoline is scarce, feeding a generator is problematic. Even if you have good quality gas cans, most people get uncomfortable storing 30-40+ gallons of gas in their garage, which creates additional concerns itself. I am fortunate as my development is connected to public utility natural gas, and I converted my generator to run off natural gas, which is a huge advantage. I plan using whatever gas I can get before the disaster to run my vehicles and use as a back up to the natural gas if necessary. Due to human nature, gas stations can be a dangerous place to frequent before and after a natural disaster. I prefer to avoid having to look for gasoline if I don’t have to.
Some people may say this level of preparation for a natural disaster is “overkill”. I personally know people who live in the US North East, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys, who until very recently thought the same thing. After suffering the consequences of doing little or nothing to prepare for what is just simply inevitable, they now know better. Disaster preparedness is one of the few things I have done in my life that has consumed valuable time and personal financial resources of which I hope I never need. Sometimes the best investments we make are the ones that give us the most peace of mind.