Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Power is Out

You have your flashlights and your radio, right? And fresh batteries.

If you have a generator, you don't have to run it constantly to save the stuff in your fridge. Don't open the doors often, to keep in the cold air, and run the generator for a few hours, maybe twice a day.

Make sure your generator is in a well ventilated area!! Even a screened-in porch can contain enough carbon monoxide to kill you. Before, during, or after a hurricane, someone always dies from carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure you know and understand the safety rules before you fire up that generator, and be very careful.

Many people rely on candles for lighting after a storm, and that has its own dangers. You don't want your house to survive a hurricane only to burn down a few days later.

The U.S. Fire Administration provides a checklist of safety tips that's well worth reading.

The First 72

You probably remember the days after Hurricane Katrina (2005), when the people of New Orleans were complaining that no one was bringing them food or water.

You probably don't remember hearing those complaints from Mississippi, where Katrina actually made landfall or from Florida after Hurricane Ivan. Maybe we didn't yell as loudly or maybe more people in those areas knew about the storm and had prepared for it.

After Katrina, the federal government came up with a new slogan: "The First 72 Are Up to You." Basically, you must be prepared to take care of yourself and your family for the first three days after the storm passes.

Why?

A major hurricane leaves roads covered with debris - trees, power poles, parts of roofs, tin siding, trash. The roads must be cleared before help can arrive. Sometimes, roads and bridges are left impassible by the storm. The tarmac at the airport must be inspected before planes and helicopters can safely land.

Your local government is responsible for setting up distribution centers for food, water, and ice. They need to have a large parking lot or other area to deliver these goods. You have to have a way to get there -- another reason for clearing roads of debris.

So, make sure you have the food, water, medicine and first aid supplies that you need to survive for three days. The federal government has a handy checklist online at Ready.gov.

If money is an issue, keep in mind you don't necessarily have to buy water -- if you have a cooler, jars, sports bottles, any of those things can be used to store tap water. You just want to make sure that what you put the water in is clean and has a lid so that it doesn't get contaminated with dust, dirt, animal hair or whatever may be floating around after the storm.

Meals after a hurricane don't have to be fancy. You can live off bread or crackers, peanut butter, and potted meat. It's nice to have a variety of foods, but it's not necessary.

Do you have a grill? Don't try to use it in the house, but you can cook on it outdoors after the storm passes. You'll need gas or charcoal to fuel it. After Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis (2005), I heard of big neighborhood parties where everyone who had a grill fired it up and people cooked all the meat from their freezers before it went bad.

You may lose water pressure after the storm, so you'll also need water to flush the toilet. That's where filling your tub comes in handy. Don't try to fill the toilet's tank. The most efficient way is to pour the water directly into the toilet bowl. Pour it slowly. When it gets to a certain point, the toilet will flush itself and you can stop pouring.

Before the storm, make sure your ice chest is clean and ready to take in whatever food and medications need refrigeration. You can make extra ice in the freezer. Blocks of ice will last longer - to make your own, fill a water or milk jug about three-quarters full of water (water expands as it freezes) and put it in the freezer. I wouldn't want to drink out of the milk jug, but when the ice melts, that's water you can use to flush the toilet, at least.

It's easier to see these less expensive options if you're looking ahead at the beginning of hurricane season. When the storm is a day or two away and you're panicked, you can't think as clearly.

Finding Shelter

If you decide to leave home, where will you go?

Many people have out-of-state relatives they can stay with during the storm. You can try to find a hotel - keeping in mind that the hotels on major evacuation routes fill up very quickly. Can you bring pets along or will you need to board them? Make sure you have vaccination records and tags from your vet, along with any medications and pet food.

As you're packing, take a few days worth of clothes, your medications and toiletries. If you are staying with someone else, will they take care of feeding you or should you take along those steaks from the freezer (you may lose 'em anyway, when the power goes out). If you are in a hotel, will you be dining out every meal? Taking food with you from home? Buying at a nearby grocery store?

If you're going to a public shelter, they typically do not provide anything but four walls and a roof. They are intended for people who live in mobile homes, flood areas, beachfront homes who must evacuate and have no place else to go. If anyone in your family has a medical condition, ask about special needs shelters. They often have a volunteer nurse on hand. Find out where the shelters are, whether they provide cots or anything that a standard shelter doesn't have, and whether they have a generator, particularly if someone in your family relies on electrical equipment, such as an oxygen tank.

Talk to your doctor in advance about how to preserve medications that require refrigeration. What do you do if your power goes out and your life-saving equipment doesn't work? If you are staying at home, a generator might be a wise investment. If money is an issue, check with local or state agencies to see if they provide assistance to purchase one. Make sure your power company knows your need -- they'll put you at the top of the list to get your power restored.

If you don't have special needs, you may be able to pack as you would for any holiday away. If you're going to a shelter, you must take your own bedding, food, water, toiletries, and paper goods, as well as clothing.

The American Red Cross offers excellent information on preparing for a storm as well as suggestions on what to bring with you when you evacuate.

To Evacuate or Stay

Some areas are considered "mandatory" evacuation areas. If you insist on staying in a flood zone or in your waterfront home, I don't think you can be forced to leave, but local law enforcement may come by to get information on your next of kin. There is a good chance they'll need it. Keep in mind, too, that if you change your mind at the height of the storm, no one is coming to help you.

If your home is sturdy, built up to code, and on high ground, you may be better off staying put. If anything does happen to your house, you'll be there to do temporary repairs or to move furnishings out of the room that's got the tree in it, before they are damaged further by water. You won't have to worry about your pets. You'll save money on gas to get out of town. Once you're out of town, you might not be able to get back in for a few days due to debris on the roads. There's a lot of benefits to hunkering down at home.

If you think your home will be severely damaged by constant high winds, then leave, for your own safety.

This is a decision that must be made by you, knowing the condition of your house.

A Named Storm is coming my way!

When the official NHC forecast or several models show a storm coming within 50 miles of your home, it's good to start preparing for the storm. Some people will tell you you're silly, why do anything now because it could hit somewhere else. It's true the track could change, but when the storm is two days out and definitely coming your way, wouldn't you feel better having some of the prep work done?

Five to seven days out, I pick up extra bottled water. We drink bottled water anyway, so it will go to good use. I make sure I have batteries for my radio and flashlights. I check my pantry and pick up a few extra food items that don't require refrigeration or cooking.

Three or four days out, I might fill one 5-gallon gas can (The gas will go in the lawnmower or in the car if we don't need it for the generator). Make sure you have phone numbers at home for the people you work with. Look around your yard and consider what could become a projectile. Pick up toys, trim back those loose tree limbs if you can. If flashing is loose along the edge of your roof, try to do a quick fix so that the wind can't get a grip and use that to damage your home.

Also, wash all your dirty laundry and dishes while you have electricity and running water. If the power is out for three weeks, you'll be glad you did. If you're like me, there's usually something in the back of the fridge that has taken on a life of its own. Throw that stuff out while you have regular garbage pick-up. Unless you have a generator, you'll be clearing out everything else in the refrigerator and freezer about three days after the storm.

Have you ever experienced high water in your neighborhood? I don't live in a flood zone, but drainage issues after Hurricane Ivan (2004) allowed water to reach my porch. Ahead of a storm, we'll fill sandbags to keep water out of the house. Our County Road Department provides free sand and bags ahead of a hurricane. If money is an issue, call around and see what assistance you can get.

A couple of days out, make sure you have important papers together, especially if you are going to evacuate. Your mortgage and property insurance information, car title, copies of recent bills, medical records, and identification are important to take with you. If you come back to nothing, you will know what your insurance covers and what percentage you'll have to pay. You'll have phone numbers to call and change mailing addresses, to cancel services, and report damage.

Consider what you'll have room for in your car. If you have to evacuate, take your most precious photo album along. That super-rare baseball card. Any small items of value -- whether monetary or sentimental.

Please DO NOT leave your pets to fend for themselves. If it's too dangerous for you to stay in your home, it's too dangerous for an animal.

The final days before the storm will be filled with covering your windows, unplugging electric appliances and computers, and picking up anything that you left outdoors (lawn furniture, potted plants). If you are leaving the area, don't wait until the last minute. Roads can get clogged with traffic and some people have ended up riding out the storm in their car on the interstate.
Aren't you glad you started preparing early?

Hurricane Season begins June 1

The storms don't know that, though, and we've had named storms as early as April (Ana, 2003). Starting in May, I monitor the National Hurricane Center and as soon as they announce an invest, which is an area that could develop into a named storm, I start tracking it. You can find the computer models, the forecast tools that the NHC folks use to come up with the official track, at Skeetobite and Weather Underground.

Another tool I use, when a storm is approaching my community, is the National Weather Service. Click on "National Maps" and you can see how the high and low fronts are forecast to move over the U.S. for up to six days. A high sitting right over your town could help steer the storm away from you.

There are many other factors, such as wind shear, troughs, and ridges, and I am not a meteorologist and haven't figured out how to watch those areas, myself. That's where the NHC's Discussions come in handy. When you are looking at the official track of a storm on the NHC site, right above the tracking chart are a series of links. Look for the one called "Discussion" and click on it. These discussions explain why the forecaster chose the track that has become the official outlook for the storm.

The important thing is to be aware of what's out there that could potentially impact your life.

When a storm comes your way, you'll hear people complaining about how expensive it is to prepare but you don't have to wait until the last minute. Start making your emergency list now. Spread out your costs by buying a few items each week, before a hurricane starts churning its way towards your home.

Purpose of this Blog

As the 2008 hurricane season has progressed, I've noticed that it's like Floridians have forgotten the devastating storms of '04 and '05. I'm sure that many people living in coastal communities assume they're safe, because their states haven't been struck in years. So, I'm creating this blog as a helpful tool to remind people of safety measures they should take.