Thursday, August 30, 2012

Emergency preparation, Part 10 - lessons from Hurricane Isaac

Hurricane Isaac has spawned several interesting 'lessons learned' reports.  To begin with, here's a news report, obtained courtesy of a link at Rev. Paul's place.

While the nation watches as tropical storm Isaac pounds the Gulf Coast, various agencies are pitching in and providing resources to help the communities. But officials in Alaska know that when natural disaster strikes in the Last Frontier, it will be more difficult for help to come to the state.

That’s why the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is hoping to create the first emergency food supply and storage for the state. It would also be one of the first in the nation in its magnitude.

The state is requesting the private sector to propose ideas and plans to create an emergency food cache for the state, in Anchorage and Fairbanks, to help communities when local resources shrink.

. . .

John Madden, the director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says ... the 2009 eruption of Mt. Redoubt showed how having supplies and food locally is especially important if travelling by air or by water is put to a halt.

“We learned the lessons then, that the supply lines that bring in all this food is tenuous and long,” said Madden. “We want to make sure we have resilient supply lines so if anything disturbs, disrupts, or destroys those lines, we want to be able to care for our people in an orderly way.”

There's more at the link.

(Mr. Madden's mention of the 2009 eruption of Mount Redoubt struck a responsive chord in me.  I was courting Miss D. at the time - successfully, I'm delighted to report!  On one visit, my flight got into Anchorage 20 minutes ahead of the latest ash cloud!  If we'd been delayed even a few minutes, we'd have had to divert to Fairbanks or Juneau, or even return to Seattle.)

That's the first time I've read about a State-wide emergency supply program, but it makes a lot of sense - not just for Alaska, where they're at the end of a long, tenuous supply pipeline, but even for 'normal' states.  If a natural disaster affects transport routes, and/or covers several states at once so that those on the periphery are likely to get aid faster than those in the center of the problem area, it's going to be a whole lot easier to cope with those first days and weeks if at least some supplies are pre-positioned.  If that holds true for states, how much more so does it hold true for you and your family?  Furthermore, if your state doesn't have such a program, how much more essential is it for you to have your own?

A lot of people expected Hurricane Isaac to bring high, even damaging winds, but thought they'd blow over quickly so they could get on with their lives.  Very few expected what actually happened:  Isaac stalled, moving very slowly and dumping not just inches, but feet of rain over a wide area.  Some parts of Louisiana report upwards of two feet of rain over the past three days.  It's a fairly flat, low-lying state, with little natural drainage except down bayous, creeks and streams into a couple of major rivers (the Ouachita, the Red, etc.) that in turn drain into the Mississippi - which was, for a time, actually flowing backwards as the result of storm surge!  The Associated Press reports:

The huge spiral weather system weakened to a tropical depression as it crawled inland, but it caught many places off guard by following a meandering, unpredictable path. The storm's excruciatingly slow movement meant that Isaac practically parked over low-lying towns and threw off great sheets of water for hours.

. . .

Inside the fortified levees that protected New Orleans, bursts of sunshine streamed through the thick clouds, and life began to return to normal. But beyond the city, people got their first good look at Isaac's damage: Hundreds of homes were underwater. Half the state was without power at the one point. Thousands were staying at shelters.

And the damage may not be done. Even more rain was expected in Louisiana before the storm finally drifts into Arkansas and Missouri.

. . .

Katrina was more powerful, coming ashore as a Category 3 storm. Isaac was a Category 1 at its peak. Katrina barreled into the state and quickly moved through. Isaac creeped across the landscape at less than 10 mph and wobbled constantly.

David Newman was frustrated that the government spent billions of dollars reinforcing New Orleans levees after Katrina, only to see the water inundating surrounding regions.

"The water's got to go somewhere," he said. "It's going to find the weakest link."

Again, more at the link.

This is worth thinking about from an emergency preparedness point of view.  Many people stayed in place because they expected the hurricane to move through quickly, only to be trapped by rising floodwaters.  Not even the emergency services predicted this sort of destruction - and from a relatively mild storm, at that.  It looks at this time as if the economic damage to Louisiana from Hurricane Isaac may rival that of Hurricane Gustav in 2008.  (I endured both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav in that state, and I can assure you those storms were no fun at all!  Those currently enduring Isaac have my deepest sympathy - although I trust they'll pardon me for being glad I'm not there to share the experience with them!)

If you have emergency supplies stored at home, consider these questions in the light of Hurricane Isaac.

  1. Are your supplies stored out of the reach of floodwaters?  A basement might not be the best place for them in a flood zone . . .
  2. Are your supplies packed so that, in an emergency, you can load them in your vehicle, along with a suitcase of clothing and your essential documents, and get out of town ahead of a storm?  You may have too many supplies to do that (it's a nice problem to have!), but you should have at least some of them (enough for a few weeks, if possible) packed and ready to go.  (See this article, which we've mentioned before, for some useful ideas in that regard.)
  3. Do you keep at least half a tank of gas in your vehicle at all times?  If not, expect to spend long hours queuing for fuel at gas stations in the rush to fill up before the storm hits - and you may find that your local gas station runs dry before you can get to a pump.  It's worth having a tankful of gas stored in jerrycans or other suitable containers at home (in a safe location, of course - NOT in your residential building, due to the risk of fire), and treated with fuel stabilizer.  Put it in your vehicle's gas tank every six to nine months, and replace it with fresh gasoline.
  4. Is your disaster preparation too limited in terms of likely scenarios?  It's all very well to say that an earthquake hasn't hit your area in living memory - but what if there's a fault system nearby?  The New Madrid fault hasn't let go in a big way since 1812, but if it ever decides to do so, residents of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi are going to find out the hard way that most local building codes don't specify earthquake-resistant construction!  In the same way, prepare for high winds, floods, etc., even if they're unlikely.  (Tennesseans sure didn't expect a 1,000-year flood in May 2010, but they got it anyway!  I was in Nashville for that, and the downpours reminded me of hurricanes in Louisiana.)  A little forethought can save you a great deal of pain when the proverbial brown substance hits the rotary air impeller.
  5. Don't be too fixated on a single plan.  It may work under certain conditions, but if circumstances change, it might get you killed!  Have more than one plan.  If conditions allow, one plan might be to stay in place and shelter at home.  Under other conditions (e.g. floods, or urban unrest, or massive fires, or whatever) it might be much safer to 'get out of Dodge' and seek shelter elsewhere (hopefully by pre-arrangement with family and/or friends elsewhere).

Hurricane Isaac has tested, and is still testing, many people's emergency preparations.  Some will have come through relatively unscathed.  Others . . . not so much.  Let's learn all we can from their experiences, and apply those lessons to our own preparations.


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