After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, I wrote a series of "lessons learned" points, which I combined into an article on this blog some time later. It's consistently among the most viewed articles here, so I hope it's done some good.
As the wider picture is emerging after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico over the past couple of months, there have been more useful lessons coming out of the experiences of my correspondents (and from news media articles). I'm going to summarize some of them here. I'll add to this article in future (with a link to it at the time) as more information comes out.
1. Storage of emergency supplies.
This is problematic when your building floods, and/or when hurricane-force winds damage or destroy it. A number of issues have come to light.
- If your containers (e.g. tin cans, jars, etc.) are identified only with paper labels, they probably won't stay attached (and/or legible) when flood waters rise. It's a good idea to write the contents on the tops and/or bottoms of such containers using a waterproof Sharpie, or something like that. If the label is soaked and/or falls off, you'll still know what's inside.
- Some containers (e.g. Mason jars, etc.) are a lot less damage-resistant than others. This is important if part or all of your building collapses. Anything made of glass will probably break, and its contents will be ruined. Tin cans are more resistant to that, but not invulnerable. You may need to dig your supplies out of a damaged room, so it's important to make sure they survive the damage! After hearing from correspondents about this, I've decided to store some of our emergency food supplies in heavy-duty, relatively damage-resistant totes (such as those recommended in this article). That will help keep them together, make them easier to recover if necessary, and hopefully provide greater security against breaking or leaking. (Note: if your supplies are heavy [e.g. Mason jars or tin cans], pack them in smaller totes, so that the overall weight is manageable. A large tote, loaded to the gunwales with heavy containers, is going to be hard to move at the best of times, let alone when you have to dig it out from a damaged or destroyed room!)
- If space allows, it's a good idea to separate your emergency supplies, making at least two caches at opposite ends of the house. That way, if one part of the building is so badly damaged you can't safely enter it, you can at least use the supplies in the other part. It might also be worth storing some supplies with friends or relatives whose homes are stronger and more disaster-resistant. If yours becomes completely unusable, you'll still have something to fall back on.
- Garden sheds are very useful to store volatile supplies such as cans of gasoline, propane gas cylinders, etc, keeping their fire hazard away from your primary residence. Emergency supplies can also be stored there. However, in a hurricane or flood, they're a lot less secure than a large building. They may collapse, or be knocked over, or be washed away; and looters looking for easy pickings will find it relatively easy to gain entry to them, if necessary by kicking in a wall or a window. They are not secure storage, and should not be regarded as such. If you have warning of an approaching emergency, move essential supplies out of sheds into safer and/or more secure locations.
2. Using transport and/or travel trailers to "bug out".
Many people rely on transport and travel trailers or RV's to "bug out" if necessary, or provide alternative accommodation if their primary residence is damaged. However, they are much more vulnerable than a house or apartment, particularly in weather-related disasters, and especially if strong winds arise. Don't take a trailer into a high cross-wind situation, whether parked or on the road. The odds are very good it'll blow over, as these videos illustrate.
There are many more like them, as an Internet search will demonstrate. Also, be aware of the potential hazards of towing large, unwieldy trailers in the midst of heavy evacuation traffic, as noted in my Katrina after-action "lessons learned" article.
3. Cash is king!
I've spoken several times about the need for an emergency cash reserve. These hurricanes have driven home that need even more powerfully. In Houston and Florida, electronic payment networks (needed to operate credit card machines, ATM's, etc.) were down from days to weeks on end. In Puerto Rico, they're still largely inoperable in most parts of the island. Most shops are insisting on cash payment only - and if you don't have cash, you're out of luck. Reuters reports:
Demand for cash in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico is "extraordinarily high" after power outages knocked out electronic transactions and ATMs ... Residents and tourists were counting their dwindling banknotes in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which crippled the electrical grid and communications network, turning the Caribbean island into a largely cash-based economy.
. . .
With electricity and internet down in Yauco, southwestern Puerto Rico, Nancy and Caesar Nieve said they could not access paychecks directly deposited into their bank accounts.
"What are we going to do when we don't have any cash? The little cash we have, we have to save for gas," said Nancy.
Cash demand spiked in the first few days after the hurricane as merchants were unable to accept other modes of payment.
. . .
Isolation and widespread power outages ... intensified the cash crunch in Puerto Rico.
"I'm out of options," said Brandon Alexander Jones, a vacationer from London who on Tuesday was down to $85, with no way to get more cash, and no way to reach a friend on the island due to crippled cellular service.
He was staying in a San Juan shelter after a hobbled hotel had asked him and other guests to leave, and he spent much of his remaining money to get to the airport.
"I don't know how to get across the Atlantic. I don't know how to get to the States. I'm stranded," he told Reuters. "I'm out of reach from anyone who can help me."
There's more at the link.
Note, in particular, Mr. Jones' account in the above report. If we travel to or in areas where natural disasters are more likely to occur (e.g. California [earthquakes], the Caribbean [during hurricane season], areas with active volcanoes, etc.), we need to have additional cash on hand, just in case. It's too easy to rely on credit cards when traveling . . . but you're stuck if you can't use them.
I continue to believe that an emergency cash reserve of at least one month's routine expenditure, stored securely at home rather than in a bank savings account, is an essential part of one's emergency preparations. If that's not possible, try to save a week's worth, or even a couple of days' worth of cash. It may make all the difference in difficult times. Furthermore, when traveling, take extra cash along, just in case. Yes, it can be a security headache . . . but its absence during an emergency may be a much bigger one!
4. Security may be a much bigger problem than you realize.
The crime and looting reported from Texas and Florida weren't too bad, thanks to a strong police presence (although they were bad enough if you were a victim, I'm sure!). Puerto Rico appears to have a much bigger problem.
The island of 3.4 million people is without electricity, and water, and looters have taken over as police and the National Guard enforce a strict 6 pm to 6 am curfew — leaving Americans in chaos, abandoned by their government.
“It’s a war zone,” Beckles said by email. “There is no power or water. We are under curfew from 6 pm to 6 am. Food is becoming scarce and people are getting desperate. Looting has already begun. The lines to get gas are seven to ten hours long — to receive $10 worth of gas.”
. . .
Beckles said that in the first few days after the Hurricane it seemed things might be fine — but help never came.
“We are now 7 days in and nothing is happening. How can anyone feel safe with a curfew in place and looting going on?” she said.
The mayor of San Juan has warned people to stay indoors and not violate the curfew for their own safety.
Again, more at the link.
There have been similar reports from other Caribbean islands affected by the hurricanes. This is made worse, from our point of view, by the fact that many of those islands (including the US Virgin Islands) have more restrictive firearms laws and regulations than the USA, making it much more difficult to defend oneself and one's family, and protect one's property and emergency supplies from looters.
The situation after Hurricane Katrina was much worse than it has been this year. I suspect US law enforcement authorities learned from Katrina, and responded accordingly; but that may not be universal. I continue to suggest that you arm and train to defend yourself and your loved ones, if necessary - and protect your emergency supplies while you're at it. It's like a parachute. You may never need it . . . but if you do, you won't have time to go and buy one, and learn how to use it! Better to be prepared in advance, just in case.
5. Generator issues.
A Puerto Rican correspondent at Voat reported:
In this small town we probably have 10-15 people with generators and about maybe im guessing 40 with water tanks . Its taken to day 5 when now people are complaining about those with the generators. How inconsiderate we are, how noisy the generators are waah. I will gladly charge up your phone no prob thats nothing. anything else ,I need to see a gallon and an extension cord. the town ran out of gas, the town over has gas but the closest functioning ath is 2 towns away so yea its sucks all around. People are looking at your tank (mines at half, so shit it needs to rain.) 5 days is what Im learning where peoples tipping point is.
. . .
Sorry about dropping off last night generator died and I had about 2 gallons left until I went out to get more. Which was this morning. electric came back in the afternoon. If I dont see at least 10 more generators pop up next time the power goes out I will know for sure people are just stupid and theres no helping them.
More at the link.
That's worth thinking about. If you have a generator (which will be obvious from lights in your home at night, even if people are too far away to hear its exhaust), you're going to attract the envy of those who don't have power. At first it may be a request to charge a phone; then it might be to run an extension cord to their house, so they can share your electricity. If you have a small generator, that won't carry that sort of load, you're going to refuse, of course; but that's going to create bad blood with your neighbors. Worth thinking about . . . and perhaps worth planning not to use electric light at night, so as not to attract unwanted attention. Burn candles, use flashlights, whatever, and use generator power for things like refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and small window air-conditioning units (or heaters in colder weather).
Another important point is the fuel consumption of your generator. Bigger units consume more fuel, which is not a good thing when fuel supplies are limited or non-existent! Given that factor, as well as the security aspect discussed above, I'm coming to think that one or two small 2,000 watt inverter generators (which can be connected together to draw more power from both of them) may be a better option for the budget-conscious (like myself) than a larger, more powerful unit. Consider:
- They use a gallon or so of gasoline for seven to ten hours of operation, as opposed to several times that for a larger unit, so your stored fuel supplies will go further.
- They're much quieter than a larger unit, typically operating at conversational noise levels - so they're easier on your ears, and harder for your neighbors to hear.
- They're very portable - you can carry them in one hand. This makes transporting them much easier than bigger, heavier, more unwieldy generators.
- If you have two of them (to run them as a combined unit), and one breaks down, you still have one in operation. If your only large generator breaks down, you're S.O.L.
Finally, FEMA administrator Brock Long has a message for all of us.
6. More lessons learned: Friday, September 29, 2017.
I've been hearing from more correspondents about their experiences. Here are a few more "lessons learned".
- It's very useful to have a cooking method available that doesn't require very much fuel. Three correspondents report that they put thermal cookers to good use. They're a modern version of the old haybox. You first boil the food, then put it in the thermal cooker and close the lid. The food continues to cook from the heat stored within it, but doesn't require any further energy from outside. After four to six hours, you can produce a very tasty, well-cooked stew, soup or something like that, with the use of only as much energy as it took to boil it in the beginning. That saves a lot of fuel (propane, or kerosene, or firewood, or whatever). You can also carry a thermal cooker around with you if necessary, letting the food cook while you travel or do other things. I'm impressed enough by those reports that I'm going to get two for our own use, one larger, one smaller in size. I'm looking forward to experimenting with them.
- "Tall poppy syndrome" appears to have reared its ugly head in several communities. Some of those who'd made adequate preparations for disaster, and consequently come through the storm in relatively good shape, are said to have bragged about their forethought and acumen, and made disparaging comments about those who hadn't done likewise. This has not exactly made them popular with their neighbors, particularly those who would have liked to prepare as well, but couldn't afford to do so to the same extent. Also, some "preppers" are reported to have taken delight in eating and drinking on their porch, even barbecuing meat from their generator-powered freezers in full view of passersby, flaunting their "success". I'm sure you can imagine how popular this has made them! I have no idea why they behaved like that, but I suspect it's going to have long-term repercussions for them. Not an example we want to emulate! I suggest that keeping a low profile, and having some extra supplies to share with those around you, are worthwhile precautions against future resentment if you want to go on living in your neighborhood.
- In many areas, aid workers have arrived in trucks bearing bottled water, emergency food supplies, etc. and distributed them to all who needed them. However, it's reported that some "preppers", who were known by those living around them to have their own supplies, tried to obtain more from the aid workers. This led to several altercations and a few fist-fights, as those who were in greater need showed their anger and disgust. I think the moral of the story is to keep your emergency supplies out of sight, and not let it be known that you have them - or, at least, not as much of them as you may have. Also, don't be greedy and try to take supplies that you don't really need. You don't want to provoke that sort of response.
- A lot of people are angry and upset that they weren't - and in some cases still haven't - been allowed to access badly damaged areas or properties. This is only common sense. The emergency services are already overloaded. The last thing they need is to have more problems thrown at them, rescuing home-owners and residents who've put themselves at risk! However, many of the latter seem to think they have a God-given right to enter their properties and recover their belongings at their convenience. This has led to a number of clashes. Some home-owners have even been arrested for refusing to obey orders from the authorities. I can understand their frustration, but really, there's no excuse for that behavior. It's not just our lives, but the lives of all those who'll have to put themselves at risk to rescue us if something goes wrong - and the other important tasks they'll have to leave because of our selfishness. Communities have to sort things out one problem at a time, as resources allow. It doesn't help anybody if we try to assert our "rights" (no matter how questionable) and refuse to cooperate.
- Many landlords have been terminating leases for their properties, requiring tenants to move out at once so that they can commence repairs or rebuilding. Some tenants are apparently upset about this, because they can't get other rental accommodation near their work or family or schools (most of it having also been damaged or destroyed). They're accusing their landlords of being "uncaring", or "gouging" them, or words to that effect. Again, I don't get it. If the building's badly damaged (particularly if interior flooding and mold removal are involved), it has to be emptied if it's to be repaired. Sure, that's inconvenient, and may result in a lot of unexpected expenses for tenants; but that's the reality of the aftermath of a disaster. It's nothing personal - it's just the way it is.
I'll post more "lessons learned" as they come in.