Survival Diary from 3 Hurricanes & Lessons Learned, Part 1 of 3
The tips and experiences shared in this lengthy 3-part article are valuable for many different types of emergencies, from tornadoes to blackouts. Take notes!
Notes from Hurricane Frances (and Charley and Jeanne)
This is compiled from notes that I, Stephen McGehee, took during and after the hurricanes that went through here in 2004. Since it was written in a diary format, some conclusions in the first part are changed by the time we get to the end. Be sure to read all three parts of this article.
Hurricane Frances came through last weekend. Today is Friday September 10, 2004, and power was restored here today at 5:15 p.m., six days later. Hurricane Charley came through just before this, and power was only out about one day.
Keep in mind that although being without electricity and air conditioning is a major probl
em for us, this is how most of the rest of the world lives every day. The problem is that we are not used to it and they are. A helpful goal is to make the transition from having electricity to not, as smooth as possible until it is restored.
Frances was a slow moving storm. High winds started here on Saturday afternoon. The highest winds were on Sunday, with rain bands and high gusts continuing into Monday. This location is surrounded by large oaks which serve as a wind screen – unless they are blown over. The highest gust measured at 30 feet here was only 46 MPH, but it was obvious from the movement of the oaks, that the winds were much higher above the trees. On Sunday, a tornado touched down a couple hundred yards from here. I could not see it, but I heard it. A tornado sounds just like what it is described as – the sound of a freight train, only without the “clacking” of the rails. When I first heard it, my thought was, “Why in the world would they be running a train in the middle of a hurricane?” It took a few seconds to realize that it was a tornado. After the storm had passed, I saw how it had shredded huge oaks and destroyed the utility lines. The road was completely blocked, and I could not see the house that I knew was behind the debris.
Getting ready before the storm
In addition to the usual stuff, turn the air conditioning down as low as you can to cool the house. If you’re careful, and you have a shady location, you can keep the house reasonably comfortable for quite a while with the windows closed. Keep the shades drawn, cook outdoors, and keep things as dry as possible.
If your air conditioner fan unit is not very well protected from wind by the way it is positioned, be sure to anchor it down. They look like they are rock solid, but they are actually very lightweight. If it gets blown from its position, it takes the coolant lines with it. This is very expensive to repair, and you are without air conditioning for a whole lot longer than it takes to get the power restored.
In the movie “The Matrix”, Neo is asked what he needs. He replies “Guns. Lots of guns.” After something like this, the reply would be, “Water. Lots of water.” Having an abundant supply of clean water can make a huge difference in comfort. Having a minimum supply of clean water is critical. Lots of water means you can take a bath or shower, and that means more than most folks will ever understand until they have been in steaming hot weather with no air conditioning while doing heavy physical work to clear debris and make repairs. You MUST have water, and lots of it.
I learned that when my well pump is without power for a while it will lose its prime. That’s a scary feeling. Fortunately, I also learned how to prime the pump. Remember that you have to have water to prime a pump (it may take several gallons), so don’t wait until you’re out of water to crank up the pump. I’m pretty sure the well can be fixed so that it doesn’t lose prime like that, but that’s a subject for another time. Also, know that when the water goes down, and interior parts of the pump and well are exposed to air, rust will form very quickly. When I pumped water after losing prime, the water was rusty brown for a while.
I have a hand pump well that I need to pay more attention to so that it is always in good working order. That’s something easy to put off, but very important.
Everyone knows that you need to fill up your bathtub with water. The problem is that most modern tubs have built-in stoppers that are OK for keeping the water in if you’re taking a bath. They will NOT, however, keep water in for the long term. If you trust the built-in stopper, you’re likely to have an empty tub the next day. Remove the metal stopper and replace it with an old-fashioned rubber stopper from the hardware store. They come in different sizes, so make sure you get the right size. You can replace the fancy metal one after things return to normal.
A big Igloo water cooler filled with ice water is extremely handy and keeps you from having to open the refrigerator or get into an ice chest for cold water. My sister used one for her family, and it worked great. It’s on my list of things to buy.
Another water container that I will try to find for next time is a 5 gallon container that has a valve that can be turned on and left on like a water spigot. Most water containers have a spring-type valve that you have to keep holding to get water. I want something to set at the bathroom and kitchen sinks so that I can have running water when needed. Again, it’s on my list.
Gas grills and cookers vary a lot in how much heat they put out, and some can be slower than cooking on an electric stove. A lot slower. Take that into consideration when planning. I imagine most folks already knew that, but I didn’t.
Those little “George Foreman Grilling Machines” work great if you have a generator. Try to use it outside so you don’t heat up the house any more than necessary.
The first night without power, I grilled a steak. It was one of the best I’ve ever had. I had planned to do that before the storm hit, and picked up some potatoes to go with it. Try to cook some really good meals like that once in a while. It’s a real morale booster. Besides, you’ll need the red meat for all the work that follows the storm. If you’ve got them in the freezer, plan on cooking them right away. (Also, taking that steak out of the freezer and sticking it under my shirt to thaw out was a great way to cool down.)
When I tried cooking with a liquid fuel backpacking stove, I found that something had gotten gummed up, and it would just barely keep a flame going. Forget about cooking on it. I took it apart and cleaned it. It fired right up and boiled a cup of water in just about one minute. Can’t ask for better than that.
Unless you are trying to ride out a major storm in a mobile home, or you are in a storm surge or flood area, the most serious hazards are after the storm has passed. Chief among the hazards is the mixture of working, non-working, and sort-of-working traffic signals. Many people don’t know to treat non-working traffic lights as a 4-way stop, and they barrel right on through. Others come to a sort-of-working traffic light and treat it as a 4-way stop. They stop, then when it’s clear, they go through the intersection. I did that one time only to discover that I had just come to a stop and then proceeded right through a red light. Big time stupid, and almost big time fatal.
There is also the hazard of trees and utility poles in the roads, or hanging just above the road at windshield-level. Flooded streets can hide all sorts of debris under water, so cross water with caution.
Judging from what I saw and heard while buying some last-minute supplies, there are a lot of people trying to wire generators who are accidents waiting to happen. There are also a lot of people buying chain saws who hope to learn how to use one while stressed about that tree fallen on their house. Bad time to learn. I also never saw any of the chain saw buyers getting any safety equipment at the same time. I never use mine without a helmet-hearing-protection-face-shield combination, along with leather gloves and heavy pants. Again – accidents waiting to happen.
Be careful of ordinary hazards also. I tripped over a support cable from a solar panel that I had taken down to protect from wind damage. I just ended up with a sore arm, but could just as easily have ended up with a fracture or nasty cut if things had been slightly different. That’s the last thing you want to have to deal with at a time like this. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure during normal times, it’s worth a ton of cure during bad times. Be careful!
After two nights to get used to it, sleeping in even the hottest weather can be reasonably comfortable if you can cool off with a shower just before going to bed, and if you have a fan running. I was able to run a fan with the battery/inverter combination (described later), and it worked very well.
My plan had originally been to sleep on my screened-in-porch, but I didn’t consider the fact that the floor would be flooded. I ordered a cot from Cabela’s, and it arrived on Friday – the day power was restored. It will come in handy the next time.
When there is no power, one quickly gets into the habit of going to bed shortly after dark, and then waking up at dawn. Sleep patterns can change pretty quickly under these circumstances.
Without air conditioning, and working outside all day long, allergies can act up and make sleeping even harder than it already is. Nasal decongestant spray or Benadryl in your first aid kit will make it easier to sleep.
Showers and washing
I started to build an outdoor shower, but power was restored before it was completed. I found a sprayer in the garden section of Lowes that will be the main part of it. It is basically an adjustable shower head attached to a pipe with a garden hose connector on one end and a gate valve in the middle. I had planned to run the generator to pump water, and then use it on the garden hose. Some 8’ posts planted in the ground with some 4’ wide black plastic would provide privacy. I bought some 12” square patio pavers and laid them down to form a 2’ x 6’ floor so I wasn’t standing in mud. I think it will work out well the next time.
Yes, I could just as easily shower inside, but without air conditioning, you end up with 100% humidity in the bathroom. The key is to keep anything that produces heat and moisture out of the house as much as possible.
For general face-washing type stuff, a regular dish pan works great. Next time, I’ll have two of them so that one can be for clean water to rinse with. They work much better than using the sink. If you’re short on water, use the water for flushing toilets after you’re finished washing up.
Shaving is a real pain if you insist on hot water. I gave up and just shaved using cold water. It worked OK.
A surplus sun helmet (pith helmet) worked very well to keep the sun off while working outside; I’ve used them for years. It also worked well to keep the rain off when I had to go out during the storm to lower an antenna to keep it from being destroyed when a branch threatened to fall on it. It finally fell about an hour after I lowered the antenna. I used a rain suit with the pith helmet, and it allowed me to go out in the middle the hurricane, do some work, and remain relatively dry.
Carhart work pants aren’t very cool, but I’ll take the added heat for the protection they offer from cuts and scrapes when clearing debris. Also:
- Leather gloves are an absolute necessity.
- Plain cotton gloves are cooler, and can be used for some things, but leather is the best way to go most of the time.
- A sweat band will make it a lot less miserable working outside.
- Sunglasses are a must, especially when working around brush where the possibility of getting poked in the eye is pretty high.
In part 2: Smart strategies for generators, how not to get electrocuted, and tips for maintaining as normal a life as possible without electricity.
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