Sunday, May 14, 2017

Time to Prepare for Hurricane Season

It was Hurricane Preparedness Week last week (May 7-13, 2017). It passed without attracting my attention. Perhaps it was better publicized or at least better noticed elsewhere. For many across the country, hurricane season is a stressful time. We relive memories of the bad storms, and obsessively watch the National Hurricane Center site for signs of the next one. We follow the Weather Channel more than the news. I periodically tweet the following as "my favorite picture on the Internet." If the text is not clear, it reads "Tropical cyclone activity is not expected in the next 48 hours." It seems a little ironic, but I do like that image.


There are storms that attract national attention and fame. Names like Andrew and Katrina are widely known. Those disasters made national news and left indelible impressions on many. But, for most in hurricane country, the storm(s) that is most personally memorable is the one (hopefully just one) that you lived through. For me, at least for now, that will be Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis. The ten worst American cyclones according to The Weather Channel were:

10. Charley 2004, Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, Florida

9.   1938 Hurricane, New England
8.   Sandy, 2012, Long Beach Island, New Jersey
7.   1935 Labor Day, Florida Keys, Florida
6.   1938 Southeast Florida, Lake Okeechobee, Florida
5.   Camille, 1969, Mississippi Gulf Coast
4.   Andrew, 1992, Homestead, Florida
3.   1926 Miami Hurricane, Miami, Florida
2.   1900 Galveston Hurricane, Galveston, Texas
1.   Katrina, 2005, New Orleans, Louisiana

The fact that half of that list ends with "Florida" does not escape me. But that does not represent any "corner" on the tragedy market either. Regions and cities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from New Jersey to Brownsville, Texas have each had their storms, destruction, loss of life, recovery, and stories of heroism and resolve. 

Hurricanes are nasty, destructive, and dangerous. But, unlike so many natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, etc.) these days we tend to get significant warning of hurricanes. That is not always be the case, but usually there are days warning. Those days give us time to pro act. In recent years, the accuracy of landfall predictions has improved significantly, which is also a blessing. 

It is a bit of a comfort to know in advance that one of these things is coming toward you. Preparations can be made, albeit perhaps frantically. There is a great deal of frantic behavior sometimes. It is time now to prepare for the season. As I write this and encourage you, I recall my first experience, Hurricane Ivan in 2004. I hope that it forever remains my worst hurricane experience.

I remember just before Ivan I was on a last-minute trip to a home improvement store for screws (my neighbor and I had exhausted our supply putting up plywood over windows), I ran into an acquaintance who was in line to buy 20+ sheets of plywood. We spoke briefly, and I went in search of screws. As I drove out later in my empty 3/4 ton pickup, I passed his very small SUV, with those 20+ sheets in the back. It looked like his vehicle's front wheels might lift-off at any moment. That overloaded vehicle image has always troubled me.

After boarding up, I ran from Ivan. That is good advice for anyone. Evacuation saves lives. But, it is admittedly difficult to plan. Even with modern prediction success, these things can be unpredictable. But, as a rule, the farther inland you get the better off you are.

After Ivan, getting back into Pensacola about 36 hours post-landfall was surprisingly easy. Many roads were strewn with debris, and there were buildings demolished, but access was possible. I found 700 South Palafox, in which the workers' compensation office is located, somewhat intact. The staff had parted company on earlier that week, fully aware that the next few days might be a challenge, but confident we would be back at work soon. Most of us left town that Tuesday or Wednesday, not really appreciating how bad it might get. Ivan made landfall on Thursday the 16th, at about 1:00 a.m.

Friday about noon, I drove up and found our landlord outside picking up debris. He surveyed the office with me, the dark and quiet were unsettling. We had wet ceiling tiles (later we learned the storm had displaced the air units on the roof and so we essentially had large holes in the roof), wet carpet, wet computers, desks, books, and more. I was lucky later that day to be allowed past the national guard and police to find my home reasonably intact, but surrounded by downed trees and branches. I was relieved and encouraged as I drove back west from Pensacola that evening, chasing the sunset.

On Saturday I accumulated equipment and supplies. Sunday, I headed back, fortunate to find some generators at various stores along the way. I eventually had four on the truck (each of which was welcomed by someone), along with an assortment of tarps, tacks, and tools. I visited the office first. In the 48 hours I had been gone, the landlord had hired a restoration company. An eighteen-wheel truck throbbed at the curb, its generators pushing current to the building through thick, snaking cables. Inside, there were dehumidifiers, fans, and work lights everywhere. The OJCC office was secure and had started its path back. I headed for my house, and on the way out of town, I pulled over for a string of incoming emergency vehicles and power trucks. Painted-on city names from across the state, the Carolinas, and even Canada remain indelible on my memory to this day.

The main bridge from Pensacola to the town in which I live was closed. I detoured miles to the east to reach home, and engaged in a lengthy discussion with the National Guard about reentering that town. They were reluctant to allow me to pass, warned me there were no services (water, electric, food, etc.), and encouraged me to turn back and stay out. I persevered. I began work Sunday afternoon on the yard debris. Over the next four days, I hauled 114 pickup truck loads of tree debris out of my little yard. On Monday morning, returning from one such haul, my path was blocked by an SUV. A uniformed officer required my driver's license. The Florida Capitol Police and others had arrived, neighborhoods were being secured. I was grateful to greet them many more times over the next week.

I cut and hauled many trees and branches. My greatest personal challenge was an Oak tree with a trunk diameter of about 30 inches that was down, but propped in the air on several limbs. I saved that task for last (I struggled mentally to comprehend how I would ever get it safely to the ground and partitioned). As I worked that week, crews hired by the city hummed around us, chainsaws, backhoes, dump trucks, bobcats, and more. A fellow on a bobcat seemed a near constant presence on my street as neighbors, without equipment, dragged or carried limbs to pile in the street, and this bobcat would periodically gather and haul them to the thoroughfare and a dump truck.

Wednesday morning, I was about to de-limb that oak tree (having conjectured which way it would tilt/fall when I did. I was half way through a limb when that bobcat rolled into my driveway and the driver drew his finger across his throat. We both shut down our equipment and discussed that tree. He suggested a new solution. The bobcat lifted/tilted that tree by one limb and I quickly lopped off several limbs. He then set that side down, repositioned, lifted/tilted another way and I cut again. He helped me like that for about 20 minutes, and that trunk was finally on the ground. I spent the rest of that morning cutting that tree into four to six foot pieces, each of which that bobcat drug down the road.

On Thursday, with my home restoration nearing completion, the radio announced that the bridge to Pensacola was once again open. The officials had closed it, claiming it had to be inspected and reminding everyone that the I-10 bridge was destroyed. Locals would conjecture for months thereafter about whether the bridge actually needed inspecting or if closing it just helped keep the people out, as did the National Guard.

An important point, news was hard to get post-Ivan. The world went on without us. Taking a break one morning, I started my generator and sat before the television. I was hoping for an update on recovery, services, roads reopening. What I found was normal network broadcasting, national news, and nothing helpful about our local situation. In those several days, only local radio and the Internet provided any useful coverage.

Upon news of the bridge reopening, I was inclined to visit the office, but was interrupted by the low rumble of heavy trucks, trucks from two power companies, Canadian and Georgian. I was grateful they restored power through the new roof-pipe that had been installed that week (that big oak had ripped the old one right off the house).

It was therefore evening as I turned off Main street in Pensacola for the Comp office, and was blocked by a Sarasota County Sheriff. We chatted, and he eventually let me through. A genial cop, hundreds of miles from home, cheerfully helping to secure our downtown. I found that tractor-trailer still at the curb, but silent. The office power was back on. Dehumidifiers and fans were still everywhere. But, as our office is on the top floor, and as there had been holes in the roof, the damage was done. We lost every ceiling tile and all of the carpet.

We had departed for Ivan without much discussion of the "what ifs." The Pensacola office staff communicated in the immediate aftermath in large part through our landlord. Cell phone service was spotty, electricity and phone service sporadic. That Thursday evening, I learned that the landlord had seen each of the staff at one point or another, and that everyone was alright.

As I headed for home, the smell of food caught my attention. I realized it had been almost a week since I had eaten anything but the FEMA-supplied Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) and cold canned food. I wondered that my hunger for real food had not occurred to me until that smell. It had also been a week since I had a proper shower, but I was exhausted and frankly beyond caring. I walked into a restaurant, sat at the bar and ate. I was surrounded by many who were much cleaner and better dressed, and a fair few in as bad a shape as me. It was a great meal.

The OJCC office reopened in Pensacola on Monday, September 27, 2004. We had no carpet, and in places you could still look up through the roof at blue sky. We had one functioning air conditioner, and it was warm. Fans droned constantly throughout. A crane worked that week to reposition the other air handlers, and thus close our "sun roofs." And, our ever-present landlord disappeared one day that week, after complaining that there was no industrial carpet for sale in Pensacola. He reappeared about thirty-six hours later, having driven to North Carolina and bought carpet for our suite. Three weeks after Ivan hit, the OJCC office was back to normal. An astonishing recovery.

Ivan was not a "top ten" (above), but Ivan was a brute. Each year, the National Hurricane Center starts with a list of names that will be used, and some names are repeated over the years. But, there are storms that rise to a certain level of infamy, and those names are retired. In 2004, one of Florida's worst years, Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne all hit Florida, and each was deemed appropriate for permanent retirement. There will never be another Ivan.

The next year, they retired Katrina and Dennis (Dennis hit Pensacola less than a year after our Ivan recovery). Many locals claimed Dennis was worse than Ivan, but there was not as much damage because "Ivan already blew away everything not nailed down." A year after Ivan, we had begun to regain our humor. 


What did Ivan teach us?

Plan. The time to plan for hurricane season is now, before it starts on June 1. Certainly, landfall warning is likely, but if one threatens you, your time will be short. Have that plywood on hand and ready (and screws). The last weekend in May, you can buy preparation supplies and skip the sales tax

Evacuate. They tell us to leave for a reason. History documents many catastrophic losses of life from hurricanes. A sure way to increase your survival odds is to follow orders and leave when they tell you. Buildings can be repaired, equipment dried out or replaced. We are more fragile than we think (Ron White reminds us "it is not that the wind blows, it is what the wind blows!").

Help. Neighbors and friends may not ask for help. That acquaintance I saw with plywood in his SUV surprised me. That load was dangerous. I wished I had offered my truck and back. I never dreamt someone would put a load like that on such a vehicle. He was doing what he had to, but I might have saved him some trouble. The next season, having survived Dennis, I drove into the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina. I knew the feeling of being hit, and knew how the appearance of helping hands (from near or far) can bolster the spirit and speed the recovery. 

Cash. You may not be able to get it before you leave (ATMs may empty, banks may close), but it is good to get some before you return. It is impossible to use a debit or credit card anymore without a phone connection and electricity. You may be returning to a community temporarily without either. 

Have a contact list and rally point. Phone service may be interrupted, including cell towers. Is there some commonality  you can arrange to rely upon (leave message/note with ever-present landlord, leave each other notes at the office, etc.)? Use email, group-chat, or social media (that can be accessed away from home when there is a signal). It is a great comfort to confirm that everyone is alright. 

Return. Returning after a storm may be difficult. Roads close, bridges are damaged. It can also be challenging emotionally. Think through what you will do and how, if confronted with such developments. 

Plan. I include this one twice. Every family and every business should have a plan. Talk about the plan now. When that storm is threatening, everyone will be thinking of a million other things (what if this, what if that), and will be understandably distracted. Discuss the plan now, then revisit again if a storm threatens. 

The bottom line in much of this is to prepare, and prepare now. The National Hurricane Center has many resources to help you plan and be prepared. From June 1 through November, be aware and pay attention to posting of storm warnings. If a storm threatens, listen to the experts and officials about when and where to evacuate. 

I am hopeful that I have lived through my last Ivan. I am likewise hopeful that you never experience a storm like it. But, as Hurricane Awareness Week concludes and we look toward June first, think, discuss, and prepare. 




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