Letter Re: Observations on the Recent Tornadoes

Dear James,
As most of your readers know, on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, one of the worst tornado outbreaks in history hit the Tennessee River Valley area of northern Alabama, northern Georgia and south central Tennessee as well as parts of north central Alabama such as Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Over 140 people were killed in northern Alabama alone and the final death toll from these storms will probably exceed 350. Hundreds of people in these areas lost their homes and are suffering greatly as a result. Please pray for these families as they cope with the loss of property and, mostly sadly, the loss of loved ones. The storm also affected the lives of most inhabitants as all of the main transmission lines from the Tennessee Valley Authority in northern Alabama were damaged or destroyed by tornadoes and high winds, leaving almost half a million people without electric power. This included those from the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant (whose three operating reactors all went into emergency shutdown). Our power was out for more than four days.

As a resident of these parts, I have some preparedness observations! On our community’s level, most gasoline stations lost their power, and therefore their ability to pump gas. The same was also true of grocery stores. About two days passed before generators were brought in to power some gas stations and food stores, and the first stores to open quickly had long lines of people. Fortunately, some grocery stores opened even before they had power – but they would not allow people inside the stores as they were too dark. Why are grocery stores not made with windows all around the building to allow some light in? One had to give an order of desired non-perishable items to a store employee, who then would proceed into the store with a flashlight to find and bring them! It underlined to me that most people do not seem to even have a few days of food or gas stocked up to meet even a short term crisis as this. We were very fortunate that this was basically a widespread local event and not a national event, as trucks still brought in supplies, food and gas. The main problem was the lack of electricity to pump the available gas or to preserve frozen and refrigerated food and power the stores’ lights and payment processing systems. Now on a personal level, we did fairly well but there were a few things we could have done better. I will list categories of items and what we did in each category. My hope is that this will be beneficial to most of you to hear about real life preparedness and how it played out in this admittedly not totally TSHTF event.

Food: We were fortunate to have a decent quantity of high quality grains (including whole wheat, millet and oats). We were also fortunate to have a generator which we used to keep our refrigerator running and preserve the frozen and refrigerated food we had. To prepare grains, we have a hand-cranked Country Living Grain Mill which is awesome at preparing quality flour. For cooking, we used our Alpaca kerosene cookstove. We had plenty of kerosene for this (which we normally keep on hand to power the kerosene heater we would use if it were cold outside and a power outage occurred). Fortunately the temperatures were very nice (even if the volatility of the weather wasn’t!) and we only needed the kerosene for cooking purposes. We also have a Grover rocket wood cooking stove that we could use if needed, but the kerosene stove is a bit easier to control. We were a bit low on fresh fruit when the weather struck, and it would have been nice to have more on hand than we did. Fortunately, one of the grocery stores that opened the day after the storms had plenty of fruit and we were able to purchase some while only waiting 15 or 20 minutes in line. That was a real blessing!

The preceding reminds me of another point: Having cash! While some stores (such as Lowe’s and Home Depot) quickly activated backup power and were able to process credit/debit card transactions, most grocery stores could not. The store where we purchased our fruit was calculating prices the old fashioned way: calculators and pencils and open cash drawers! My advice is to have plenty of food that can be stored at room temperature! While we were able to keep our refrigerated food from spoiling with our generator, we still would have been fine without it (although our diet would have been a bit different!).

Water: Fortunately, we never lost water service during this event. Water was always available on tap whenever we needed it. However, I wasn’t sure that we would always have water, so I filled up a bathtub with water to use for flushing toilets and the like if needed, and filled up potable water containers for drinking water. We also have a Berkey Light water filter that we use on a regular basis already. I recommend having your water resources squared away before a crisis occurs!

Fuel: Within a day after the disaster, long lines formed at the few gas stations that were able to quickly get emergency power. While we were fortunate to have half a tank or better in our three vehicles, we did not have much gas in storage containers. It was one of those things that I had wanted to do but did not yet get around to doing. Most of you know how that goes! I had roughly a gallon and a half or so of gas to run our generator, which would only have given us at most two days of run time. I tried to siphon gas out of our vehicles but it seems that most newer vehicles these days have anti-siphoning systems. My advice would be to ensure that you have enough gas on hand to run your generator for a week. Fortunately, the son of our neighbors (who were out of town) had come by to check on their home and had power in his town (about 30 miles away). He was very kind and gave us gas on two occasions so that I did not have to stand in the long lines at the few pumps that were open. This was enough to see us through until power was restored. But my advice is not to be dependent on others’ charity if at all possible! Make sure you have enough fuel on hand to weather (pun intended!) the most likely crises you might face. Also, be sure to have plenty of fuel on hand for any non-electric cooking devices you plan to use in a crisis. In our case, this was kerosene and wood. We added PRI-D preservative to our kerosene, and our kerosene heater worked great on three year old kerosene that was so treated.

Lighting: It is amazing how dark it can be inside a home without power! Fortunately, we had plenty of flashlights and the batteries needed to power them. Most of our flashlights were LED and therefore put out a lot of light with minimal energy use. We also had some oil lamps that we had purchased back during the Y2K scare at the turn of the millennium, and we used one of these along with some candles during this time. We stationed flashlights in each bathroom to make it easy to use the facilities. I recommend everyone have plenty of LED flashlights and batteries on hand.

Security: Due to the widespread lack of power, the local authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the whole area. Reports so far seem to indicate that crime either remained the same or actually went down during this event. Our local police were very vigilant and I saw them stopping a curfew violator right in front of our home! We also had our own security implements (firearms) available and well stocked with ammunition. Fortunately there was no need to use them, at least so far, during this time.

Finances: As I alluded to earlier, many of the businesses that were open but had no power operated on a cash-only basis. We were fortunate to have some cash on hand to pay for goods. I was amazed that Lowe’s quickly had activated backup power and was actually processing credit card transactions (and I used the debit card when I could) but this was the exception rather than the rule in the first day or two after the widespread power outage occurred. When it comes to purchasing, cash is king in disasters. Keep plenty of cash on hand at all times!

Charity: One way to emotionally deal with a disaster is to reach out to others. By God’s providence, I was able to help with some of the cleanup efforts in one of the towns that was devastated by the tornado outbreak. I realized how fortunate we were as most of the homes in the neighborhood I worked in were totally destroyed and unsalvageable. Carrying debris from devastated homes and yards to the curb is a sobering experience but was very helpful. Some of the residents of these homes were there helping to clean up as well and expressed great appreciation for the help. But in order to administer help to others, it is important to have one’s own house in order first! I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and reaching out to others is a desire all true believers have. So, I encourage all of you who know Him and accept Him as Lord of your life to cultivate your relationship with Him and your relationships with others who know Him. Part of the community of believers is reaching out to others in need.

My prayer is that our experience in the midst of the recent tragedy in northern Alabama would be helpful to the rest of you. Blessings, – R.A.