Lessons in OPSEC: Hurricane Irene Versus Hurricane Isabel, by Gonzo

In 2003 I lived in what can only be described as “The Hood” when Hurricane Isabel arrived. Today I find myself in a middle class neighborhood for Irene. The difference between the two and how my neighbors are handling these semi-SHTF scenarios gives a very instructive view of operational security (OPSEC) and its effects.  These two hurricanes came ashore about the same place and the same strength, but its two different worlds I have seen the aftermaths effects on.

During Isabel I lived in one of the worst sections of Virginia Beach, the sort of place that other people who claimed they were from tough parts of town gave you a wide berth. I am talking deep Hood rat territory. In one year alone half of all murders in Virginia Beach happened within walking distance of my house. I used to tell people my mortgage was cheap, but I lost the savings in ammo costs.  I lived there for ten years and integrated with the local population to some extent and frankly, there are some things to learn from the Hood for all preppers.  The number one thing is that the Hood is one of the last places in America were the residents routinely live in a condition yellow environment.

This is the neighborhood where I first learned OPSEC without knowing what it was called. A good example of this was going to get some range time in. I knew intuitively that if I let it be known that I had a collection of guns in my home I would quickly become a target to every wannabe gang member on the street. So when range time came the guns went to the trunk of the car, not in nice hard cases or rifle socks, but in laundry bags and baskets. Few people had washing machines in this neighborhood. So the sight of people carrying laundry to their car to head to the laundromat was common. If I had something nice coming into the house, new DVD player, new television, etc, it came in the same way. You never left a product box whole and put it prominently in the trash, and never put a box out to the curb. You had to keep what you had hidden or someone would get the idea to take it.

This is our first big difference between Irene and Isabel.  If I wanted to I could go and brand shop a generator for my house right this minute. I just need to drive down any of my current neighborhood streets and look at the boxes at the curb. I could compare wattages and outputs. I can see the generator running right there in the driveway with a full can of gas right next to it all shiny and new.  The moment the power went out I knew who had a generator and who did not in less than 15 minutes. They are loud, out front, and proudly displayed.  Even better, there are no street lights and I can see all these people in their houses right now with the lights shining full blast, clearly marking which rooms are occupied and which are not. In suburbia what good is living in comfort if no one can see you living in comfort? During Isabel I did not hear a single generator in the six days that my neighborhood had no power.  To run one would have been bordering on suicide.

During Isabel no one showed off what they had. Maybe someone would bring a small cooler with a couple drinks outside, but that was all you saw. In my Irene neighborhood everyone has been out front on their grills all day cooking away and drinking their beer. A neighbor down the street has been having an after party of sorts. They have several large screen televisions setup in their garage and are watching the game while their generator runs and they cook out. They have several very large coolers filled with drinks they are dipping into. In my Isabel neighborhood you would have been overrun with a mini version of the golden horde as the neighborhood came around looking for a handout, and not taking kindly to you not sharing. 

This leads us to a second difference between Isabel and Irene. When the lights went out during Isabel, and the storm was past, the neighbors all went outside and formed groups.  These groups usually represented 5 or 6 houses worth of people gathering together.  In the strictest terms you could almost call these groups gangs, but in reality they were neighborhood watches. I was lucky that my next door neighbor was a lady by the name of Miss Wanda who had several teenage kids. Miss Wanda had been shot several times and grown up in the projects so I used her as a sort of mentor and a connector to the neighborhood grapevine.  We pulled several lawn chairs and benches into the yard between our homes and this became sort of a command center for our courts neighborhood watch. Once again I want to stress nothing here was planned; this was pure instinct of people who were used to dicey situations and knew that you had to keep an eye out. These were people, who would take every dime they could from the government, but did not trust their government and fully expected to be the last to receive any form of help. People talked and visited with each other, drank, and played music but you better believe every single person who traveled those streets was verified as needing to be there and was vouched for by someone else.  The neighborhood as a whole knew who should be there and people were strongly vetted.  

Have you ever been in a bad neighborhood and been frustrated by the groups of people walking slowly in the middle of the street who won’t seem to get out of your way? Thought they were just being disrespectful didn’t you. That’s not what was going on at all. You were being vetted. Your victim status was being evaluated, your profile was being noted, and your business was being judged. Only after all of these calculations are done will the group get out of your way, or rob you, or harass you. Once you have lived on a street for a while those groups won’t even slow you down, as you approach them at speed a gap will form and you can pass by, usually with a wave and a hello. New girlfriends would always complain about this at first when they came to visit. I would always tell them to give it a few weeks and these groups would learn they were supposed to be here and they would have no more problems. This is what happened every time and they would always comment on how right I was.  I should also mention here that you should never ask for directions. There is a reason that all the street signs are either spun 180 degrees or missing. If you don’t know that “X” Lane is the second street after the apartments then you probably don’t belong there. No one gave directions by street name, it was pointless, all directions where in the form of when to turn.

The teenage children worked as a system of runners between these groups. Again no one was designated as a runner, or overtly sent on this task. Simply information was passed as the natural flow of teenagers going to visit other teenagers happened. They would stop by and questions would be asked about other parts of the neighborhood, who was home, who had what, all very casual and noted. I found out things like Meatball’s sister with her three stomachs was mad because all the ice cream was melted ( I laughed so hard at this description at the time that I literally went down to one knee), who had hot water still and who didn’t, who had ice, etc. This news service was far more informative than the radio and television with their shrill hysteria. It was immediate and direct and concerned my local area. I even found out regional events on a very timely basis, like were the local FEMA depots were and what they were giving out, that there would be extra welfare checks for people who lost food because of the storm at this time and place, All of this beating the local news by several hours at the minimum.

Contrasting this with the aftermath of Irene and I get some disturbing changes. My neighbors throughout the day have been forming there little local cliques and then breaking up again, but are definitely not inclusive. Most disturbing is what I saw this night. No one is outside. Everyone is inside their homes, with the light they have plugged into their generators blasting out. They are running window unit air conditioners and have the windows closed. Meanwhile their generators are making such a racket outside I could literally run a tank platoon down my street and they would have no idea. If my Isabel neighbors decided to launch a raid to get supplies my Irene neighbors would be wiped out completely one house at a time. No one is talking, no one is coordinating. My neighbors have been kind, they have offered me lights, seeing my house is not lit up like a Christmas tree, and I can feel their pity because I do not have a generator. What they do not seem to realize is that I am doing these things by choice. My efforts at education have been rebuffed as to hard.  

If I had a chance these are the tips I would share with them, so I give them to you fellow preppers. 

  1. When a storm is coming you need to protect your windows. If you have a window break not only will you have glass flying but the structural integrity of your building is now compromised. The water getting in is the least of your worries. The wind having access below the roof can create a suction effect that will lift it off. You have to keep the wind going over your home, not into it, so it pushes down on the roof; it is very easy to create a lift effect not unlike a plane’s wing if you lose too many windows. At the minimum you should do is tape your windows. There is a lot of argument pro and con on this, but having lived through a lot of hurricanes I urge you to tape. Tape is not going to stop your neighbor’s garden gnome coming through the window at 100 MPH but what it does is give the glass more tensile strength against the windows pressure of the wind blowing on it. Also if you have double pane glass then for goodness sake tape both sides!
  2. Cover your windows if you can. The best is storm shutters, but these are actually hard to come by at this point. The next best thing is plywood. ½ inch will give you strength, but something as thin as veneer sheets will get the job done. All you want is a standoff between the windows and the windblown objects.  We are trying to avoid breakage. If you use plywood the urge to cut it into neat little sections should be avoided. At most, if you can, cut sheets in half for smaller windows. The reason for this is that after the storm large sheets can be used for repairs.  Only if the half sheets are going to offer too much edge to the wind and are not flush to the house should they be trimmed to fit.
  3. Make sure you pull all objects in your yard into a garage or they are tied down. This includes garbage cans and furniture. A storm can throw just about anything around. The time to move this stuff is not in 50 mile an hour winds. I was treated to the very amusing sight of my neighbors in the middle of the storm chasing their garbage cans down the street and all the empty beer cans spilling out of them. Bring it in or tie it down is the name of the game.
  4. Only use as much light as you need. During Irene I developed and tested a new system for lighting I like a lot. I bought some fake tea lights before the storm. These are the kind restaurants are using in place of candles these days.  They last for 60 hours off one battery and are about a dollar each. I placed these in each room I needed to navigate and they gave off enough light to find the fridge or the potty, which is all you really need, but gave almost zero light out the windows.  Next to each tea light I also set a flashlight or something similar. If I needed more light it was at hand, but most of the time I did not. The only thing I did not have that I have had before and missed has a light on a headband. In a lights out situation these are wonderful. It like having all the lights on because everywhere you look, magically it is lit up. They are excellent to read with.
  5. Prioritize using resources. You should make a list of what to use first. For this hurricane I had lots of neat gadgets designed to bug out with I never touched. I had a propane cylinder lamp and stove for example that are still in their boxes. The reason for this is I had charcoal and my tea lamps. I could not move the charcoal if I had to leave, so I used that first. I did not need the lamps light, so again it is still in reserve. My cases of MREs are still sealed because I was still going through my fridge when the power came on. Eat the items that will go bad first as the fridge heats up.
  6. Plan for long term usage of built in resources.  When wife and I heard the hurricane was coming we started making ice. We filled plastic coffee cans half full with water and froze them, we kept making ice cubes and putting them in bags until the freezer was full of ice. Then, when the power went out, we transferred some over to the refrigerator side.  I am happy to say that after two days my fridge was still at the same temperature it was when the power went out and I still had cold drinks.  The same thought went into my water heater.  I installed an 80 gallon tank in my house for this situation. During Isabel I had at least luke warm water for 6 days off of a 40 gallon heater, this time I had hot water for the duration of the outage. If I had gotten a message that tap water was contaminated I could have shutoff the valve to the heater and had 80 gallons on tap as needed. This storage capacity is the number one reason I will never have a tankless water heater in my home. I also had the ice for water and I filled all tubs with water before the storm to make sure I had plenty of clean water on hand in addition to my emergency stores bladders I had bought for SHTF scenarios.
  7. Your car is a generator and a cold room. After a hurricane it gets very humid and hot. You will be doing physical exercise clearing debris in uncomfortable temperatures and heat related illness is possible. Start your car and run the AC and cool off while you have no power. It is quick and not obvious. Make sure if you do, you maximize the gas usage by charging all your battery-operated devices. An inverter is great for this. I have one that plugs into my cigarette lighter. [JWR Adds: As I’ve mentioned before in SurvivalBlog, direct DC-to-DC battery chargers (available from RV accessory vendors such as Camping World) are much more efficient that using a DC-to-AC Inverter to in turn operate an AC-to DC battery charger!] Make sure the tank is full before the storm and this method can last for a long time. 

Finally I want to mention the only item I did not have I wished I did. I wanted a kayak or something similar as a final backup. We had record flooding for Irene.  At one point I could have literally launched a kayak off my front porch and not stopped paddling until I reached England. Some form of ultra-stable boating device would have given me that extra sliver of peace of mind that if the flooding got too bad, I could still leave. I would have also liked some solar panel recharging devices and these have now moved up rather sharply on my too buy list.    
With the steps I outlined for you I could have held on in my home for at least a week comfortably. After a week I might have started to dip into my long term stores.  With my on hand emergency supplies I could have gone months more, but I like the fact that with a just a little operational security and forethought I built a buffer to keep me from consuming my emergency supplies. Rings of security are a great thing, if you keep quiet about them and don’t advertise them with a blatant display of consumption.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to hold out the welfare queens, whores, and drug dealers I used to rub elbows with as examples to be emulated. I do think though that when everyone is suddenly thrust to the edges of society, it is a good idea to steal a page or two from the people who have always been there.  Wherever you are today Miss Wanda I hope you are happy and doing fine because I am. Your Stickman learned his lessons well.