Two Letters Re: Hurricane Sandy After Action Reports

I am an 18 year old guy in a family of 8 in a suburban home 10 miles from the nearest city in central New Jersey.
We knew it was coming a week in advance. So did just about everyone in the tri-state area. There was no hiding the fact. Even with a looming election, Hurricane Sandy got “saturation media coverage”. Terms like “superstorm” , “catastrophic”, and “unprecedented” were being used in almost every Hurricane Sandy story. This storm was supposed to bring catastrophic damage to New Jersey and New York, with moderate rain, high winds, and an unbelievable storm surge. Some were already prepared. Some listened and followed the instructions given by government officials to prepare for the storm.  However, even with all of this overemphasis, many people did not prepare to any degree. All involved learned a lesson. Here is our experience.
What we had on hand: We had already purchased an 1,250 watt / 35,00 watt peak inverter to power the sump pump in the case of a blackout during a flood. It had been used only once in the past five years (a freak 4 hour power outage a few months ago) and seemed to be a waste of money, until now. An aperture was installed which connected the sump pump in the basement with the inverter in the garage. We tested the sump pump and the refrigerator on this inverter running off the 2004 Honda Pilot family vehicle and both worked fine. Also, we had recently  purchased a hand crank spotlight from Harbor Freight Tools, more as a gadget than a useful tool. I also repaired a defunct 1 million candlepower spotlight with a 6V 3.5Ah lead acid battery, to be used on nighttime prowlers (effectiveness is questionable). FRS radios are also on hand, but one pair for eight people is not much. Further, my dad likes our house to be in top condition and so made sure every one of the slightest bubbles in the siding or loose tiles in the roof were immediately repaired.
I also had a small personal bug out bag (laptop carrying bag) packed to bursting with survival supplies, as well as accessory supplies and documents in my room in easy-to-carry containers. Supplies were also stored in my 2004 Ford Explorer, my bug out vehicle and bug out location in one. Altogether, these supplies would enable me to live more than a week on my own on the road quite comfortably. Other members of my family did not have any such supplies, despite my pleas. As a family, we probably had 2 days supply of ready-to-eat food. With me sharing all of my supplies, we would have 3 days of shelf-stable prepared food, but as all of you readers know, that is only enough to get yourself into a shelter safely.
Before the storm: After being warned that Hurricane Sandy was a potential threat to our area, we immediately began making plans based on NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) forecasts, which were extraordinarily accurate and dependable. (We should have prepared instead for a worst case scenario: remember the New England Hurricane of 1938.) Once we knew a hurricane was heading our way, we got ready for immediate usage of the sump pump by running a cord between the pump and the inverter. During the six inches of rain from Hurricane / Tropical Storm. Irene our sump pump was barely keeping up with the water flow, and an  interruption of power for only a minute would surely mean a flooded basement. Although we were expecting less rain this time around, we were taking no chances. I volunteered as a member of CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). We also filled up on gas on Saturday and Sunday. The Pilot was filled on Sunday night, and even then many gas stations were out of fuel. On Sunday night we also brought in all movable outdoor objects. We did not have to worry about trimming trees because we had no large trees around our house. All rechargeable devices and batteries were charged on Sunday. We did not purchase any food, water, or batteries during the store runs before the storm, although we could have used food. College classes were cancelled on Monday, so I spent the whole day watching the slowly increasing winds and reading news reports (which I generally ignored) and NOAA predictions (which I paid attention to). One of the last things we did on Monday before the power outage was to fill a large tub with tap water. We also filled a 5 gallon pot with drinking water, in case of contamination or a loss of city water pressure. Bottled water was already stockpiled due to recent sales, as a secondary backup.
During the storm: The wind began picking up as the storm made landfall, and the rain came down steadily and lightly, which was not a problem. Reports of the storm surge flooding New York began to come in. The house crackled occasionally as a strong gust hit it. We were reading and studying the Bible as a family at 19:00 EDT when the power was extinguished. Internet, land line, and cell phone connectivity were gone. Most of us had flashlights, so we went on without much trouble. Only one of my sisters and my mom did not have personal flashlights, so we found a crank-charged 3-LED Li-ion flashlight from a educational kit for my sister to use. My mom shared a 18V Ni-Cd incandescent work light with my dad. The rest of us used a 16-LED Pb-acid crank spotlight, cheap 9-LED 3 AAA flashlights, and a recently purchased Chinese 1-LED 1 AA alkaline flashlight. Personally, I am a flashlight fanatic and own over a dozen fully functional flashlights, as well as some homemade ones. I used my pocket 9-LED 3 carbon zinc AAA flashlight for a while but soon switched to my freebie Forever Flashlight III by Excalibur. It used to have a 1 farad capacitor but the original owner needed it and took it out. I installed a 0.1 farad memory capacitor from scrap components. It is nothing compared to its former self but is still quite usable and does not require batteries. The wind increased. Some people did not keep their houses in good shape and we went out and pick up several pieces of sheet metal in our yard in tropical storm – force winds. One of the metal pieces got stuck 40 feet in the air in the top of a tree, attesting to the significant strength and dangers of the wind. We were aware of our surroundings and away from any big trees while outside. Back inside the house, we sat and watched the flashes of greenish light from exploding transformers and shorting wires in astonishment for a while before retiring for the night.
After the storm: Tuesday morning, I prepared for my CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) duty. I had signed up before the storm to work an 8 hour shift (8:00 to 16:00) at the Somerset County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) answering phone calls. There were many trees down in my neighborhood and tree branches all over the road. In the news were reports of death and complete devastation on the Jersey coastline and NYC. I almost ran into a tree with attached electrical wire on a curve on a local road. This disturbance was  the source of the brightest light show last night. I  turned around and after some driving met a second partial roadblock and bypassed it, following the example of the car in front of me. We turned onto a major road and got stopped by a police roadblock, having to make a long detour. By the time I got onto the interstate, I had about 12 minutes to go. A trip that normally takes 15 minutes took me 35 minutes. All traffic lights were out but very few people were driving, so traffic was not a problem. I got to my destination without any further hassle and began my duties. One of the first things I noticed was that the Emergency Management personnel and resources were overtaxed. In only once incidence, several shelters closed over the 8 hour period (one due to a tree falling through the roof), with the unfortunates being herded from one to the next just as they began to get comfortable. When I left at 4 PM, much power was back up in the town where the EOC was located, but my township was just as dark as before. Long gas lines were everywhere, and this was not even 24 hours after the storm. I came home to a hot meal as we are able to run the stove without electricity. We were running the car / inverter assembly as little as possible to conserve gasoline, which was in very short supply due to extensive outages and lack of preparedness on the part of gas station owners. The inverter was never turned on for anything other than the washer or the refrigerator. Devices were charged piecemeal throughout the day. This was in contrast to my neighbor, who had very little gas supply but was running her generator 24 hours a day outside of her garage. We watched a legally downloaded movie on my laptop’s battery power before going to bed.
Wednesday went very similarly, with everyone finding things to do that did not require mains power. When the refrigerator was turned on, I charged my laptop. I still did not have any phone service or internet access. Radio was the only outlet to the outside world, and several radios were taken out to find out what was going on. I listened to WNYC, which was covering the hurricane extensively. We did not believe the water supply was contaminated so we continued to drink from the tap after initial usage of stored water. However, several people in our home were getting intestinal problems and we were getting suspicious, especially after hearing a boiled water advisory for the neighboring city. Most of us continued to drink tap water, though. In the evening, we decided to try to get some laundry done. The washer ran fine on the inverter, but we only did one load to save gas. The dryer could not start turning though due to the huge current the motor required. We had to assemble makeshift clotheslines and hang up the clothes in the basement. We rationed the number of clothes that could be used to prevent wasteful washing of slightly damp dish towels, night clothes, etc. The Pb-acid 16 LED spotlight was very useful for taking showers, hanging up clothes, and hanging around, although a hand-crank LED lantern would be much better. We made a rule that significant use by a person required 5 minutes of cranking time by the same person. This kept the spotlight fully charged the whole time.
Our neighbor who ran her generator excessively ran out of gas and asked us for some. We gave her our only 5 gallon tank full of gas. She used it up in two days and went to the local gas station to refill it. A left turn onto a divided highway and a lack of police enabled them to unwittingly cut into the front of the line and get 5 gallons of gas. During the whole power outage, we only idled away half a tank of gas (11 gallons) in a 2004 Honda Pilot for the entire power outage; the gas can was only for our neighbor, who continued to run her generator all night. We heard news about 2 mile gas lines in NYC and a possible water shortage in NJ, with critically low fuel levels for some of the water pumps. All college classes for the week were cancelled, but I had no way of knowing that and decided to just not show up due to the gas shortage. Unfortunately, the EOC tried to reach me several times by email and cell with opportunities for volunteer work, but I could not know that and did not respond. After hearing some news of looting, I decided to take a walk around our completely dark neighborhood at 9:30 pm every night with my renovated spotlight. I also hung a dim LED light in our window to give the idea that our house is occupied. Still, to the hundreds without generators living a short distance from us, our high concentration of idling cars and roaring generators parked temptingly in garages and driveways were a security risk. The more the garage was closed on our idling Honda Pilot, the harder it was to notice and get the vehicle, but the more lethal the  CO concentrations were. We were very careful to avoid breathing the fumes and settled on a 1 foot opening for all 3 garages.

[JWR Adds: Every home should have a couple of carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. If your garage is attached to your home, make sure that the connecting door has a tight seal and DO NOT idle your car for extended periods unless your main garage door is wide open. Otherwise, CO could creep into your house. Beware that CO poisoning is insidious and cumulative!]

We left twice during the power outage to go food shopping and replenish our empty cabinets. Fortunately, the local supermarket prepared well for the disaster, and was well stocked and well lighted. We would have been in a bad situation if there was no good food in the stores. More alarmingly, we began noticing a foul smell from some of the water that we collected during the storm in teakettles and canteens and immediately discarded all of it. This was probably bacterial or sediment contamination due to the storm, and the intestinal problems were explained. Our power came back on Saturday at 11:00 EDT, and we returned to a normal life. After a time without power, we were really getting used to it, and had only good feelings for PSE&G.
Lessons learned: There are several lessons we learned from this experience. Relying on existing infrastructure or government directly after a disaster to any degree is a bad idea. If Sandy had dumped rain like most other hurricanes do flooding would only compound the problem with important roadways flooded or even washed out and utility crews unable to perform their assessments. Another is that perishable items should be consumed as quickly as possible after a storm to avoid any spoilage. To prevent grocery runs, at least two weeks worth of non-perishable items should also be stocked up. To keep appliances going, at least 20 gallons of stabilized gasoline should be stored to deal with up to three weeks without power. To prevent failures like with the clothes dryer, test out disaster supplies before using them; an expensive tri-fuel generator is useless if it cannot provide the surge current for a vital appliance. To prevent intestinal problems, do not rely on city water in a disaster; store your own drinking and sanitation water. To prevent panic and uncertainty, create a full disaster plan encompassing every situation. Get necessary items before everyone else is grabbing for them. If like me you feel overwhelmed by this task, this blog is an excellent source of material for preparedness, from the simplest tools to the most extreme hideout. Use the links on the left to explore the wealth of knowledge in t he archives. Be ready, – Luke


A friend in Pennsylvania e-mailed me this terse note:

We have had no power now for seven days. Most lines to get gas in nj were three hours long all week. We have even/odd gas rationing now (oddly/unfortunately enough we just found out that all seven of our cars have odd license plates!) The phone system is hit or miss, (I’ve been getting voice mails 2-3 days after they were left without my phone ever saying I missed a call.) The last we heard they estimate we will have power a week from tomorrow. [November 15th.] Our generator is having voltage problems so the washer won’t work. I’ve had to bring my own gas in a can to Brooklyn to be able to get back. Fights have broken out at a lot of gas stations, even Blairstown. Someone in Jersey pulled out a gun at one station. I was offered $50 for my empty gas can. Full ones sell for $100. We had services today in the cold and dark, no power there either. We fill the cars up with gas in Pennsylvania then siphon it out for the generator to save trips.

Regards, – Bob G.