Hurricane Matthew–Some Lessons Learned

Dear Editor:
Although I shouldn’t have been, I was once again amazed at the panic and last minute attempts to prepare, as Hurricane Matthew approached Florida. Florida’s geography dictates that there is only one way to travel to get out of the state, and that is north, unless you own a boat or plane.  The interstate freeways and highways get a lot of traffic and the stores get cleaned out, by hurricane refugees.  The parking lot of the Walmart that I visited was full of recreational vehicles (RVs).  Many of their owners were standing around with nowhere to go.  When a nearby gas station had what looked like a fuel resupply truck pull in there was a stampede of people on foot with empty gas cans lining up at the pump and blocking cars from getting in.

Be prepared and top off as soon as you hear the word “Hurricane”:

Nearly everything sold out.  Bread, milk, water in all containers, the camping sections were cleared, gas, diesel, propane, and butane were all gone.  The big box stores did quite a bit of business in plywood and lumber. Even car batteries took an inventory hit.  Empty propane bottles and gas cans were also sold out even if there was nothing to put in them.  Most of this happened the day before the hurricane.  The day prior to that there was plenty of almost everything available.  Where things became available there were very long lines.  The parking lots of Lowe’s and Home Depot were traffic nightmares of trucks and there were long lines of carts inside.  It might take you an hour to get your shopping done there.

All of those stranded RVs meant that people were literally living in the parking lot of Walmart.  They didn’t know when they’d be out of there so they just started stocking up.  They were sitting right there with their hands out when new things were put on the shelf.  Sometimes they didn’t even stock shelves. If it were a critical item, like bottled water, the store staff just put a pallet in a big isle and it was gone within minutes. 
They could actually see the trucks coming in and unloading supplies.  They also had the bathrooms backed up and were making a mess because they didn’t want to fill the black water tanks in their RVs.  With a large group of people waiting right there to buy what they want you have little hope of driving from your house and finding anything in the stores.

Make sure you have enough gasoline to get where you need to get:

There was a wagon train of RVs coming from South Florida.  Many of them had an extra tank of gas but still ended up sitting out the hurricane in central Florida.  They made the mistake of thinking that a full tank of gas and one extra would be enough.  They ended up finding out that everyone fleeing ahead of them had bought up every drop of available gas.

On a personal note, I have a dozen Jerry cans of 5 gallon capacity each, which equates to three full tanks of gas.  Putting those 12 cans in my SUV takes up a serious amount of space.  External mounts or other transport means are something that I really have to consider.

[JWR Adds: Storing gasoline cans inside a vehicle can of course be quite hazardous, so sturdy roof racks for SUVs are a must. Not only are gasoline vapors toxic, but they are also explosive. Depending on their design, the frames of many RVs and fifth wheel trailers can be extended to support a 3-foot wide cargo deck. Typically these are made with a sturdy steel framework topped by a heavy welded wire mesh, or expanded metal. These can often take the weight of gas cans, propane cylinders, generators, or a blackwater tank dump cart. A mesh is ideal, since it doesn’t accumulate snow or rainwater and it also provides umpteen places to attach the ends of cargo straps and bungee cords. I advise readers to check with your local RV center, to see if this a viable option, with your particular vehicle or trailer.]

There are no hotel or motel rooms available:

Florida has an agreement with several other states to provide emergency aid in situations like hurricane recovery.  Power and construction companies will pre-stage outside the threat area so that they are ready to move in and restore services such as electricity, water, and roads.  What happens is that these companies will buy up hundreds of motel and hotel rooms fairly close to the area they are moving into just outside the danger zone.  Fuel tanker trucks and other supplies will give preferential treatment to keep the restoration equipment running.  Many people found that they were competing with the government and private utility companies as well as other evacuees for rooms and supplies.  Millions of people were moving around attempting to get out of the way of the hurricane.  Quite a few slept in their cars when they ran out of gas or couldn’t find rooms.  You will need more gas and food to get farther that you initially think.  The motels and hotels were selling out to big companies paying a single bill, and thus were able to charge even if they didn’t actually occupy the rooms. It is preferable that they do this instead of renting out rooms to dozens of individuals.  I imagine this problem was also going on far into Georgia.

The longer you take to decide that you need to evacuate, then the farther you will have to travel through areas that have been cleaned out of supplies.

Know your last minute “top off”  items and prioritize your shopping:

Decide whether it is worth it to go into town.  If it is, know where you are going, what you are going for, and what you are getting first.  This is not a regular shopping day! This is not the time to check out the latest shoe sale when you notice the sign, spend ten minutes letting the kids browse through the toy section, or waste more time driving to the 20th gas station when every one of them you’ve seen so far has been sold out.   This is not a good time to eat out, either.  A lot of people are out shopping and many of them are out eating.  You might be waiting a long time to get your food.  You just don’t want to spend time out with the masses.  Instead, have a prioritized list, and plan for the time you’re going to spend in the check-out line.  The closer you get to game time the more likely you are to encounter panicked people, a washed out road, or a broken down vehicle on your way home.

If evacuating, know where you are going and plan to adjust your route:

Everyone should have routes and alternate routes ready, but in the case of a moving disaster like a hurricane you have to be able to adjust, on the fly.  Look at the predicted path of the hurricane and make a route that takes you best away from not only the trouble areas but the areas that are going to be cleaned out of supplies.  Hurricane Matthew moved along the East coast of Florida from South to North.  Many people just fled North without thinking.  Some of them drove straight up the East coast and abandoned their vehicles within sight of the ocean when there was no gas to go any farther.  If they had thought about it then  they could have headed straight West to the opposite coast, which was fairly untouched, and even moved South as the Hurricane moved away.  I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing there would be a lot more rooms available for rent on the West coast and in South Florida.  If you move in the direction of the herd then you will compete with the herd for everything you need.

You might not get to come back anytime soon:

The National Guard was posted on several washed out roads and bridges and they were turning people away until engineers decided the area was safe.  Cars were starting to pile up at these checkpoints when people were out of gas.  They calculated that they had enough gas to get home, which was true, but they had nothing left when they were turned away.

Your dentist, doctor (prescription refill), or chiropractor may
not be coming back anytime soon, either.

Be dressed to work:

If you’re sitting around bare-foot and in a pair of shorts when a branch comes flying through the window you’ll quickly realize that you’re not attired to handle howling wind and rain, broken glass everywhere, and dogs barking as the power going out..  Simply put; be dressed to handle things.  You may have to immediately deal with a problem outside and running to get dressed first isn’t going to cut it.  This doesn’t mean that you need be in a bomb suit or dressed like you are on a SWAT team.  Just have decent clothes and sturdy shoes on with a few things at hand (such as a flashlight and rain jacket).  Knowing exactly where your limb saw is is a good idea.  Hopefully its not in the workshop at the other end of the property.

Point out a few key things to people:

“The fire extinguishers are here and here.  The limb saw and axe are over there.  I am putting flashlights in these three places, they are to be returned there when they are not in use.  We are eating this food first.” etc.

If you can’t do repairs yourself, you are going to have to wait to have them done unless you are willing to spend serious money on it:

Construction and repair services will be busy with more work than they can handle.  Everything from fencing and air conditioning, to well repair will be booked up for weeks or even months in some areas.  Even with the hurricane long gone you may be without water or power for quite some time.  If a tree took out your air conditioning, plan on handling the weather for a long time.  On a positive note, if you are skilled in these areas, many companies will be hiring to handle the increased work load.  You might be able to find some temporary work if you are in the position to do so.

Several of the companies I mentioned will pack up and leave town to more damaged areas where business is booming and they can charge a fortune for their services.  This can reduce services available in your area.

Many companies were doing last minute boarding of windows and such for businesses, and they were charging a premium for being out with the hurricane almost upon them.

Eat while you can:

While the power and water is running you should all have a good meal in you.  Don’t wait until the emergency is in full force when you might be dealing with any number of problems to cook for yourself by flashlight, using up your propane.  You should consider preparing the next meal while you have better means to do so, as well.  Worse case scenario you eat it a little cold, best case you have to reheat it.  This allows you to save your preps, use the most perishable items first, and focus on other things as time goes on.  Brewing up a pot or two of coffee if you are reliant on it might not be a bad idea.  Even if you have to drink it cold it will stop the addiction headaches or give you that extra push if you’re up late into the night seeing to your property and/or dealing with damage.  This will save your instant coffee packs and other preps.  Of course these things should be done well in advance of possible outages.  Just because the power is on now while the hurricane is in full force doesn’t mean it won’t drop out on you in the midst of meal prep.

Take care of your hygiene while you can:

I find the idea of starting an emergency cleaned up appealing.  If you spend the day battening down your farm, handling animals, and moving things around you’ll want a shower before the power and water goes out.  Being a sweaty stinking mess is not fun for you or the people you live with when you have no air conditioning in the Florida heat for a few days.  Consider the rashes, the itching, the sanitation, infection,
etc.  This is a good time for a shave with hot running water while you have it.  Brushing your teeth when you might not be able to during the next 12 hours of mayhem wouldn’t hurt.

If it takes power or water, then do it early:

Laundry, dishes, bake a couple of loaves of bread, fill your gravity filter, the dog’s water bowl, coffee pot and tea kettle, water your indoor plants or garden so that you don’t use up your stored preps.  Charge the batteries on every battery-powered item you own.  Everyone should be good and hydrated.  We all know someone who doesn’t drink enough water, so start reminding people to drink more, now, while the water is running.  A lot of prepared prep food is dehydrated and will cause you to use your water stores to handle it.  Do these things well in advance of a loss of service.  Take a moment to wash and sanitize a bucket you plan on hauling or collecting drinking water in.  Stage some pre-filled buckets for flushing the toilets, and fill your bathtubs.

A few personal things:

An interesting thing I found out is that for many people the price of your gas container is irrelevant and considered gouging.  A brand new 5 gallon Jerry can with spout attachment, full of gas, should be sold for the price of the gas only (at the going rate).  To include the price of the can and spout, is now considered to be “taking advantage of people in an emergency” and price gouging.

I need a pre-planned way of dealing with a downed fence.  I had a tree almost take out a 20 foot section of chain-link.  My dogs would have been all over the neighbor’s cow and my sheep may have decided to go explore.

Everyone in my family has a micro LED light on a dog-tag style chain that they wear around their neck. This worked out really well.  No one is left in the dark with the lights going off and on no matter where they are or what they are doing.  Most tasks don’t require the higher power lights and lanterns.  It keeps everyone from running for the flashlights.  And it keeps the flashlights where they are supposed to be staged, and keeps them on their chargers.  Collect these afterward and store them somewhere with other preps or they will be gone when needed for the next emergency.

The first time the power goes out, I’m going to flip the breakers. The lights were flashing on and off rapidly and I lost a computer monitor to the power surges.  I usually unplug everything but I was keeping up to date on the latest weather report.

My safety goggles were invaluable during the times I went outside, since at times the amount of stuff blowing around was ridiculous.

I put a few essentials on the other side of the house in case a
potentially threatening large tree took out the other part of the house.

I had a low power way to connect to the Internet; which was a rugged tablet computer.  It didn’t have to be plugged into the wall, didn’t take nearly the power of laptop, could be charged with my smallest flexible solar panel and any battery bank, and used the common micro USB cable.  On this tablet I had bookmarked many weather and emergency websites.  Another tablet is loaded up with home school and some entertainment for the young ones.  This system works great for power and net management.

Having everything use the same kind of low voltage DC cable is well worth it.  I will probably have to upgrade to the newer USB-C form factor sooner or later.

We use Internet via limited phone data which works really well for us.  We have data on our phones and another device for our main service.  As soon as the hurricane was mentioned I shut the data on my phone down so that there would always be some available to check the Internet during and after the emergency.  I only turned it on when I checked the latest on the net and every other kind of browsing was restricted.

Make sure your health issues are up-to-date and taken care of.  As soon as we locked down for the hurricane someone in the house said “I need to see a dentist, this tooth has been bothering me for a week..”  Not good.  New eye glass prescription, or re-fill on medication would go along with this.

Same with your vehicles.  Oil changes, etc.  When was the last time you pulled that full-sized spare out from under the car and checked it?  It needs to be checked and maintained just like the others.  It may have piece of metal sticking out of it making it unable to hold air and you wouldn’t know it until you need to change a flat.

My emergency hand-crank radio was incredible.  It keeps you up to date and tells you when the next update is due.  One thing you have to do is have a quick class on using it: Its simple but the hand-crank is plastic and about six inches long.  A steady even crank is all you need to charge it up.   I’ve lost two over the years because someone thinks they are going to prove their manhood by going ballistic trying to spin it as fast as possible, which can break the crank. Trying to go super fast doesn’t generate enough extra energy to make it worth it; even if you succeed in this you’ve cranked it for 25 seconds instead of 30..

I fed all of my animals a little earlier in the day while the sun was out and the wind and rain were down.

My solar power system is over-sized by design so I pulled one of my largest panels off the ground mount and brought it inside.  If the winds ended up ripping all of the other panels off and taking them away then I would have at least one that could charge my smaller battery bank.

During the crisis, I kept a running non-digital list of problems we had or areas we needed to address. Many of those items ended up in this article, as “lessons learned.”
– D.D.