Our family of three lives in a suburban area of Florida that was greatly impacted by Hurricane Matthew. While our home survived without damage, we were left without power for approximately a week and without city water for around three days. This article summarizes some observations and lessons, after reflecting on this experience.
Hurricane Matthew took a very unusual track in the Caribbean, threading the needle between the mountains of Cuba and Haiti to maintain its strength. After this move, Matthew took a very unusual jog to the West, threatening Florida with a severe Category 4 storm. Once Matthew made its track apparent, we purchased several cases of bottled water for drinking. The stores were way ahead of us and had pallet after pallet of bottled water ready for our dollars. As an additional measure, I filled two six-gallon water storage containers for emergency use or for car use if we needed to quickly evacuate. In hindsight, I should have also filled my pre-prepped 65-gallon bathtub water storage bag, but for some reason we did not do this.
Protecting a home from windstorm damage involves protecting exposed windows from debris impacts with boards. I had pre-prepared boards for this purpose that we nailed on the house to cover the windows. Rather than large plywood panels, I would suggest utilizing lighter weight boards that can be handled by one person. Boards that require two persons to install are a mistake. That extra person might not be available when needed, as they are preparing their own home. Boards, as opposed to large plywood cutouts, can also be easily stacked for storage or recycled for use in temporary repairs after the storm.
A few days before the hurricane struck, many gas stations sold out of gasoline. Thankfully, following the survival mentality, we had topped off all of our vehicle gas tanks. I could have also filled my extra gasoline containers, but for some reason I did not. As the storm grew closer, the escape routes quickly became jammed with traffic. Luckily, Matthew was a slow moving storm and the roadways were clear by the time it grazed the Florida coast. However, a fast moving storm could catch drivers exposed on the highways and stuck in traffic.
Before the storm, I printed out and put in my van several different escape plans, all avoiding major highways and traveling in different routes. Each plan laid in a different direction so that I could respond flexibly to any change in hurricane direction at the last minute. Also included with these plans were phone numbers for the friends on the other end who had agreed to take us in. I would also recommend an up-to-date paper road map book for quick in car rerouting. Luckily, we did not have to utilize these plans, but it was good to have them in hand in case of quick evacuation. In the event of another hurricane, I will be sure to top off the extra storage tanks so that we can drive all the way to our evacuation destination without needing to stop for gasoline.
During the storm we hunkered down and reviewed procedures if the roof should become damaged. We discussed the safest interior parts of the house. The hurricane was headed right for us, and we needed to rehearse our responses should catastrophic damage occur to our home. About six hours before the storm passed us, the power failed. At that point we were committed to our plan of remaining in our house. The hurricane could have very easily made a direct and catastrophic impact on our area, and we would have had to ride it out right where we were.
Our family does not generally participate in or support the big electronic media, and we do not have cable or most other electronic entertainments. Living a simple life allows for better judgment during crisis situations. We observed others, though, who suffered from electronic withdrawal when the power failed. I am of the firm belief that you do not need this added stress when a crisis hits. The media can be a source of sensationalist panic, and one should take care not to become obsessed with the continuous media coverage. For example, at one point just before the storm passed, a news anchor warned that our children would die if we stayed. When telephones, television, and the Internet were cut, radio was the only source of up-to-date information. This information was spotty and dependent on the whims and skills of the radio host. Remember that you do not need to be camped 24 hours a day next to your radio. Turn it off once you get the information you need and live your life. Do not let the little electronic boxes turn into continuous stress machines. Regardless, radio reports became our window into the larger world.
We had several media-focused teen family members evacuate to our house due to their media-stoked fear. Secretly, we were happy to have these family members stay with us, which happens all too rarely. The kids quickly learned the pleasures of playing cards. The adults also found that playing cards are a fine way to get your mind off of hardship, and every prepper should invest in a few quality decks.
After the storm had passed, we walked outside to assess the damage to the neighborhood. Fallen trees blocked literally every road. Many neighbors had their portable generators going within hours of the hurricane’s passage. After visiting Lowes and Home Depot, we learned that many neighbors bought their portable generators to be returned after the storm. Mostly, the generators were used to power refrigerators. Remembering that gasoline was not generally available, the long-term use of the portable generator is questionable. Without fuel, they are useless. I would suggest a multi-fuel unit and a realistic assessment of fuel consumption over time. It is also worth commenting that generators are noisy. In the event of a long-term problem, those with working generators when others are out of fuel will be a transmitting beacon broadcasting to the neighborhood who has fuel and who does not.
Our plans for food were superbly taken care of by my wife. Having a partner who is aware of the need to prepare and is on board with you in taking care of the family is a tremendous asset. She had stocked up on canned goods, which she always seemed to have a new recipe for. At first, we cooked meat that was subject to spoilage. Outdoor grilling was abundant in the neighborhood. We had two full propane cylinders and a gas grill that came in very handy for boiling water and cooking. Looking back, we should have stocked more propane cylinders. A safely designed fire pit for cooking, with appropriate gear to cook, would be a huge asset in the long term. Thankfully, we did not get to that point. We did eat some canned foods, which were surprisingly good.
Coffee is an important morale booster when the power is out. Make sure to stock plenty of coffee in your preps, as there is really nothing like it. While we were able to improvise a boil water container on my propane grill, this was not very efficient. One idea, which I had never tried, was to hook up the coffee maker to my van’s on-board power outlet to brew some coffee. A self-contained coffee maker and a supply of coffee cannot be overstated as a luxury item during a power outage.
Your vehicle is a tremendous expense on the average family budget, but it can also be an important asset in the event of long-term survival. Our family’s mini-van has several survival advantages built in. Obviously, the van can be used to escape a disaster, with drivers switching off while one sleeps in the back. The extra space can also be used to carry water, food, tools, and fuel for a long trek. A van can even serve as a emergency shelter. The on-board power outlets can be used as emergency chargers. You should factor in how you could leverage your everyday vehicle into a survival aid by considering survival uses into your car choices. Buy vehicles such as vans, four wheel drive Subarus, off road capable trucks and Jeeps, while eschewing less useful vehicles. When buying a new vehicle, think of how the addition of a few options (such as flex fuel capacity or a tow hitch) could improve its utility during emergency.
Evacuation can be rendered difficult by fallen trees. The chainsaw was the most immediate tool required for clearing out paths of escape. When trees fall throughout the city, everything is blocked and your world shrinks to a very small area. A chainsaw can also be utilized to produce firewood from fallen trees. Interestingly, while there were chainsaws available at Lowes, chainsaw lubricant was sold out and unavailable. Make sure you have this item next to your saw. After the hurricane, there was lots of firewood laying around. A chainsaw turns this problem into a solution by supplying firewood for our outdoor fire pit. Be very aware, though, that an out of control fire is an extreme danger, especially when fire departments cannot reach you.