Monday, July 22, 2013

Survival Story: Living Through Florida's Hurricanes In 2004

By Don Jones
Originally published in Modern Survival Magazine, 2005

Hurricane Charlie left Punta Gorda FL devastated
"There are two certainties about being in the path of a hurricane: your home will be hit and destroyed or damaged, or it won't."

My friend Steve Blary and I had just gotten back from providing relief for ham radio operators in shelters at Punta Gorda, Florida during Hurricane Charley. What I saw there was enough to convince me to stay at a shelter if my community ever faced a storm. After getting home, I heard the news that another Hurricane named Frances was setting its cross hairs on Florida, but this time it was headed for my community.

Hurricane Frances pounds the Florida coast
My wife and I started to store and freeze water, purchase extra food, and close the storm shutters. Everything that could be blown from the yard was put in the garage. The American Red Cross Emergency Operations Center sent me to a school which served as a special needs shelter for the handicapped. I thought it was going to be easy duty since it was run by the health department. My wife would be about two miles from where I would be at the Red Cross office. My job was to report any messages to the Red Cross from our shelter, number of occupants, the number of meals, people sick and any who were sent to the hospital.

Frances came in like a lion with tropical storm force winds from 35 to 74 miles per hour at about 6 p.m. The winds would roar outside for several minutes, then they would slow down and get quiet. Just as we would think the storm was past, it started all over again. The shelter kept me busy with radio traffic all night. A friend at the shelter brought a mini color TV and we watched the weather all night between messages.
We became the information center for the shelter residents who kept checking on the storm. The storm started with hurricane force winds of 75 to over 110 miles per hour around 10 p.m. The storm was so large that the eye was estimated to be 75 mile across. Sometimes the building would shake and the roof would make popping sounds as it strained from the winds that sounded like a freight train at times About 10:30 p.m. we lost power and went on to generator power, which meant we lost the air-conditioning.

With 350 people in the shelter, the humidity rose rapidly. When Frances reached the coastal waters off Stuart, Florida, it just sat there for five long hours, before it moved on shore.
Stuart FL felt the brunt of the storm
Then she took another 12 hours to pass over us. Everyone thought she would pass quickly and was anxious to go home. It was the largest storm in 47 years. Because it sat in the ocean for five hours, it lost its sea surge, the dome of water that is sucked up by the storm and usually brings in flood water. It was expected to be 18 feet, but ended up being 6 feet. It still did damage, but not to the inland coast. At midnight I laid down on the floor for just a few minutes, for the first time in 48 hours. At that point, someone came running in to tell me to get on the radio because the school down the street, which was also a shelter, had just lost its roof and we would be taking in more victims. They were taking in rain, and wind was roaring. No one could go after them till the eye came over us.

At about 1 p.m., firefighters and EMTs stationed at our shelter went to bring in the victims as the winds died down. The unsettling silence of the night was an eerie experience after all the noise. There were already 350 people in the shelter. Now there would be over 700.
The shelter was crowded, but dry.
It was about to get very crowded. People were in the halls and every room was filled. Many of the victims were frightened, and tired. Some were in wheel chairs while others had dementia. Some were brought in on gurneys. It was a long night. There was other radio traffic. Because the power had gone off, we needed to find a generator to run the lift station pumps and to keep the sewage from backing up in the shelters. The ground was saturated with water. After that night, we were all glad to see daylight. Hurricane force winds began to die down at about 6 a.m. By noon the storm was over. A curfew was in effect till about 2 p.m. The streets had been cleared by the emergency operations personnel. They sent front loaders down some streets to clear the streets. Several businesses lost their roofs. All traffic lights were gone.

When I got to my neighborhood, there was a power pole that had snapped and arched over the road. It had been caught in a tangle of power lines. It reminded me of a kite caught in a tree. My car barely passed under it. The power was off everywhere. My roof lost a lot of shingles, but there was not a house on the street that did not have a damaged roof. It was dark inside my house with the shutters closed. I used a flashlight to check for leaks. The real problem was the water damage that came inside and damaged the ceilings.
Many came home to this.
The insurance company representative came about two weeks after the storm and told us we needed to replace our ceilings in the bathroom, living room, kitchen and garage and we needed a new roof. The neighbors up and down the street started coming out and inspecting damage. Lots of trees were down and limbs were everywhere. Neighbors began to pick up the debris from the yards and pile it on the edge of the street. The neighbors and myself would be spending a lot of days working around their houses.

My house stood up well in the storm. It's a typical three bedroom block home which makes it storm proof, except for the roof. That does not mean it is flood proof, but it is 16 feet above sea level. With the predicted seas surge, I expected the house to get flood water. My neighbor who had a metal roof came over and told me Frances did not scratch his roof.
Some had it a LOT worse than us
However, two weeks later, mother nature gave a repeat performance and sent hurricane Jeanne. She was not as big, but meaner because she had higher winds. She damaged that metal roof and tore off a piece of the front of it Some of my neighbors just left their houses as they were and packed their cars and went to the other side of the state till Jeanne passed. One of my friends decided to move up north and not come back. I could not blame them. If I could, I would have too. At the encouragement of her boss, my wife got on a plane and stayed two weeks with my daughter who had just had our third grandchild three days before Jeanne hit. It was planned for her to go the next week but Jeanne changed that.

Hurricane Jeanne: the15th most destructive of all time
The strange thing about Jeanne when she came over was that the county was not able to pick up all the piles of debris that were still along the streets from Frances. Everyone was predicting that all this debris would become flying missiles and damage more than Frances. However, it worked just the opposite. The wind from Frances had evidently taken out all the weak trees and limbs and went right over the piles of debris. They simply lay there undisturbed.

The effects of Hurricane Charley, the first of the three hurricanes to hit Florida in only about a month in 2004, were just as devastating. Utility services were gone. Power lines were down everywhere. Road signs were gone. Homes were completely destroyed, blown off their foundations or so badly damaged they were uninhabitable. Insurance and FEMA help were days or maybe weeks away. Hospitals were vacated or destroyed. People were wandering the streets either dazed or looking for some place to loot. The smell of sewage was apparent from the overflow in the rivers. Shopping centers were destroyed, banks were closed and not working, fast food restaurants were destroyed with windows blown out or roofs torn away. Gas stations were wiped out with pumps completely knocked down or inoperable. Trees were blown across roads. All this happened within just a few hours during the time Hurricane Charley passed over west, central, and northeast Florida. The storm jumped from a category two to a category four in a remarkably short period of time and then in an unprecedented move, it turned unexpectedly 15 degrees and plowed into Port Charlotte instead of Tampa as first predicted. This just goes to prove how unpredictable and dangerous a storm like this can be

Most of the deaths that occurred in Charley were among those people who stayed at home instead of going to a shelter, or who took unnecessary risks after the storm passed. There are two certainties about being in the path of a hurricane: your home will be hit and destroyed or damaged, or it won't. What you can do regardless is go to a shelter and if your home is still standing afterwards, start to repair. If it is destroyed, then gather what is left and wait to see FEMA and live in a shelter till someone gives you a place to live. You will have to wait till insurance replaces your old home, which could take months. There were those who refused to go to a shelter because they feared looting. When I had to make the decision when Frances was approaching, I chose the shelter rather than worrying about my material things. Death is not a good trade for the difference. If you fear losing some things, then you should already have a plan to preserve them before a storm strikes.

After spending several days in shelters as an amateur radio operator for hurricane Charley, Frances and Jeanne, I learned several things from these events.

1. Pack what you can. When the storm comes you realize you may lose everything you own and you start thinking how or what you can save. First you realize you cannot save everything and some things you must accept that you might lose. Then you decide on a plan. If wind does not take the roof and the structure is still standing, then you must face the possibility of a flood taking everything. How do you protect yourself from the coming flood? By placing the most valued things you cannot transport to a shelter in heavy duty yard garbage bags padded with blankets and pillows. The computer was the first to be placed in a bag lined with pillows. After tying them off, I taped them with duct tape then placed that bag in another bag and taped it shut. One of my neighbors put all of her important things in plastic bags in foot lockers. If the house is not hit by a tornado and water is the only threat, then the bags will float. When the storm is over and the water is gone you retrieve the bags and your belongings.

2. Store Water. Store water in the event your home is spared and you must wait days for the water and power to be turned back on. I stored about 10 gallons for myself because I was at home after the storm alone. My wife worked for the Red Cross and was busy and sleeping at the shelter. It was a week before power was restored. I ran out of drinking water on the day the power was turned back on. Though a well may not be flooded, it must be remembered that the water table can be contaminated from sewer and septic tank overflow. The rivers will be contaminated for months. Wells should be tested before drinking out of them right after a storm. Next time, I will store a barrel of water. My canoe was filled up with water so it would not blow away, with a few concrete blocks placed inside for good measure. This came in very handy because I used the extra supply of water for flushing toilets. Filling the bathtub is another excellent way to store water.

3. Store food with a means of cooking. The value of stocking canned food should be obvious. It may be a long time before the stores will be open again in your locality. The Red Cross was delivering MREs to the local residents where I live. After trying a few, I found they were not too bad, but I found that I liked home cooked meals better. Canned goods are great too. Just remember to have a can opener on hand as part of your survival equipment. Prepackaged meals where you just add hot water are the simplest to use. You can find them in large quantity for a discounted price at wholesale food distributors, such as Sam's, Costco or Big Lots. There are several conventional means of cooking at home without power: barbecues, propane stoves and gas stoves. It seemed a lot less trouble to use my propane camp stove. One small bottle served me well in making meals two to three times a day for a week. Using a camping cook kit proved to be the most cost efficient. Home cookware used on your stove is designed to work on a range. Camping cookware is designed to work over a flame, and will heat much faster and you can prepare food much faster in small quantity. The clean up is also a lot simpler.

Not this ice.
4. Store Ice. The third day after the storm, all the ice in the refrigerator had melted and I had to toss out everything in the refrigerator. The soda pop and butter were all that survived (This was before purchasing a generator). You should stock up on ice the day before the storm and fill your refrigerator. The week Frances approached, I had frozen five one-gallon milk bottles and when I headed for the shelter I placed them in the refrigerator and then put four more in the freezer to freeze. By the time the power went off the next morning the refrigerator was filled with ice. When the power goes off the ice will help keep it cool as long as possible. When the air-conditioner is not running in the summer you will appreciate the ice. It will also help in the down time on running the generator.

5. Buy a generator and extra gas and oil. You should have already bought a generator and stocked up on gas before the storm. I did not, and went out the day after the storm and got lucky at Lowes. They were just unloading a truckload of generators. I snatched one up with the help of another customer in line and we put it in my basket. Then I helped him do the same. It is amazing how friendly people become in a crisis. After getting home I set up my generator and found out that I could not siphon gas out of my car like I planned because it has an anti theft device in the tank to prevent stealing gas. Then I spent the rest of the day in a mile-long line waiting to get gas. There was only one gas station open in a town of over 55,000 that day. They were open because they had a generator. The rest of the local stations had to wait till the power came back on. Another thing I failed to do before the storm was buy a couple of five-gallon gas cans, so after borrowing a gas can from a friend, I went home to fill up the generator. I had tried for the past two weeks before to get a five-gallon gas can but they were sold out from people going to the Charley disaster on the other side of the state. Their gas stations were destroyed and the only gas that could be found was over 40 miles away. Later I found a Marine supply store that sold diesel fuel cans that no one thought of as gas containers. They are yellow in color but they still hold gas. The generator that I ended up with was a Troy Built 5,550-watt, 10-horsepower generator. It is more than enough to run my house as long as I don't use my central air conditioner. The box said it would run 11.6 hours on one five-gallon tank. I got lucky because mine ran for 21 hours before I had to fill it up again. This was accomplished because I used the power for the refrigerator and fans and left the lights off and used the power sparingly. The interesting thing about using a generator is when you wake up in the morning you have the distinct feeling you have awoken inside a lawnmower. The neighbors on the left and right and behind and in front of me had also bought generators. The entire community sounded like the Indy 500.

Don't forget Batteries
6. Have plenty of flashlights and electric lanterns on hand with lots of batteries. Buy batteries in bulk under these circumstances. You most likely will use them up. Florescent lanterns work well because they use less battery power. There is less of a fire hazard also by using batteries instead of gas-fueled lanterns. There is also the problem of asphyxiation from poor ventilation. Kerosene lanterns are OK for outdoors but burn smoke and create a terrible smell indoors.

7. Make and secure copies of important papers. You should have already taken your most important papers and had them put in a safe deposit box and made copies to have on hand for FEMA. If you think you need anything to prove to the insurance or FEMA, then make a copy of it. Think deeds, insurance, credit cards, bank statements, birth certificates, driver licenses, medical identification, family and friend phone numbers and addresses.

8. Get extra money till the crisis is over. Remember the bank where you have a deposit box may not be open for a week or more. Be sure you take out enough money to hold you over till you are back at work or the bank is open again. It seems everyone in a disaster wants to be paid in cash, not checks. They need the money now, not later.

9. Take pictures of everything you own that you might need to make an insurance claim for. The digital camera and video camera are great for recording the things you own. After you have made pictures you can put them on a CD or you can put them on video and deposit them in your safety deposit box. Whatever you use, be sure that you document everything. After a storm, things often get scattered or stolen and may not be missed till much later.

10. Develop a good relationship with your neighbors and watch each other's backs. If you live in the community where there are others near by to help guard your home, then you are lucky. This should have been agreed upon a plan to guard your homes before you face a storm. This is why you should get together with your neighbors and other home owners in your community to help each other when such a disaster occurs. There were looters on my street during the storm while everyone had their heads down and taking cover. They tried to break in to five houses but failed to get past the shutters. When they got to the fifth house they were surprised by the homeowners who decided to ride out the storm. The looters ran before they could be caught, and escaped. Maybe an army presence will slow looting down, but if solders are not standing on every street in your community you will get looted if you are not there with a gun. The problem with guarding against looters is you can not be at the shelter getting aid from FEMA if you are guarding your home at the same time. Nor can you go to work if you still have a job when you need to be at a shelter waiting for the FEMA people. Red Cross will have their assistance but it will take weeks for everything to fall into place when it is a mass effort for a place like Port Charlotte, Stuart, West Palm Beach, Port Saint Lucie or a major city . When 1.6 million homes or more are affected, it requires lots of time for a handful of workers from the government to handle all of the claims.

11. Get your prescriptions filled for at least 60 days or more. If the storm is approaching you should have already taken care of getting your prescriptions filled for lasting up to two months or more. The local hospital and drug stores may be closed or destroyed, so stay healthy and know your first aid. Have a well stocked first aid kit. Take a Red Cross first aid course.

12. Be prepared for things to come together slowly. There are at least three phases you need to be aware of. When a storm hits, shelters will be the first phase. Everyone will go to a shelter and get settled. After the storm there is the second phase which will be FEMA coming to the shelter looking for victims to help. Or they will set up in the community in a location that is easy to find. Unfortunately they will not prowl the city looking for your damaged home and knock on your door to contact you in the beginning as many people seemed to think. The Red Cross will provide phone numbers where FEMA can be contacted day or night. The community shelter is the best place to make contact with FEMA where communications have failed, such as places where there are no phone services. The third phase will be signing up for assistance for money, which may be three or four weeks into the recovery, maybe longer. The Red Cross will be sending their workers into the community assessing damage to help determine who will receive financial assistance. When there is a disaster of the magnitudes of Charley, Frances, Ivan, or Jeanne it takes a while to get everything in place. When the shelters are closing, the Red Cross will set up locations in the affected communities.

13. Be prepared for varied health hazards. Health is a big concern in the shelters and for any disaster-hit community. There are problems with people who have already caught some kind of disease that can spread through a shelter, such as Norwalk virus from eating spoiled food. Then there is the problem of people drinking bad water, which can cause cholera and other diseases. Because of the sea surge, the water table will be contaminated with sewage. Rivers will be overflowing with sewage and there will be a terrible smell. Mosquitoes will be a problem and they carry the West Nile Virus which can be fatal for some people. You should have insect repellent and other aids such as mosquito netting to keep the mosquitoes at bay. There will be a problem as well with hungry and misplaced dogs that could pose a threat. They will prey on the weak, such as children playing in the community without supervision. People who left their pets at home can come back to find that their home is gone and so are their pets, who are now roaming around looking for something to eat. The zoos can lose control of their animals too.

14. Expect being out of touch to be out of touch with the rest of the world.
Phones will be out for weeks or longer and communications will be left to the authorities. The only way to contact family or friends will be through the Red Cross and they may take days before that person is found. If they stay at home then no one will be able to contact them. If they go to a shelter, then someone will know where they are. The only reliable form of communication is by ham radio or citizen band. Cell phones work only if the local towers are still standing. Satellite phones work if you can afford them and the party you call has service.

15. Get involved with your community before a disaster strikes.
Here is a valid truth. If you want to survive, be a part of the community. No one is an island to themselves. We need to get prepared by getting our homes ready and emergency supplies on hand. We need to be involved citizens in the community. Learn who your neighbors are. Look out for each other when things are normal as well in times of trouble. Get involved in citizen patrols or the local Red Cross, or other organizations that serve the community, so when disaster strikes you will already be a part of the community effort to survive.
Contents copyright (c) 2004/2005 Modern Survival Magazine

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