Hurricane & Flood
Before and After Handbook
Part I: Before the Storm
This 2014 Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and runs for six months, hurricane forecasters predict a near normal or below normal season with a 50 percent probability of 8-13 named storms, 3-6 hurricanes and 1-2 major hurricanes.
Almost six years ago, Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 with a Category 4 storm surge, erased parts of Galveston and Chambers Counties in Texas, claimed more than 100 US lives, and ripped 2.6 million people off the electrical grid for weeks.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina sunk one city and Rita chased another out of town. In June, 2001, a tropical storm named Allison washed away everything Houstonians knew about flooding.
And less than two years ago, Hurricane Sandy raged in 24 states and most of the Caribbean.
Lessons learned: 1) No two storms are alike. 2) Prepare while the sun is shining. (At this writing, the sun is shining.)
“People die in hurricanes, not only from 15-foot storm surges, but from flying debris, spin-off tornados, carbon monoxide poisoning and electrocutions,” says Robert “Safety Bob” Emery, DrPH, vice president for Safety, Health, Environment & Risk Management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
Print this out and keep it handy: this is the combined wisdom of those who have weathered true weather.
Before you see the funny-looking weather maps
Long before the weather reports start crawling along the bottom of your TV screen, have these items on hand in your home:
- Gallon of water per day per person (about three days’ worth)
- Three-day supply of all daily medications (seven days for persons with disabilities: see the ILRU website)
- First-aid kit (and check for expired contents)
- Readily consumable food that doesn’t require cooking. During hurricane season, try to keep as little food in the fridge and freezer as possible. If the power goes out for any length of time, you’re not frothing at the mouth thinking of how much money is going down the drain with the spoiled food items; also, you’ll avoid having to figure out how to dispose of said spoiled food items and fumigate the appliances.
- Handheld can opener
- Thick-soled shoes, preferably rubber-soled or rubber boots
- Rain gear and sturdy work gloves
- Fresh batteries and flashlights
- Key chain flashlights that can be worn on clothes
- Fresh batteries, portable radio and a charged cell phone and charger for both car and home. If the power outage lasts a week or more, batteries become unobtainable. Consider alternative power sources for small items like radios and cell phones. Most sporting goods stores have backpack solar cells and even motion-activated power sources.
- Duct tape, duct tape and perhaps duct tape
- A reasonably full gas tank during hurricane months
- Fire extinguisher that actually has been recently tested
- Consider travel or camping-style laundry resources. There’s nothing like coming to the end of your clean underwear and not having any spare water to even rinse something out.
- A recently checked insurance policy if you are concerned about “rising water.” Most homeowner/renter policies do not cover rising water damage. They do however cover “driving rain”, hail and wind damage, including water damage from roof leaks. Only federal flood insurance, offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), covers flood damage.
Leaving a paper trail
- Keep on hand cash, Traveler’s Checks and some money in coins. In case of a serious power outage, bank computers may be off line.
- Take valuable original documents to a safe deposit box.
- “Freezer file cabinet” - Put copies of valuable papers in freezer bags and put them IN the freezer (that’s right — it’s fairly fire, flood and wind-proof.)
- Make copies of your prescriptions or place empty medication bottles in the freezer, too.
- Store extra toilet paper (don’t laugh — it’s the one item you’ll wish you had.)
Who ya’ gonna call?
- Add to your “freezer file cabinet” phone numbers of family members/friends located in another geographic area in case phones are out and you need a point of contact. (Alert friends and family that if you can’t be reached by phone, they are to call your out-of-area contact. Use this number as a check-in station.)
- Take the time to teach your parents, older family members or text-challenged friends how to send and receive a text message in the event of a hurricane or evacuation. If cell phone towers or electricity is knocked out, your older family members need to be able to communicate with you and you, them. Texting seems to have a better success rate, even when cell phone transmission is interrupted.
- Plug all relevant numbers into your phone, but redundancy is key in a weather emergency: also write them down.
- Know your area’s evacuation routes, shelters and emergency numbers, including FEMA.
- Have your insurance agent’s numbers handy.
Planning ahead for that rainy day
- Know how to turn off your electricity, water and gas. Remember that you’ll need a professional to turn on your gas after the storm.
- If you’re at work, have back-up plans to retrieve kids from camp/school/day care.
- Arrangements for pets — they need food and water stockpiles, too.
- Keep an emergency backpack loaded with extras: medications, hidden cash and coins, personal hygiene supplies, change of clothes, sweater, comfortable shoes, extra socks, packaged snacks, bottled water, deck of cards, notepad and pen.
- Make a mental note to move to high ground any cardboard boxes sitting on the closet floor or under your bed. Items “out of sight” are often forgotten. (In other words, your baseball card collection is worthless once it is sopping pulp.)
When the TV reporter is soaking wet and windblown
Once the National Weather Service has issued a warning and your area must evacuate, grab the following items:
- Cell phones and chargers for car and electrical outlet
- Your map of evacuation routes and contraflow routes
- “Freezer file cabinet”
- Emergency backpack
- Bed roll if you have room in your car, in case shelter runs out of mats
- Pets, pet food and water and pet leash
If you’re evacuating by car, move items like flashlights and emergency flares from the trunk to the back seat before you start driving.
‘Fleeing in place’
If you are one of the million-plus Houstonians who found themselves going nowhere fast during Hurricane Rita, you know what “fleeing in place” means.
It means confidence is high that you will sit in a steaming car in gridlock traffic longer than you had planned if your major city must mass-evacuate. Consider the following:
- Plastic misting bottles: not only will a mist of water cool you down if your car’s air conditioning must be turned off to conserve gas, you’ll also save the life of your pet and the health of elderly passengers. Pets, particularly cats, might not drink in a moving car or when nervous. Spraying them down will make them lick their fur. Ill or very elderly passengers may only be able to take in fluid through a misting spray.
- Dignity takes a back seat to a 26-hour traffic jam. If you are concerned about restrooms, learn from your children — or childhood: take along diapers.
- Gasoline is safe to carry in your trunk if it is in a certified gasoline container. Check with your hardware store before hurricane season.
- Restock on vehicle road emergency kits: canned tire patches, coolant, tire jacks, flashlights, center punches (for breaking windows in rising water.)
- Make sure you have hats, sunscreen and good walking shoes in case you need to leave your car.
- Don’t depend on your car’s radio: take your battery-operated weather radio in the car.
- Use a car charger adapter for any necessary electronics.
- Above all else, know your gas mileage before you evacuate. If you can’t get to your chosen destination on one tank, you’ll need an alternative plan.
When the TV reporter is blowing sideways
If your area has been advised to shelter in place and/or your neighborhood streets are already flooded or winds make it too dangerous to leave your home:
- If you still have electricity, stay tuned to weather coverage and charge your cell phone.
- Alert your friends/family list that a hurricane is headed your way and you might lose contact by land line.
- If you’ve lost electricity, turn on your battery-powered radio.
- Secure patio furniture, sun umbrellas — anything that can be picked up by strong winds and turned into a missile.
- Duct tape window edges at the sills and sides if you believe driving rain has a point of entry there.
- Watch for downed power lines in your yard.
- Have an interior room/hallway/bathtub cleared in case you need tornado coverage.
- Make a list of items by priority that must be moved higher should your home begin to flood, such as computers, valuable documents, photos and electronics.
- Put candles and matches in a high dry place.
- Do not slosh through your flooding neighborhood streets: fire ants, roaches and snakes are also looking for things to cling to, like a sloshing leg.
- Before evacuating, leave no wooden or other water-swelling drawers containing anything in place in the dresser. Move the drawer ANYWHERE, but don’t leave it in the dresser! When the water rises and the wooden dresser and drawer are soaked, the drawer frequently cannot be opened. If the contents are clothes or paper, mildew and mold will take over before anything dries out and the drawer can be opened. A soaked drawer sitting on a flood-soaked carpet is better than a soaked drawer captured in a dresser.
Driving in high water
According to the Red Cross, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and FEMA, vehicles are involved in half of all flood-related deaths.
One simple physics equation is all you need to remind yourself of how dangerous it is to attempt to drive or stay with your car in high water:
- When you are submerged deeply enough, the weight of the volume of water that you’re displacing is equal to your own weight. You become buoyant.
- So, when the weight of the water that is displaced by the submerged part of your car becomes equal to the weight of your car, your CAR becomes buoyant.
Most cars will float in two feet of water.
What to do while driving
- If you are driving through forceful winds or hail, get to a covered area, such as a parking garage if possible.
- If you are driving through water: assume that at some point during your journey, there will be impassable water. Consider pulling off to a gas station or parking lot that sits higher than the street until the rains slow or stop.
- If you are driving through streets flooded to curb height, keep your speed low and your foot on the accelerator to avoid water back-flowing into the exhaust pipe, which will stall you. If you drive a truck or SUV, curb your confidence and slow down so that you do not displace enough water to flood smaller cars. Then pull into a higher area off the street as soon as possible.
- If you approach an area that looks too deep, it probably is. Do NOT attempt to cross it. Look up the road so that you do not have to stop at the impasse and attempt to turn around which not only raises your chance of flooding, but also creates traffic chaos.
- If you do find yourself in increasingly deeper water, immediately roll down your window in case you need to swim out of it. If your windows are electric, they will fail if the car stalls.
- If your car stalls in high water, abandon the car immediately. Two feet of water can sweep a car or SUV away. Climb to higher ground.
When you see Dorothy grabbing Toto...
As of May 26, NOAA reports 35 people have been killed by tornados in 2014 alone. Most people are injured or killed not by the tornado itself, but by flying debris.
Besides an obvious twisted funnel of wrath, NOAA lists the following signs and symptoms to look and listen for:
- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel.
- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can't be seen.
- Day or night: Loud, continuous roar or rumble which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder.
- Night: Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
- Night: Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning, especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
If you are in your home (and do not have a basement):
- In a house with no basement, a dorm or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows.
- Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection.
- Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail.
- Myth: according to NOAA, it is a myth that you should open two windows to avoid a negative-pressure build-up (and house implosion.) They advise that you keep windows closed to avoid debris. They also say that most “explosions” occur from large debris crashing into structures.
In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper:
- Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building away from glass. Then, crouch down and cover your head.
- Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly.
- Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
If you are in your car:
- Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far away and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado.
- Otherwise, park the car as quickly and safely as possible, out of the traffic lanes. Get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building.
- As difficult as it may seem, leave your car if you are in the open country. Run to low ground away from any cars (which may roll over on you). Lie flat and face down, protecting the back of your head with your arms.
- Avoid seeking shelter under bridges which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection from flying debris.