Prepare for the Storm
What to do when nothing can be done
The evening breeze feels slightly cooler on your shoulder today, yet a palatable kind of stillness lingers on the horizon. You almost have an inkling that the birds have begun to subtly disperse, the dogs no longer want to play outdoors. The falling sunset with a surrounding orange glow more neon in tone than you recollect from earlier in the week. Looking up, you see a few approaching clouds gathering as a pattern of inverted mounds. Something feels different.
You lock the car door behind you and head indoors to meet the family. They await you with a usual sampled mixture from acknowledgement or ambivalence you have grown accustomed to, there will be more time for chit chat around dinner. You try to relax by tuning to the football highlights followed by a brief round of channel surfing, pausing on the local news for the weather discussions near the turn of the hour. A small incongruity catches your eye in the framed station graphics, a symbolic red rectangular flag adorned by a centered solid black circle. For once it appears they have something important to say.
You meet your adversary for a first time. A name means nothing to a storm and yet it soon becomes one you will repeat in nearly every conversation for weeks. They call him Isaac, the 9th naming of this year’s storm season, and the first that will be making its way to landfall. The station offers a large cone of uncertainty projecting the path a week ahead, marking horizons of progression as the eye’s expected meandering at a slow enough pace to be matched by a motivated bicyclist. Your backyard straight down the middle.
You invite your children to gather around, asking what you hope are innocent sounding questions meant to gauge their understandings of what may lay ahead. Has their teacher ever talked to them about hurricanes? Wondering if they are strong enough to endure the coming ordeal without undue trauma. You try to prepare them in whatever small ways you can, offering assurances that the coming days will be hard but not insurmountable. Balancing harsh truths of what is in store with reassurances and stories from before their time. We can’t stop what is in store but we can at least prepare.
The ominous pending ordeal starting to weigh down on everyone’s psyche. It becomes harder to smile. Every thought shaded by the recognition of how much may yet be lost. Now is not a time for reflection, it is a time for action. The steps you take now may save you countless ordeals in the weeks to come. You grab a pen and paper and begin building a checklist.
There is a reasonable chance that you will lose power during the storm, potentially longer. Portable gas generators can be had at varying levels of price points if you plan ahead, which at a minimum will help to refrigerate food or a larger capacity can run air conditioning over longer outages assuming availability of fuel. Solar panels are an even better solution as long as you keep in mind that they need to have been preconfigured to run independent of a grid connection (as may require an in-home battery pack to load balance). I speculate that solar panels integrated into roof tiling may be a more robust solution in heavy winds than those externally mounted.
There will possibly become shortages of groceries and bottled water on local store shelves in the last days preceding landfall so it is important to plan ahead. The following appears to be a reasonable list of minimum essentials to stock up on in the week before landfall.
- Acquire at least two weeks supply of any medication you might need.
- As a rule of thumb try to have on hand 1 gallon of water per person per day.
- Stock up on at least 1 full week of food supplies (prioritizing non-perishables).
- Paper plates and plastic utensils are a godsend when you can’t run the dishwasher.
- Fill up the gas tank in all of your vehicles or keep plugged in when not in use.
- Charge all of your personal electronic equipment, including cell phones, computers, and power banks.
- It is good to have candles, flashlights, lanterns, or other portable lighting.
- Move your important documents into a waterproof and elevated container.
- You’ll need some things to keep the kids occupied that doesn’t require a power chord; a nerf football, deck of cards, a few books, and board games are all good solutions.
- Consider filling your bathtub with water the day before the storm as a backup reserve.
- If you don’t have on hand, a little spare cash from the ATM is a reasonable precaution
- A more extensive shopping list is also available from the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
- A battery powered radio is strongly recommended for both keeping up with official announcements or otherwise entertainment during outages.
Before the weather picks up it is a good idea to conduct a walkthrough of your yard and surrounding property. Loose items like patio furniture, potted plants, trash receptacles, and etc should be tied down or stored indoors if possible — otherwise they are capable of becoming projectiles. Remove the propane tanks from your grill. If you don’t have a garage try to at least find sheltered parking for your car not adjacent to a tree or open to wind blown debris. For the strongest storms, you may consider boarding up windows and doors to protect against the same. Take pictures around your home including all exterior walls and roofing just in case you may later have to file an insurance claim.
If you are not directly off the coast, you probably don’t have to worry about the strongest winds. Just as how warmer offshore waters cause storms to intensify, once they make landfall the wind resistance of trees and manmade structures sap up energy from the circulation, causing most storms, and especially slower moving ones, to lose intensity and downgrade a few notches as they head inland. This is not a scientific way to think about it, but other than power outages a category 1 storm is more of an inconvenience, a category 2 begins to knock over a few trees, category 3 may result in a few structural damages, while categories 4 to 5 are potentially catastrophic — you should consider evacuating. Keep in mind that even though a storm rating is based on predominant wind speeds, there will often be intermittent gusts coming in much stronger. Tornados are likely. A community’s building codes matter greatly.
Projecting the path of a hurricane has become a science in its own right. Countless satellites and weather tracking airplanes focus their eyes on each cloud grouping as they just begin to form off the coast of Africa and head down their long journey west. The range of conditions they face along a trail of predominant ocean and atmospheric currents will have a lot to say for how impactful they may manifest if they make landfall.
The tipping point for any storm occurs when some mass of clouds and moisture reaches sufficient energy from temperature gradients that a rotation starts to form, where clouds begin circling counter-clockwise in a self-perpetuating cycle. A central “eye” of the hurricane sucks surrounding air to funnel up into the higher atmosphere, which has the effect of reinforcing grouping and strengthening the rotation. The warmer the ocean temperatures that the eye traverses, the stronger will be this effect and the more intense the resulting wind speeds. When you consider that climate change is materially warming our oceans, the obvious implication is that we may be exposed to even stronger storms in the years ahead than what we have become accustomed to without further interventions.
What kind of interventions are available? Some of the more outlandish ideas have included air dropping reflective substances to divert solar energy, measures to disrupt the rotation cycle, or other heavy handed tactics. When you consider that the ocean has a temperature gradient through progressive depth, perhaps someday we may attempt to channel lower energy water from the sea floor up to the surface, although it would be a massive logistical undertaking. In the mean time forecasting has become an important tool to inform the public and guide decision makers.
The National Hurricane Center is the public institution that aggregates collective forecasts of various participating research institutions. When you see announcements like tropical storm or hurricane warnings for a county they are originating from the NHC. Their forecasts and aggregated information graphics are some of the more sophisticated government communications that you will see in this day and age. Traditionally in the thick of things they follow a twice daily update cycle including projected path, wind speeds, and timing with other official announcements. This author suggests the “Hurricane Tracker” app available on iOS for an aggregation of official public forecasts.
If it was only the wind that we had to worry about the hurricanes would probably be considerably less impactful to our infrastructure and economy. After all the most destructive winds are primarily focused in a narrow band surrounding the eye, which in some cases may only be a path of few miles wide. The challenging part of planning an action strategy is that conjoined with these winds are significant flooding risks, coming first from storm surges of ocean currents pushed well into the coastlands, and then again from long durations of heavy rainfall which in extreme cases could extend to land masses approaching an entire state.
A coastal community in the path of first landfall faces the greatest threat from both risk factors of catastrophic winds and storm surged flooding — these are the communities that will be the hardest hit by far. At a minimum citizens should evacuate to a hotel or public shelter further inland. One could possibly expect to return after a significant storm to find large boats on dry land crowding city streets a few blocks from shore, houses with roofs torn off, the surrounding vegetation landscape that wasn’t blown over all with a permanent inland tilt resulting from sustained bending against the wind. The gradually retracting standing water in flood zones likely taking days afterwards to recede.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, one should be cautious of considering their home safe from flooding because they live in a “100 year” or even “500 year” flood zone. In a literal sense, a 100 year flood zone means every year there is a 1% chance of standing water. Consider that the city of Houston recently had two 100 year floods in the space of three years. Sometimes infrastructure may fail, look at the result to New Orleans’ 9th ward after a levy failed with Hurricane Katrina. As disappointing as this may sound, in some states one can not even count on disclosure of recent flooding when buying a new home. (I understand that some private companies like the Redfin real estate app are attempting to pick up the slack in this failure of public regulation to inform potential home buyers of any significant risks to their investment.) If you suspect that your home is in a flood plane, consider filling sand bags and fashioning a makeshift levy around egress points.
If you find your community impacted by flooding, it is possible that the water reclamation infrastructure may be impacted. Keep your eye out for boil water advisories, fortunately you did stock up on bottled water so this shouldn’t be an issue. A very serious public safety hazard may arise with the combination of standing water and downed power lines, if you spot anything similar keep your distance. Don’t try to interfere with downed lines, some cables may still be in operation and depended on for internet access, leave this to the professionals to evaluate. Be very careful of driving through standing water, especially if you are not familiar with a roadway. Water collecting in a tailpipe is an easy way to stall out a vehicle. Even shallow waters may cause you to lose traction and float a tire. If you haven’t been trained on how to approach driving in standing water it means that you are not qualified.
In a worst case scenario, you may find that standing water has made its way into your home. Once it recedes, there is a short ticking clock of a few days before which devastating mold and mildew issues begin to take over. If you have carpet you will need to strip it back to the bare slab. If the internal walls were exposed, and I know that this sounds drastic, you should consider taking a hammer and stripping away the drywall and insulation to a few inches above the water line to reveal the wooden frame beneath. Be aware that flood waters may have traces of sewage and other contaminants, take appropriate precautions. Effected padded furniture can be left out on the curb. You’ll want to run fans and air conditioning as much as possible to dehumidify, if you can get your hands on supplemental equipment to help with dehumidification you should do so. If your community was largely impacted there may be a shortage of hired labor available to conduct this work, try reaching out to your church or other community organizations to see if there are any organized volunteer groups that can help.
Although it did not feel that way when you were in the thick of things, these last two weeks have flown by ever so quickly. At some point, you’re not sure when, you began to develop an unexpected tolerance for the stress of everything. A stoic’s heart. You learned to filter by those matters that you could influence and those that were out of your hands. Some long term objectives were set on hold for a period as the crises of the days were attended to. These were not times for reflection, they were a time for action.
Some of your friends left their homes when the power went out. The nicer hotels had backup generators, air conditioning, and catered foods. Granted since it was hurricane conditions a lot of the catered food consisted of boxed macaroni and cheese, but hey it beats eating canned soup by flashlight. You have come to despise the steady growl of the neighbor’s portable generator, it is apparent they sprung for the cheaper model without the sound attenuation. The dislike may either be a result of annoyance or jealousy, it doesn’t matter which.
It took a day or two to clear all of the fallen debris from your yard. Your neighborhood now a long drive of piles of branches in front of each home. The biggest annoyance was probably the mound of leaves collected in the deep end of your swimming pool. A few days of attention and a professional scientist’s worth of liquid, powdered, and tableted chemical titrations later you hope the kids may be able to jump back in before long, although at the current pH level they would probably end up with blond hair as a result.
It feels weird to have a completely empty refrigerator for once. You had to discard everything that would go bad, including those condiments and frozen steaks that it turns out had expired a few years back. A solo box of arm and hammer the only item remaining. Your boss just called. They want you to come back in the office. You told her you’d be ready as soon as the school opens back up. You feel a sense of calm as you sip on a sparkling water, put your feet up for an ever so brief period, and turn the dial one last time on your portable battery powered radio.