Mindset

Hard Lessons: Hurricane Florence, Part 1

Ever wondered what happens when a community takes a hurricane on the chin? Michael Jenkins shares his story... and it's not a survival fantasy.

June 13, 2019 1:39 PM
By:
Michael J.

Introduction

On August 30, 2018, a strong tropical wave formed in the atmosphere just off the Cape Verde Island. It organized steadily whilst adopting a northwesterly track across the Atlantic. On September 1 it strengthened to a tropical storm and formally acquired the name Florence; by September 3 it was a hurricane. After briefly intensifying to a Category 4 storm, it met sheer winds and weakened again. Early in the morning on September 14, Hurricane Florence was at my doorstep, making landfall in southeastern North Carolina at Category 1 strength.

Florence was, in a sense, the perfect storm. It came ashore during a record year for rain, dumping an additional 30 inches or so of precipitation on an already waterlogged region. In a nearly unprecedented move, Florence lingered over us for four days at hurricane-strength the entire time. Hundreds of thousands of people were left without electricity, including 90% of my county. Due to intense flooding, the city of Wilmington was entirely isolated from the outside world—supplies had to be brought in by ship in a first for mainland US disaster relief. That said, we were lucky compared to some of the smaller surrounding communities, which flooded entirely.

57 people died.

The key lesson I took away from Hurricane Florence—and the subsequent catastrophe following Hurricane Michael in Florida—was how vitally important it is to avoid romanticizing or exoticizing disasters and their aftermath. This was not a chance to play out some ultra-macho survivalist fantasy, nor was it a joyful exercise in the superiority of the prepper lifestyle. There were no roving gangs, nor food riots; life in the wake of the storm was at best a hot, sweaty, isolated tedium. Surviving and overcoming the storm was often an exercise in lucky guesses and good timing--faced with a series of extraordinary situations normal people did the best they could. Some folks went above and beyond the call of duty to help the relief and recovery processes, while a very few folks took advantage of the situation. No one was left untouched and our communities are still in recovery.

In writing about Florence here, I’m going to do my best to walk you-the-reader through the experience and explore what worked and what didn’t whilst applying ISG’s philosophy and world view to the situation as it evolved. It’s an interesting test case: we get to explore post-disaster survival and relief in a First World city abruptly cut off from the rest of the nation. I hope you’ll learn something from what we went through. I suspect I’ll learn a great deal by writing it out.

Also: I like bullet points, so get ready for a few of those.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The chief question confronting all of us in the affected zone was just that: evacuate or ride it out? While I elected to stay, I’ll be quick to point out there was no “right” decision. Everyone involved had their own set of needs, resources, and constraints. There’s little room for blame or oneupsmanship. With that in mind, here are some things we learned:

  • In the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, a few things do become clear. First and foremost: if you decide to evacuate, make every effort to leave early. We’re a coastal community in a state defined by a large number of sizable rivers. Every path to safety led over a bridge or six and the roadways got crowded quickly. Gas was available, but lines were occasionally lengthy as folks rushed to get on the road. This got worse during that brief period when we were anticipating a Category 4 landfall. More on that later.
  • Know if you’re in a flood zone.Check with your insurer, check with you local/state government, check and double check. Florence brought us unprecedented flooding, sometimes engulfing entire communities. If there’s any doubt at all, prepare your home as best you can and evacuate to safety even if that means going to a shelter.
  • It became readily apparent that those leaving needed a plan, giving us another take-home point: if you choose to evacuate, make sure you have a place to go. For those of us living in disaster zones, it’s relatively easy to do this in advance. It can be as simple as having an understanding or standing arrangement with friends or relatives in other parts of the state or around the country—preferably within a single gas tank’s worth of travel time. Make sure the folks there know your travel route, when you depart, and roughly when to expect you. Try to keep the apprised of your progress while your en route.
  • If possible, have a budget for travel. It’s likely going to be more expensive than you think. A night or two of hotel/motel living is within most of our budgets; several weeks is far less so. Having friends to stay with can make life a lot easier, particularly with so many other people on the road looking for refuge.
  • Extra gas cans are one of those fantastic almost-consumables that vanish from store shelves in the weeks leading up to the storm. Have a few on standby well in advance.
  • Speaking of en route: this is likely to be a long grueling tripwith few opportunities to stop. Bring extra fuel if possible, snacks, water, entertainment, and sanitary supplies including a pot to piss in. Doing it alone is sub-optimal; team driving would be the smart way forward.  It goes without saying that a well-maintained vehicle with a roadside emergency kit and a functional spare tire are a must, both for bugging out and for day to day life.
  • Remember the pending return journey. You may face as many or more delays, obstacles, and dangers on the trip home. Due to widespread and long-lasting flooding, our city was an island for over a week. Land routes into town became available only gradually, and they often involved side roads, back roads, or dirt roads. They were long, circuitous, and often slammed full of vehicles. Just because the waters recede doesn’t mean the traffic will.

Shelter from the Storm

Any narrative about Hurricane Florence comes with this caveat: It could have been worse. It could have been so much worse.The storm hit the Carolinas, and folks in this corner of the world know how to prepare for a hurricane. Most of us started getting ready well in advance—maintaining an emergency kit is an annual ritual around these parts. However, the threat matrix had shifted a bit: we were facing the real possibility of a Category 4 storm, which would have been the first to make landfall here since Hazel back in the 60s. To the credit of the entire community, people started getting ready early, and they were ready for the worst. This of course isn’t to say that mistakes weren’t made: some of us miscalculated horribly. To that end, I offer the following observations.

  • Consumables go early.For whatever reason, many folks default to “bread, eggs, and milk” as appropriate disaster food. I don’t understand this during winter weather, and I certainly don’t get it when the lows are in the 80s and the power is likely to be out. While I’m sure that you, Dear Reader, are wise enough to avoid this particular mistake, it does bring some additional complications: grocery stores are packed the week before the storm. I found myself shopping at ethnic markets, discount stores (my local Family Dollar was a godsend), and other out of the way places. Obviously it helps to have a large supply in advance and save yourself the trouble.
  • Stock a surplus of toiletries and cleaning supplies.They go faster than you think and there’s always a demand. Keeping your home and your body clean after the storm is always a challenge.
  • Fuel. Fuel was the name of the game.We didn’t run out before Florence hit but lines were long and prices fluctuated. If you live in hurricane country, keep a week’s worth of gas stored if you have the ability to do so. Keep your tank topped off in the week leading up to landfall. This includes any and all fuel you need: butane, kerosene, diesel, propane and propane accessories. Shipments are limited in space and scope and supplies are likely to go quickly, so plan ahead.
  • If you have a generator, have a way to secure it by locking it down, locking it up, muffling and hiding it, etc. Advertising that you have power available draws a lot of attention in a hurry when the grid is down.
  • Once more with feeling: Extra gas cans are one of those fantastic almost-consumables that vanish from store shelves in the weeks leading up to the storm. Have a few on standby well in advance.
  • Hardware and home improvement stores also get hit up quickly.If you want a generator, a flashlight, or batteries of any kind, I suggest getting them early. Plywood goes fast, even though a local lumberyard was giving it away for free. Cut pieces to fit your windows and label them (“left front window” etc).  There’s a lot of development going on in my area, however, and I was able to scavenge most of what I needed from various construction site scrap piles. Food for thought if you’re cash strapped.
  • Sandbags run out fast. You know what doesn’t run out? Bags of topsoil and potting soil at your local home improvement store or garden supply place. They’re cheap, pre-filled, and you can reuse them later.
  • Tarps run out fast, as do roofing tacks and furring strips. You may need all of the above to throw a quick fix on a damaged roof. Fortunately, they don’t go bad if left unused, so you can stock them well in advance. If possible try to have enough to cover your whole roof.
  • Charge the batteries on your cordless drill in advance.Keep them charged. Buy and charge extra batteries if you can. Trust me; you’ll need the more than you think you will.
  • Have battery powered fansavailable, and far more batteries then you think you need. If the power’s out for any length of time moving air is a Godsend.

Communities, Real and Imagined

I’m old enough to remember when we used language like “survivalism” instead of “prepping” and when the primary threat concern was a nuclear strike by the USSR. Times have changed, and our approach to preparedness has to change with it. To that end, let me make this statement: The lone wolf survival fantasy is and will likely remain a fantasy. Most of us won’t have the ability to head for the woods when disaster strikes. Few if any of us live on a self-sufficient homestead next to a national park. We’re mostly urban and suburbanites, with some small-town and rural dwellers mixed in. Almost all of us live partially on the grid. This affects our physical preps, but it must also shape our mentality: we’re not gonna go it alone. We live in community, and we have to plan as such.

  • Whatever your approach, whether your bug out or bug in, I strongly suggest that youplan on helping other folks as needed. I guarantee you that someone in your neighborhood could use a hand both in getting ready and in the aftermath of the disaster. Could be the young family across the street, could be the old lady down the way. Jump in and do your best; I helped out strangers and got help in return. The goodwill you build will come back to you later.
  • Communication is key. I’m a radio nerd, so I had shortwave, AM/FM, and CB sets powered and running all through the event. I was able to get traffic updates, weather reports, information about relief and resupply, and general news 24 hours a day. I was thus able to help spread that information, both via electronic and digital means and . . .
  • Gathering spaces become doubly important. Wilmington’s a hard drinking town, and bars and breweries were among the first places to reopen following the storm. Being able to break out of the isolation was a relief after weeks of curfews and no electricity. The dynamic was a bit different than usual; conversations were more open, folks talked to each other more easily, and information was shared as it became available. This was a huge boost to both moral and the relief effort.
  • During the immediate aftermath of the storm, through that moment when life returned to mostly-normal, sharing was caring. Information, fuel, rides, food: most folks were happy to help with what they could. Something as simple as letting someone charge their phone or helping them chainsaw a few downed limbs did wonders; giving someone a ride was a gift.
  • Having a friend outside the impacted zone was a must. It’s always important to let loved ones know how you’re doing, that’s a given. In a prolonged situation without reliable utilities, it was helpful for me to have a couple of designated points of contact who could spread word as to how I was doing via social media. This saved me both bandwidth and battery life at a time when those things were in short supply. It also kept folks outside the disaster zone from panicking too much, which is a bonus in so many ways. The stress of a hurricane/grid down situation is enough without endless calls from worried relatives.
  • Supplies are available, but . . .Even with our relative isolation, even with no land route to the rest of the world, there were generally relief supplies available in Wilmington. Most grocery stores and supermarkets had something on the shelves, even if it came short of their normal offerings. Almost immediately, various relief agencies and nonprofit groups were passing out food, water, and other necessities. Everything we needed was available—if you could get to it and if you didn’t mind standing in line. The take-home lesson for me is that it’s best to avoid having to do so; have enough of what you need to keep your household going for a month or so. If you have surplus resources or time, help your neighbors get what they need.

Conclusion

There is no one correct approach to surviving a natural disaster. As I say in the opening to this article: everyone has their own needs, resources, and constraints and thus will have to work within them. Yammering on about some ultra-macho survival fantasy whilst looking down your nose at the less-prepared serves no purpose and neither reflects nor illuminates reality. That having been said, there are wrong ways to go about hurricane preparedness and some approaches do work better than others. Learning from our experiences will hopefully help you better prepare for your own disaster experience, be it a hurricane or otherwise. Take the lessons offered here, do some additional research, and please approach the subject with some humility.

I’ll be writing future articles exploring various aspects of disaster preparedness and my Hurricane Florence experience in greater detail. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Until then, stay safe out there.

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