Author: Dr. Rick Knabb
Go Shopping. Now.
Dr. Rick Knabb
Former Director, National Hurricane Center
How awful is the aftermath of a hurricane? An individual’s experience can range from a tolerable inconvenience to a life-altering disaster, but awful generally covers it. If we could teleport ourselves into that situation for just a few moments, the items we desperately need would quickly become obvious, and we’d probably have no trouble making our shopping list for hurricane supplies. It’s hard to truly feel that level of desperation when it’s just a bad daydream, but fantasize reality we must if we’re going to understand why it’s so important to stock up on critical supplies – in advance rather than waiting until a hurricane is actually out there and threatening.
Up front, I’ll stipulate that not everyone can financially afford to stock up in advance like this. So, those of us with the means to do so have an even greater responsibility to shop now and be self-sufficient in the days following the storm. If we don’t, then we are unnecessarily taking up space in the last-minute long lines at stores during a hurricane warning and at emergency distribution centers in the aftermath. Some of us could even go a step further and directly help a less fortunate neighbor that we personally know to obtain the most critical supplies, or we could donate to a nonprofit organization that might be able to make that happen.
Stocking up on hurricane supplies is, after all, mostly not about convenience. Some items really do fall into the category of essential for survival and returning life back to “normal” as soon as possible. We really need think carefully about what we’ll need to survive for days with the power out and in isolation from emergency responders because roads are blocked by debris or floodwaters and they’re applying their resources to other hard-hit areas. The list of absolutely essential hurricane supplies has to include at least the following items in my top ten:
- Bottled water. I’d shoot for at least one gallon per person, per day, for at least seven days.
- First aid kit. This is even more crucial than at first glance. Maybe, for example, you get through the storm unscathed, but what if you are injured while emergency responders cannot reach you? Even worse, what if it’s your child?
- Prescription medications. Fill these before the storm since the pharmacies might not reopen for quite a while. For some of us with serious conditions, it’s simply not a viable option to miss a dose.
- Over-the-counter medications. Think beyond basic pain relievers to include all kinds of remedies for ailments that might not be a big deal when the drug stores are open but that could worsen without any treatment.
- Non-perishable foods. You’ll need enough for your entire family for a minimum of one week. Get as many of those convenient pop-top opening cans as you can find, but always have a manual can opener. It’s really embarrassing during a power outage to push the lever on an electric can opener over and over and wonder why it’s not working.
- Formula, diapers, and other baby supplies. This obviously does not apply to everyone, but it wasn’t that long ago that my wife and I had an infant in our home during an actual hurricane – so trust me, these are not the kinds of supplies you want to be racing to scoop up at the last minute. There are too many other parents that will be faster than you in getting to the stores and clearing out the shelves.
- Battery-powered AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio. If possible, get one that also receives the audio from local television stations. Don’t cut yourself off from potentially life-saving information.
- Batteries. This is for everything with an on/off switch that can operate without a cord, and not all of these are just for fun. Start with noting what size batteries your flashlights take.
- Toiletries. ‘Nuff said, except I’ll say that an often-overlooked item is moist towelettes.
- A waterproof and fireproof container. Store in here your priceless photos and important papers, including insurance policies and documentation of your home’s contents that you’d need for an insurance claim.
Elaborating on non-perishable foods, I’m always on the hunt for out-of-the-box thinking on what to eat in the aftermath of a hurricane. I love having an excuse to eat nothing but potato chips and peanut butter sandwiches as much as the next guy, but things don’t have to be so elementary school. If you have a gas grill in the backyard, get an extra tank and fill it up this weekend. You’ll thank yourself later, with or without a hurricane this year. Your summer holiday weekend cookout will hit a major snag if you run out of propane, without a spare, before you’ve flipped the burgers over. If a hurricane does strike and your electric stove goes out of commission, your gas grill – especially if it has one of those side burners – will be a valued friend. If you’ve stocked up on water, you can cook non-perishable foods like pasta. A simple hot meal will be an exquisite luxury in the days after a hurricane.
Our society’s increased reliance on technology has forced us to expand our list of emergency supplies as compared to years past. Have you thought about all of the modern conveniences that are not going to be functioning when the power is out – possibly for days or even weeks – after a hurricane? Here are my top five technology-driven hurricane supplies:
- Cash. It will quite literally be king when the ATM screens are dark and swiping a credit card accomplishes nothing during an outage. And put some under the proverbial mattress way in advance if you can, so that you can avoid ultra-long lines in an actual hurricane event.
- Gas for the car. Fill up as far in advance as reasonably possible. In past hurricane approaches, I’ve filled up in the middle of the night just before the storm. I wasn’t the only one with the idea, so there was some safety in numbers, but I avoided the longest lines and it saved a lot of time the next day to focus on other preparations.
- Offsite data backups. This is no longer just a problem for computer geeks like me. How many important records, family photos, and other irreplaceable files are stored on your laptop, desktop, or mobile device? Not only can a hurricane (or other weather disaster) take out both your computer and your backup disk in one fell swoop if they’re both stored at home, so can a fire, a robbery, or disk drive failures. You could store a backup disk at some other location in town, such as a safety deposit box. Another option is online backup services to which you upload your data.
- Solar-powered USB chargers. The first person in my household to not only find out about but also own one of these was my 11-year-old son. When I asked him, “why do you need one of those?”, he said, “Daddy, it’s really cool. Plus, it’ll be really good for our hurricane supplies.” He’s already saved the day with that thing when my phone was out of power one day at the beach. Many of these chargers can also be powered up via an electrical outlet before the storm. Variations on the same theme include cell phone and USB chargers powered by conventional batteries.
- This is not in everyone’s budget, but this article would be incomplete without mentioning generators, whether they be portable or permanently installed. I can’t emphasize enough, however, that you must NEVER operate a generator indoors. Carbon monoxide poisoning has wiped out entire families.
Patience can be in short supply after a hurricane, but a little advance planning can help you and your family – especially the kids – to endure the potentially lengthy aftermath. Assemble their favorite pillows and blankets, sleeping bags, books, and board or card games (especially if evacuating). Reading to your younger kids might be one of the most enjoyable ways to help them pass the time.
I’ve referred in this article to hurricane supplies, but they’re important to have on hand for any natural or man-made disaster that might force you to survive on your own for many days.
Here are a couple of supplies to NOT put on your hurricane season shopping list:
- People have died in fires during power outages after leaving candles unattended. See batteries and flashlights above.
- Tape for windows. In all seriousness, Go Tapeless. Tape does not keep your windows from breaking, so you’d be wasting your time and money. Even worse, tape serves to make the broken pieces larger and deadlier. People have died standing behind windows or glass doors with a false sense of security.
If your season ends up being hurricane free, have a party in December, and eat and drink your hurricane supplies so they don’t eventually expire and go to waste. You can restock your supplies once per year. Search online to see if your state offers sales tax exemptions for a few days each year on hurricane preparedness items, sometimes on big-ticket purchases like generators.
I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, but hopefully this has created in you a severe brainstorm that will ultimately leave you better prepared for not only the storm itself but the awful aftermath. For more details on what you might need in your supply kit, visit www.ready.gov/kit.
“It’ll Never Happen to Me”: Getting Past Barriers to Determining Your Hurricane Risk
Dr. Rick Knabb
Former Director, National Hurricane Center
“I’ve lived here for decades, and we’ve never had a hurricane. I figure I’m good.”
“We got hit last year, so this year it’ll be someone else’s turn.”
“I don’t want to evacuate and do all of those other things unless I know for sure it’s going to hit here.”
“I’m staying for a cat 1 or 2, and maybe a 3, but a 4 or 5? I’m outta here!”
“I just hope we don’t get hit this year.”
“It’ll never happen to me.”
These are actual statements people have made to me during my travels around the country over the years. Many of you have probably heard similar things. These are the “before” statements. What do people often say after they’ve actually been hit hard by a hurricane or other weather disaster? You know how it goes…
“In all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen it like this.”
“No one told me it could be this bad.”
And this one really hurts to hear:
“I don’t have enough insurance. I’ve lost nearly everything.”
So many of us seem to be willing to take the gamble, do little or nothing, and hope that a hurricane doesn’t affect us where we live – even though we generally understand that we could lose a lot if a hurricane does come our way. Simply hoping that a hurricane doesn’t strike this year puts us in a weak position, even though we all want our families, homes, businesses and communities to be strong.
The first step for all of us to get past these initial mental barriers is to fully realize all of the hurricane risks we face. Your specific risks depend a lot on exactly where you live, but let’s get a few basics out of the way. Hurricanes are not just coastal events. Damaging and deadly winds, tornadoes, and rain-induced flooding can occur hundreds of miles from the coast and days after landfall. Even storm surges that affect coastal regions can go a lot farther inland – several miles in many locations – than many people realize. Too many unwary swimmers, surfers, and boaters have lost their lives from rip currents and waves near the coast from tropical cyclones that remain well offshore. In the United States over the past half century, nearly 90% of the direct deaths – those attributable to the forces of the storms –have been caused by water, with storm surge taking about half of these lives. Although winds can certainly be damaging and deadly, we must not underestimate how heavy, powerful, damaging, and deadly water can be when determining our hurricane risk.
Some topics get a lot of attention but can actually distract us from properly assessing our hurricane risk, and from taking the right steps to confront it. We hear a lot about what the various seasonal hurricane forecasts say, what El Nino is doing, or how long it’s been since the last hurricane hit our town, or our state, or our country. But none of these things tell you anything helpful about whether you’re going to get up close and personal with a hurricane this year. No one can tell you that months in advance; the five-day forecasts are challenging enough (remember Erika and Joaquin from just last year?). We make it a point to remind folks how little relationship there is between local impacts and seasonal activity; 1992 is the classic example, a “quiet” season with only one major hurricane. Yet that one was Andrew, which struck South Florida at category five intensity. The bottom line is that it only takes one hurricane or tropical storm to make it a bad year for you, and we need to prepare the same way every year for hurricane season, regardless of whatever expectations might be floating about for the season overall.
That’s the logical way to look at preparedness, but it can be even more motivating to consider the emotional aspects of getting ready for a hurricane. How my family and I contend with our risk from hurricanes (or other perils) is a very personal and emotional topic, and I suspect that if you think about it for any length of time, it would be for you as well. The emotional response from envisioning my family and home experiencing a hurricane is a great incentive for me to take steps now to get us ready in advance – long before an actual hurricane is on our doorstep.
I don’t just think about going through the storm itself – I also plan for the potentially nasty, dangerous, and lengthy aftermath. How would I feel if, for example, my home was severely damaged by wind, water, or both – and I didn’t have enough insurance to rebuild the home and replace its contents? How much longer would it take for our lives together to get back to “normal”? What would it do to our family’s financial future to try to recover without enough insurance? This is why we are visiting our insurance agent this month for an annual checkup. Whether you rent or own, live coastal or inland, visit your insurance agent and ask lots of questions to make sure you’re adequately covered. Don’t forget flood insurance, which must be obtained separately because it is not included in standard insurance policies. Along with promising yourself to never drive your car on a water-covered road (Turn Around Don’t Drown!), getting flood insurance is one of the best ways to deal in advance with your risk of inland flooding. Inland flood risk varies by location, but a good starting point is to know that for nearly all of us, if it can rain where you live it can flood where you live. Those who live close enough to the coast to be vulnerable to storm surge have that additional reason to get flood insurance. Update your insurance now, because waiting periods make it difficult or impossible to put new coverage in place when a hurricane is actually out there and you suddenly feel the urge to visit your agent.
The reason I go shopping for disaster supplies before every hurricane season is because the alternatives are extremely unpleasant at best and dangerous or catastrophic at worst. How would I feel if a hurricane was approaching and I decided to go shopping for those supplies at the very same time it dawned on everyone else who hadn’t stocked up in advance? I’d wait in horribly long lines for things my family desperately needs, but in many cases I’d find that stores were out of those items by the time I got there. The possibility of being isolated from emergency responders for days after the storm, with power out, stores closed, and no supplies is pretty frightening. I’ll be posting another blog entry later this week about what’s in my disaster supply kit.
My neighbors might think I’m strange, but they’ll soon see me testing my window shutters to make sure I can properly put them in place. It’s been a while since we’ve had to put them up for a real hurricane threat. But far better to make sure all is in order now, than risk having to tell my wife when a hurricane warning goes up that I can’t protect our home from the debris that might soon be flying around our neighborhood in hurricane-force winds.
There are so many ways that each one of us might identify things – some of them relatively simple and inexpensive – that we can do to make our home stronger before the next hurricane strikes. In addition, when you talk to your insurance agent, ask about what discounts you could get on your premium for making some improvements to your home that might not be as expensive as you expected and that might pay for themselves over time.
Those are just some of the actions I’m taking before hurricane season starts, and these are good topics for a national conversation. Today is the first day of National Hurricane Preparedness Week here in the United States, and for the first time the week coincides with the Hurricane Awareness Tour that this year visits Gulf Coast states. The week truly promises to be bigger, better, and more effective than ever before at helping us all get ready for hurricane season. This will be the second year in a row that we bring to each stop two different types of aircraft that are critical components of our hurricane monitoring and forecasting arsenal – a U. S. Air Force WC-130J from Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the NOAA G-IV jet stationed at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida. In addition, several organizations that have already indicated their partnership with NOAA and the National Weather Service by becoming Weather-Ready Nation Ambassadors will now spring into action in the tour stop cities or in many other locations to promote hurricane preparedness and resilience.
We hope that this tour and other preparedness week activities leave you with a greater confidence in your government at all levels, knowing that federal, state, and local officials are devoting extensive resources to plan together in advance for the next hurricane. On display this week are some of the most advanced technologies and communications tools available to help us issue the most effective hurricane forecasts and warnings, in support of evacuation and other decisions by emergency managers and to promote communication of a consistent message by our media partners.
This post is the first in a series of daily Inside the Eye blog entries that will focus on a chosen theme of the day. Some of the articles have been written by prominent experts from the emergency management community and from our nonprofit partners, and we thank them for their contributions. Later this week we will focus individual days and blog posts more thoroughly on the topics of getting an insurance check-up, stocking up on disaster supplies, and strengthening your home. We will also close out the week by talking about identifying trusted sources of information and then putting it all together in a written hurricane plan for yourself, your family, and, if applicable, your business.
We will first focus tomorrow on planning for evacuation, which is how we can most easily determine and respond to our risk of storm surge. That’s the place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything involved in hurricane preparedness. The topics of insurance, supplies, and stronger homes have a lot to do with not only safety but also recovering more quickly and fully after the storm. But it’s hard to be resilient if you’re dead, and evacuations are called beforehand by emergency managers to save lives in large numbers, primarily from storm surge that has historically caused more fatalities than any other hurricane hazard. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is the author of our guest blog post on this topic, so I invite you back into this space tomorrow to hear it straight from the top of the emergency management community.
I’ll just hit the high points for the moment about evacuation planning. Find out today if you live in a hurricane evacuation zone, by contacting your local emergency management agency. Don’t assume that this is only a problem for people with beachfront property. In many coastal states, the risk of storm surge extends several miles inland in some locations. If you do live in one of these zones, decide today where you’d go and how you’d get there in a real hurricane event if told to evacuate by local emergency managers. Then, when that hurricane actually threatens and those officials instruct you to evacuate, you go! And here is my plea if you live far enough inland that you find out you don’t live in a hurricane evacuation zone: identify today someone you care about that does live in an evacuation zone, and you work it out to be their inland evacuation destination. Those of you who live in a mobile home (or any other structure that is not safe from strong winds) should not plan to host evacuees, as there is a very good chance that emergency managers will also tell you to evacuate to safer shelter.
So let’s go! Let’s go dedicate ourselves to being #HurricaneStrong as our friends from the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) are encouraging us to do. You’ll see and hear a lot about that initiative this week, as it focuses on the same themes we’re talking about during National Hurricane Preparedness Week. It’s about realizing that we help decide our own outcome from the next hurricane, and then helping one another to flex our collective muscles and take action now, well in advance. We can’t just let that hurricane decide what happens to us while we sit on the sidelines. Our businesses, homes, families, and friends are worth the effort, and we simply owe it to ourselves. It’s just as personal for you as it is for me.