I really wanted a cup of coffee and a hot bath but had no way to get them after Katrina left us without power for three days in late August 2005, even though the cyclone had dropped down to tropical-storm strength by the time it reached our home, 150 miles or so inland. While that wasn’t bad, compared to the devastation along the Gulf Coast, it wasn’t much fun.
A hurricane can be deadly, but your chances of surviving one will increase if you’re prepared. Take to heart the information found in any of the reliable guides to hurricane and disaster preparedness that are available; some resources online are the National Weather Service Hurricane Awareness page, advice for boat owners from marine insurance companies (PDF file) and associations, and FEMA’s hurricane preparedness page.
In addition, here are 10 tips learned from my experience with Katrina in 2005.
♦ Don’t wait until the last minute
Get a reliable preparedness guide - now. Follow its recommendations or adapt them to your own needs - now. By not putting this off, you will be more ready for the storm mentally as well as physically, and it will be one less thing to worry about as the emergency begins to unfold around you.
You should also make your decision early about what to do if evacuation is recommended but not mandatory for your area. Weeks and months before you’ll need the knowledge, get informed about the wind and water risk by using your local library and emergency planning offices to learn what happened there in previous hurricanes and where the risk zones are on the latest storm surge maps. The Red Cross and other agencies can also help.
♦ Practice makes perfect
Rehearse emergency procedures and preparing to evacuate right down to the point of walking out the door. Award-winning actors and Olympic athletes practice for the big day, and so should you. I didn’t in 2005, and as Katrina made its way inland toward us, things got pretty chaotic.
If you have never been in a hurricane before, and especially if you have a family, I heartily recommend taking the free online "Hurricane Strike!" course, sponsored by the National Weather Service’s COMET program and aimed at middle school students. While designed for young people, “Hurricane Strike!” provides everybody a complete walk-through on what to do during hurricane season as well as specific things to do when a hurricane warning is posted for your area.
You do have to register with MetEd, short for Meteorology Education, to access the course, but that is only to improve their services. They will never spam you. It’s also free.
♦ Window protection in a hurricane
Shutter or board up your windows on a sunny day - how else will you know if they fit? Practicing this heavy work on a quiet day also makes it more of a routine task when a hurricane is approaching.
This is one thing I really regretted not doing during Katrina, although we were fortunate enough to avoid any breakage. All the big windows and the patio doors hummed, and the indoor window blinds quivered as the winds raged outside. The nerve-wracking stress of watching and listening to that during the storm easily could have been avoided with a little forethought.
♦ Be a good neighbor
Neighbors who know the area’s weather are valuable resources. I was relatively new to West Central Alabama in August 2005 and was mystified that everybody mowed their lawns the day before Katrina was forecast to reach us. In the aftermath, when downed trees and limbs covered lawns for days, while the grass grew fast in the sunny conditions after the storm, I realized why they did that.
Get to know your neighbors and let their actions guide yours. If everyone is evacuating, you probably should, too. If some are staying and you also plan to, maybe you can network with them after the storm.
Are there any vulnerable people in the neighborhood - elderly individuals or the chronically ill? If so, consider asking them if they need any help putting up the window shutters or stowing the yard decorations away, and if they would mind your looking in on them after the storm.
♦ Pay attention to the weather before the hurricane gets to you
Many hours before things generally deteriorated outside, there was a tornado on the other side of the lake from us. It wasn’t a big one, fortunately. Hurricanes can bring tornadoes, heavy rains and dangerous lightning into your area long before the violent winds of the central eye wall reach you. Keep an eye on the sky!
♦ Get the right frame of mind
We’re so used to watching disaster movies on television, it’s a little difficult to face the reality when something bad is coming our way. No, we can't change channels. It's going to happen. Believe it.
Storm surge, for example, can be unbelievable in a major hurricane. Some Texans lost their lives during Hurricane Ike in 2008 because they hadn’t learned from Katrina that the Gulf of Mexico really can rise and march inland, topped by huge waves. Take hurricane risks seriously.
At the same time, don’t get too psyched. In August 2005, I followed Katrina’s course online at the National Hurricane Center and Wunderground websites, as well as local discussion forums, and frankly, I got a little traumatized by the radar image of that huge eye passing over New Orleans and the rest of the coast.
Disasters can be mesmerizing as they occur. When you start feeling a strong need to follow every single image and news flash, don’t do it: talk to the kids about storms, instead; play with the cat or dog; mow the lawn; or head down to the store for another few granola bars and cans of soup. Psychologically, you'll be much better off.
♦ Expect physical discomfort
Hurricanes are incredibly loud and bring intensely humid weather with them. The noise goes on for hours, sometimes for days. Plan ways to keep yourself, your family and your pets occupied during the long hours as the storm passes.
♦ Don’t drive during a hurricane
This can come up. My neighbors had to go out for some emergency during the height of Katrina’s passage over West Central Alabama. The next day their car looked like it had been in a demolition derby. They were lucky to have survived what was actually just a strong tropical storm at the time. Don't do it.
♦ Worst-case scenarios
More than likely you won’t need it, but do you have an ax or saw handy, and a pair of arms that can wield them? Signal flares? Life jackets for the kids? Do you know what the safest part of the house is, in case the windows or outer walls give way or something heavy crashes through the roof (not the safe room, if you have one and flooding is possible). Don’t dwell too much on all this, but be prepared.
♦ After the storm
What will you and your family need as survivors on your own for several days?
A simple propane barbecue could have provided us many pots of coffee after Katrina passed, in the days before we got power back. A solar shower bag could have provided hot bathing water. Hand-cranked radios and other devices could have recharged phone and fan batteries. The right solar panel, and knowing how to use it, could have gotten me back online for communication and work days earlier.
The possibilities are endless, but you need to know what they are and get them in place before disaster strikes.
These 10 tips can only enhance the excellent and authoritative advice on hurricanes that many reliable authorities provide the public each year. Readiness should be enough of a practiced routine that it goes smoothly when you really need it, but expect surprises and plan ahead. Fortunately, not every hurricane season brings a Katrina, but we can all optimize our chances of surviving by being ready for such a storm every single year.