We had evacuated and were 175 miles away from home in our cousins’ den turned impromptu hurricane shelter when the pit in my stomach grew larger. The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was forecasting Hurricane Matthew Armageddon live from my sleepy barrier island town of Melbourne Beach, Fla. — considered in some tracking models to become Ground Zero for the worst hurricane since Katrina.
Some 48 hours later, anxiety had been replaced by gratitude. Sure, we got damage, but nowhere as bad as predicted, as Matthew wobbled east just long enough and hit at low tide to offset expected destruction. Our county government officials and utility providers did great work readying resources before issuing mandatory evacuation orders. And my wife, Chris, and I were grateful (and proud) to live in a community where neighbors eagerly help each other — sometimes before tending to their own homes — and manage to stay upbeat amid downed trees and power lines.
We were also happy we took the following steps before, during and after Matthew’s wrath. You should consider doing the same when Mother Nature goes wild in your parts.
Stock up. Fresh batteries, flashlights, water and nonperishable food are no-brainers. Overlooked but important tools for hurricane/tornado/flood preparation kits include sturdy rope, tarps, waterproof duct tape, a hatchet, a multipurpose tool, and a battery-operated or crank radio. Also have ready a first-aid kit, a week’s worth of prescription medications, personal hygiene items, pillows and blankets, and a cellphone charger. There will be a run on these items (and likely shortages), so gather everything beforehand. We use a large Tupperware tub with grab-and-go convenience.
Tie down. Patio furniture, barbecue grills, potted plants, even a garden hose with a nozzle can be lethal projectiles in strong winds. Everything outdoors that we could lift was stored indoors or covered with tarp and strapped together against the least vulnerable wall.
Use water wisdom. To prepare for the predicted storm surge, we duct-taped or stapled tarps about 3 feet high against vulnerable doors and windows and placed sandbags at the crotch of the ends of the makeshift L. (Freebie bags were available, but I avoided the two-hour lines by buying bags of sand, mulch and gravel beforehand.) We emptied our pool by about 12 inches; it was lapping over the sides from rainwater when we when returned.
Avoid the paper chase. You may have mere minutes to leave, and that’s no time to be trying to collect all must-have paperwork. So before disaster strikes, collect and copy crucial documents, and keep one set of original or photocopied records in a portable file system or more secure lockbox for grab-and-go convenience if you need to evacuate. Keep a separate backup set of electronic copies (scanned or photographed from originals onto CDs, DVDs or external hard drives) in another safe location, such as a bank safe deposit box or the distant home of a trusted friend or relative. Among the documents to include are birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, passports, diplomas and military documents, Social Security card, will/estate paperwork, and photocopies of your driver’s license and the front and back of all credit cards.
Also have your home deed, car titles, medical insurance cards, prescription records and your insurance policies (or at least your policy number and contact information for your agent and insurer). To avoid possible insurance hassles, take photographs and/or a video of every room, and open drawers to show contents. Unless they are in waterproof containers, these documents should be protected with garbage bags.
Consider pets. Our pet-loving relatives welcomed our dog and two cats; some emergency evacuation shelters and hotels won’t — and emergency housing that accepts pets may require they be preregistered. Don’t forget pet supplies such as a leash, collar with tag, bowls, carriers, cat litter and pan, and favorite toys. Also, ask your veterinarian about prescribing meds such as alprazolam, trazodone and acepromazine to calm storm-skiddish pets.
Be smart with your smartphone. We relied on regular tweets from our county emergency services agency and utility provider, and shared and received from enlisted neighbors text updates about road and bridge conditions, boil-water alerts and the like. Our impromptu messaging started with concern for and by our friends, but it quickly encompassed crucial information about traffic, utility service and overall conditions, so we all knew what to expect when we returned. Our always-charged phone was also invaluable to let distant loved ones know we were safe.
Take a break. There’s only so much bad news you can take, especially in situations you can’t control. Breaking away every few hours from dire forecasts on the Weather Channel and local news by going on brisk walks, sharing family photos and watching cable movies in a storm-free zone worked wonders.
Give thanks; get thanks. We knew that refrigerated contents would spoil, so we put meats, dairy, frozen food and other perishable items into a giant cooler, which we brought to our welcoming cross-state cousins. On the return trip, we surrounded perishables in the cooler with bags of ice (and filled much of my pickup bed with extra water), assuming these necessities would be unavailable to those back home. It was the best $30 we spent in a while; just ask my neighbors.
Don’t overdo it. Post-disaster cleanup is long, hard work, so don’t do too much too soon. Knowing that hospital ERs tend to fill up quickly after a storm has ended, Chris and I worked until the first signs of fatigue, then cooled off in the pool or by driving around to enjoy our vehicle’s AC and to recharge our cellphone battery. A natural disaster is bad enough; you don’t need a medical disaster.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life and more than a dozen other books, covers consumer and health issues for AARP Media.