Hurricanes are one of the few disasters for which you can anticipate some warning. Thanks to today’s advanced satellite tracking, we often get at least three days notice when a hurricane is heading towards land fall, and often four or five. A prudent survivalist will make the most of this time. Compared to the three minute warning you may receive in a tornado, three days is a huge amount of time to prepare and even someone who has done no previous planning can get into pretty decent shape in 72 hours.
If your home is near the shore and the rising surf is threatening, or you appear to be in the direct course of the hurricane, you may be better off evacuating to higher ground. Keep in mind that the storm surge and wind damage may be limited to areas near the shore, but heavy rain and subsequent flooding can result in an emergency situation sometimes hundreds of mile inland. Few areas are capable of handling 12 or 15 inches of rain in a four to six-hour period. Heavy rain from hurricanes and tropical storms has caused mudslides, washed out roads, flooded creeks, streams and rivers, generated damaging lighting strikes and even spawned tornadoes hundreds of miles inland.
Whether or not you choose to evacuate, you must prepare your home to withstand the tremendous structural damage that can be caused by heavy winds, falling trees and objects hurled through windows. Once a window is broken, the power of the hurricane can actually blow the roof off the top of the structure!
Hurricanes cause damage in multiple ways: high winds, flooding, downed trees and utility poles, and storm surges. The farther in-land your location, the less you have to worry about storm surges and you can hope the power of the hurricane will have diminished by the time it reaches you, so pick your location carefully and build with hurricane damage remediation in mind. Flooding can happen hundreds of miles from the shore as hurricane remnants dump many inches of rain in an area.
To protect yourself and your property, invest in plywood or commercial hurricane shutters to cover your windows well before hurricane season. (Captain Dave recommends clear hurricane shutters, which are made from tough polycarbonate and allow light to enter the window, unlike their steel and aluminum counterparts. Of course, any hurricane shutter is better than no hurricane shutter.)If you decided to stay in your home during a hurricane, you should identify an interior room with no windows to serve as your safe room. If you plan far enough in advance, you can reinforce the room with 2×6 boards or otherwise construct a cage to protect you from fallen trees, caved-in walls or other storm damage. Move whatever survival supplies you will need into the room, especially a battery powered light and radio.
If you build in hurricane-prone areas, be sure you are using the latest construction techniques designed to withstand hurricanes and consider designs intended to mitigate hurricane damage. For example, houses can be built on pilings to avoid storm surge or flooding, and houses can be designed with heavy shutters in place. Captain Dave has seen shutters built from 2×6 wood and steel hardware. They are decorative and relatively unobtrusive until needed.
Here are some steps to take if a hurricane is heading your way and you plan to stay home:
- Make one last trip to the store to pick up food and emergency supplies, including bottled water, propane, batteries and anything that is not already included in your emergency stash. Remember, it is better to have too much than too little.Fill your car’s tank with gasoline.
- Fill at least one spare five-gallon plastic container with gasoline. (If power goes out, gasoline pumps do not work.)If you own a boat, remove it from the water and secure it in a covered location, if possible and if time allows.
- If you have a generator, make sure it is in good working order and that you know where the extension cords are. Start it up and run it for at least half an hour. Stale gas is one of the most common reasons generators do not start. If it has been stored with gas in the tank, you may need to drain it and make minor repairs before it will work. It is better to do this before the hurricane than afterwards.
- Make sure you have plenty of oil and supplies for the generator and power tools such as chain saws. Important accessories can be replacement chains and blades, chain sharpeners, spark plugs, air filters, etc. Ensure you have fresh gasoline available for both. Premix some saw gas.
- Similarly, if you have a Coleman stove, lamp or similar device that you expect to use after the storm, ensure that it is in good working order. A warm meal or even a hot cup of coffee or cocoa can work wonders during an emergency situation.
- If you have a sump pump, check it and ensure it is fully functional.
- Hang your hurricane shutters or screw plywood over all the windows. This includes small, decorative widows such as those commonly found in and next to entry doors. Plywood often sells out before a hurricane, so it is best to have yours ahead of time. You can cut it, pre-drill it, and label it for each window in advance so that actual assembly takes place quickly.
- Remove anything from the yard that may be blown about by the high winds. This includes your barbecue grill, patio furniture, hanging or potted plants, trash cans, bug zapper, tiki torches, pet dishes and toys, garden hoses, lawnmowers and other lawn and garden equipment, children’s toys, and anything else that is not firmly anchored to the ground. An 80-mph wind can pick up that trashcan or lawn chair and toss it right through your house.
- Examine the trees in your yard and immediate area surrounding your house. Identify any dead or damaged limbs and remove them so they do not blow down during the store. This can also be done before hurricane season.
- Park your car in the garage or another location where you think it will be safe from falling trees and limbs. Avoid low lying areas prone to flooding.
- Take some “before” pictures to show insurance claims agents. This will show the condition of your house before the storm and the extent of your preparations.
- Move items away from entryways, basement and other areas prone to flooding.
- Fill plastic bottles with water and store in your freezer. Once they freeze, they will help keep your fridge and freezer cold if the power goes out as well as provide an additional source of water when they thaw.
- Charge your cell phones and any spare batteries. Charge any other devices that use rechargeable batteries. Even power tool batteries should be fully charged as they may be needed after the emergency.
- Create your safe room in an area that has few or no windows or external walls and is not going to flood in heavy rains. Keep in mind that an interior hallway may be your best safe “room.” Pre-position your supplier there, including first aid kit, medical supplies, flashlights, etc. Make sure there’s a TV and battery powered radio in the room as well as comfortable seating and blankets and pillows. Books and non-electric games or other method of entertainment is also a good idea as you may be stuck in your safe room for quite a few hours.
- If your home is prone to flooding, move what you can out of the flood zone. Carry things up from the basement or up from the main floor into the upstairs or attic.
- Ensure that all your important papers are in a protected area, and/or are sealed in waterproof containers or zip-lock bags. Contact information for insurance companies and contractors with whom you have worked in the past should also be in your safe room.
- As the storm approaches, bring in all pets. Any farm animals should be in their barn, which should be sealed up completely. Ensure they have an adequate supply of food and water.
- Fill up spare water vessels and containers before the power is shut off or the municipal water supply is contaminated.
- If your home uses propane, consider turning off the valve at the tank to prevent leaks if the wind blows over your tank of your gas lines are damaged in the storm. Make sure your propane tank is properly secured.
- Brace any exterior doors, especially double doors. Close all interior doors in the home. Make sure your garage door is locked and or braced/reinforced. If you have an attached garage, lock the door between your garage and the house.
- During the storm, remember that the eye is only a lull in the storm and that it will strengthen again. It may appear that the storm has passed, but it is only half over. Stay in your safe room as the eye passes over. If you hear things breaking in another room, do not go and investigate. Keep the doors to your safe room closed for your safety. Come out when the radio gives the all clear or when you can tell from the noise level that the storm has completely passed.
After the hurricane has passed, you need to assess the damage, try to get an idea of how long your life will be disrupted, and affect what clean up and repairs are possible given the situation and tools at hand. Here is a simple list for after the storm:
- Be sure your house is safe and that you are not endangering yourself by staying there. Examine your roof and walls for structural integrity. If part of your house has collapsed or blown away, you probably need to evacuate or relocate until an engineer is able to determine whether any of it is livable. Keep in mind that your municipality may condemn or declare your home unlivable.
- Use caution and common sense. Look for downed wires and mark the area to keep others out. Just because the storm is over does not mean the danger is. Be careful and don’t do foolish things.
- Avoid flooded areas. If you do not need to walk through floodwaters, don’t. You don’t know how deep they are, what is under them or what is in them. You may be exposing yourself to chemicals, oil residue, or bacteria, all of which can be hazardous to your health.
- If there is local flooding, beware of snakes and other wildlife that may have crawled onto your land for safety.
- Determine what utilities are working. It’s easy to tell if the electricity is off, but what about the gas, phone service, cable, and the water? Listen to the radio to determine if you need to boil the tap water or turn off your gas main.
- Use your eyes, experience, and radio reports to determine how long the recovery effort will take.
- Start making a list of damaged items, such as damage to the house and any outbuildings, missing roofing shingles, broken widows, crushed fencing, vehicle damage, etc. Take photos, if possible. If phones are working, contact your insurance company’s claims department and file a preliminary report.
- Make what repairs you can to prevent further damage. For example, if your roof has a hole in it, put a tarp over it or hammer a piece of plywood over it. Your insurance company will probably not pay for subsequent damage that you could have prevented by timely action on your part. At the very least, make a good faith effort using the materials and resources available to prevent further damage.
- Consider contacting loved ones who may be concerned about you and updating them on your status.
- If power will be back on in 24 hours, you may not want to bother hooking up your generator. If you do hook it up, never use your generator inside and always be sure the exhaust is pointed away from the house. Be sure it is hooked up correctly and that your electrical service is disconnected at the meter. You don’t want to send a charge down the line.
- If you need generator power, do not run it 24 x 7. Ration your power by running it a few hours in the morning and a few hours at night. This will be enough to cool the refrigerator, cook some meals, take a shower, watch the local news and do whatever else you need to do. Remember, your gas supply is limited; generators are noisy and may aggravate or make your neighbors jealous. The noise will also attract thieves who may want to steal your generator.
- Never use a charcoal grill, barbecue, or other open flame inside. A properly installed wood stove or fireplace with a chimney is another story as long as no damage from the storm has blocked the chimney or flue. Inadequate ventilation can result in carbon monoxide poisoning. Cook on your patio, driveway or other outside area if you have to use the propane grill.
- Maintain good hygiene and treat all minor injuries quickly to prevent infection. See our section on sanitation and first aid.
- Avoid dangerous confrontations if possible, but keep an eye out for looters and opportunists. Consider going armed to protect yourself and your family.
- Affect what clean up and repairs you can with the tools at hand.
- Help your neighbors to the extent possible given your limited resources. Share your supplies if it will not significantly diminish your survival capabilities.
Please note that there is an entire section of Captain Dave’s Survival Center dedicated to hurricanes and lessons learned from Katrina.