A Guide to Surviving Flash Floods, Tornadoes, Hurricanes, Heat Waves, Snowstorms, Tsunamis, and Other Natural Disasters
By Bonnie Schneider
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Bonnie Schneider
All rights reserved.
At 2:30 a.m. on Monday, August 29, 2005, the blast of the telephone ringing woke 47-year-old Mary Theriot of Chalmette, Louisiana, from a deep sleep.
"Mary! It's Rose. I'm in Mobile, watching this storm on TV, and it's gettin' real bad! They're sayin' it's headed straight for you in N'awlins."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! Whatever you do, don't go back to sleep. Wake up! Are you ready if it hits?"
"Yes, hang on Rose," Mary told her friend. "I'm up. I'm going to take the phone downstairs with me and make some coffee. Don't worry, I'm not going back to sleep."
They talked a little longer, and then the phone abruptly cut off at 3 a.m. The lines were dead. Power was out.
For hours, Mary watched in the dark outside her kitchen window. Her husband, Joe, and her 11-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, were asleep.
The wind was getting stronger. It was howling loudly through the glass. Large trees had been completely uprooted and were lying in the yard. Some were on top of cars. At around 8 a.m., there was enough light to go out back and check on things. Trash and lawn chairs were everywhere. Even though they had no power, it wasn't so bad, Mary thought. Things could have been worse.
Looking past downed trees and power lines, Mary noticed an old pickup truck in her neighbor's yard that was now drenched in muddy water. The water level was halfway up the tire. She surveyed the damage to other neighbors' homes on her street.
Then Mary brought her gaze back to that pickup. It had been only a few minutes, but now the water covered all four tires and was almost at the hood of the car.
"Cheyenne, get Joe!" Mary called to her daughter. "We are fixin' to flood and flood bad!"
Mary's heart was racing. Once inside the house, the three of them frantically started picking things up off the floor. Pictures, books, and anything they could grab went on high shelves or on top of the refrigerator. Water began to seep in from under the walls. Mary looked out the front door; the porch they'd been standing on moments ago was no longer visible. All she could see was that brown, oily water. Mary felt herself panicking.
"Hurry!" she yelled. They worked faster gathering what they could. Cheyenne climbed up the ladder to the attic. Mary grabbed her cat Sasha and handed her up to Cheyenne. But where was Otis? Mary had rescued both cats and considered them her babies. Otis was hiding in the closet. Mary scooped him up, her hands squeezing his wet paws.
"Bless his heart! He's scared out of his mind!"
By Wednesday morning, the water had receded enough for officials to drive into their neighborhood. A local police officer arrived to announce a mandatory evacuation. He told Mary that her family pets were not allowed at the shelter unless they were very small and caged. The cage for Mary's two cats was too large to carry. She'd have to leave Sasha and Otis behind. Before leaving, Mary set out plenty of food and water for her beloved cats. Joe knocked out a window screen so the animals could get out if they had to. Mary had raised Sasha and Otis from the time they were kittens, and she felt like she was leaving part of her family behind.
The weather was hot and humid. Carrying what they could of their belongings in garbage bags, the family eventually found their way to a shelter. Days later, they finally made contact with Joe's relatives. They then went to Joe's family home in Assumption Parish, where they could rest and recover. It would be months before they would return home to Chalmette.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, it came in as a Category 3 storm, with the eye passing east of New Orleans. This meant the strongest winds, those found in the northeastern quadrant, didn't hit Louisiana. Mississippi saw much worse wind damage.
One of the biggest problems was the overtopping and breaching of the levees. In New Orleans, there were at least 50 levee failures after Katrina hit: water overtopped some levees completely; others just broke down. The failure of the levees released billions of gallons of water into the city and surrounding areas.
In Mary Theriot's town of Chalmette, only about a mile east of the Lower Ninth Ward, a 15- to 19-foot surge of water flooded the town through the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Chalmette was completely underwater and remained that way well after the storm had passed. Many of the homes and buildings were permanently destroyed.
Mary and her family lived with relatives for two months. Wondering what had become of the cats, Mary went back home the first time briefly in September, and found her cat Sasha, but not Otis. In November, the Theriot family set out to Chalmette for the second time since Katrina. On this trip back to Chalmette, Mary had given up on seeing Otis again. She didn't even bother taking his cage with her this time.
The Theriot family drove into their old neighborhood in Chalmette. They were turning off Delille Street and making a left onto West Moreau when they saw him. The cat was stretched out on the sunny driveway of the home of one of their old neighbors. Mary swung the passenger door open before Joe could even hit the brakes.
"Otis!" she screamed, rushing toward him. "Otis! My God! There you are!"
Joe screeched the car to a halt. Cheyenne jumped out. Otis was alive! He was safe. They were all safe. They lost their possessions, lost their home, but they were safe. They survived Hurricane Katrina.
AS HURRICANES DEVELOP FROM RELATIVELY SMALL clusters of thunderstorms, they may initially be categorized as tropical depressions, with sustained wind speeds of 38 mph or less, or tropical storms, with sustained wind speeds of 39 to 73 mph. These events might not boast the extreme wind speeds that hurricanes do, but don't write them off. Tropical depressions and tropical storms can do plenty of damage from flooding and wind, particularly if they are slow-moving. The longer a storm lingers over a given area, the more rain it can produce and the higher the likelihood that the region will experience flooding.
Though you might think the monumental force of 100 mph+ winds would be the most deadly effect of hurricanes, flooding is the leading killer in hurricanes. That is particularly true on the coast, where storm surge, an abnormal rise in water generated by a storm, can occur.
Even if you don't live or vacation directly in a coastal area, hurricanes can still affect you. Strong hurricanes can cause flooding well inland from where the storm makes landfall. They also can spawn tornadoes and severe thunderstorms far from the coast.
The National Hurricane Center issues the advisories on tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and East Pacific Basins. Understanding the difference between these advisories could save your life. Note that a hurricane warning poses more of an immediate threat than a hurricane watch. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, a hurricane watch is issued 48 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of these dangerous winds. A hurricane warning is issued 36 hours in advance.
Hurricane Watch: An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are possible within the specified area.
Hurricane Warning: An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are expected within the specified area.
Tropical Storm Watch: An announcement that sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph are possible within the specified area within 48 hours.
Tropical Storm Warning: An announcement that sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph are expected somewhere within the specified coastal area within 36 hours.
THE SAFFIR-SIMPSON HURRICANE WIND SCALE
In order to be fully prepared, it's advisable to learn the way public officials classify hurricanes and the potential damage they can bring. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale evaluates hurricane winds and their projected damage using a 1 to 5 categorization based on the hurricane's intensity at the indicated time. The Saffir-Simpson Scale has been used to alert the public to land-falling hurricanes since 1973. It was updated in 2010 to include more specific information. In general, damage rises by a factor of four for every category increase.
WHEN DO HURRICANES OCCUR?
The time of year when hurricanes are most likely to occur varies depending on where you are in the world. Hurricanes tend to occur in the summer and early fall months, when ocean waters are warm enough to fuel monster storms. Hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin and the Central Pacific Basin runs from June 1 to November 30. For the Eastern Pacific Basin, the season runs from May 15 to November 30. The Atlantic Basin includes the Atlantic Ocean, Carribean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. The Eastern Pacific Basin extends to longitude 140° W.
Precautions for hurricane season should be taken well before June 1, according to agencies like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and NOAA.
HOW TO PREPARE YOUR HOME FOR HURRICANE SEASON
It's advised that you prepare before for hurricane season before it starts. You should have your Family Disaster Plan and Emergency Disaster Supply Kit ready and accessible. (Details on how to make a plan and build a kit are found in Chapter 13 of this book.)
Have your NOAA weather radio powered up and set to alert mode during the threat of any severe weather; have it on even while you sleep. Most weather radios have the ability to "wake up" and alert you when an advisory has been issued for your area.
Know your area. Familiarize yourself with your home's location in terms of vulnerability to storm surge and wind, especially with routes you can take if you have to evacuate.
Secure your property. Clear the outside of any potential debris. Secure windows with permanent storm shutters. Masking tape does not prevent windows from breaking.
Install straps or additional clips to securely fasten your roof to the frame structure. This will reduce roof damage.
Clear loose and clogged rain gutters and downspout and turn off propane tanks.
Fill empty bottles with water for drinking. Disinfect your bathtub and fill it with water for bathing or to flush the toilet if you have to.
Make sure all family members know how to turn off water, gas, and electricity and how to dial 911.
(More information on food and water storage supplies can be found in Chapter 14.)
Strengthen garage doors. Hurricane winds can enter through a damaged garage door, lift the roof, and destroy the home.
Keep your car filled with gas in case you have to leave suddenly.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU LIVE IN A MOBILE HOME
Before a storm, check tie-downs for rust and breakage. Make sure they are as secure as possible.
Mobile homes can be destroyed or sustain serious damage even in a Category 1 Hurricane (sustained winds 74 to 110 mph) This is particularly true for mobile homes constructed before 1994. These homes are not completely safe in even minimal strength hurricanes or tropical storms.
Evacuate as soon as possible when told to do so by local authorities.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU LIVE IN A HIGH-RISE APARTMENT OR CONDO
Keep in mind that winds are stronger at higher elevations.
Condo owners should consider investing in storm shutters or impact-resistant glass for doors and windows.
Make sure all exits are clearly marked in the hallways.
Memorize where the stairs are in case the hall goes dark from loss of power.
Never take the elevator in an emergency situation; use the stairs.
If you have a balcony or terrace, secure all items on it. They can become airborne and damage your apartment or your neighbors'.
Make sure your renter's or condo's insurance policy is up-to-date.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE HOME WHEN A HURRICANE STRIKES
Have your NOAA radio close, along with a supply of batteries, turned on for an update every 15 to 30 minutes. Hurricanes can take hours to pass, and your weather radio is your best source of information during the storm.
Stay indoors during the hurricane and away from windows, skylights, and glass doors.
Close all interior doors — secure and brace external doors.
Take refuge in a small interior room, closet, or hallway on the lowest level. Make sure your Emergency Disaster Supply Kit (contents detailed in Chapter 14) is easily accessible.
Lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object.
Do not be tempted to look out the window or walk outside during the storm to see what's going on; you could be injured by flying debris.
At some point, you may hear the wind quiet down. This may be the "eye of the hurricane" passing over. The brief, calm period is followed by the back side of the "eye wall," which also contains extremely high winds.
Do not use any electronic devices, including your phone or computer. A NOAA Weather Radio should be used, as it's battery operated.
IMMEDIATE ACTIONS TO TAKE AFTER THE STORM
Wait until you hear official word (over your NOAA radio) that the storm is over.
If you are returning after an evacuation, make sure the building is structurally safe to enter before you go inside.
Survey the property; be mindful of downed trees and wires.
Check for exterior structural damage.
Before you go inside, FEMA advises the following precautions. Do not enter if:
You smell gas.
Floodwaters remain around the building.
Your home was damaged by fire and the authorities have not declared it safe.
When you go inside your home, there are certain things you should and should not do. Enter the home carefully and check for damage. Be aware of loose boards and slippery floors. The following items are other things to check inside your home:
Natural gas. If you smell gas or hear a hissing or blowing sound, open a window and leave immediately. If you can, turn off the main gas valve from the outside. Call the gas company from a neighbor's residence. If you shut off the gas supply at the main valve, you will need a professional to turn it back on. Do not smoke or use oil, gas lanterns, candles, or torches for lighting inside a damaged home until you are sure there is no leaking gas or other flammable materials present.
Sparks or broken or frayed wires. Check the electrical system unless you are wet, standing in water, or unsure of your safety. If possible, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If the situation is unsafe, leave the building and call for help. Do not turn on the lights until you are sure they're safe to use. You may want to have an electrician inspect your wiring.
Roof, foundation, and chimney cracks. If it looks like the building may collapse, leave immediately.
Appliances. If appliances are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Then unplug appliances and let them dry out. Have appliances checked by a professional before using them again. Also have the electrical system checked by an electrician before turning the power back on.
Water and sewage systems. If pipes are damaged, turn off the main water valve. Check with local authorities before using any water; the water could be contaminated. Pump out wells and have the water tested by authorities before drinking. Do not flush toilets until you know that sewage lines are intact.
Food and other supplies. Throw out all food and other supplies that you suspect may have become contaminated or have come into contact with floodwater.
Your basement. If your basement has flooded, pump it out gradually (about one-third of the water per day) to avoid damage. The walls may collapse and the floor may buckle if the basement is pumped out while the surrounding ground is still waterlogged.
Open cabinets. Be alert for objects that may fall.
Clean up household chemical spills. Disinfect items that may have been contaminated by raw sewage, bacteria, or chemicals. Also clean salvageable items.
Call your insurance agent. Keep good records of repair and cleaning costs.
If there is no light when you return, use a flashlight, not candles, to see what you are doing. Once you can see well and begin the cleanup process, take pictures of all the damage to your home and belongings for insurance purposes.
HOW TO PROTECT YOUR PETS WHEN A HURRICANE HITS
Hundreds of animals lose their lives in hurricanes every year. If you're a pet owner, be sure to be prepared as to how you would take care of your pet in the wake of a life-threatening storm, before hurricane season starts.
The first thing to do is make sure your Emergency Disaster Pet Supply Kit is stocked and ready. (Details on how to prepare this kit, with a complete list of items to include, can be found in Chapter 10.)
Dr. Charlotte Krugler, an emergency preparedness veterinarian at Clemson University Livestock Poultry Health, in Columbia, South Carolina, has experience dealing with animals affected by a hurricane. She treated injured animals during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. "Any change from their normal environment could be a stressor for pets," Dr. Krugler says. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Extreme Weather by Bonnie Schneider. Copyright © 2012 Bonnie Schneider. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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