Submitted July 31, 2009

Hurricane Frances showed me that I had lessons to learn

The entire month of September 2004 put my emergency preparedness to one tough test. Never mind that I was born and raised in south Florida, went through several very severe hurricanes as a kid, and listened to my Grandmother tell us hair-raising tales of how she and her family survived the killer hurricane of '28. That whole fall season was one I'd never witnessed before. South and central Florida had already been through the grinder of Hurricane Charley in mid-August. Charley hit the southwest Gulf coast as a Category 4, churning and even strengthening as it spawned tornadoes and ground through the high-ridge areas of mid-Florida all the way to Orlando. It did what no other storm had done because it transversed the entire state yet it didn't weaken. It clocked up to 70 mph hurricane force winds when it emerged on the Atlantic side two days later. That got everyone's attention even Florida natives like me. Folks were spooked and on edge by the time Frances reached the Bahamas in early September.

We are a Boy Scout family and "Be Prepared" is more than just a motto but a state of mind. Our camping supplies, patrol kitchen, extra fuel and food, serve double duty as family recreation and emergency preparedness. We keep lists of things that need restocking and renew supplies that have expired. We live two and one-half blocks from the Intracoastal Waterway. We're just one-half block from the official flood zone that is deemed an area of evacuation whenever a hurricane makes it to Category 3. We stay prepared. Nonetheless, Frances showed me that I had lessons to learn.

By the time Hurricane Frances was north of the Turks and Caicos Islands, she was big and had two well-defined concentric eyewalls. The so-called "meteorologists" on the local TV stations were doing all they could to raise the alarm. This helped to raise the general anxiety level, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the constant battering, endless video loop broadcasts of Charley's destruction, and breathless commentary also created outright panic for many. Gas stations were running low with some jacking prices through the roof. Grocery stores were by now low on water, canned goods, and toilet paper - not a good sign. Although it was a Category 2 when it appeared northwest of the Bahamas, my experience told me that most hurricanes strengthen when they roll over the Gulfstream. What really got my attention was the storm's path. We were ground zero. Frances was headed straight for my home.

We shuttered and secured the house. We got our camp supplies, personal files, laptops, clothes, extra gas, and gear then loaded up the Four-Runner, Jeep Wrangler and the dog. We headed out as the clouds swirled and turned an ugly shade of gray-green. Besides our two vehicles we were joined on the highway other members of my wife's family: her two younger brothers with their families. We were all headed to St. Pete. We left behind my wife's younger sister, her husband and their two kids.

Lesson learned: Be aware that you will probably have a larger group of folks than your immediately family to deal with.

Lesson learned: Set up some means of contacting or communicating with folks before you leave them behind (e.g., at a time-certain you will be calling or will be standing by awaiting a call).

The trip through the middle of the state was an eye-opener. Charley's vicious path had mowed down entire orange groves, denuded large stands of cypress, and wrenched roofs off of the homes and businesses that dotted the rural towns. We passed flooded pastures, fields and streams some of which were dotted with bloated carcasses of cattle. Despite the destruction, the roads were clear of debris.

Lesson learned: Don't forget the chainsaw, axe, and tow-rope in case you have to clear the way.

We made it to St. Pete and stayed glued to the television as Frances slammed into the east coast north of my home town. By the third day, Frances weakened and was heading north so we made plans to head home. We also heard from family who stayed behind. They reported the usual power outage and blocked roads. Thankfully, all were safe with no damage to their home. They were however desperate for water and ice. We headed back home on the lookout for gas (for our vehicles), and water and ice (for our family back home).

Lesson learned: Use an ice chest as one of your car bug-out containers so you can use it to store ice when needed.

Lesson learned: Keep extra (filled) gas cans in your car in case you hit empty and gas stations have no fuel or no electricity to pump fuel.

Got back home. The house was in good shape with no damage. Inside it was hot and incredibly smelly.

Lesson learned: Empty the refrigerator before you leave. Give the food away or haul it to a neighborhood dumpster. The smell from rotten food left in the fridge is sickening.

We loaded rancid food into garbage bags and put them out on the street where they continued to reek because garbage collection was not possible with so many roads blocked.

In my yard, there was a live powerline draped across the metal shed in the back of the lot. I could see that the doors of the shed were blown in. I could also see that the shed was empty. Yep, I had been looted. Gone were my yard tools, mower, edger - the whole shebang. Those must have been some motivated thieves to loot a shed that could electrocute with one wrong move. Fortunately, my generator was still in the garage next to the house and it was operational.

Lesson learned: Secure you pricey power tools in the garage or if needed in the house if you plan to evacuate.

My gasoline supply was limited, however, so we only ran the generator enough to keep ice in the freezer, phones recharged, and some fans running. The natural gas line to the house was good so we could use our stove to cook, make coffee, and wash up.

Lesson learned: Keep a good supply of gasoline on hand to run the generator.

We stayed in touch with family and touched base with friends around town. Food was never a problem and we managed to keep fuel, ice, and water stocked by organizing and taking turns traveling to distribution centers, gas stations and other outlets we learned about.

Lesson learned: Stay networked with family and those you trust so you can help them and they can help you.

We stayed busy making repairs, and listening to the radio during the day. The dog stayed busy sounding the bark-alarm at night. This happened often as the stillness of the night was magnified (there was no traffic and no electricity) with only the steady noise of neighborhood generators running. We heard tales of generators being stolen in the dead of night or gasoline siphoned from cars in the wee hours of the morning. I put my eldest in charge of erecting a scarecrow every night that looked like a man sitting in a lawn chair. Besides my dog and the scarecrow, the only deterrent I had against looters and two-legged scum at the time was a machete and a baseball bat. Later on, we learned about an elderly woman who had been robbed at gunpoint in her home just north of our neighborhood.

Lesson learned: Have loaded weapons at the ready and know how to handle them so that you can deter and, if necessary, absolutely stop any threat.

After just 20 days, Hurricane Jeanne looped around the Bahamas and came ashore at the identical spot Frances struck. This time we stayed. My lessons were well learned. Even though Jeanne was wetter, made for a longer lasting power outage and filled the roads with even more debris, we hunkered down and survived.

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