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Of hurricanes, hubris and hot water

This post is both my own experiences of living through Hurricane Irene on Sunday, 8/29/11, and a few thoughts about what is truly dangerous and what kills people in this type of storm. Most of the “news” clippings below are deaths from Hurricane Irene. These dramatic photos are all Hurricane Irene today, in Western MA (and one from Southern VT). I hope they give you cause for sober reflection when news reports say “It was all overblown!” Let’s be careful out there, those of us on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. Even as the sun shines, most of the dangers of a hurricane happen AFTER the winds and rains die down.

Dr. K


"That Road is closed, Lady." Credit: Bridget Lilly

I was at a wedding of a dear friend yesterday, far north of my home, and returned later than we planned. We knew we were racing against Hurricane Irene, but somehow, the gorgeous weather all day on Saturday, which made my friends’ wedding picture perfect, lulled us into believing that no real danger was possible.

That was my “feeling.”

I “felt” safe, although I intellectually realized that high winds and heavy rain could, indeed, do damage.

The rain was steady, sometimes heavy, but the tropical force wind never materialized as we drove, lulling us into a false sense of security. We passed several downed trees of considerable size, on the interstate, and they blocked one of the two lanes. They were taken down not by wind, but by the amount of rain we were getting. We were able to get around both of them. We stuck to the highway for most of our travels, but closer to home, we stopped to get gas, and chose the “faster” route home, over the “highway” route.


Richardson's Candy Kitchen - Deerfield, MA "The town where we got gas today." Credit: Taylor Williams

Remember, we were out to “beat” Irene. We were rewarded with a washed out road and a flooded downtown of one small village. We retraced our steps and re-routed to the interstate once again.

Getting home in a rural area doesn’t lend itself to unlimited choices. There are “main roads” and there are “back roads.” And I mean “back:” deep woods and bad dirt roads that would leave you stranded and flooded out, with downed trees and mudslides. In truth, I had no idea how “bad” the reality actually was.


Colrain St. (the street is under water) - Greenfield, MA.: What Can Happen on Our "Back Roads"

Only 45 minutes from our home, we were turned away again, as the river overflowed its banks onto the main road. Each detour brought us closer and closer to the hurricane’s “center” for our area, as we drove south. We made another two stops, consulting with road crews and police, when downed electrical poles and flooding once again blocked our path. There was a downed power line, and while DH told me to “pull farther over,” I thought we were well clear of his walking on the electric wire. Now I wasn’t so sure. During our final stop for flashing lights we could see the road closing up, sinking under the rising water. Lucky for us, while the cop and the road crew disagreed, we were finally allowed to slip through, as it was still somewhat passable, although just about to close to traffic.

As we turned each corner, we were fully aware that a tree limb or power line could prevent us from arriving home. We had two downed electrical poles on our street alone, during our last 5-day power outage. We forgot the rain ponchos and the Wellingtons, of course, and even so, walking in a hurricane, through forested roads, isn’t the brightest idea.


On My Way Back Home - Rt 9 - Williamsburg, Ma Photo: John Warriner

That “good feeling” turned to deep, profound anxiety.

From “Modern Petroleum Homo Sapien” we became the “Saps” in Homo Sapien. It was a “thinning of the herd” moment, when you realize that you’re the one being tested for possible thinning for your poor timing or lack of wits. “Why the hell are you not at home during a hurricane!?!…” I heard a voice shout in my head. I kept thinking all about the wind. DH and I were focused on the wind.

We aren’t alone.

As I’ve written earlier, your mental maps can kill you.

Eighty-one percent of those surveyed about hurricanes perceive their wind risk to be medium or high while 42% perceive their flood risk to be so. In other words, we think wind dangerous, but we tend to critically underestimate the dangers of flooding.


No Passage - Dunbar Brook - Monroe Bridge, MA

Our vegetables were harvested and the land was picked up of all projectiles. We drove in our heaviest car. But what we had completely underestimated was the sheer power of water. Too much water. Surging all around us. Water tipping over trees and power lines. It had washed away or flooded the roads we desperately needed to use to get home. Many of these washed-out roads had no safety officials to send us away. The road wasn’t closed. We’d just be driving along, and suddenly, no road would be ahead of us.

On Hot Water and Dirty Dishes

Our home was in darkness when we arrived, and again, the problem was water. Hot water. While most often reliable, DD had forgotten to do the dishes, and she was worried and relieved when we walked in. So were we. It was so dark out, it looked to be 7:30 pm, although it was only 1 pm. We had been on the road 5 hours for a trip that should have taken half as long, but now we were home. All of the cleaning and tidying was easier to do in pale sunlight than pitch dark, so a new race was on.

DH and I had lived without electricity in the dead of winter for five days, and we knew how to function that way. We have a well, but the pump that brings water to us is still electric. One of our next purchases will be a “Simple Pump,” that allows us to pump and therefore access our own water. We had put up water for drinking and for washing before we left, and now we had to heat that water to do the dishes or as bath (-like) water. Folks in the year 1900 would have given an eye tooth for a bath full of delightfully hot water, and I know why. After heating water on a stovetop to pore in a tub, and finding the right balance between “scalding” and “cold,” you’ve got what, about 8 minutes to wash and get out of the water?


Downtown Brattleboro, VT Credit: Doug Gordon

We kept “drinking” water separated from the “washing” or “waste” water, (we are looking for a good whole house filter) and these needed to be clearly marked. Toilets can flush with a rush of water when the pump stops. It hits the toilet after running through the kitchen to clean the dishes. Water is never wasted when you have no electricity. (The most hated household task before running water was cleaning clothes, because of all the lugging of water…)


Clesson Brook Road - Buckland, MA Credit: Sarah Blinn

Any task is made tougher without water, but especially hot running water. But starting out with a dirty house makes a tough job even tougher. One of my friends argues that hygiene standards degrade during hard times, and while that may be true, it should be the opposite. When disasters strike, keeping things clean and sanitary should become an even GREATER priority, because the risk of infection increases. If you are forewarned about upcoming trouble, take the time to clean the dishes, do the laundry and tidy as well as bring in needed supplies including daily medication. Being without hot running water is no time to discover a moldy fridge. Without electricity, you’ll be fighting that problem anyway, so there’s no need to give mold a running head start.

My freezers were filled with bags of ice, ready for the electrical loss, but my kitchen was a mess–dirty dishes, counters, sink, wash basin, cutting boards and island. Even the containers that filter our water were less than stellar. Doing this sort of cleaning without plenty of hot water was a real chore. And it requires a lot more in the way of dish towels, and even the drawer that usually had plenty, turned up meager pickings. Without running water and electricity, the modern housekeeper is sent back to the 1860′s-1890′s.

The electricity returned just as I put the last (grimy) cold-water washed glass in the strainer. The hot water immediately pored from the tap, and I rewashed them with considerable satisfaction. Dish towels went into the washing machine, and the kitchen was once again spotless in no time. But here’s what I was left to think about: Much of surviving or staying safe during a natural disaster is the work you do well in advance. The gutters you repaired and used the right nails to secure, so they won’t blow off. The propane tanks you filled last month. The car wipers that were replaced and the tires that have tread. The extra month’s supply of medicines you got from your MD, so you don’t have to run to the pharmacy today, even if you have just a few pills left in the current month’s prescription. Your larder.

And, of course, the time you spent considering that “nature” is not your “friend” and is not invested in keeping you alive, if you do not respect the sheer magnitude of its force, is time well spent. Hubris is deadly, as is ignorance.

One set of actions that we did years before, that we’ve never regretted is having the trees cut down around our home, made it easier to survive this challenge, with one less threat to our safety. But we had to think beyond just “wind damage” and onto the other types of problems that hurricanes present.

Most of the injuries and deaths that come from hurricanes are preventable, but these actions require foresight:

TRAVEL

  • Do as I say, not as I do. Stop trying to play “chicken” with natural disasters. Get off the road. Too many people are just too ill-informed about the power of a raging surge of water.
    • Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling. Without sonar or a ruler, you can’t “tell” how deep the water is in the middle of that “puddle.” Don’t risk it.
    • A foot of water will float many vehicles.
    • Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including sport utility vehicles (SUV’s) and pick-ups.

Woodard St. - Greenfield, MA Credit: Dave Sherman

Puerto Rico: A 62-year-old woman was killed as she tried to cross a river in her car and was swept away, Melina Simeonides, a spokeswoman for the commonwealth’s emergency management agency, said in a phone interview.

New Jersey: The body of a 20-year-old woman was recovered from a gray Honda Accord in floodwaters in Pilesgrove, 35 miles (56 kilometers) southeast of Philadelphia, said Sergeant Brian Polite, a spokesman for the state police. A diver found the woman in the submerged car about 150 feet off of Route 40 at 9:30 a.m. local time, eight hours after she had phoned her boyfriend and police to report she was “up to her neck” in water, Polite said at a news conference. Emergency crews who were looking for that woman rescued another stranded motorist, Polite said.


Car is Under Water in Downtown Charlemont

Today, one of my neighbors told of the rising river lifting and floating her neighbor’s horse trailer down the river behind her house…

DOWNED TREES AND LIMBS


A tree falls on a roof in Holyoke, MA Credit: Linda

  • Deaths resulting from trees and tree limbs collapsing on roofs can be prevented by cutting down trees over-hanging or too close to the house. It costs a ton of cash to remove trees, and it is not a job for amateurs, but the lives you save after cutting down that old dying majestic elm in your front yard, could be your own. Or your child’s. And you can use it to heat your home, if you have a wood-burning stove. The Weather-Resilient Garden: A Defensive Approach to Planning & Landscaping, by Charles W. G. Smith is chock full of defensive landscaping for many types of natural disasters, and defensive cutting of trees for forest fires (what I thought would be our greatest danger) turned out to be a great plan for hurricanes too.

Maryland: A woman was killed in Queen Anne’s County after a tree fell on a house, collapsing the chimney, said Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the state emergency management agency.

Connecticut: One fatality has been reported, after an unidentified senior citizen died in a house fire caused by a falling tree limb in the town of Prospect, according to Lieutenant P.J. Conway, a fire department spokesman.

Newport News, Va: an 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree crashed into his apartment building, said Kim Lee, a spokeswoman for the city.

ELECTRICUTION

  • After the storm has dissipated, hurricanes still kill. One of the greatest risks come from fallen power lines. People don’t have to actually touch them to be injured. People can be badly burned even if they are standing a distance away, because the wet ground can transmit electricity from the wires.
CLEAN-UP

Dale Gauding, a spokesman for Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk, Va, said:

”We see injuries as people go outside on ladders and try to clean up. These are people who use chain saws only once a year, and suddenly they are getting themselves hurt.

Losing power, or trying to replace the wonders of electricity, or power your home another way, also causes injury and death.

HYPERTHERMIA

    • The summer heat can cause hyperthermia after days without electricity to run fans or air conditioners. Hyperthermia can be a big problem, especially for children and the elderly, as people wait in upper floors of tenements for electricity to return, and air conditioners to start up again. Learning the signs and treatments for hyperthermia can be a lifesaver.

CARBON MONOXIDE

  • The risks of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning goes up after a hurricane, as people run portable generators after losing electricity, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. More than 80 people die from generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning every year. Install carbon monoxide alarms outside sleeping area and on every level of the home to protect against poisoning. They are cheap protection. Change the alarms’ batteries every year, on your birthday, so you remember.
  • The safest way to set up a generator is on a permanent concrete slab, at least 50 yards from the house, secured with a metal chain, but like cutting down trees, this takes money and planning ahead. Many are fearful that their generator will get stolen, so choose, instead, to run them in their basements or garages. Even running them next to your house is a bad idea.
  • CO is odorless and colorless, and it can kill in minutes. Of those that pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning, one-third die, and another third have permanent injuries.

BORED CHILDREN

Bring out the board games and card games for bored children, and take time to play them with your kids. Expect some “electronic entertainment device withdrawal.” This can last hours or even a day or two, with whining and demanding their computer and X-Box “fix.” Be sure to demonstrate that they “don’t work without electricity” and make it a teaching moment after they calm down from their protests. Explain that now you need their help to keep the family running smoothly. Keep them busy with necessary age-appropriate tasks that have to get done. Then give them “you time.” What’s amazing is that we learned the last time we went without electrical juice, that we all calmed down a bit more, and came together (esp. in the winter to keep warm) all in the same room. We started to engaged in fun activities that don’t seem so fun when the power is on. We played board games and did puzzles. We made jewelry and sang songs. Even a jaded late teen got into the groove because it went on so long, and was “almost sorry” that the power came back on. I know what he meant.

But not everyone can imagine living even a day without power…

After days without electricity to power the TV — when laptop batteries are long dead — people sometimes fire up generators simply to fuel their home entertainment systems, says Caroline Fife, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, more than half the patients treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at a Houston hospital had turned on the generator to power TV or video games, according to her 2009 report in Pediatrics.

Parents may be especially tempted to power up video equipment if they worry that it’s too dangerous to let kids play outside because of debris or fallen power lines, Fife says.

…five people between the ages of 14 and 54 were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, after being found in the 600 block of Greendale Road, Glenview fire officials told TribLocal. The victims, identified by Patch.com as the Sulski family, were taken to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.

Their generator was operating in a garage, and should have been outside, Habermehl reported. Fire officials believe the fumes seeped into the family’s house, resulting in a dangerous carbon monoxide concentration of 600 parts per million, TribLocal reported.

Rob Sulski told Patch.com the generator was positioned away from the family’s home, but a portable air conditioning unit might have drawn the poisonous gas in. He told the Web site the family became alarmed when everyone was getting up to urinate frequently in the night, then began getting headaches.

•There were at least seven carbon-monoxide-related deaths from charcoal or charcoal grills in 2007. Don’t use charcoal grills or camp stoves indoors.

FIRE FROM CANDLES AND OTHER ALTERNATIVE LIGHTING

•Battery Powered LED Puck Lights are a cheap alternative to candles. They are cheap enough to put up in every room, and leave there until an emergency. I put ours next to the light switch, because I always go to turn on the light during a power outage, even days later. With the Puck Lights, I just transfer the habit.

FLOODED BASEMENTS

    • Flooded basements can be dangerous. This pamphlet provides basic information.

Bad Things Happen to Good People in Conway MA

EVACUATION

    • Know what to do, if you have to evacuate your home. Become educated about the natural disasters that befall your home region. For hurricanes, The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale informs people of the risk and what the intensity of a hurricane actually means. Discuss with household decisionmakers if, when, how, and where you will go if you are presented with evacuation directives and at what level of intensity would you leave. Would you go if it were a voluntary evacuation? In response to a mandatory evacuation order? Most of those who evacuate stay with friends or family. Don’t leave it to a time of crisis to check with your loved ones whether they’ll have you, and whether you can bring “Peppy” the pet. Know what you will do with your pets, who may not be able to travel with you. Learn how to close up a home to keep it safe, while you are gone. The best book I know on how to do that, complete with detailed instructions, is Kathy Harrison’s Just In Case. Kathy and I are friends, but it is still the best book I’ve found on the subject.


“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Charlemont, MA Credit: Katie Benedetti

STORM SURGES

  • Storm surges during hurricanes do the most damage. While most people tend to focus on the intensity of hurricane winds, more will consider evacuating if they believe flooding is likely. There were 25 foot storm surges in Galveston Bay, Texas in 2008. That means the seas there rose a maximum of 25 feet above mean sea level. If you are at or below sea level, or are close to oceans, rivers or even streams, consider flood insurance. Not sure? Here’s a handy map where you can check just where you live, and what will flood when water rises. It covers almost everywhere on Earth. Water does tremendous damage not only to houses, but to roads as well. When immediate danger is over, drivers can find themselves the victims of collapsing roads that were invisibly damaged by flooding then receding water.

"Home Sweet Home" Stage Road - Cummington, MA Credit: Joanne Tear

  • I’m downhill, and heck, with the way the weather has been, DH insisted we get it and I’m glad we did. Few people have it. More will in the future. Estimate your premiums if you are in the US, at Floodsmart.com. If your rates are high, perhaps you might ask yourself why. The policy does not take effect for 30 days, for obvious reasons. One of the reasons hurricanes are so damaging today, is that more and more people are insisting on living closer and closer to the water. And the oceans are rising. The one-foot rise in our oceans over the last century means that a five foot ocean break built a century ago is only 4 feet of protection today. Especially in cities like New York, where hurricanes are a relative unknown, how much public monies will be spent shoring up against rising tides? We’ll perhaps see fewer hurricanes touching down on land because of the conditions of the oceans, but scientists agree that those that make landfall will be more powerful and destructive. How great will it be to live in some of the “best” neighborhoods in wonderful cities, if part of the price is periodic evacuations, flooding, and death? And what about the costs? Flood insurance alone for these “high risk” areas will soon become even more prohibitive. The cost of an evacuation – travel expenditures, lost wages, and missed vacations – is of secondary importance, if it is considered at all, yet it figures into decision-making for both public officials and private citizens. One study found that hurricane evacuation costs for ocean counties in North Carolina ranged from about $1 million to $50 million (in 2000 dollars) depending on storm intensity and emergency management policy. How will governments bear this repeated costs?

Which brings me to my closing thoughts about my own experience, and perhaps a common human experience. When we think about disaster, we often imagine taking immediate action to minimize the damage: running out and pulling in the lawn chairs and flower pots so they don’t become hurricane projectiles. But more often, preparing for all the impending risks requires more careful long-term thinking. But despite all the planning over the years, all the things we’ve done to prepare for the unexpected, our lack of planning this day, even our few hours delay because of an extra hour or two of sleep after a joyful evening of celebration, could have cost us our lives.

For all of those who lost loved ones in Hurricane Irene, my heart goes out to you. May their memory be a blessing.


Editorial Notes: August 29, 2011 (10:40 am PT) Replaced the text with a new updated version at the request of the author. -BA

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