Survival Lessons from Hurricane Irma (Part 2)

by Carolyn Marshall
October 05, 2017

In my last installment, I talked about getting woken up at 3 am by a panicked neighbor and finding my home in Delray Beach, Florida, filling with water during a torrential rainstorm in 2014. If I had had flood insurance, I'd still own my home free and clear; as it is, I'll be paying off the federal loan to repair my ruined house for years to come.

This year, armed with flood insurance, I thought I'd be ready for Hurricane Irma, but there was another wrinkle: Empty store shelves for people hoping to stock up for the superstorm. This section recounts my feverish hunt to stock up on the two weeks' worth of emergency supplies the Red Cross recommends you have in the event of a disaster.

"Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink"

Labor Day, September 4. With the hurricane gathering force and predicted to hit Palm Beach County with winds of 185+ mph soon, getting my emergency kit together was a high priority. But driving from one store to another - six in Delray alone - I couldn't find bottled water anywhere - even though the hurricane was not arriving for almost a week. Looking out at the azure ocean brought to mind the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." I had enough drinking water to last several days after the storm, but the Red Cross recommends you stock enough water and food to last two weeks in the event of a disaster.

I finally found a pallet of bottled water at a Home Depot and bought six cases.

Trying to stock up on food was equally disconcerting. Anything canned was a hot commodity, and by Labor Day, canned food and bread had vanished from supermarket shelves. At Wal-Mart, I found rows and rows of empty shelves. Everyone was out of canned tuna, peanut butter, soup, canned vegetables and fruits. Even canned sardines were out.

I finally found some tuna and cobbled together whatever was left on the shelves: pickled beets, canned sauerkraut, corn tortillas, and what apparently what was the last remaining jar anywhere of almond butter for 7 bucks. Not exactly fine dining, but enough to survive.

As I drove home, I noticed cars starting to line up at gas station. I got in a gas line before they started snaking for miles from the pumps, as they did the next day. Soon afterwards, there was no gas to be found, so people who had waited to evacuate were stuck.

Lessons from a climate-changed state

When Hurricane Irma finally arrived, the worst of the storm missed us and instead ran up the Florida Keys and towns along the west coast of the state. The east, however, was threatened by "storm surge" hurricane-force winds and a daylong series of tornados thriving within the bands of the hurricane, which so large it covered the entire state of Florida.

Power had been out for two days before the worst of the storm hit my neighborhood but fortunately, emergency bulletin texts appeared on cell phones and announced on the radio. "Tornado approaching; get indoors immediately, stay away from windows; take shelter."

The recurring tornados seemed constant, and I spent the better part of the worst storm day in my "safe room,"- the bedroom closet. Sitting in the dark, listening to the radio, I heard an eerie rumbling noise overhead, as if a freight train was barreling through the upper atmosphere. Later, I realized it was the sound of a tornado that fortunately did not touch down.

Tornados, hurricane force winds, flying objects and punishing sheets of rain rattled the windows of my house for roughly 24 hours, through the worst of the storm and during the better part of the night. It was damn scary, but I was lucky: My home escaped major damage. For my neighborhood, the worst of it resulted in flying debris and toppled trees that seemed to be down along the entire coast of Florida.

Hurricane insurance

Still, it was a close call. Several neighbors were hit hard, as falling trees blocked entrances and crushed a patio. The state has warned the debris cleanup may take months. No big deal, in my mind, when you consider the utter destruction of towns in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands and along Florida's west coast, where power remains out, entire communities were swept away and residents continue to wander around in sweltering heat, searching for food and water.

Indeed, those of us living on the state's east coast were lucky. My neighborhood, in particular, lucked out with Hurricane Matthew last year and Irma this year. And there's still another month to go in the 2017 hurricane season, which carried with it new lessons:

Prepare a survival kit with water, stash canned food, create a stocked emergency first aid kit and secure documents in plastic containers, all well in advance of season. Next time — and there will be a next time — I may consider evacuating, even if I'm not required to leave. And I plan to invest in hurricane shutters before the next big storm. Fortunately, Irma didn't smash my windows but luck won't last forever.

I now know it's time to buy a battery-powered fan, or better yet, a generator, items that were gone from store shelves on day one of the initial panic. Once the power goes, so too does the air conditioning — and in Florida, two or more days without air conditioning is hell. At one nursing home nearby, 11 elderly residents died as a result of the sweltering heat when emergency generators failed after Irma. A hospital recorded the body temperature of one 84-year-old woman from the nursing home at 107 degrees.

Florida residents need to gird themselves for the next round of tropical storms, since climate change seems to be upon us, creating monster storms, devilish wildfires, tornados and massive flooding.

This time, parts of the beautiful Florida Keys were devastated, leaving many without homes or shelter. Scores of thousands statewide were required to evacuate. And those staying behind and seeking refuge in shelters were instructed to bring three days worth of food, water, pet food, and personal hygiene supplies. But people living paycheck to paycheck or hand to mouth might find it impossible to do that. How did they buy their emergency stash? Were they turned away from the shelters? What happened to them? As other hurricanes move dangerously close to our Irma-battered coast, this ill-advised policy is one that needs to change.

-Financial journalist Carolyn Marshall, who specializes in investigative reporting, is a contributor to, an adjunct professor of journalism at Florida Atlantic University and a former contributing reporter for the New York Times.

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