I really appreciate the people who share their lessons learned on SurvivalBlog.com, so I thought I would share my experiences and lessons learned from Hurricane Ike.
Hurricane Ike hit Houston on Friday night September 13, 2008. The hurricane was classified as a strong category 2 with maximum sustained winds of 110 MPH. What was unusual about this hurricane was the large size of the storm. Hurricane force winds extended 120 miles from the center.
Gas stations in our area ran out of gas the day before the storm (Thursday). I waited in a very long line of cars only to find out that the station had run out of Regular gas. I was happy to pay extra to fill up with Premium. The gas station was a zoo with everyone in panic mode. It was all the owner could do to maintain order with people complaining about credit card issues, the station running out of Regular, and how people were taking too long to buy gas. I will never again wait until the last minute to buy gas. Grocery stores were also crazy. The grocery stores we visited had all run out of bottled water and batteries. People were buying canned goods and ice in large quantities.
On Friday morning I finished installing our plywood storm shutters on our most vulnerable windows and bringing everything inside that could be damaged by the high winds. In the afternoon we continued with our preparations inside. We charged all of our batteries, filled up our camping water storage bags, and got all of our battery lamps ready. I also setup inverters and car batteries in the house for backup power.
Our home is about 70 miles north of the coast. The high winds and rain started to hit around 9 PM on Friday night. We went to bed early to try to get some sleep before the strongest winds of the storm hit. Around 1 AM the wind was making so much noise that I was no longer able to sleep. The house was making a lot of strange noises due to the high winds. It was at that point that my panic started to build. What made me feel uneasy was the fact that my family and I were completely on our own. If we had any kind of emergency, I would not be able to call anyone for help. What helped me to calm down was keeping busy reviewing all of my preparations and walking around the house checking for problems.
Our power was intermittent most of the night and finally went out around 2 AM. The television weatherman said that when your electricity goes out, that is when you know the strong winds are approaching. That is exactly what happened in our case. I continued watching the news with a battery powered television. A television is very helpful to track the movement of the storm. Since television stations in our area no longer broadcast analog television signals, I had to find another solution to receive digital television with backup power for future storms.
As I watched the eye of the storm pass near our home to the East on television, I thought the worst was over. To my surprise, the strongest winds hit our house on the back side of the storm. During the peak winds, I heard a loud crash and our entire house shook. I ran upstairs and found a tree had hit our house. I was amazed at the damage. The roof framing, roof decking, shingles, sheet-rock, insulation, and tree branches had fallen into my son’s bedroom. The larger tree branches had come through the roof like spears. Fortunately, I had insisted that everyone sleep down stairs during the storm. As the hurricane force winds raged outside, we rushed around in the dark trying to find something to catch the water. We needed a lot of bins and buckets to catch the water falling from such a large area of the roof. This kept us very busy for the rest of the night as we were constantly bailing the water out of all of the bins. We were able to catch enough of the water that the sheetrock downstairs was not damaged.
As the sun came up, we were able to see the damage outside. Most of the large pine trees near our home had been blown down. The tree that hit our house was a large pine in our neighbor’s yard. The tree had broken at mid-height and the top part of the tree was still connected to the bottom half. A second tree in my neighbor’s yard has snapped (clean break) and the top half landed in my back yard. A third tree had landed on the roof of the house behind ours and the top part was in our yard. We also had a mature queen palm that had blown over. The trees all fell in different directions. I do not think it was a tornado from the hurricane that blew down the trees since the damage was so widespread in our neighborhood. The funny thing was that I had cut down all of the tall pine trees in my yard after I realized how dangerous they could be if they fell on the house. All the pine trees that hit my house and landed in my yard were all from my neighbors and all of the cleanup efforts and repairs were my responsibility. My neighbors paid none of the cost to remove the trees or repair the damage to my home and yard.
The day after the hurricane hit, I called insurance company and told I was on my own and I could not make any major repairs before the Insurance Adjuster arrived. We started the cleanup process by removing all shingles, roof decking, tree branches, sheet rock, and insulation that was in the room. The contractor (thick plastic) garbage bags we had worked great for this cleanup. I highly recommend everyone keep a few boxes of these contractor bags for emergencies. We then pulled up the carpet and removed the wet pad. We used fans to circulate the air and help dry the room out. We learned from a previous flooding that if the house is not dried out quickly, a strong musty odor will develop. Since we could not put a tarp on the roof due to the tree, we hung a tarp inside the room to catch all the water and funnel it into a large bucket. The tree company we hired to remove the trees in our yard used a 100-ton crane to remove the tree on our house.
We started running our generator the first day using gas. The only gas I had was two years old with Sta-Bil gas stabilizer added. I was amazed the generator ran well on two year old gas. I now rotate my gas yearly and put it on my calendar so I won’t forget. Our generator has a natural gas conversion kit installed. After the rain stopped, we moved the generator to our back yard and connected it to natural gas. The generator ran flawlessly for 13 hours per day on natural gas. I remember praying that our generator would keep running since we were totally dependent on it for all of our power. I strongly recommend a good quality generator and maintain it well for best reliability. My natural gas bill went up $100 and my electricity bill went down $200, so I actually saved money running the generator.
Our generator is 7,500 Watts, so supporting the electrical load of the entire house had to be done carefully. We powered everything in the house except the central air-conditioning. The generator load monitor we had was very helpful. As long as we kept the load under 50%, we had no problems. When the load was at 70%, we sometimes had problems. At 90%, the generator circuit breakers would trip within a few seconds.
While working in our yard near the generator, I started to feel the effects on Carbon Monoxide poisoning (headache, nausea, and fatigue). I realized what was happening and went indoors to recover. I am now extra careful when working around a running generator. We also use Carbon Monoxide detectors in our house when running the generator.
All gas stations and stores in our area were closed after the storm since there was no electricity. Stores reopened slowly as emergency generators were brought in. When the grocery stores opened, they had none of the basic items (eggs, milk, orange juice, bread, hamburger, etc.). After the storm we lost electricity, cable/internet, and phone service. We had no problems with water, sewer, and natural gas service. Many of the nearby neighborhoods had no water and one had limited sewer service. I was surprised that phone service went down after 24 hours. After about a week, the phone company restored service with portable generators they connected to the phone system equipment in the neighborhood. We had no power for 10 days. Neighbors asked us to charge their cell phones, laptops, and DVD players. We setup a table in front room with power strips for them to use. The item most requested by my neighbors was ice. I made extra ice before the storm and filled many 1 gallon freezer bags. After two days, neighbors started to clear out their refrigerators and freezers. We had many offers to take their frozen food. Several of our neighbors had electric stoves and could not cook. They came over to our house and used our gas stove to cook dinner.
We decided to shut down our generator at night to keep a low profile and so we did not disturb the neighbors (too much). At night I used our inverters to power our refrigerators and freezers. I was disappointed that we were only getting 3-4 hours of run time from a standard car battery. On the third night, the inverter I was using for our large freezer stopped working. I took the inverter apart and found many of the internal components had been damaged. The operating power of the freezer was within the rated load of the inverter, but the surge current was not. I am now more careful about overloading inverters. I also purchased larger deep-cycle marine batteries to extend my run time. With our generator not running for 11 hours at night, I found the freezers were able to maintain a safe temperature, but the refrigerators were not. I solved this problem by adding blue-ice to the refrigerators at night.
Many of our neighbors and friends told us they were going to buy a generator and prepare for the next hurricane. None did. As soon as the power came back on, they forgot all about it.
My wife does not support my preparation efforts. She has always told me that our generator was a waste of money and a hurricane is never going to hit Houston. As our neighbors and friends told us how smart we were to buy a generator, I thought to myself I have finally won this argument. Unfortunately (for me), I was mistaken. She still says the generator was a waste of money and a hurricane is never going to hit us again.
We spent more time preparing than anyone else on our street and ended up with the most damage to our house and yard. Just because you are prepared, don’t assume everything will go well for you. This is my biggest lesson learned from the storm.
The entire process of filing an insurance claim, hiring contractors, completing all necessary repairs, and negotiating the final settlement with the insurance company took well over a year. Overall we were blessed that the damage was not worse, we did not have to move out of our home, we had a good test of our emergency preparations, and we learned a lot from the storm.