Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Day 49: Awesome Nature: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Irene

The neighborhood dogs are still skittish. As I walked my usual route this morning, two days after Hurricane Irene, I heard more frantic barking than I’ve ever heard before. Dogs, much like me, need the comfort of routine. And for the past week, life has been far from ordinary.

I won’t bore you with the details or the videos or the photos. You’ve heard and seen them all before, as well as all the superlatives that go along with them: worst, most devastating, biggest, strongest, most ferocious, etc. Instead, I am reflecting today on the lessons learned from Hurricane Irene. What we did wrong, what we did right, what we’d do differently next time (and please God let there not be a next time anytime soon).

Unlike tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes come with plenty of warning. So the first thing we did right was prepare. The utilization of technology on the state and local levels was top-notch. Communication both pre- and post-storm from government, utilities and telecom providers was smooth and relatively glitch-free. And we can’t discount the impact of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to keep everyone informed minute-by-minute. If there was a better place to get the “real” story, I can’t think of any! 

People for the most part seemed to handle themselves with grace and dignity, both before and after the storm. Neighbors helping neighbors, some whom we’d never even spoken to before. Trying to be patient with long lines at stores and sold-out essentials beforehand, cold showers and yet another day of powerlessness afterward. And reminding each other that “it could be worse” and “everyone’s doing the best they can.”

On the flip side, however, the constant weeklong media frenzy leading up to the actual event created a state of anxiety that could take weeks or even months to wind down from. I’ve heard it called PISS: Post Irene Stress Syndrome. And I can assure you that it is real.

So for the future: preparation, not panic. 

On a personal level, there are quite a few things I think we did right:
  • Bought and froze lots of water ahead of time. This kept our freezer freezing effectively for the 35 hours we were without power.
  • Charged up the phones and the laptop. I don’t know what I would have done without my iPhone. It kept me online, in touch and sane. (Well, kinda sane.) It also kept my business running post-storm despite our power outage.
  • Gassed up the cars for the possibility of a quick getaway. We also made fully refundable hotel reservations outside of the “cone of uncertainty” just in case we needed to evacuate or just couldn’t deal with another day without a hot shower.
  • Printed out the helpful lists we found online of things to have on hand such as batteries, flashlights, lanterns, candles, head lamps, propane/charcoal grills, etc. And then checked the items off, one by one, as we purchased them or brought them to our “ready station” in the kitchen.
  • Shopped for fresh fruit and veggies at Trader Joe’s instead of joining the hordes of shoppers at the local supermarket. The place was busier than usual, but low-key and fully stocked. And why eat Chef Boy-ar-dee from a can when you can have fresh melon, mango and Caesar salad?
  • Brewed two 12-cup pots of coffee ahead of time and stored it in the fridge. I cannot fathom starting my day without coffee, so this was a lifesaver. The milk and ice stayed long enough to make plenty of iced coffee.
  • Set the refrigerator/freezer for Max Cold about eight hours before the storm was due to hit. Most newer models have this feature; it’s worth digging out the manual to find out if yours does. After 35 hours without power, our freezer only rose to 20 degrees. Pretty amazing!
  • Stocked up on propane and charcoal. We have both a charcoal grill and a propane stove, both of which we put to good use once the storm passed. Although we had cold pasta salad (made in advance) while the storm was still roaring through, it was good to have hot options the following day when “Mother Nature’s scrubbers” were done and a glorious sunny day followed. And despite not being able to use our electric fire starter for the charcoal, the storm provided us with more than enough wood for kindling!
  •  I’m still not sure why we were told to fill the bathtub with water, but we did. Although we never had to use it to flush our toilets (which is what the advice suggested – and perhaps for those with well water, it was well heeded), it did turn out to be handy for refilling the fish tank daily. Our poor goldfish was oxygen-deprived without the electric filter cleaning his water.
And there are a few things I’d do differently:
  •  I’d like to think I’d limit my media exposure in the days leading up to another storm. However, try as I did to adhere to a “weather fast” when I realized my anxiety level was entering the red zone, I found it nearly impossible to resist.
  • Get a generator. We toyed with the idea a few years ago, then abandoned it for other priorities. Now we’re in the market for real. Having a refrigerator and stove and being able to run my business would take away a good deal of stress. And, although we did not get flooding, we know plenty of people who have perfectly good sump pumps and shop-vacs but can’t use them to bail out their basements because they have no power.
  • Have some tree work done. Oddly enough, we’d lost a big branch off an old sugar maple close to the house several weeks ago on a perfectly calm, warm day. When the tree guy came to remove it, we had him cable the remaining tree and cut off some limbs that looked iffy. Doing so might very well have saved us from major roof damage during the hurricane. We have two more old trees in front of the house that could use some pruning, so once our guy is done taking care of folks who have real emergencies, we’ll have him over to do some additional work.
  •  Look into communications options like a data card for Internet access or tethering the iPhone to the laptop. As I said earlier, the iPhone was a lifesaver, but looking at a tiny screen, especially for things like hurricane tracking, grew tedious.
  • Face down the fear. I’m not quite sure how to do this, but I do know I need to work on it. Although I had many rational moments, there were other times when the committee in my head was chattering so loud that I wanted to scream. Then, at one point, a thought (that still, small voice?) came to me and said, “God knows what He’s doing” – and that calmed me down for awhile, but there were still times of doubt. I kept putting Hurricane Irene in my God Box, but she kept getting out! Maybe more duct tape …
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Hurricane Irene was gratitude. As we hesitantly left the safety of our homes once the storm had passed and began venturing out to survey the damage, we realized there were so many people who had it so much worse than we did. Houses that floated out to sea, homes that looked like full-size dollhouses, roofs cut in two by trees, basements filled with water. After our first foray around town, I came home and cried. Whether with gratefulness or sadness, I really couldn’t say. I think it was a combination of the two. And a little bit of survivor guilt … wondering why we were spared and feeling wrong for feeling so relieved.

So in the future -- through the storms of nature and the storms of life -- I’ve got to have faith and believe what I was told: God knows what He’s doing.

1 comment:

  1. We bought a generator about ten years ago. We've used it twice and were thrilled that we had it.