It will also shed light into the hurricane recovery process for those of you who want to be armed with the resources and knowledge to provide help and support either monetarily or physically to victims. To that end, we’ll shed some insight into the damage hurricanes can do and then cover the basics of how to begin to recover from a hurricane.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas and surrounding areas in August of 2017, the amount of devastation and the amount of water was almost unimagined.
A category 3 Hurricane in heavily populated cities of Texas was the stuff of nightmares.
It dredged up memories of other hurricanes, including Katrina, Sandy, and Andrew that left their scars on our people and our land in recent years. And then just as people everywhere rallied to support Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas, Hurricane Irma reared her ugly head.
Projected early on to become a category 5 hurricane, Irma threatened to destroy everything and everyone in her path from the Virgin Islands up through Florida and even into the Southern United States.
Evacuate, wait to evacuate, or don’t evacuate?
Many people couldn’t decide immediately. Floridians and their southern island neighbors have faced hurricanes before. They are tough and have the fortitude to hunker down and weather the fiercest of storms. But Hurricane Irma was projected to be a category 5 hurricane and the eye was going to pass close to and in some cases directly over U.S. soil.
State and local governments ordered mandatory evacuations in some places and strongly urged voluntary evacuations for other Florida areas. With the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Texas still fresh in everyone’s mind, over 6 million people heeded orders and fled in the face of Hurricane Irma in early September 2017. Yes, there were some who stayed put. They chose to either stay in their home or accepted the fact that they weren’t financially or physically able to evacuate. But for the most part, people fled the path of the storm.
As Hurricane Irma downgraded to a cat 1 and became a tropical storm, hurricane refugees started to make plans to return to their homes further south. Many were not sure what they would find. The Virgin Islands were hit worst, the Keys, Miami, Jacksonville, Naples, and many other cities and towns were flooded, sustained wind damage, or were without power. Rescue workers arrived to help evacuate nursing homes, elderly home owners, and those who weren’t willing or able to flee before the storm.
With Irma, power wasn’t predicted to be restored for several weeks but people were desperate to see where things stood for their own neighborhoods and homes. The Caribbean Islands were all but destroyed and many lives were lost. Resources were strained partly because Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas were still cleaning up and preparing to rebuild. Many Texans and others left their homes to help victims in Florida, returning the help they’d gotten themselves just a short time before.
It seems that once again, people regardless of background or origin pulled together to help one another survive a catastrophe. Due to early warnings, many lives were indeed spared. But once the hurricane passes and the immediate danger is over, how does one begin to recover and rebuild after a hurricane?
What to Expect in the First Several Days Following a Hurricane
First of all expect widespread and sporadic power outages in the area. Your neighborhood might not have power. The neighborhood three blocks away or even the next street or next house could have power if a generator was inadvertently left running. If you sheltered in place during a hurricane and you finally emerge from your shelter, it may be shocking at first. You may feel almost numb as you wade through dirty water that partially fills your home. Move cautiously through your home, especially water-filled rooms because of hidden obstacles beneath the water.
One of the first things you may notice when you leave your shelter location or open the front door is that streets and roads are still flooded partially or even completely flooded with water. If the water has receded, there may still be downed trees and debris blocking the roads and driveways. Many people, including friends and neighbors, may be temporarily homeless and dependent on shelters. National Guard, Marines, and other military and rescue workers may still be in the area clearing homes. Make sure they know you do not need rescued and be cautious not to become injured so that rescuers’ time and energy can be focused on people who need help to evacuate.
Damage to Expect After a Hurricane
As you return home and move through the flooded parts of your neighborhood there are many unpleasant conditions and even dangers that you may encounter:
- Dead Animals and People
- Smells from rotting food and/or death in the area
- Desperate friends, neighbors, or strangers searching for resources
- No identifiable points of reference
- Debris left behind by receding water
- Roads still impassable or littered with debris
- Appliances scattered around, missing, damaged
- Spoiled food
- Water damage
- Muddy floors and walls
- Collapsed walls or floors due to water erosion
- Mold will begin to grow–need masks for safety
Returning to Your Home the First Time
As you walk toward your home, be prepared for the water to get deeper and check for hidden debris and obstacles beneath the water. One easy way to do this is with a long branch or even several yardsticks bonded tightly together. If water gets too deep as you move toward your home, it may be best to return another day after water has receded farther.
Understand that you may have trouble finding identifiable points of reference such as street signs, landmark buildings, trees, etc. Avoid driving through standing water due to hidden debris. Never try to continue to return home through water that has any kind of moving current.
I watched hours of videos from hurricane victims detailing their experiences and one thing I noticed about the victims is that when they returned to their home that first time after the hurricane, many were completely unprepared for what they found. Many of them were so unprepared that all they could do is walk through, look around, and then leave.
If there is still standing water, your house will need to air out and the water drain away before you can stand to be in there to clean anything up. If it’s been more than a couple days or if weather has been muggy and warm, the smell of mildew in the house may be overpowering.
Dangers After a Hurricane
Dangers to be prepared for immediately after a hurricane include:
- Possibly alligators/crocodiles, snapping turtles, snakes, floating fire ant colonies, or other unexpected predators in the water.
- Gas/Fuel, oil, and other contaminants mixed into flood waters.
- Spontaneous Sinkholes
- Scared and Hungry Animals
- Downed power lines or electrified water
- Broken pipes, glass, and other broken metal beneath the water
- Washed out bridges and roads
- Fumes from chemicals in the septic
First Return Home Following a Hurricane
As you make your way back to your home after an evacuation, you may find you must park your vehicle several blocks away and walk in due to flood water that hasn’t yet completely receded. Depending on how long you wait to return to check your home, you may hear car alarms and horns going off due to abandoned cars being rocked by moving flood waters.
In some cases, you may hear home alarms going off, signaling that the storm damaged doors, windows, or the roof. Home alarms going off can also be a warning sign that looters are in or have been in the neighborhood. The whole experience of wading through water to get to your home can be a very eerie feeling.
Upon your first return home after the hurricane be prepared to:
- Mark your garage door or outside of the house with the word SAFE so rescue workers know you are not in need of assistance and they can focus on other homes.
- Document damaged items to provide to insurance company or victim’s relief organizations when asked.
- Limit direct contact with flood water whenever possible by wearing chest-high waders and other protective gear.
- Open windows in your home to let your house air out
- Carry out any small but important items that remained dry and undamaged such as clothing, wall hanging photos or photo albums, important documents
- Defend yourself against animal predators or desperate looters.
With water still standing in your home and in the streets, you won’t be able to do much more than the above suggestions until the water recedes. It’s not a trip to make alone if you can help it as it will be an emotional experience. As you look at the damage to your home, remind yourself that loved ones are safe and what you’re looking at is only “stuff” and it can be replaced or you can live without it if need be. Focus on saving any sentimental items that don’t seem to be damaged and carry them out in your dry bag or float them out in Rubbermaid tubs or trash cans. Return when water recedes to cleanup and start repairs.
Gear and Equipment Helpful During Rescues and Clean-Up
I’ve put together a suggested list of gear and equipment to have with you upon your first return home (when water may still be deep) and a second list of items to have on hand as you prepare to clean up and rebuild.
- Flat Bottom or Pontoon Boats
- An inflatable raft or kayak (wading through several blocks of water to get to your home will wear out your legs quickly)
- Chest High Waders
- Rain Jacket and hood or rain hat
- Water Resistant backpack
- Life Jackets (in case water gets deeper without warning)
- First aid kit (just in case of a cut or puncture, etc.)
- Waterproof bags or containers to carry out any immediately salvageable items
- Walking stick to test water depth
- Neon or black spray paint to mark your house safe or cleared.
- Work Gloves
- Pry Bar to open warped doors or windows to air out house
- Flashlight or battery powered headlamps
- Notebook and pen to make a list of serial and model numbers of damaged items
- Go Pro action camera or other waterproof camera with head strap to document damages as you move through the house.
- Cooler with Bag of Ice (if you froze a coin in a cup in advance so you will know your freezer didn’t lose power)
When Water Recedes/2nd Return to Home
Once you’ve seen the damage to your home on your first trip and the water has further receded so that you can get started on the actual clean up, there are some additional items that will come in handy. I’ve listed many of these suggestions below as documented from the stories of hurricane and flood victims:
- High Riding Truck or even an ATV with Trailer
- Pump or shop vac to remove any remaining standing water from rooms
- Generator and fuel if your power is still out or hasn’t been cleared for use yet.
- Industrial Fans
- Rubbermaid Tubs
- Rubber Trash Cans with Tight fitting, Lock down Lids
- Flashlights, lanterns, and even head lamps for hands-free light of windowless rooms during clean-up if power is still out
- Squeegee on a stick for pushing water out
- Towels or other Absorbent Materials
- Bleach or disinfectant wipes, scrub brushes, and other cleaning supplies including sturdy garbage bags
- Rubber gloves, face masks with filter
- Bissell Carpet cleaner and an Upholstery Cleaner (use without cleaning solution to help suck out excess water from carpets and couches)
- Plywood and tools to barricade the house once it’s cleaned out or in between cleanup days to prevent further looting.
- Supplies for removing damaged drywall and for minor repairs (wrenches, hammer, screwdrivers, drill, prybar, sledge hammer, etc.)
Keep in mind that doors and windows may open partially but be hard to close again. If you plan to open them to survey damage or let the house air out, be prepared with supplies to secure the doors until you come back. This isn’t a guarantee but secured doors can help deter anyone from looting before you get back.
Tips to Organize Clean Up and Rebuild
- Before starting any cleanup or repairs after a hurricane, make sure you have reviewed and completely understand what information and documentation your insurance company will need for any claims.
- Turn power off before working in the home unless you have clearance from utility company that electrical systems are not damaged by the water.
- Remove any remaining undamaged items as soon as possible. If you can’t get them out of the house, store them in Rubbermaid tubs or trash cans categorized by type of item or room they will go back into when repairs are finished.
- Once undamaged items are removed clean out trash and ruined items room by room and put them into a dumpster at the curb, a waiting truck, or bag and box in a pile near the road to be hauled away later.
- Once all trash and damaged items have been removed, go room by room to identify and list needed repairs.
- Dip waterlogged photos or photos stuck together into a tub of really soapy water to get them to slide apart without tearing. Lay separated photos out to dry.
When it comes to drinking water after a hurricane, you need to take extra precautions to ensure that your water has not been contaminated from storm runoff, leaked chemicals, decay, and debris. Use bottled water or filter and boil your water until public water has been cleared for drinking or well water has been tested for safety by a certified lab.
Standing water will begin to produce mold after several days to a week, depending on weather conditions. A dehumidifier can help dry things out and reduce the damp smell in your home. For additional help with mustiness, there are a variety of products such as these hanging moisture removal bags by Arm & Hammer or Damp Rid that can be used throughout the home. The quicker you dry out your house, the less mold you should have to deal with. Any walls, floors, and carpet that has gotten wet should be thoroughly inspected for mold and replaced as needed.
You can try using a carpet cleaning machine and upholstery cleaning machine without solution in it to suck out excess water from carpets and couches. For water, more than a half inch or so, use a wet/dry shop vac instead. Items such as appliances and wood furniture with mold or mildew should be scrubbed clean with bleach water or bleach wipes and then thoroughly air dried, in the sun if feasible, as soon as possible.
Mold and mildew can be very harmful to your health. Children, elderly, and anyone with respiratory or allergy issues can be more susceptible to the effects of mold and mildew. If anyone on the cleanup crew experiences symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, etc. they should move into fresh air immediately and refrain from helping until mold and mildew have been cleaned up.
For severe or prolonged cases of mold and mildew, seek the help of a professional who specializes in mold removal. Professional mold removal can be expensive so do what you can to get your home dried out and cleaned up as quickly as possible. If you continue to see signs that mold is still present or returning or if anyone in the house has unexplained coughing or other symptoms, seek a professional mold removal specialist immediately.
Prepare for Future Hurricanes or Other Disasters
Network Now with Neighbors
Get in touch with neighbors to create a communication network for emergencies. Meet monthly or even quarterly to discuss how to prepare, respond, and coordinate rescue and cleanup after future hurricanes or other events. Keep meetings short and focus on the best ways to keep those who are most vulnerable safe during a crisis.
Review Your Home (or Renter) Insurance Coverages
Make sure you know what kind of insurance coverage you have in the event of a hurricane. Know the difference between an extended replacement cost, guaranteed replacement, inflation guard, and an ordinance coverage for home damage. Make sure that any time limits, deductibles, or coverage limits are such that you are confident the insurance will be adequate.
Inventory all your belongings and make certain your insurance provides for proper coverage for those as well. The difference between replacement cost and actual cash value coverage for belongings is huge and it can be further devastating to realize after a natural disaster that you have the wrong coverage.
Hurricanes and other severe weather are considered acts of nature, make certain your policy covers each type of event and review any deductibles or policy limits or exceptions. Hurricane coverage frequently has a percentage deductible based on the total home insurance policy amount. If need be take out higher insurance coverage to lower this deductible.
When feasible, obtain additional insurance to ramp up your hurricane coverage. Add-ons such as additional living expenses (ALE) coverage, is designed to assist with extra living expenses you will have to deal with while your home is unlivable after a hurricane. Ask about and consider sewer backup coverage and flood insurance coverages if you are in a hurricane prone region. For more details on flood insurance, visit The National Flood Insurance program website. In fact, ask about coverages for each type of weather event because coverage can be very different for each event. Focus first on the types of events that occur most frequently in your area.
Prepare Now to Protect Against Future Hurricane Damage
Download the hurricane app to your smartphone to help you communicate your location in an emergency and first aid and navigation apps in case they are needed. Create an inventory list of valuable items in your home including large appliances and electronics and store it in the cloud or another safe location. Freeze a bottle or other container of water and place a quarter or another coin on top of the ice and replace the lid. This will help you to determine if food in your freezer thawed and then was refrozen during any future power outages. If the coin drops more than halfway in the container, food may be spoiled.
If you get warning a hurricane is coming, follow the usual storm safety steps by bringing outside items and pets inside, keeping gutters free of leaves and debris, and keeping your gas tank full of fuel at all times. Review your family’s emergency evacuation plan, keep your weather radio on and identify the nearest shelter location. Have hurricane shutters or plywood on hand and ready to install quickly. Put sentimental and other irreplaceable or valuable items in watertight plastic tubs on the highest pantry or closet shelves and nail the door shut.
While waiting for the hurricane to hit, fill your bathtub with water, take an ax and other supplies such as water, food, pet food and kennels or habitats, life jackets, blankets, and important documents to the attic or top level of your home. Use water tight storage containers for critical supplies and important documents, even in the attic. Label containers for quick access to critical supplies if you need to evacuate.
While waiting for the storm to hit or if you are ordered to evacuate, turn off utilities to the house or at least unplug appliances and electronics. Load pets and critical supplies into your vehicle. If time allows quickly pile wall hangings and anything else you’d hope will stay undamaged onto beds and the tops of dressers. Just getting them up off the floor may be enough to save them from damage if water levels are not severe.
There’s no way to ever be completely prepared for a hurricane, especially those like Irma. But with proper planning, you can improve your ability to ride out a hurricane or evacuate safely. And with the right gear, equipment, and knowledge, you can begin the process of recovering from a hurricane quickly and with the least amount of stress.