An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure, and preparedness always beats post-disaster trauma.
However, though our focus is before-the-event efforts, we will not sit back and watch our friends in New England suffer through the negatives they can change. So here are just a very few of the things we can post today to help:
1. Protection from the elements. Late-season hurricanes in the northeast mean folks are without power, and sometimes without windows, roofs, walls, doors, or insulation. If your house is habitable, keep what doors and windows you have closed, and seal seams with plastic sheets (think shower curtains) and any kind of tape you have. Simply cutting down on wind works wonders with keeping warm.
2. Water. Do NOT try to purify flood waters or any standing water in your area regardless of the claims made on any filter you may have. Flood water is some nasty stuff. Use a clean plastic sheet to catch some rain water if any rain is predicted. Also if a home’s hot water tank was above surge or flood levels, the water in it may be safe to drink. This also holds true for toilet tanks in upstairs bathrooms provided there is no “bowl cleaner” product used.
3. Heat. At night, stay in groups if possible both for warmth and security (a little looting in some areas already). DO NOT HEAT WITH CHARCOAL INDOORS! Charcoal is a big carbon monoxide producer and is dangerous indoors. If safe to do so, use wood from your damaged home to build a small fire outside and a safe distance from flammable material (after listening and smelling for gas leaks). Use this small fire for cooking, heating as you’re gathered around it, and for heating water for hot water bottles to stay warm at night. Do not heat an indoor area with steam. Steam will moisten everything and everyone making things that much colder when the heat wears off.
4. Use your vehicles. Many cars are damaged, but even so, if it can be cranked, it can be used. Use the electric adapter to recharge your electronics. You can warm food by wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it directly on the engine to warm (and you can warm your hot water bottles this way too), you can siphon fuel for generators, and provided the car’s exhaust is not damaged, you can stay inside it for a bit to take advantage of the heater. However, don’t sleep in a running car due to carbon monoxide. Hint: If you have a carbon monoxide detector in your house, take it out to the car when someone is inside with the engine running to make sure there are no carbon monoxide leaks in the car. Also, if you have a “power inverter” your car becomes a small electric generator for small household appliances. Many people overlook this as a source of power so if any automotive or hardware stores are open at all, they may have a few. Headlights can be used to illuminate small areas at night (and you can detach a headlight and use jumper cables to make the headlight a semi-mobile spotlight). Last but not least if you need to signal for help you can burn a tire. Heavy smoke can be seen from a long way off.
5. Food. Food in short-term survival is actually over-rated, especially in situations where manual labor is not very intensive. However, food is king of morale, so look for comfort foods. One overlooked source is vending machines if power in the area is on. If anyone in your area is a “survivalist” they’ll probably be wanting to cook and eat displaced wildlife. Don’t let them do this. Aquatic animals will be contaminated by all the nasties found in flood waters, and with as many diseases as there are running rampant in the wildlife that borders civilized areas, you really have to know what you’re doing to prep and cook an animal to ensure food safety.
6. Security. Speaking of animals, you may run into issues with the two-legged variety as well as the four-legged variety. Some looting has been reported, but not nearly as much as was found after Katrina. So far. One thing to do is sleep in shifts. Let someone stay awake in rotating watches that can alert others if looters or displaced wildlife wander uninvited into your area. And if anyone has to go anywhere, always use the buddy system; even if you’re just touring to see the damage up and down your street. There are too many hidden dangers to list, so “if you go out, don’t go without. “
7. Communication. Many are getting emails via smart phones so that’s good. Tell others to also remember text and multimedia communication. Multimedia (sending pictures) can work sometimes when text can’t because of some different communications protocols some systems use. You can also use simple visual signaling if you need to signal for help or just to alert newcomers to any lingering dangers. Colored towels make good flags, torches at night can be waved, tires can be burned for smoke or light, paper lanterns illuminated with a “tea candle” can be floated like a small hot-air balloon at night, the shiny side of a CD can be a signal mirror as can the flat surface of an iPhone.
8. Documentation. Half of “surviving” a sizable disaster is setting yourself up to rebuild. Use your phone’s camera and video to document property loss and area damage. Insurance companies (after a regional catastrophe like this) will be more concerned with their bottom line than yours so work now to get all the info you can to help process your claims. In a related notion, your phone’s camera is your last-minute Child ID kit. Take pictures of all family members now (including pets) so you have current images of each. And, for children too young to talk or remember phone numbers or things like that, take a Sharpie and write the parent’s name and info on their arms and chest.
9. If you can find a dry supply, kitty litter is the best substance for expedient toilets. Forget trying to use bleach. Check with neighbors or see if any stores are open (kitty litter will generally be low on a looter’s or shopper’s list). Take an empty plastic bucket, line it with a double layer of plastic trash bag, sprinkle in about an inch of litter, and then after you make your own “deposit” sprinkle on just enough litter to cover. Then place some sort of lid on it to keep it covered until next use. One bucket for each person and the rest you can figure out on your own.
10. Mutually shared perspective. The most important consideration of all in a post-disaster environment is actually morale. It’ll be up to the true leaders in any given group to keep spirits up and keep everyone focused on the goal of rebuilding rather than dwelling on the loss of what was. A few keys: Stay fed and hydrated and take regular work breaks; take vitamins if you have them; tell jokes and help keep a smile on your buddy’s face; look at “devastation” as a clean slate and opportunity to build something you’ll enjoy even more; hop off your diet for a little while if you have some of your favorite “comfort foods” available; remember that many of our grandparents lived every day without running water or electricity; and remember that the worst is behind you.
11. Sharing power. If you have a generator, power inverter hooked up to a vehicle, or other power source, offer to share by allowing neighbors to recharge laptops, cellphones, and other communication devices. If you can get a TV with a DVD or other recorded media player, you could help neighbors by offering some entertainment, or by setting up a child “day care” for your immediate neighbors to free up the adults for other work.
12. Help people find you. Navigation after a destructive event is difficult. Street signs are down, mailboxes with house numbers are gone, etc. Do what you can to label streets and houses so that utility workers will know where they are, emergency responders can navigate, and eventually for insurances claims adjusters to find the correct property.
13. Collect valuables. This is more common after tornadoes, but just as necessary after a hurricane. Debris from damaged or destroyed houses will be strewn for miles. Help others gather their lost possessions by salvaging and saving anything that appears to have either actual or sentimental value. Since the garbage and debris will FAR outweigh these valuables, use trash cans to salvage the good stuff and leave the debris for cleanup crews. However, be sure to mark these bins as containing valuables. Later on, after things begin to normalize a bit you can host a neighborhood “Found Your Stuff” gathering and see who you can return items to.
14. In metro areas across the northeast, we’ll see folks without some power and other utilities for a while, but with the repair infrastructure in the region, we’re sure to see repairs coming much sooner than we did after Katrina. Encourage others to alert neighbors when utilities are back. The reason for this is that one side of the street might get power while the other side is still without. This gives the option of sharing when possible and safe.
15. If responders have not canvassed your area yet, help them by labeling houses as to their extent of damage (if any), whether the occupants are accounted for or missing, if any utilities are working, pets are missing or injured, etc. You don’t have to use the official “X” symbol if you don’t know it. Simple dated notes on the door will work. Also, if cell phone services are back, leave the owner’s contact info on the door if emergency workers need to contact the owner or residents.
16. Light debris cleanup. As a follow-up to number two above, do what you can to move light debris off the roadways. Avoid coming near any downed power lines though. Clearer roads mean faster assistance and repair.
17. Help with communication. Get a list of “okay” or “not okay” messaging from neighbors and edit and collect the information along with the intended recipients. If anyone in your group is a Ham radio operator, if you run across a Ham radio operator, if the Red Cross or other volunteer group can get word to the outside, or if communication services start to return to your area, you’ll have a set list of messaging that you can get out quickly to help your neighbors alert their friends and loved ones as to their safety.
18. When the rebuilding starts, encourage folks to be careful about the contractor they choose. Scammers will be coming out of the woodwork. FEMA’s info page is: http://www.fema.gov/news-release/be-smart-about-hiring-building-contractor
19. Remind others that those in unaffected areas across the country will be approached by fake charities and scammers that will use the current disaster as a way to cheat well-meaning Americans out of their money. Remind them to never donate unless it’s a well-known charity and they’re sure the person contacting them is actually with that charity.
20. Now back to “survival” info. Food. Encourage neighbors to have “block cookout. ” Though it seems rather inappropriate for the situation, here are the advantages: First, a lot of people might not have all the items for full meals, but put all the families together and you might find you have all the ingredients you need. Second, a group function like this helps with morale. Third, there’s safety in numbers which is important until life gets back to normal.
21. More on heat and staying warm. We mentioned sealing off areas if your house was habitable (structurally sound, dry, no gas leaks or other immediate dangers, etc. ). This tip is to make a smaller area within a room that’s easier to keep warm. If you have a camping tent, set it up in a room. Or, like kids love to do, take your dry furniture cushions and other items from around the house and build a “fort!” Smaller areas are easier to control temperature wise, but remember: no heating with open flame or charcoal, and make sure any small enclosure is NOT air tight. Don’t want to suffocate.
22. Security. Above, we mentioned safety in numbers and also of making sure you’re getting a good contractor. In the meantime, you still need to coordinate with neighbors and send up an alert when suspicious people come into the neighborhood. Among this list is people in some sort of uniform who claim to be utility company employees, private sector security, or some other official-looking person who wants access to the inside of your house or access to personal information. Don’t allow anything until that person provides proper identification or provides other indicators that they really are who they say they are. Regardless of ID, it’s best if you have a few friends with you if you decided to give any access or information to such a person. In an emergency the buddy system rules! Safety in numbers.
23. More on signaling Another tip to add to that list is your car’s alarm. Again, your car doesn’t have to be drivable to still be useful. If the battery still works in your car, the panic button on your car alarm can be used as your personal panic button if you need help from friends and neighbors. Discuss this with those around you so they’ll know to do the same and also to come running if they hear yours. Also cover other noises or light signaling that will help neighbor alert neighbor. Anyone have any walkie-talkies? (Ask the kids) You can even use a baby monitor for one-way communication. How about air horns – the type you see at sporting events. Sports whistles? How about a heavy metal spoon banging against a pot? Again, if you want to learn about all the potential noise makers around the house, ask the kids. Communication is only limited by the imagination.
24. Continue your vigilance of displace animals. Though reptiles top this list after a water disaster, rats will probably be your most common issue. Also keep an eye out for pets separated from their owners and help round them up for their protection and for later return to their owners. As for the rats, if they get to be a problem, find the teenage boys in the area. One or more of them are sure to have a BB gun or really good slingshot and would love to be “hero of the day” that protects the area from vermin. However, remind them not to walk around with their BB gun if Police are in the area. Don’t want to be mistaken for a looter.
25. Mold protection. During the day if the temperature is good and winds blowing, open doors and windows to allow damaged homes to dry. The dryer the better since that will stall the spread of mold. FEMA has a decent mold info brochure on their website.
26. Mutual supply. Barter will be king for a while. Don’t ask anyone (just yet) to give up physical possession of the actual item, but try putting together a group list of assets that folks would be willing to give away or swap along with a list of some of their needs. Think items like toilet paper, aluminum foil, feminine hygiene products, etc. (Food and water is hopefully more available and a little more readily shared and won’t need to be bartered. ) Then do some swapping once some sources and needs are matched up and folks agree to the swaps. You might want to set up a bulletin board for posting swaps, but wait to do this until you’re sure that looting or security in general will not be issues.