As we waited to return to the New Orleans area to see what was left of our house after hurricane Katrina, our area was visited by hurricane Rita and that storm summarily squashed any hope we had left of recovering anything. When we finally saw our house and our entire neighborhood, there was nothing to salvage and we could only stand in awe of the destructive power of these mighty storms. What did we learn from this experience? How can anyone prepare for these kinds of disasters?
We quickly learned that there is a short range preparation and an equally important long range preparation but sadly most people have not thought beyond the short range. Almost everyone knows the short range preparations as they are repeatedly issued each year. Boarding up doors and windows, removing objects that can fly around, and shutting off utilities like electricity and gas. Then there is the constant vigil of keeping up with the latest coordinates and the path of the storm, making arrangements for places to stay away from the storm area and the all important hurricane evacuation routes. These preparations are not to be taken lightly, but they are not all there is to think about.
I am not addressing the kinds of preparations that are needed to stay and ride out the storm because that is more like gambling than preparing. Evacuation is the only real option as the recent hurricanes have shown us.
After the blaming and fault finding following Katrina local authorities, FEMA and the National Guard have made significant changes. For instance the National Guard now has officers and experienced coordinators stationed in the Gulf region to be closer to the areas most affected by hurricanes, at least during the entire span of time now known as the “Hurricane Season". New kinds of communication equipment are being employed that doesn't require external power and telephones that do not rely on over crowded relay towers are ready for use. Stores of food, water and medical supplies are now housed close to the most vulnerable areas of the coast for quick distribution as needed. All of this is good yet has nothing to do with personal long range planning on the part of those living in the storm prone areas of the coast.
The long range preparations are based on an outcome of the worst case scenario. Start with your insurance company. Premiums for hurricane and flood insurance are skyrocketing now throughout the three quarters of the American coastline where hurricanes are most likely to strike. That is an area from Maine to Texas. First be warned that reputation precedes reparation when it pertains to insurance companies. Choose a major company that has a history of standing behind their claims. Do your homework. Some of the insurance companies that serviced the New Orleans area have totally reneged on all their policies and others have gone under bankruptcy. I won’t give you a list of the worst which may only be counter productive. But it behooves you to make a list of the very best ones.
After you have chosen a good insurer the next step is to read the fine print. The great controversy in New Orleans now is whether the damages were caused by the flood or the hurricane which broke the levees which caused the flood. Sound like double talk? It is. But it is how insurance companies are squirming out of billions of dollars in payments to their trusting customers. Thousands of Louisianans’ were told they did not need flood insurance. Whether intentional or not, this piece of semantic wrangling is one way insurance companies have slipped pass their responsibilities in the greater New Orleans area. The truth is that unless homes were in a designated flood plain they were not “required" to carry flood insurance. Required and needed are words that are miles apart in meaning. Put simply, all homes on the coast “need “flood insurance whether it is "required" or not. Read the fine print or have your lawyer do it for you, this is indeed part of long range planning when it comes to storms.
Another long range bit of planning that was overlooked is having access to funds. If you are going to be far from home for an extended period consider this. In our growing cashless society we have come to depend on the use of the ATM. If your funds are in a smaller bank or a local bank you may not have access to your funds if communications are gone. Checks written from flood stricken areas are not often welcome for the same reason. Yes, you may have to actually carry some cash.
Last but not least you must set aside every important document you have for quick access and carrying. If you lose everything you may not be able to prove who you are, where you work, bank or live without papers. You may find yourself unable to prove that you even own a house and banks or courthouses that are affected by the storm will not be able to help you either. You can go from a better homes and gardens kind of life to homelessness in the twinkling of an eye.
Another long range preparation has to do with the removal of valuables. We see pictures of people rummaging through their belongings after a storm trying to recover photos, papers, jewelry and other things, but that picture is not what you think. Houses hit by winds of over 125 miles an hour are taken away wholesale, large and small objects alike. In houses that are flooded, all but plastic and metal will remain. Anything porous wood, paper, fabric, etc. will be found in an indiscernible heap of smelly, musty and moldy refuse. Don’t count on retrieving much from that. So save your jewelry and your papers and anything else deemed valuable and transportable before the storm hits.
Not much I know of can prepare someone for the emotional despair and shock from seeing all you’re familiar with flattened or completely gone. Much worse is returning to find neighbors or friends gone or dead. Don’t return to your area prematurely. Prepare yourself mentally. You may think you can handle it but all too often you will see the strongest people standing around the debris crying or looking bewildered. In fact ,some folks don’t react for weeks or even months. Depression and melancholy has sapped the gumption from many strong men and women who thought they could just bounce back.
Part of long range planning then involves a mental and spiritual preparation for the return to your area. Talk with your most supportive family and friends before you just trot back to the scene. Seek counseling if your not sure yet and if you are a person of faith offer many prayers before your trek home again