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Hurricane Erma A Floridian’s Story
Hurricane Erma became a concern for us about 10 days in advance as the computer models had it’s path giving us a direct hit with force 5 winds. We are on the East Coast of Florida a few miles south of the Kennedy Space Center. There was pretty good agreement among the models which lends better credibility. Hurricane Harvey, hitting Texas a week earlier had caused fuel shortages. My neighbors and I had discussed the options, none of which were appealing. By the time Erma was four days out, the computer models had not changed. This is good, sometimes because the odds of the computer models not changing in ten days is very unusual and it only made sense that it would either stay off shore in the Atlantic or bend west out into the gulf. The news was reporting massive traffic jams on the interstate from the people in South Florida evacuating and the idea of being part of that mess was really not welcome. There is a website that interactively shows how traffic is flowing and I could see where all the choke points for the evacuation are located. The thought of getting into that traffic and then running out of gas somewhere was not at all appealing. My wife and I have 3 cats and they do not like to travel. We also have my wife’s mother who lives just up the street to take care of and her cat too as well.
We have lived through many hurricanes before and when it looks bad, we have storm panels to put up to protect the windows and doors. We also have special storm screen we use to protect the garage door and the pool deck. The pool deck is protected by Armor Screen and protects three sliding glass doors. The Armor Screen attaches to removable eyes that screw into heavy bolts sunk securely into the pool deck. Over time the bolt holes fill up with dirt, so when Erma was still four days out, I was happy to find a squirt bottle of water sends a jet strong enough to flush out the dirt so you can screw the eyes down deep. The Armor Screen is custom fit and figuring out which screen goes where is half the job of putting them up. The Armor Screen attaches to the eyes by a nylon strap very similar to a seat belt strap and one time setting this up I imagined a tornado blowing the whole house away down to the slab and being assured that the piece of roof attached to the armor screen would remain attached to the pool deck. With the armor screen in place, you can sit out on the pool deck and enjoy the storm.
When Erma was three days out, the computer models shifted its path to make landfall at the very tip of the peninsula and come straight up the middle passing through Orlando. This was good news because hurricanes begin to loose strength as soon they move over land and by the time it reached Orlando it probably would be a cat 2 or weaker and would not be able to generate a storm surge affecting the east coast. This sealed out any thoughts of evacuating.
One of the things I had purchased after the 2004 storms that hit us back to back, Charlie, Jean and Francis, was a generator. I got a good deal on a 7KW generator that had a 220 outlet. The 220 outlet allows you to use a backfeed cable to energize the whole house. When backfeed the whole house you first disconnect from your power service lest you backfeed the whole neighborhood. That would certainly damage your generator. So to do this safely you flip all your breaker circuits off, connect your generator, start your generator and then energize your circuits one at a time being careful not to energize the air conditioner circuit, which would overload my 7KW generator.
My generator had sat in my shed for about 12 years and I had never started it or even put any gas in it. One storm in the past came close enough to put oil in it years ago, but never any fuel. Normally when we lose power during a storm, it only says out for a few hours. Several previous storms when we evacuated, I could monitor things at the house simply by pinging my web servers. If I got a ping back, the power was on. Every storm that threatens to come here, I take the precaution of filling my gas cans just in case I need to run the generator. After the storm I normally empty my cans into the cars. Another thing that’s good to have following a storm is propane for the gas grill. Our gas grill has a side stove just for the eventuality of having something to cook on if the power goes out. I had an empty propane tank I had been meaning to fill.
During hurricane Mathew, they shut off the water to the barrier islands and I warned everyone that this might happen again, so I had a spare 5 gallon gas can that I had never used for gas and I filled it up with tap water for just in case. This turned out to be a very good decision.
The storm was forecast to reach us very late Sunday and early Monday morning. By Saturday stores were boarding up, but still open. I made a last trip to the store on Saturday with the intention of stopping at the hardware store to fill the spare propane tank. When I passed the hardware store, there was no way to enter their parking lot because it was completely full and cars were there in the parking lot waiting for someone to pull out so that they could park. The computer models had Erma moving farther west giving Tampa a direct hit from the gulf.
When ever the neighborhood hunkers down for a storm, we hand out these cheap Family Radio System walkie talkies just in case the phones go down and this storm was no exception.
Later on Saturday I called the hardware store to see if they had any propane and they had just received a shipment and could fill my tank. When I arrived there was a line of people waiting to get their propane tanks filled and I did not have to wait too long.
The NOAA weather site has a nice real time radar website and by Saturday night you could see the storm approaching south Florida. When a hurricane approaches it usually sucks any bad weather away. Normally the day before the storm and the day after the storm the weather is beautiful, but this was not the case with Erma. Sunday morning I went to take a drive around town just to see what was still open and what was going on. I found just a couple of gas stations and a 711, which was extremely busy. Later Sunday afternoon my mother in law came over with her cat. The wife and her mother like to play scrabble and Yahtzee and that evening they were fully engaged having candles at the ready. By late Sunday night the wind was picking up.
I was watching my weather station which I had put up on the roof just a few days earlier anticipating Erma’s arrival. Its one thing to hear the wind blowing hard, and its another thing to have an instrument that says yes in fact it’s blowing hard. When the wind got strong I retired to my man cave where I have my ham radio station where I could converse with the other hams in the area. I took my outside antenna down and laid it on the ground before the storm so that I could simply pull it back up afterward. This plan worked great during Hurricane Mathew the year before. There were ham radio operators at 4 evacuation shelters and there were several others hunkered down and on the air. Around 9 pm Sunday night the power flickered a couple of times and then went completely out. I radioed my neighbors with the FRS hand held and verified that we were all without power.
One of the things we keep around the house are small LED flashlights, so when the power went out, there were flashlights laying around everywhere. My wife had lit some candles ahead of the power going out so the big impact of losing power was the air conditioning. Back in my radio room the radio was powered by a couple of power chair batteries so all my DC powered radios could operate and their displays are back lit so it was not completely dark. I had a vintage AM transistor radio and I was listening to the local station when I thought of using my cell phone to receive the NOAA radar website. I was able to connect to the NOAA website using the cell phone and what it showed me was the storm was shifting further inland than predicted and that a very strong arm of the storm, perhaps 500 miles long was coming right through our area. Over the next few hours I watched all 500 miles of that rotating band pound our area. All during the storm I went into the garage and opened the side door to have a look out into the side yard to get a close up view of the weather. I wanted to take a walk around the outside of the house to see if we had any visible damage. Inside the house it was nice and tight, dark and warm. Normally during a hurricane the wind is cold and you can crack a door or window behind the protective panels and get a nice cool breeze blow through the house, but Erma was bringing only hot wet air. Around 1am I went out to the garage and inspected the garage door. While the garage door was protected by the Armor Screen I could see the door bulging in and out from the pressure pocket the door frame collected behind the Armor Screen. Around 2 am the long mean feeder band had moved off and a relatively calm region was now moving through. The center of rotation was now centered near Lakeland Florida, much further inland than any of the models had forecast. I took this opportunity to take a walk around the outside of the house. The wind was still raging and the rain was light but really stung my face because of the wind. All during the night we heard the door to the screened in pool enclosure banging in the wind and I had earlier went out there to verify that it was in fact locked. All the heavy furniture was moved within the Armor Screen but we had left the pool floaties which did not have any mass to speak of out in the pool area. The screen doors have latches two thirds the way up the door so that little ones could not just let themselves out, so there was two thirds of the door was able to bend and flex in the wind. The wind had gathered all the pool floaties right there at the door that was banging and some of the pool floaties were pinned in the door and one had actually made it’s escape. I retrieved the escapee and left it in the garage upon my return to the house. I was happy not to see any damage to the house. Later my wife asked my why there was one of the pool floaties in the garage.
I came to bed after the inspection tour and it was hot and I did not sleep very well. Around 7am I got up, got dressed and went out for a walk around the neighborhood. The wind was still blowing around 25 to 30 miles an hour. I walked to my mother in law’s house and walked all around the outside and surprisingly no physical damage other than a screen panel out on her screened in porch. I met some other neighbors doing the same along the way. While the homes fared well there was a lot of damage to the trees.
Before breakfast Monday morning I went for a short drive and found that most of the traffic signals were not working. Most of us know that when you approach an intersection with a light out, you treat it as a four way stop. Evidently this piece of information had failed to reach everyone. Many people treated an out light as a no light and blow right through the intersection as if the light was green. This encouraged me to abort my exploration. When I got back home, the wife was getting ready to make breakfast on the gas grill side burner, so I took down a portion of the armor screen and moved the grill outside. Around this time we discovered there was no water pressure. My wife expressed concern about her cell phone being low on charge. I had already prepared an inverter hooked to a spare car battery and she thought this was particularly good planning to have that power source at the ready.
By 9am the power had been out for 12 hours and if we wanted to save the food in the refrigerator it was now generator time. Having never used this generator I pulled it out of the shed, poured a little test gas into it and it started right up. I hastily retrieved one of the really long extension cords and ran it into the kitchen and connected up the refrigerator. I was comforted seeing the light come on when the door was opened.
The rest of Monday we just sort relaxed and listened to updates on the transistor radio. Before going to bed we ran an extension cord into the bedroom for a fan and we topped off the generator with fuel, in the dark, by flashlight.
The wife woke me up around 8 the next morning to inform me the fan had stopped, meaning the generator ran out of gas. I refilled the generator with the last of the gas from the two 5 gallon cans. I put the empty gas cans in the car and went out to see if I could find an open gas station. I found an open gas station and it was very busy and they were queuing people up. They would only take cash and my $50 bill granted me a place in the queue. This experience left me very irritated. The remainder of Tuesday was spent picking up branches torn off the oak trees and palm trees and taking down the storm protection.
On Wednesday we continued pick up and stacking branches and limbs by the side of the road. By now many who evacuated were arriving back to find no power or water and we were discussing over the radio what we knew about the progress getting power and water restored. One of the things that made this storm unique was that all the leaves on all the trees were turning brown on all the foliage that faced south. By mid afternoon my neighbor informed me the water had returned and a few hours later the power was also restored and the ordeal concluded when the air conditioner restored comfortable conditions inside the house.
It was four days later when everyone had water and power restored. Hurricane Erma brought hurricane strength winds from coast to coast. The lesson learned is things go a lot easier if you prepare properly. We had candles and flashlights at the ready. I had a backup power source for my communications radios and to charge the cell phones. The generator worked like it was supposed to. I had fresh water stored and cash on hand. I also have a 100 watt solar panel that I did not need and hope never to need, but its there. If I learned anything, those chemical lights, Cylumes, do not keep. I had a bunch of chemical lights stockpiled and they all went bad. The one thing that I learned to appreciate was the help I had from my neighbors. We all worked together to help solve each others problems and it was nice to know that they were all there for us. Nothing beats having great neighbors!
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