4 Lessons From Disaster Checklists: NOW I Get It

Like many in Florida, I am remembering the not-so-distant past experience with Hurricane Irma. In my Monday morning quarterbacking after that storm, I found areas where I did something right, intentionally or not, and others where I got to say, “Oh. NOW I get it.” I was grateful for no property damage or bodily injury, and a chance to do a better job next time.

Well, it appears next time is here.

Below are four (of many) lessons I didn’t expect to learn from Irma.

Checklist Confusion

When Irma was one week out, I dug up all the hurricane checklists I had and took inventory. But I became confused about which lists were for leaving the state, for staying at home, and for going to a shelter/friend’s home. I never thought I wouldn’t know which it was going to be. Leaving was not a simple option; neither was staying. As we debated, I bounced between the checklists, creating triple the prep anxiety.

Lesson #1: This could have been avoided with a kit prepared in advance for each option. (We ended up staying in our barely-non-evacuation zone home, shuttered and sandbagged to the max.)


What I Did Right: All the checklists say, “Flashlight.” I dug up as many flashlights as I could find. I checked the batteries. I replaced the batteries in the ones that didn’t work. The worst of the storm was to come at night, so before bed, I placed one on my bedside table and one on the kitchen counter underneath the light switch.

NOW I Get It #1: I quickly realized I was running low on batteries. Unfortunately I waited until the day before the hurricane to check my flashlights, and the batteries were gone from the store shelves five days before that.

NOW I Get It #2: When I thought about needing a flashlight, I imagined when the power has gone out before – it would be a handy supplement to dim natural light. What actually happened was the power went out in the middle of the night; the clouds were too thick for moonlight (and this time we have a new moon, so not a chance anyway), and even then, the hurricane shutters blocked out any sliver of light. My house was a cave. I could not see my hand in front of my face. The flashlight was an absolute necessity, not a helpful little handy supplement. I could have used one for each room in the house. Maybe two.

Lesson #2: Change checklist to “Several flashlights.” Put on calendar on June 1: “Check flashlight batteries and battery supply.”

Food and Clothing

What I Did Right: The checklists say to have three days of food and clothing prepared. I planned ahead for having three days of healthy food for three people, even if we had no power.

NOW I Get It #1: I didn’t understand why three days of food and clothing were needed when the storm is over in 24 hours. Now I recognize that:

a) If you are going to a friend’s house or shelter, the time to go is at least 24 hours before the wind, rain, and flooding starts – it reduces rushing and panic, and ensures you get a spot at the shelter you want (even if it’s a friend’s house). Once the tree branches start flying across the highway, you can’t go back for more underwear; and

b) Just because the storm is over doesn’t mean you can get back to your home. (Failing to think of this is called “denial”.)

Lesson #3: Have 3 days of clothing packed just in case. Maybe 5. When there’s no power in Florida after a hurricane, you sweat a lot. Ick.

On Your Own

One checklist says, “After an emergency, you may need to survive on your own for several days.”

What I Did Right: See above – The food and clothing and dishes thing. That’s about it.

NOW I Get It #1: When I read the above sentence, I thought, “Are you kidding? That’s for people who live in the country.” Now I realize we were lucky we still had water and sewer running on generators for a half million people with no power. Otherwise, we could have been in survival mode without basic services (a la Puerto Rico, seriously). I love camping and have been doing it since I was little, but I take way more time to prepare for camping trips than I did for the last hurricane.

NOW I Get It #2: With Irma, we had been in the neighborhood about a year. We had met the neighbors, had them over for Superbowl, and waved as we were coming and going. We knew them, sort of, but had no idea how much we would come together in a crisis. I did not think of counting on my neighbors, nor did I give a thought to them counting on me. But as Irma’s track got clearer, we formed a texting group, even with a young couple who just moved in 5 days prior. We checked in as soon as the sun came up.  One shared their freezer operating on a generator. Others immediately helped cut and clear fallen trees. We shared our stories and asked how we could help each other. As long as I live here, I know I will not have to survive “on my own.” Help is just across the street; and I would be grateful for the opportunity to give help right back.

Lesson #4: There are many more little lessons from Irma that I can recount, but this last one was the biggest V-8 moment of all. I am not all “on my own”; I am part of a caring community that pulls together, whether it’s unlucky tree karma in your yard or failing to buy batteries (and propane) in time. When I hear the same old story on the news from a natural disaster, “We all pulled together,” “This is a community who cares,” NOW I know what that kind of community feels like. Still, I will do a better job taking care of my needs so I can be better prepared to take care of others.

Now, I get it.

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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