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.” All the official advice just didn’t sink in until I got a taste of the real deal. 

Irma was a huge pain and inconvenience for several weeks, but nothing in my area took lives or put us in imminent danger. I realize now, though, how unprepared I was if it had. I am grateful for no property damage or bodily injury, and a chance to do a better job next time. I love camping and have been doing it since I was little, but I take way more time preparing for camping trips than I did for the last hurricane.

So as we stare down another record storm season, below are four (of many) lessons I didn’t expect to learn from Irma.

Checklist Confusion

What I Thought I Did Right: 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 town, 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 preparation anxiety.

NOW I Get It: This could have been avoided with a kit prepared in advance for each option. (We ended up bringing over my 92-year-old mother-in-law, staying in our barely-non-evacuation zone home, shuttered and sandbagged to the max.)

Lesson #1: Prepare the kits. Decide early on stay-or-go, and stick with it.

Flashlights

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 there was a new moon, so no mooonlight anyway), and even then, the hurricane shutters blocked out any sliver of light there might have been otherwise. 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

What I Did Right: The checklists say to have three days of food. I planned ahead for having three days of healthy food for three people. On the last day before, I realized I hadn’t checked the propane so we could cook the food. There was no propane to be found anywhere.

NOW I Get It #1: I didn’t quite understand why three days of food (and clothing, the checklist said) were needed. After all my previous hurricane experiences, the storm is usually gone in 24 hours. Duh. Now I recognize that:

a) If you are going to a friend’s house or shelter, the time to go is not 24 hours before the eye arrives, but before the 50 mph wind and flooding rain begins. That could be 2 days before the eye arrives. Once tree branches start flying across the highway (Oh, that happens before the eye gets here?), you can’t go back for more hamburger and underwear; and

b) Just because the storm is over doesn’t mean you can get home. After the eye passed, 60 mph winds on Irma’s backside took down huge trees across our street. It took neighbors with chainsaws a couple of days to clear them so cars could get through.

Lesson #3: Have 3 days of food and clothing packed just in case. Maybe 5. You don’t know how long you will be away from home. (Remember, when there’s no power for A/C after a hurricane, you sweat a lot. Ick.)

On Your Own

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

What I Did Right: Food and flashlights. That’s about it.

NOW I Get It #1: When I read the above sentence, I thought, “On our own? That can’t mean the suburbs. That’s for people in the country.” Now I realize we were lucky our county had generators to run water and sewer services for 500,000 people for several days. Otherwise, we could have been, yeah, on our own. (Hola, Puerto Rico. I see you.)

NOW I Get It #2: We had been in our neighborhood about a year when Irma hit. 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, including a young couple who 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. I would be grateful for the opportunity to give help right back, too.

Lesson #4: There are many more little lessons from Irma that I can recount, but this last one was the big V-8, SMH moment. We are not all “on our own” if we reach out to each other. I am lucky to be 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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