NOW I Get It: 5 Lessons From Disaster Checklists

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Like many in Florida this time of hurricane season, I am remembering the not-so-distant past experience with Hurricane Irma. Below are 5 lessons from disaster checklists.

In that year, I thought I was prepared with a set of handy checklists. But in my Monday morning quarterbacking after that storm, there were areas where I did something right, intentionally or not, and others where I got to say, “Oh. NOW I get it.” I am a lifelong Floridian. I’ve been through hurricanes. Further, I love camping and have been doing it since I was little. But I take more time preparing for camping trips than I did for Irma.

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

Irma was a huge pain and inconvenience for several weeks, but in my immediate area no lives were lost or in imminent danger. I realize now, though, how unprepared I was if it had gone differently. With no property damage or bodily injury, I was given a chance to do a better preparation job next time.

So as we stare down another storm season and other climatic catastrophes, below are five 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 the checklists and took inventory. But I became confused. One list was for evacuating the state, one was for staying at home, and another was for going to a shelter or friend’s home. I never thought I wouldn’t know which it was going to be. With a 92-year-old mother-in-law, leaving was not a simple option. Neither was staying. As we debated for five days before it hit, 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.

Lesson #1: If you are evacuating, and especially going to a friend’s house or shelter, the time to go is not 24 hours before the eye arrives. By then, or even 2 days before, the 50 mph wind and flooding rain has already begun. Once tree branches start flying across the highway (gee, that does happen before the eye arrives), all the stores are closed and you can’t go home for more canned soup, batteries or underwear.

Lesson #2: Prepare the kits. Decide early on (like, 5 days out) to stay or go, and stick with it.

Flashlights and Batteries

What I Did Right: All the checklists say, of course, “flashlights and batteries.” In preparation, 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: Unfortunately I waited until the day before the hurricane to check the flashlights. We were low on batteries. Batteries were gone from the store shelves five days before that. Oh, duh.

NOW I Get It #2: When I thought about needing a flashlight, I imagined the times when power has gone out before. I imagined it would be a handy supplement to dim natural light.

What actually happened was the power went out at night. The clouds were too thick for moonlight or stars. Of course, there were also no street lights. It was truly dark, windy, and scary.

Inside, 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 #3: Change checklist to “Several flashlights.” Put on calendar on June 1: “Check flashlights, flashlight batteries and battery supply.” There’s usually a sales tax holiday in Florida that week anyway. Best time to stock up.

Food and Clothing

What I Thought I Did Right: The checklists say to have three days of food and clothing. I planned ahead for having three days of healthy food for three people. On the last day before, we realized we hadn’t checked the propane so we could cook the food. By then, propane was all sold out. We ended up cooking on a small charcoal grill. Not ideal.

NOW I Get It #1: I didn’t quite understand why three days of food and clothing were needed, especially if we stayed home. It had been too long (2005) since I had gone several days without power. 48 hours after the storm, it felt like a race against time to eat or cook the food in the fridge before it spoiled. Also, in Florida when there’s no fans or A/C after a hurricane, you sweat a lot. Ick.

On Day 3 my mother-in-law’s ALF got power so then, we did evacuate. We left to a hotel for 4 more days until our house got power restored. If we had evacuated before the storm and not been able to return, we would definitely have needed more food and clothing.

Lesson #4: Have 3 days of food and clothing packed just in case. Maybe 5.

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: Now I recognize that just because the storm is over doesn’t mean you can get home. After the eye passed and the sun was out again, 60 mph winds on Irma’s backside took down huge trees that blocked our street. It took neighbors with chainsaws a couple of days to clear them so cars could get through.

NOW I Get It #3: 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 the week 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.” We will be helping each other.

Lesson #5: There are many 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 have a community. I am lucky to be part of a caring community that pulled together, whether it was 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. I feel very fortunate about that.

Still, I will do a better job taking care of my needs so I can be better prepared next time to take care of others.

NOW, I get it.

Need a checklist? Here’s Pinellas County’s Emergency Management page.

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She 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." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

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