Emergency Preparedness:
What We Learned As a Result of the "Derecho" on June 29, 2012

I'm a weather watcher; always have been. I pay attention to weather systems and usually have a couple of different weather radar animations open on my computer at any given time. As the weather has seemingly become more violent and intense over the last several years, I've realized the importance of being prepared for weather-related emergencies. I honestly felt that I was ready for most of the problems that a snowstorm, hurricane, or strong summer thunderstorm could present. I was wrong.

I knew that a storm was approaching my part of Virginia on the evening of Friday, June 29, 2012. At 8:10 pm I saved the following image from a weather radar site:

From the image, it seemed that the worst of the thunder and lightning was breaking up as it crossed over the mountains between West Virginia and Virginia. I went to another weather site and took some video clips, which I posted to my YouTube account. It was shortly before 9:00 pm.

Again, I assumed that the storm that would impact my area was losing strength, given that the colors on the radar images were showing up as yellow and orange instead of red. As I watched the animations, however, I realized that it was moving incredibly fast, and while that *should* have been enough of a clue for me to know that this would be no ordinary storm, I still didn't anticipate how bad it was going to be. The automated weather warning on my computer alerted me to the fact that "strong winds" would be associated with the storm, but there was no mention of a "derecho" at that time--and I wouldn't have known what that meant, anyhow, as I'd never heard the word before.

Shortly after 9:00 pm, the lights flickered--then blinked off and back on, knocking my computer offline. I turned it off and we went out on the porch, carrying flashlights. There was an incredible roaring sound coming from the northwest, and then it was upon us--and the lights went out and stayed out. It was 9:20 pm.

I had never experienced winds like that! Loose objects on the porch table were blown to the floor and the sound of cracking could be heard in the woods--and in my yard--as trees uprooted or simply snapped in two. Still holding our flashlights, we grabbed a battery-operated lantern and went to the basement.

For nearly a full hour the wind roared and gusted. (We later learned that winds were in excessive of 80 mph, with gusts approaching 100 mph!) And then, almost as suddenly as it had started, it was quiet. And very dark. And the air smelled like pine...

I tried to call my mother, but there was no answer. Finally, she called me on her cell phone, as her landline was dead. She said a tree had hit her house, but she didn't know the extent of the damage. As we attempted to drive to her house, which is just one mile from my house, we began to realize just how devastating the storm had been--and how unprepared we were to deal with its aftermath. Listed below are some of the challenges we faced and what we will try to do in the future to be better prepared.

  • Do not assume that you will be able to leave your house. Downed trees and power lines can be hazardous and may block roads and driveways.

  • During the storm, seek shelter on the lowest floor of a sturdy building! One life was lost in this area when a tree fell on a man who was standing out on his deck....

  • Try to avoid being on the road when a storm hits. One life was lost in this area when a tree fell on a woman who had gotten out of her car after trees fell on the road in front of and behind her....

  • Have plenty of D-cell batteries available--more than you think you'd possibly need! Most flashlights and battery-operated devices use these. Do not assume that you will be able to easily replace them, as they quickly sell out.

  • A battery-operated fan can be a life-saver, particularly for the elderly, during a heatwave when there is no electricity or air conditioning. Again, have plenty of replacement batteries available.

  • Landline phones will not always work after a storm and cordless phones will not work at all if the power is out. Make sure you have at least one corded phone in your house or apartment. And if cell phone towers are damaged by falling trees or whatever, your cell phone might not work, either!

  • Keep a hard-copy list of important phone numbers, know your neighbors' phone numbers and the numbers and names of people who live near your family members (especially if they are elderly or disabled).

  • Have at least a week's supply of ready-to-eat food that does not need to be cooked or refrigerated. Ice may not be available.

  • If you're on regular medication, try to have several day's supply available. If you're on insulin, plan ahead as to how to keep it cool in the event of an extended power outage.

  • Have a cooler available and if there's any question as to how long power might be off, immediately put ice into the cooler to try to preserve some of your food. That said, don't take chances with food that has possibly spoiled!

  • Be aware that animals may be drawn to the smell of rotting food. Heavy plastic bags and a critter-proof garbage can may help.

  • If you have pets, have at least a week's supply of food available for them. If you have indoor cats, an extra week's supply of cat litter is a plus!

  • Solar-powered landscaping lights can be brought inside at night. While they are usually not bright enough to be used like a flashlight, they can be placed in rooms or on stairways to provide some illumination.

  • You may not have access to fresh water; many wells require electricity to pump water to your house. Have a supply of stored, fresh water available for drinking and also for flushing toilets.

  • You may not be able to wash dishes, so a supply of paper plates and cups--along with some plastic forks and spoons--might be helpful.

  • Do you have enough toilet paper? Also, a package of diaper wipes can help you freshen up some when showering isn't an option.

  • Have a car charger for your cell phone; these may not be available after the storm, as they sell out quickly, too. Leave your car running while charging your phone to avoid depleting your car's battery!

  • Invest in a small Camp Stove Kit or gas grill that you can use to heat water in pots or pans that are suitable for use on a grill or open fire. If you're a coffee drinker, consider purchasing a Melitta Single Cup Coffee Brewer.

  • Try to keep at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times. If you have to evacuate, the closest hotels/motels that are operating may have no rooms available and--without electricity--pumps at gas stations won't work, either.

  • If you have young children, have plenty of supplies on hand to take care of their needs. Board games, cards, crayons and art supplies are also helpful.

  • Be sure to turn off appliances like stoves and dryers if they were on when the power went out!

  • Have at least a basic first aid kit in your home. If you have a medical emergency, help may not be available.

  • Many of us rely on electric can openers and electric toothbrushes. Make sure you have non-electric ones, too.

  • Keep insect repellent on hand and dress appropriately (sturdy shoes and long pants) if you have to spend any time outdoors. Avoid walking under fallen or leaning trees as more branches may fall....

  • A multi-purpose emergency radio, like this one, can be a godsend. It offers "Emergency Solar Hand Crank AM/FM/NOAA Digital Radio, Flashlight, Cell Phone Charger with NOAA Certified Weather Alert & Cables":

  • Health-challenged individuals who use CPAP machines or nebulizers may want to have their doctors complete a form that puts them on a priority list for electric and phone repair. Given the scale of some disasters--and even if these forms have been turned in to utility companies--it could still take days before these services are restored. If possible, invest in a small generator and extra long heavy-duty power cords so that you can position the generator away from the living areas of your house. Carbon monoxide is a killer, too!

  • Try to find someone with power and internet that you can call for news, weather reports and updates. Almost worse than the 90-degree temperature in my house was the feeling of isolation. With no electricity and no internet, I really felt cut off from the "outside" world and that was actually very hard for me to cope with!

While this list is not exhaustive, it does highlight some of the things we learned as we dealt with the extended power outage in Virginia--which was made even worse by an ongoing heatwave that sent temperatures into the triple digits! Cold-weather emergencies would create other challenges, so having a supply of extra blankets and (if possible) an alternate way to safely heat your home should also be part of an emergency-preparedness plan.

As to the damage? We were lucky. The trees that fell in my yard fell away from my house (though they destroyed the fence in my back yard). The trees that fell in my mother's yard grazed her house (damaging the gutter), but had they broken off any lower, the result could have easily been tragic, as they would have crushed her house as easily as they crushed her neighbor's chicken coop and sheds....

Here are a few pictures from my house, my mother's house and my town:

Broken trees in my back yard

One of the lesser damaged sections of fence in my yard

The trees simply snapped off about 10-12 feet up!

The street to the north out of my neighborhood was blocked...

As was the street to the south--but fortunately we could get around it.

My mom's neighbors lost their chicken house--but their chickens were okay!

Another one of their sheds was also destroyed.

This was such a beautiful tree....

Gutter ripped off, car crushed.

All of the siding was blown off on one side of this house!

Lots of falling trees landed on vehicles in this area--including this one.

While it's not possible to prepare for every disaster scenario in these increasingly crazy times,
if you plan ahead, you'll give yourself and your loved ones a much better chance to "live to tell the tale."

Don't be scared; be prepared!

Sharon K. Barrett 2012

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