In Miami we braced for a hurricane every year or two, latching down the Bahama shutters, stocking up on canned goods, and filling the bathtubs with water. But as storm after storm fizzled out or swept off to ravage the Gulf Coast or the Carolinas, we started to feel cocky and impervious. The big one didn’t strike until I was away at school, when Andrew rolled in.
My mom's house, miles and miles from the ocean, wasn't supposed to be particularly at risk, but with a storm of that magnitude, wherever you live, you board up the windows and hunker down and pour a drink, get high or pray your ass off. If you're far away, you keep calling home. That’s what I did, at least. In the background the storm barreled and screamed; my sister's voice got lower and lower with dread; at some point the plywood covering a sliding-glass door ripped away and my stepfather pushed back against the bucking glass, with his hands, to keep it from breaking (never, ever do this) until they could get the kitchen table braced against the door. Unlike a good third of our neighborhood (I'm estimating), my family was lucky: the house stayed standing. But I have friends who watched their windows break and their roofs fly off and their possessions became projectiles. Some cowered in bathtubs; others fled to strangers’ apartments. One of my favorite people in the world tried to weather the storm in a houseboat and later washed up in a canal.
Hurricane Irene, now churning toward us, is only projected to be a Category 1 (to Andrew's 5) at landfall, and could easily change course or die down like so many before. But you can't count on that, and even if it looks like the storm is going to hit someplace else, or is continuing to weaken, be wary. Camille and Katrina and Charley are proof that no one, the National Weather Service included, really knows what a hurricane is going to do until it's done it.
As New York City's Office of Emergency Management establishes, hurricanes with sustained winds of 74 mph or greater are nothing to make light of. As of now, we are officially under a hurricane watch, which means we need to complete preparations as quickly as possible. Here's what you can do to get ready, and to protect yourself if the storm gets bad.
Low-lying areas: Take a look at the city’s flood map. If you're in an evacuation zone and you can go stay with friends or family, do so now. If this isn't possible, if the city issues an evacuation order, go stay at a storm shelter. Do not try to ride out the storm of this scale and strength in, for example, Dumbo or west Williamsburg—or your houseboat. And don’t wait too long to get out; Governor Cuomo just announced an emergency plan that requires the MTA (including the subway) to shut down at noon Saturday. Take your "go bag" (see below) and get the hell out of the East Village.
At the store: Buy bottled water, one gallon per person per day. Stock up on ready-to-eat, non-perishable foods, like canned soups, peanut butter, crackers, dried fruit, nuts, chocolate and pretzels. You’ll probably want liquor, and, if you smoke, cigarettes, and make sure to have plenty of kibble on hand for your pets. Get a bag or two of ice (or make as much as you can) for your freezer. It could prevent food from going bad if your electricity goes out for only a short while.
If you don't have flashlights (LED strongly preferred) and a battery-or-crank-operated radio, get them. As of yesterday, J&R was still selling a two-in-one with a USB port and solar charge capability. You're also going to need a lot of batteries, because the power could be out for awhile. (My mother, an Andrew veteran and avid Weather Channel-watcher, reports that "the ground is already saturated from all the recent rain, which invites telephone poles and trees to come crashing down.")
You'll also want a first-aid kit and to fill your prescriptions. Take out cash and try to break it down to small bills.
The city has a more succinct list that includes, in addition to the things mentioned above: a whistle; iodine tablets or one quart of unscented bleach (for disinfecting water only if directed to do so by health officials) and eyedropper (for adding bleach to water); hygiene items like soap, tampons, toothbrush and toothpaste; a phone that doesn’t rely on electricity; and "child care supplies or other special care items."
Outdoors: If you have an outdoor space, tie down your gas grills and your propane tanks and whatever else you can't move. Bring everything else indoors.
If you have storm shutters, as the city for some reason appears to think we all do, by all means use them. Some people say not to bother taping your windows, that it doesn't help, but FEMA recommends taping to reduce the danger of flying glass, and my mother and stepdad believe tape helped save their hides in Hurricane Andrew. Close your blinds and curtains.
Indoors: Assemble your "go bag." The city recommends that you put into a backpack or something similar:
• Copies of your important documents in a waterproof and portable container (insurance cards, photo IDs, proof of address, etc.);
• A set of keys
• Credit and ATM cards and cash, especially in small denominations (ideally $50-$100 total)
• Bottled water and non-perishable food such as energy or granola bars
• Battery-operated AM/FM radio and extra batteries
• Your medications
• Very basic toiletries
• First-aid kit
Fill pitchers, large bowls, bathtubs and sinks with water, not just for drinking, but so you'll be able to wash up and flush the toilet if the water supply is disrupted.
Turn your refrigerator to the highest setting. If you bought ice, put it in the freezer.
Brace doors to the outside. (I’m sure there’s a better way to do this, but, in a pinch: my mother said that she and my stepfather nailed criss-crossing 2x4s into the molding of the exterior doors and then filled in the holes and repainted later.)
If you have time, you might want to put a few of your most beloved or fragile possessions or electronics into plastic bags, in case water gets in somehow.
Pets: If you have to evacuate, try to leave them with friends or family in safe areas. Only "legal pets with proper identification” are allowed into NYC shelters. I'm not sure what happens if you show up with your cat or dog but without your vet records, and it's too depressing to think on that for long, so I'll just refer you to OEM and FEMA information about pet preparedness.
The storm itself: Some people say not to bother taping your windows, that it doesn't help, and the Times says, "Residents riding out the storm should not tape windows; it does more harm than good, federal officials say," but a disaster-preparedness expert on "The Brian Lehrer Show" this very morning recommended taping to reduce the danger of flying glass, and my mother and stepdad believe tape helped save their hides in Hurricane Andrew. So make a decision about that. Close your blinds and curtains.
An interior bathroom, particularly one with a bathtub, is the safest place in the house. If a window breaks, go in there. And it probably won't come to this, but interior stairwells are generally the best place to be in an apartment building, if it's compromised. Lower down is better—assuming flooding isn't a danger. (FEMA has more advice.)
If you're in a high rise, be prepared to move to a lower floor. Mayor Bloomberg keeps saying that city high-rises were built to withstand high winds, and that’s probably true, but I wouldn't want to hang out in the penthouse if things get shaky. The wind will be more severe on upper floors.
Do not, under any circumstances, use candles or kerosene lamps while the storm is in progress.
And as FEMA says, "Do not be fooled if there is a lull; it could be the eye of the storm—winds will pick up again." More feel-good news from Mom: “the storm is HUGE (450 mi. across) and moving slowly and the larger and slower the storm, the longer it takes to die down.” Even afterward, venture outside with care. Debris could be obscuring downed or uprooted live power lines.
Photo by A. Strakey.