Lessons learned from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, I wrote a series of “lessons learned” points, which I combined into an article on this blog some time later.  It’s consistently among the most viewed articles here, so I hope it’s done some good.

As the wider picture is emerging after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico over the past couple of months, there have been more useful lessons coming out of the experiences of my correspondents (and from news media articles).  I’m going to summarize some of them here.  I’ll add to this article in future (with a link to it at the time) as more information comes out.

1.  Storage of emergency supplies.

This is problematic when your building floods, and/or when hurricane-force winds damage or destroy it.  A number of issues have come to light.

  • If your containers (e.g. tin cans, jars, etc.) are identified only with paper labels, they probably won’t stay attached (and/or legible) when flood waters rise.  It’s a good idea to write the contents on the tops and/or bottoms of such containers using a waterproof Sharpie, or something like that.  If the label is soaked and/or falls off, you’ll still know what’s inside.
  • Some containers (e.g. Mason jars, etc.) are a lot less damage-resistant than others.  This is important if part or all of your building collapses.  Anything made of glass will probably break, and its contents will be ruined.  Tin cans are more resistant to that, but not invulnerable.  You may need to dig your supplies out of a damaged room, so it’s important to make sure they survive the damage!  After hearing from correspondents about this, I’ve decided to store some of our emergency food supplies in heavy-duty, relatively damage-resistant totes (such as those recommended in this article).  That will help keep them together, make them easier to recover if necessary, and hopefully provide greater security against breaking or leaking.  (Note:  if your supplies are heavy [e.g. Mason jars or tin cans], pack them in smaller totes, so that the overall weight is manageable.  A large tote, loaded to the gunwales with heavy containers, is going to be hard to move at the best of times, let alone when you have to dig it out from a damaged or destroyed room!)
  • If space allows, it’s a good idea to separate your emergency supplies, making at least two caches at opposite ends of the house.  That way, if one part of the building is so badly damaged you can’t safely enter it, you can at least use the supplies in the other part.  It might also be worth storing some supplies with friends or relatives whose homes are stronger and more disaster-resistant.  If yours becomes completely unusable, you’ll still have something to fall back on.
  • Garden sheds are very useful to store volatile supplies such as cans of gasoline, propane gas cylinders, etc, keeping their fire hazard away from your primary residence.  Emergency supplies can also be stored there.  However, in a hurricane or flood, they’re a lot less secure than a large building.  They may collapse, or be knocked over, or be washed away;  and looters looking for easy pickings will find it relatively easy to gain entry to them, if necessary by kicking in a wall or a window.  They are not secure storage, and should not be regarded as such.  If you have warning of an approaching emergency, move essential supplies out of sheds into safer and/or more secure locations.

2.  Using transport and/or travel trailers to “bug out”.

Many people rely on transport and travel trailers or RV’s to “bug out” if necessary, or provide alternative accommodation if their primary residence is damaged.  However, they are much more vulnerable than a house or apartment, particularly in weather-related disasters, and especially if strong winds arise.  Don’t take a trailer into a high cross-wind situation, whether parked or on the road.  The odds are very good it’ll blow over, as these videos illustrate.

There are many more like them, as an Internet search will demonstrate.  Also, be aware of the potential hazards of towing large, unwieldy trailers in the midst of heavy evacuation traffic, as noted in my Katrina after-action “lessons learned” article.

3.  Cash is king!

I’ve spoken several times about the need for an emergency cash reserve.  These hurricanes have driven home that need even more powerfully.  In Houston and Florida, electronic payment networks (needed to operate credit card machines, ATM’s, etc.) were down from days to weeks on end.  In Puerto Rico, they’re still largely inoperable in most parts of the island.  Most shops are insisting on cash payment only – and if you don’t have cash, you’re out of luck.  Reuters reports:

Demand for cash in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico is “extraordinarily high” after power outages knocked out electronic transactions and ATMs … Residents and tourists were counting their dwindling banknotes in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which crippled the electrical grid and communications network, turning the Caribbean island into a largely cash-based economy.

. . .

With electricity and internet down in Yauco, southwestern Puerto Rico, Nancy and Caesar Nieve said they could not access paychecks directly deposited into their bank accounts.

“What are we going to do when we don’t have any cash? The little cash we have, we have to save for gas,” said Nancy.

Cash demand spiked in the first few days after the hurricane as merchants were unable to accept other modes of payment.

. . .

Isolation and widespread power outages … intensified the cash crunch in Puerto Rico.

“I’m out of options,” said Brandon Alexander Jones, a vacationer from London who on Tuesday was down to $85, with no way to get more cash, and no way to reach a friend on the island due to crippled cellular service.

He was staying in a San Juan shelter after a hobbled hotel had asked him and other guests to leave, and he spent much of his remaining money to get to the airport.

“I don’t know how to get across the Atlantic. I don’t know how to get to the States. I’m stranded,” he told Reuters. “I’m out of reach from anyone who can help me.”

There’s more at the link.

Note, in particular, Mr. Jones’ account in the above report.  If we travel to or in areas where natural disasters are more likely to occur (e.g. California [earthquakes], the Caribbean [during hurricane season], areas with active volcanoes, etc.), we need to have additional cash on hand, just in case.  It’s too easy to rely on credit cards when traveling . . . but you’re stuck if you can’t use them.

I continue to believe that an emergency cash reserve of at least one month’s routine expenditure, stored securely at home rather than in a bank savings account, is an essential part of one’s emergency preparations.  If that’s not possible, try to save a week’s worth, or even a couple of days’ worth of cash.  It may make all the difference in difficult times.  Furthermore, when traveling, take extra cash along, just in case.  Yes, it can be a security headache . . . but its absence during an emergency may be a much bigger one!

4.  Security may be a much bigger problem than you realize.

The crime and looting reported from Texas and Florida weren’t too bad, thanks to a strong police presence (although they were bad enough if you were a victim, I’m sure!).  Puerto Rico appears to have a much bigger problem.

The island of 3.4 million people is without electricity, and water, and looters have taken over as police and the National Guard enforce a strict 6 pm to 6 am curfew — leaving Americans in chaos, abandoned by their government.

“It’s a war zone,” Beckles said by email. “There is no power or water. We are under curfew from 6 pm to 6 am. Food is becoming scarce and people are getting desperate. Looting has already begun. The lines to get gas are seven to ten hours long — to receive $10 worth of gas.”

. . .

Beckles said that in the first few days after the Hurricane it seemed things might be fine — but help never came.

“We are now 7 days in and nothing is happening. How can anyone feel safe with a curfew in place and looting going on?” she said.

The mayor of San Juan has warned people to stay indoors and not violate the curfew for their own safety.

Again, more at the link.

There have been similar reports from other Caribbean islands affected by the hurricanes.  This is made worse, from our point of view, by the fact that many of those islands (including the US Virgin Islands) have more restrictive firearms laws and regulations than the USA, making it much more difficult to defend oneself and one’s family, and protect one’s property and emergency supplies from looters.

The situation after Hurricane Katrina was much worse than it has been this year.  I suspect US law enforcement authorities learned from Katrina, and responded accordingly;  but that may not be universal.  I continue to suggest that you arm and train to defend yourself and your loved ones, if necessary – and protect your emergency supplies while you’re at it.  It’s like a parachute.  You may never need it . . . but if you do, you won’t have time to go and buy one, and learn how to use it!  Better to be prepared in advance, just in case.

5.  Generator issues.

A Puerto Rican correspondent at Voat reported:

In this small town we probably have 10-15 people with generators and about maybe im guessing 40 with water tanks . Its taken to day 5 when now people are complaining about those with the generators. How inconsiderate we are, how noisy the generators are waah. I will gladly charge up your phone no prob thats nothing. anything else ,I need to see a gallon and an extension cord. the town ran out of gas, the town over has gas but the closest functioning ath is 2 towns away so yea its sucks all around. People are looking at your tank (mines at half, so shit it needs to rain.) 5 days is what Im learning where peoples tipping point is.

. . .

Sorry about dropping off last night generator died and I had about 2 gallons left until I went out to get more. Which was this morning. electric came back in the afternoon. If I dont see at least 10 more generators pop up next time the power goes out I will know for sure people are just stupid and theres no helping them.

More at the link.

That’s worth thinking about.  If you have a generator (which will be obvious from lights in your home at night, even if people are too far away to hear its exhaust), you’re going to attract the envy of those who don’t have power.  At first it may be a request to charge a phone;  then it might be to run an extension cord to their house, so they can share your electricity.  If you have a small generator, that won’t carry that sort of load, you’re going to refuse, of course;  but that’s going to create bad blood with your neighbors.  Worth thinking about . . . and perhaps worth planning not to use electric light at night, so as not to attract unwanted attention.  Burn candles, use flashlights, whatever, and use generator power for things like refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and small window air-conditioning units (or heaters in colder weather).

Another important point is the fuel consumption of your generator.  Bigger units consume more fuel, which is not a good thing when fuel supplies are limited or non-existent!  Given that factor, as well as the security aspect discussed above, I’m coming to think that one or two small 2,000 watt inverter generators (which can be connected together to draw more power from both of them) may be a better option for the budget-conscious (like myself) than a larger, more powerful unit.  Consider:

  • They use a gallon or so of gasoline for seven to ten hours of operation, as opposed to several times that for a larger unit, so your stored fuel supplies will go further.
  • They’re much quieter than a larger unit, typically operating at conversational noise levels – so they’re easier on your ears, and harder for your neighbors to hear.
  • They’re very portable – you can carry them in one hand.  This makes transporting them much easier than bigger, heavier, more unwieldy generators.
  • If you have two of them (to run them as a combined unit), and one breaks down, you still have one in operation.  If your only large generator breaks down, you’re S.O.L.

I’m almost sure that, when it comes time to buy a generator for Miss D. and myself, we’ll go for two of the smaller units rather than a single, larger one.

Finally, FEMA administrator Brock Long has a message for all of us.


* * * * * * * * * *

6.  More lessons learned:  Friday, September 29, 2017.

I’ve been hearing from more correspondents about their experiences.  Here are a few more “lessons learned”.

  1. It’s very useful to have a cooking method available that doesn’t require very much fuel.  Three correspondents report that they put thermal cookers to good use.  They’re a modern version of the old haybox.  You first boil the food, then put it in the thermal cooker and close the lid.  The food continues to cook from the heat stored within it, but doesn’t require any further energy from outside.  After four to six hours, you can produce a very tasty, well-cooked stew, soup or something like that, with the use of only as much energy as it took to boil it in the beginning.  That saves a lot of fuel (propane, or kerosene, or firewood, or whatever).  You can also carry a thermal cooker around with you if necessary, letting the food cook while you travel or do other things.  I’m impressed enough by those reports that I’m going to get two for our own use, one larger, one smaller in size.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with them.
  2. Tall poppy syndrome” appears to have reared its ugly head in several communities.  Some of those who’d made adequate preparations for disaster, and consequently come through the storm in relatively good shape, are said to have bragged about their forethought and acumen, and made disparaging comments about those who hadn’t done likewise.  This has not exactly made them popular with their neighbors, particularly those who would have liked to prepare as well, but couldn’t afford to do so to the same extent.  Also, some “preppers” are reported to have taken delight in eating and drinking on their porch, even barbecuing meat from their generator-powered freezers in full view of passersby, flaunting their “success”.  I’m sure you can imagine how popular this has made them!  I have no idea why they behaved like that, but I suspect it’s going to have long-term repercussions for them.  Not an example we want to emulate!  I suggest that keeping a low profile, and having some extra supplies to share with those around you, are worthwhile precautions against future resentment if you want to go on living in your neighborhood.
  3. In many areas, aid workers have arrived in trucks bearing bottled water, emergency food supplies, etc. and distributed them to all who needed them.  However, it’s reported that some “preppers”, who were known by those living around them to have their own supplies, tried to obtain more from the aid workers.  This led to several altercations and a few fist-fights, as those who were in greater need showed their anger and disgust.  I think the moral of the story is to keep your emergency supplies out of sight, and not let it be known that you have them – or, at least, not as much of them as you may have.  Also, don’t be greedy and try to take supplies that you don’t really need.  You don’t want to provoke that sort of response.
  4. A lot of people are angry and upset that they weren’t – and in some cases still haven’t – been allowed to access badly damaged areas or properties.  This is only common sense.  The emergency services are already overloaded.  The last thing they need is to have more problems thrown at them, rescuing home-owners and residents who’ve put themselves at risk!  However, many of the latter seem to think they have a God-given right to enter their properties and recover their belongings at their convenience.  This has led to a number of clashes.  Some home-owners have even been arrested for refusing to obey orders from the authorities.  I can understand their frustration, but really, there’s no excuse for that behavior.  It’s not just our lives, but the lives of all those who’ll have to put themselves at risk to rescue us if something goes wrong – and the other important tasks they’ll have to leave because of our selfishness.  Communities have to sort things out one problem at a time, as resources allow.  It doesn’t help anybody if we try to assert our “rights” (no matter how questionable) and refuse to cooperate.
  5. Many landlords have been terminating leases for their properties, requiring tenants to move out at once so that they can commence repairs or rebuilding.  Some tenants are apparently upset about this, because they can’t get other rental accommodation near their work or family or schools (most of it having also been damaged or destroyed).  They’re accusing their landlords of being “uncaring”, or “gouging” them, or words to that effect.  Again, I don’t get it.  If the building’s badly damaged (particularly if interior flooding and mold removal are involved), it has to be emptied if it’s to be repaired.  Sure, that’s inconvenient, and may result in a lot of unexpected expenses for tenants;  but that’s the reality of the aftermath of a disaster.  It’s nothing personal – it’s just the way it is.

I’ll post more “lessons learned” as they come in.



  1. The crime and looting reported from Texas and Florida weren't too bad, thanks to a strong police presence

    Heavily armed neighborhoods after a hurricane (at least in Florida) is a well known fact to many critters out there. The only incidents of looting reported were to business and the police took care of them quickly.

    It makes for a better distribution of police forces. They are not needed everywhere so they can attend other emergencies although their most important role (and I am not kidding) was directing traffic in intersections where the lights were out.


  2. – The good thing about the inverter generators is that they are quieter, more portable, and use less gas – the bad thing is that they also produce less power, so plan ahead for what you want to run off of it. Also, think about having a battery charger to charge at least your car batteries off of it so you don;t have to run it all the time – 12 volt lights or a small inverter will give you some power without using fuel, for lights, charging devices, etc.
    Goal Zero has a couple of nice 12 volt lights that run off of a cigarette lighter plug, as do other suppliers.
    – Also, keep use of lights at night hidden so that you don't draw attention – after a disaster, you don't want others to know you are better off then them!
    – As far as storing mason jars or cans, there are custom plastic boxes you can get that hold and protect them; they aren't cheap but would be worth it for higher value supplies or a last ditch more protected cache.

    Hygiene can make a difference in morale when troubles come; having wash clothes, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, etc makes a BIG difference in how one views a situation like this. I have a simple shower unit that runs off of 12 volts and pumps water from a bucket through a shower head; taking a shower after a rough day in the middle of nowhere is REALLY nice. You can even warm the water before hand with a tea kettle so it isn't cold. This is the one that I have (but I paid MUCH less for it): https://www.amazon.com/Portable-Powered-Water-Pump-Shower/dp/B00EN7N4XG It is also useful for rinsing off other things when away from running water.

  3. That's worth thinking about. If you have a generator (which will be obvious from lights in your home at night, even if people are too far away to hear its exhaust), you're going to attract the envy of those who don't have power.

    As one who also went through Irma, I can say there were far more generators in the area than that piece that's quoted.

    I have a whole house backup generator that runs on LNG. That infrastructure has never gone down after a storm, to my knowledge. It doesn't make you run a "bucket brigade" to a gas station. My main lesson was not to put all my eggs in that basket and a backup backup generator is not an absurd idea – if one can deal with the complications.

    Hate to pimp my blog, my Lessons Learned post is:

  4. SiG reminds me of a point I forgot – if available (it isn't where I live), natural gas is a good option for fuel. Propane isn't as good, but if you have a tank, might as well hook it up – for example, my 500 gallon propane tank (400 of gas, allowing for expansion) would run a small dual fuel generator for over a year. If dealing with bottles, propane never goes bad, unlike gasoline or diesel (due to bacterial growth).
    One reason Natural gas is usually available is that it runs underground; if more electric lines were buried, storms would have less of an impact on it as well.

  5. For good labels look to the Brother P-Touch label machines, they and the tape aren't cheap but they are very legible, durable and removable. I bitch about the cost but use them here.

    We used a small 1000 watt rated (940 real watts) Honda generator to supplement our solar panels with good results. Run it early to fast-charge your batteries and let the solar top them off for best efficiency. If you need a high load start the generator to supplement the batteries, you save 20 to 40% on discharge/recharge losses.

    I went with the Honda 1000 for fuel efficiency and light weight (bad back here) as my battery pack and big inverter could deal with bigger loads. Without an inverter the 2000 is a better option as it will run a drip coffee maker or skillet where the 940 watts from the smaller one wouldn't. Add a second for redundancy or larger loads but think about what you will be running, the larger / multiple load issue may not impact you. For us it was better to brew coffee then fry eggs.

    The numbers above are for my older unit, make sure you check them on what you are looking at and don't get the (pre-inverter) look my wife gave me when our $750 investment popped a breaker half way through her morning pot of coffee.

    With a quick visit to a welding shop or friend you can add an extension to your generator exhaust that will let you pipe it a bit further away and reduce the sound at the same time. Intake noise can be reduced by some careful blocking and placement, just keep enough air flow to not overheat.

    Do not forget to stock some good oil for your generator, go synthetic if your generator can use it for longer life and reduced wear. Don't dump your old oil but save it for reuse if you run out of fresh stuff. You can filter out a lot of the crud with a thick stack of cloth and a bit of time.

    Batteries and DC powered LED lights are my option for after dark. No generator noise to attract unwanted visitors, much more efficient than any AC powered lights when using battery power and more durable as long as you got water-proof ones. Plan on light concealing curtains for your lighted space too, you can attract a lot worse than bugs with visible light as was mentioned.

    If you are looking at a bug-out trailer look at the various pop-up or high-low types. When collapsed and loaded to capacity they are very stable, when up you have more room.

    If you are around an orchard or vineyard you can score some pretty solid wooden boxes, damaged ones often just for the asking. A bit of repair work and salvage to get material for covering the top and you have a pretty solid storage solution cheap. It also turns into good firewood if it comes to that.

  6. The down side to "cash is King "….. ESPECIALLY while traveling, is if the local hired thugs in blue pull you over and discover your emergency cash stash it will INSTANTLY become THEIRS.

  7. Sams Club has a 1700 watt inverter generator on sale for the next five days for $294. That's about half off. It doesn't link to a second generator but less than perfect now can be a lot better than perfect later. Besides when you want to trade up to two you can run parallel you can probably sell this one for at least what you paid for it.

  8. Most small inverter genesets can only produce 110. You can link 'em for MORE 110 amperage, but can't get 220 if you need it.

    They are also more portable. But that also means more easily stolen. Have a really good chain or cable to make casual theft less likely….and something large to tie 'em to.

    Finally, gas storage is problematic, but steel *UNVENTED* containers keep gas fresh longer (Although you need to leave space for expansion), along with PRI-G as a preservative. You still need to rotate or replace every 6-9 months, more often in the Texas summer heat.

  9. I have a pair of '2000 Watt' inverter generators from Wen so I don't have to shout when sitting our the hunting camp fire. Nice units. They are fairly heavy and do not come with wheels like a larger generator. Just be aware as I know many people cannot easily lug around a 50+ lb suitcase sized unit. The '2000 watt' is also misleading. They will supposedly handle a 2000 watt surge but maintain 1600 watts in ideal conditions. A single one of mine will trip out after about 10 seconds on my RV microwave with no other significant loads, so 1600 watts is generous. Parallel kit works great but is a bit unwieldy. You pay about double for similar wattage. All in all a mixed bag.

  10. I've seen a lot of small generators go missing from campsites over the years, folks put the chain through the rubber handle which is easily cut. Put your lock and chain to the frame of the unit, weld on a lug if there isn't one.

    You may see a 120 to 220 volt converter, usually designed for well pumps mentioned, they work well with non-inverter generators but some folks have had issues when trying to run them on the inverter versions. Check carefully and test things before you need them if you go that route.

    Multiple cash stashes and a dumb look can pay off. Keep a hundred in your wallet, a bit in the wife's purse and the rest tucked away somewhere you can get to it but that isn't obvious. If driving, money belts are so rare these days they might well be an option. Having your well hidden stash driven away with by the guy that stole your ride isn't good.

  11. During Irma, I only ran my gennie during the day. Less conspicuous, fewer neighbors complaining about noise, and less fuel.

    Running during the day allowed me to keep my freezer cold, watch TV, and charge batteries at night.

    An LPG whole house backup at 16KW is enough to run everything in the house, except an electric stove, and only uses 2 gallons of propane an hour. A 500 gallon tank would have enough propane to run the gennie for about 17 days.

    The only downside to running only during the day is that it is quite warm and humid to sleep at night. We took turns sleeping on the screened in porch, where it was cooler. The other stayed up on watch.

  12. Even in rural areas it would pay to be noise conscious. You'd be surprised how far the sound of a small engine will carry. At night it's even more noticeable. On an almost still night even normal speaking voices will carry a surprisingly long distance. I've got a neighbor who tends his cows in a pasture 2 miles away and when it's quiet and the breeze is right I can hear him slam his truck door and start the small engine on his water transfer pump. Attaching a longer exhaust pipe and multiple mufflers to your generator probably wouldn't be a bad idea as long as you were careful about too much back pressure.

    With the advent of cheap ubiquitous LED lights using a generator for lighting isn't needed. You can easily use solar rechargeable lights and battery chargers. With a minimal investment in solar panels and a battery bank you can run lighting, comms and many other things silently and indefinitely. Save your generator for running your deep freezer or fridge intermittently to keep things cold or powering the few other things that draw too much from your solar panels and battery bank. It also goes without saying but learn to do things in the dark. There's no reason why you can't move around in your house and perform simple tasks in total darkness.

  13. Where I live (S Central Oregon, "Jefferson" country), the big issues are earthquakes and wildfire. Winds generally don't go much above 60mph here, so I have some other options.

    Started with a small (1800W) generator, and later a 5500W (nominal) 110/220V one. We're at 4000', and some loads (a 3HP compressor) is too much for the generator, so I have to be careful. The big engine is loud; I'm considering a 3000W inverter system as potential backup for our well.

    The quiet issue is partly solved with a more-or-less portable solar system. 6 panels on a 16' flatbed gives me 1.6kW of charge, and a 3.6kW inverter gives me enough to run the 'fridge and freezer for a while. Might be dicey in winter, but it's worked so far for lightning caused outages for a few hours. The trailer isn't hidden, but it's not easily seen from the roads; one neighbor can see it, but nobody in town has mentioned it. It's not very portable; hard points tie it to the ground (see 60 mph winds), but if I really had to move it, I could.

    We're considering a larger, fixed system for the new pumphouse. Grid tie solar systems are fairly common on the local ranches, and this would look similar. Everybody "knows" that grid tie is useless when the grid goes down, and I don't have to talk about the batteries…

  14. "A lot of people are angry and upset that they weren't – and in some cases still haven't – been allowed to access badly damaged areas or properties. This is only common sense".

    Gotta differ with you here. if it is MY property, I should be allowed to get to it whenever I want. You may not choose to rescue me, but you have NO RIGHT to keep me out.

    You are falling for the "big brother knows best" concept. The state is smarter and better than the individual.

    Screw that.

  15. IF you are on YOUR property, you are right. You do not, however, have a RIGHT to use property that isn't yours: highways, roads, etc. When they are closed, they are closed.

  16. Divemedic:

    Those roads are PUBLIC PROPERTY.

    The other problem I have with the all-knowing government idiots is they first want to force everyone to leave their private property. "One size fits all" government thinking. F'ing idiots. We do not live our lives at the convenience of .gov stooges. I don't know when that sort of thinking started, but it damn well needs to stop.

  17. Re the "right to return".
    I wonder if TPTB could have a waiver form to allow such.
    Some sort of acknowledgement that I'm on my own.
    – Charlie

  18. I understand the authorities "keep out for your own safety" stance after a disaster. But—–when you see 7 out of state "news" trucks 3 blocks past the barrier—*&%$# that. I live here, I pay taxes here, the need for rehashing the same demolished buildings for the 17th time this hour DOES NOT grant you special privileges.

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