Work Together to Prepare for the Next Big Storm

Year by year, hurricanes are growing stronger and more frequent. We are witness to these changes as we watch two catastrophic storms devastate the southeastern United States in as many weeks.

This month, Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas. The massive storm killed at least 16 people, flooded cities, highways, and rivers, and reduced much of the region to rubble.

Barely two weeks ago, Hurricane Florence killed at least 36 people in three states, forced thousands to evacuate their homes, dumped record floodwaters on North Carolina, created power outages for hundreds of thousands, and killed millions of farm animals. The most recent damage estimates put the economic toll at a staggering $100 billion, once accounting for property damage, medical costs, and lost wages.

Natural forces emboldened by climate change continue to overwhelm our outdated stormwater management practices and inadequate urban planning, putting us in a precarious position. Short-term economics have often driven development where considering long-term environmental impact was needed instead. When it comes to handling the effects of more storms, we’re not as prepared as we think.

As we assess the damage done by Michael, Florence, and other storms, the shrewdest move is to prepare for the next big storm — and the one after that. Municipalities, businesses, and individuals can brace for the next storms by focusing on the following areas:

Additional Pollution Prevention

Florence and Michael disrupted two of North Carolina’s biggest industries: coal power and hog farming. This created environmental trouble and the potential for health problems. Duke Energy officials in North Carolina said slope and landfill erosion caused stormwater with coal ash — containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury — to spill into Sutton Lake. Watchdog groups have expressed concern about the effect on water quality.

Floodwaters also breached multiple hog lagoons, designed to keep solid waste from polluting sources of drinking water, in at least two North Carolina counties, causing varying degrees of damage. The North Carolina Pork Council says the state’s other 3,000 hog lagoons are holding up, but the state’s Department of Environmental Quality will have to perform inspections.

The landfills, dams, and lagoons containing pollutants need to be stabilized and reinforced. Cities can reduce landfill washout by using gravel stabilizers, terracing, drainage diversions, and other measures to safeguard their slopes against erosion. To avert overflow of detention ponds like hog lagoons, companies can add pond depth, secure the perimeters, and place impervious barriers around the site.

Adjusted Damage Estimates

Because of climate change, we can count on heavier rain and shorter intervals between storms increasing flooding risk. Data is still being gathered for Michael, but we know that for Florence, greenhouse gas emissions and warmer weather made for more intense rainfall. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, the city matched its annual rainfall (typically 50 inches) in a matter of days.

Cities, businesses, and infrastructure planners need to set new damage expectations, as “500-year storms” arise with increasing regularity. Adequate planning and preparation may seem expensive overall, but it’s more expensive to deal with damage in the aftermath of flooding. It’s important to remember there’s no immediate fix or silver bullet. Instead, we need long-term solutions first acknowledging the problem and then planning for it.

Broader Public Education

Weathering the next storm requires a public education process that touches all sectors on the solutions available to help protect communities against floodwater. In my hometown of Houston, the community has come together with a discussion on the web, in public forums, and in community meetings.

The Houston Green Building Resource Center provides a public resource at the permitting building, providing engineers, architects, contractors, and homeowners with techniques on how to reduce flooding on the macro and micro levels, including information on building codes, permeable and sustainable materials, and engineering technologies to incorporate. Examples include elevated construction, or raising buildings above the rising floodplain, and permeable paving techniques that can reduce the extreme weather’s impact on the earth’s surface. Both are cost-effective improvements worthy of broader public education.

The intensity of storms like Michael and Florence raise the bar for planning and preparation. Governments, businesses, and communities must plan ahead and work together during the quiet times before the storm returns.

United Way’s 2-1-1 Information Service Stands Ready to Help Those Impacted by Hurricane Irma

With Hurricane Irma on course to hit Florida, United Way stands ready to help storm victims with 2-1-1, an information and referral service that can provide local information about shelters, food and water, health resources, and other needs related to hurricane recovery or anything else. Anyone in need of assistance should call or text 2-1-1 to connect with a trained specialist for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

2-1-1 centers from to have stepped up to help people in Irma’s path. As a national network, 2-1-1s will continue to answer calls and texts from residents in the Southeast even if centers in the region close due to hurricane damage. If phone services are impacted, residents can text “Irma” to 898-211.

2-1-1 specialists can answer questions regarding the following:

  • Shelter locations
  • Where to get food
  • Where to get supplies
  • Help accessing disaster programs
  • Other non-life threatening emergencies

“In the wake of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, we are once again preparing our 2-1-1 call centers to help people impacted by this dangerous storm,” said United Way Worldwide U.S. President Mary Sellers. “We urge anyone in crisis to reach out to us with question or concerns throughout the weekend.”

Further, in anticipation of the devastation expected to impact the region, United Way has created the United Way Irma Recovery Fund to support local communities in the and affected by Hurricane Irma. United Ways in the affected areas will continue to raise money locally and respond to emerging needs as appropriate. United Way’s Irma Recovery fund will complement those efforts, help smaller United Ways who may not have the capacity to create their own fund and provide a single clearinghouse for individual and corporate donors who want to help.

United Way’s focus will be on mid-and long-term recovery and 100 percent of individual donations given to the United Way Irma Recovery Fund will be used to meet storm-related needs in the affected areas. The money will be distributed to United Ways in the affected areas of the Southeast United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and trusted partners in other affected areas of the Caribbean.

United Way has a history of serving as the cornerstone for long-term recovery after natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina, as well as flooding in Tamil Nadu, India. United Way is laying the ground work for mid- and long-term recovery in the areas affected by Hurricane Harvey and Irma, which is expected to take several years. The United Way Irma Recovery Fund is just one more way the organization will continue the fight for every person in every community.

To donate or volunteer, please go to www.unitedway.org.

Hurricane & Flood Handbook: After the Storm

Take it from someone who has seen 27 inches of water lap against the living room walls: plan ahead. No photo album should live lower than three feet in a cabinet. Children’s cheerleader pom-poms and refrigerator art are no longer stashed on the closet floor. And, never throw away old phone books — they can raise Grandma’s heirloom drop-leaf just high enough to save it. (Remember, phone books swell and get even higher when wet!)

There’s a lot you can save. But you’ve got to plan, while the sun is shining.

If house flooding occurs

Should a sustained storm bring record rainfall to your area, your home may take in water. Even if you are not near a river or bayou, your neighborhood may be so saturated that water simply has no place to go but in and up.

If your street water is climbing into your yard and/or if your neighborhood is prone to flood:

  • Put on rubber soled shoes or rubber boots. Do NOT go barefoot in your home.
  • If possible, move your car off the street into the garage.
  • Remove gasoline cans and flammables from the garage or put them high into the rafters of your garage.
  • Grab your pre-prioritized list of items that must be moved higher (onto a tabletop or countertop), such as documents, photos and computers.
  • Unplug all electric cords from wall sockets in anticipation of water rising over the socket.
  • Turn off electricity at the breaker if you believe that water will approach sockets.
  • Remove lower drawers from dressers and place higher — they swell shut if wet.
  • If you have a one-story home, go into your attic while the water is still low and check for a roof exit if necessary. Bring with you any necessary tools you would need to create an attic opening to your roof.
  • Keep exterior doors closed. Unless you are near a river or creek, most rising water does NOT enter through doorways, but through ground saturation. So chances are, it will come from everywhere at once. Doors need to remain closed to keep out animals and insects that are groping for places to land.
  • Keep battery-operated communication devices on for updates on weather and evacuation boats that may be coming through your area.
  • Do not drink water from the tap until you have been advised that the water system was not contaminated.
  • If your house is flooding, your toilets won’t flush. Have a temporary “chamber pot” designated. Camping toilets are good to have on hand.

When it’s over

  • First, call family members to let them know where and how you are.
  • Then, call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance in your area.
  • If you have flood insurance, call your agent.
  • Pull out your camera and take pictures of the damage. Visual aids assist agents, if you have flood insurance.

The aftermath of a mess

Depending on the amount of water, the type of home and your geographic area, these tips may help you save belongings:

  • Hardwood Floors: (sitting on screeds, not pre-fabricated) every 3-4 feet, remove a plank and save it. Wood is porous and swells when wet, making the planks “pop” out and appear unsalvageable. But wood dries out and returns to its normal position. Wait several weeks and then replace the missing plank. Removing planks immediately after a flood allows the foundation and wood to dry out faster.
  • Remove carpet AND carpet padding immediately.
  • Remove the molding around the floors that are against the wall and save. This speeds up drying.
  • Rent or purchase at least two dehumidifiers if possible, and run them 24 hours for several days. They truly do pull out tremendous moisture.
  • Borrow fans and turn the air conditioner colder for several days.
  • Sheetrock must be cut out at least three feet above the water line AND insulation removed as well. Insulation is highly absorbent.
  • Swab down the gutted exposed boards with a mix of one quarter cup bleach to a gallon of water to prevent mold.
  • Clean-up equipment: When using sprayers, wet vacs, vacuum cleaners and other cleaning equipment, use an extension cord with a ground fault circuit interrupter or install a GFCI in the electrical circuits in damp environments.

To save wet documents

  • If valuable papers have gotten wet, chances are you won’t have time to pull them apart and find a large enough area to let them dry. If they are partially drying, they will stick together and rip.
  • So, take the entire file or stack of papers and resubmerge them briefly in water. Then wrap them in plastic and put them in freezer bags and freeze them until you have time to deal with them. They stay preserved and, for some reason, thaw without sticking together or ripping.
  • Saving photos: resubmerge and gently pull apart. Lay them on a flat surface to dry. Remember, photos are developed in liquid in the first place.

Cleaning up mold

After a storm or flooding is over, mold can be a serious problem. Act fast to prevent or clean it up:

  • Protect yourself from injuries during cleanup by wearing
    • Hard hats,
    • Goggles,
    • Heavy work gloves,
    • Waterproof boots with steel toes, and
    • Earplugs or headphones (if you’re working with noisy equipment).
  • Clean up and dry out your home quickly after the storm ends — within 24 to 48 hours if you can.
  • Air out your house by opening doors and windows.
  • Use fans to dry wet areas.
  • Clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water.
  • Fix any leaks in roofs, walls or plumbing as soon as you can.
  • Throw away anything that you can’t clean or dry quickly. For example, you might need to get rid of carpeting and some furniture.

If you notice mold, clean it up with a mix of bleach and water:

  • Never use bleach in a closed space. Open windows and doors first.
  • Put on rubber gloves.
  • To make your cleaner, mix 1 cup of household bleach with 1 gallon of water.
  • Clean everything with mold on it.

Disinfect Toys

Remember that anything that’s had contact with floodwater could carry germs. To keep your kids safe, make sure their toys are clean:

  • Make a cleaning fluid by mixing 1 cup of bleach in 5 gallons of water.
  • Wash off toys carefully with your cleaner.
  • Let the toys air dry.

You may not be able to kill germs on some toys — like stuffed animals and baby toys. Throw out toys you can’t clean.

Surviving a summer night without power

Trying to sleep in Houston without air conditioning when “low” temps are in the 90s could be used as a medieval torture device. Try misting your sheets with water to stay cool. Combined with a battery-powered fan, this technique won’t exactly mimic A/C, but it may allow you to sleep for a few uninterrupted hours.

The dangers of standing water

Flood waters and standing waters pose various risks, including the risk of drowning (even in shallow water), infectious diseases, contact with sewage and chemical and electrical hazards, and the potential for injuries. Flood waters can displace animals, insects, and reptiles. To protect yourself and your family, be alert and avoid contact. In addition, flood waters may contain sharp objects, such as glass or metal, that can cause injury and lead to infection. Avoid standing or moving about in flood waters as much as possible.

DEET: Your anti-mosquito protection 

Along with your other first aid preparations, have on hand good bug spray containing DEET — the one ingredient proven to thwart disease-carrying mosquitos.

Patrol the perimeter

Not only will wind damage a fence, heavy rains can waterlog fence posts, causing the fence to lean or collapse long after the storm passes. Check the entire perimeter of your fence for damage as well as potential damage and shore up any weak spots. Before letting pets roam freely in the yard, also inspect the perimeter for low-lying spots and areas that might have washed out during heavy rains, leaving easy-to-dig escape routes for adventurous animals. Also, inspect the yard for any broken glass or other sharp debris before leaving pets unattended.

Looters

Looters are unfortunately a very real threat after almost any disaster. Some of them are armed; all of them are nasty. Unpleasant as conditions are, you may need to decide whether leaving the area is better than losing everything of value you have left.

Dangers with generators: carbon monoxide poisoning

If you are using a combustion engine generator to provide electricity and AC while your power is out, think twice, and certainly do not put it inside your home. Generators can cause death through carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill or seriously and permanently injure people who inadvertently breathe in the noxious fumes emitted from generators in an enclosed space.

During hurricane season, emergency rooms see a rise in cases of CO poisoning from people bringing generators into their homes to provide power, often for air conditioning.

Food safety after a hurricane

Keep food fresh

  • If your power is out, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep in the cool air.
  • Put a block of ice in your refrigerator if you expect the power will be out for more than 4 hours. It will keep food cool longer. Wear heavy gloves when handling the ice.
  • Even if it’s partially thawed, you can still cook or refreeze frozen food as long as you can see ice crystals or if it’s still 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower.

Throw out spoiled food

Get rid of food if it:

  • Is in a can that’s open, damaged or bulging.
  • Has a strange smell, color or texture.
  • Needs to be refrigerated but has been warmer than 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) for 2 hours or longer. Foods that need to be kept cold include meat, eggs, fish, poultry, and leftovers.

Clean off canned food

If you have cans of food that came in contact with floodwater or storm water, you need to clean them off to make sure they’re safe to use. To get germs off the outside of the cans:

  • Remove the labels.
  • Dip the cans in a mix of 5 gallons of water and 1 cup of household bleach.
  • Label the cans with a permanent marker so you know what’s inside.

Water safety after a hurricane

Ask local officials or listen to the news to find out whether you can drink tap water or use it for washing. If it’s not safe, use bottled water if you can. If you don’t have bottled water, there are some things you can do to kill germs in dirty water and make it safe to drink. For example:

  • Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute.
  • Use household bleach. Add 1/8 teaspoon of new, unscented liquid bleach to 1 gallon of water. Stir well. Let the water sit for 30 minutes before you drink it.
  • Use water-purifying tablets. Adding these to water make it safe to drink. Follow the product’s directions.

Feeding your baby

If you have a baby, protect her from germs in unsafe water. You can:

  • Keep breastfeeding if that’s what you normally do.
  • Use canned or premixed liquid formula.
  • Use bottled water to make formula from a powder or concentrate.

If you don’t have bottled water, use boiled water to make formula. Make sure the water has cooled before mixing it with formula and giving it to your baby.

Only use treated (disinfected or purified) water to make formula if you don’t have access to bottled or boiled water.

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