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Old 07-24-2003
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Tom Wood is on a distinguished road
Hurricane Season

 
When the signs and the National Guard are out, it's too late to prepare.
 
We have arrived at the edge of our annual chasm of depression—a spiraling downslope of anxiety and lethargy that bottoms in late September or early October. Each year we think that this hurricane season will be easier to weather than the last, and each year we find ourselves more uptight.

As the season wears on into August, our morale flags and our momentum on the list of boat projects slows to a crawl. For one thing, it's just plain damn hot out there. Boat work involves coolers full of water, gallons of iced tea, and emergency rations of cold beer to revive the weary spirits so they can endure the last cleanup task at the end of the day.

But the lassitude of the season has more to do with a state of perpetual mental pressure than with the heat. In June, there is the occasional tropical depression—light by hurricane standards and often well south, and our attitude remains somewhat upbeat. By July there is a fairly steady stream of tropical waves, "disturbances", and depressions moving along the Intertropical Convergence Zone. As these depressions deepen, so does ours. The Weather Channel draws us like a moth to a flame, our morbid excitement growing with each passing event.

 
It's hard to defend against forces that can break concrete bridges.
 
By August we are running on adrenalin rush, causing us to scurry in mental circles as the storms become more and more powerful, probing ever farther north along the coast. September's annual peak normally finds us completely paralyzed—the boat is stripped bare and lashed into its berth with so many lines that sailing is impossible. Our "Abandon House" kit is assembled with survival gear and our one family heirloom, perched by the garage door for a hasty departure in the middle of the night.

October generally brings a little relief. Sometimes by the middle of October we can go an entire day without having visions of monster storms flitting through our consciousness. The first cool day of fall coincides with a major reduction in the tension level, the boat project list re-surfaces, and life becomes just a little more normal once again.

Intellectually, we know that our chances of taking a direct hit by a major hurricane are actually quite small—just a bit better than winning the lottery. But the consequences of such a strike are so terrible to imagine that the animal fear mounts regardless of the actual statistical probabilities.

In fact, we have never taken a direct hit—but neither have we escaped unscathed. Maintaining a boat in the tropics for many years has left us with more than a few mental images that we would rather not have. We cruised through Puerto Rico and Culebra in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, navigating the anchorages that were strewn with plastic milk jugs marking the hundreds of sunken boats. Andrew arrived in South Miami a few weeks after we took a berth in Ft. Lauderdale, and six months of surveying the tangled shards of broken hulls and shattered dreams still haunt us when Labor Day rolls around.

The list of names goes back through the years—Bob, Elena, Juan, Marilyn, and Dennis, swirling and weaving, dipping and dancing a macabre choreography across the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, and sometimes making a beeline for a destructive appointment ashore. They sprang to life spontaneously, but from time to time developed up to four at one time. Many of these named monsters caused us to prepare for a certain disaster, but they later fizzled out or changed direction and never arrived. And perhaps herein lies the greatest danger—that we should grow complacent and fail to prepare again in the future.

 
Without keel and rudder, this boat won't sail any time soon.
 
Some of the heightened tension of the season has been caused by the extra risk that insurance companies have foisted onto us over the past twenty years. Deductibles for damage from named storms have been levered up to 10 percent, rates have been jacked up for certain vulnerable areas, and during the peak season new insurance policies are unavailable at any price. While we understand that these are money-making companies, we are sure that better ways to spread the risk could be invented—after all, that's an insurance company's raison d'etre.

Many of the problems of owning a boat in the hurricane belt are enhanced by having numerous other ties to land. Jobs, cars, houses, and other personal possessions introduce a plethora of chores to attend during the height of the "getting out of town" frenzy. When we were living aboard full time, unhindered by the added burdens of schedules and excess baggage, we have found that dodging Nature's bullets by moving the boat to a safer location was always the best tactic.

Safer locations, however, are becoming scarce. The numerous small coves and creeks of bygone days have been bulkheaded with concrete and lined with high rise condos or yuppie mansions. Access to some have been cut off by low bridges or have silted in from urban runoff. The few remaining "hurricane holes" have such a crush of boats pouring into them at the faintest whiff of a storm warning that they, too, have become undesirable—during a major storm, there is no safety in numbers.

 
Planning your route and acting early may be your only escape.
 
In the end, we realize that the decision to own a boat in the hurricane belt is ours—not totally rational, of course, but ours none-the-less. While we face the yearly storm season tribulations with a building sense of dread, the alternative is to move to a more secure area. A concrete bunker in Kansas has come to mind on occasion—a place where we can deal with fast-moving tornadoes and not own a boat at all. Somehow we doubt that such a radical change in lifestyle would suit us well. Besides, owning the opportunity to gloat eight months of each year when we are sailing, swimming, and sunning while our northern brethren are buried in snow almost makes our four months of misery a fair trade.

"Get Out of Town" List

Preparation is the key to a successful hurricane evacuation. The first priority must be to save your life and the lives of your family. Only after that is assured should you worry about your property. Remember that when the first hint of hurricane warnings are in the air, time will be worth more than all of your worldly goods—the roads will be clogged with thousands, if not millions, of other frantic evacuees. So before the first siren sounds, most of the preparation work should be completed so they are not done in a panic mode. Here are some suggestions:

 Throughout the hurricane season, keep the car, or cars, in good running order and the gas tank at least half full.
 Agree upon an evacuation route and end meeting spot for the whole family in case you get separated by evacuating from two locations or with two vehicles.
 Prepare the boat well in advance as you may not have a chance to get to the marina when the evacuation notice rolls in. Double up the docklines, remove canvas and sails, close the seacocks, keep the batteries fully charged, check the bilge pumps regularly, shut down the propane system, add chafe gear on all lines, and remove all valuables and ownership papers to a safe place. Take pictures of the boat lashed into its slip for insurance purposes—date stamped if possible. If you do have time for a quick run to the marina before leaving the area, pull in the dock cord and give everything a once over.
 While the camera or video-recorder is out, shoot the house and cars, including four views of each room of the house and individual shots of any item of special value.
 Buy a portable fireproof and waterproof safe with a lock. Gather all insurance policies, bank and investment papers, IRS forms, wills, birth certificates, mortgages, loan or lease papers, car titles and registrations, passports, copies of driver's and other licenses, health records for everyone including the pets, extra credit cards, and any other special papers. Put them in the safe with a little extra cash, and top the pile off with the pictures of the boat and house. If you have a computer, keep it backed up and put the disk in the box too.
 Identify all the irreplaceable items you own—family photo albums, pictures, custom artwork, and grandma's needlepoint cannot be duplicated. Make a list of them, gather these items into one central location, and have a box or crate ready to load them up.
 Keep your everyday valuables in a briefcase or bag at all times. Eyeglasses, prescription drugs, wallets, checkbooks, address book, spare keys, cell phone and the like should be ready to grab with one hand.
 Prioritize other personal property. Remember here that you may be in for the flight of your life and that most of your possessions can be replaced—so take only what would be inconvenient to replace if your city is a total loss. Forget the cameras, but take a coin collection if there is room in the car.
 Build an "Abandon Town" kit. This should include:
 AM/FM radio, weather radio, and extra batteries for each
 Flashlight(s) and spare batteries
 Canned, boxed, or other non- or semi-perishable food—enough for the household for at least a week. A few gallon jugs of water are a good idea.
 Can opener, utensils, and cups, paper towels and plates.
 Pet food and pet supplies if you have an animal.
 Miscellaneous tools—roll of duct tape, hank of light line, and a Leatherman tool or Swiss army knife.

Now, when the warnings go up you only have a few minutes of work before turning the key in the car. First bring any loose outside items like trash cans, bicycles, plants, and kid's toys into the house—lawn furniture can be thrown into a swimming pool if you have one. Grab your valuables safe, the heirloom crate, the briefcase, and the Abandon Town box and throw them in the trunk. Pack a duffel of casual and work clothes, extra shoes, and foul weather gear and put that in the car. If there's room, add a few pillows and blankets, as you may end up in a public shelter.

Take a quick walk through the house, shut off all circuit breakers except the A/C and refrigerator, shut down the natural gas and water mains, and make sure that all windows, drapes, and blinds are closed. On this last policing, grab any small valuables that will still fit into the car. Then drive away from the coast as fast as traffic will allow.

Resign yourself to the fact that this is either a practice exercise and that you'll return tomorrow to undo all this work with no damage, or that you'll never see your possessions again. Or perhaps the worst scenario—that you'll have major damage just shy of being totaled and have years of rebuilding work ahead of you.



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