On October 10, 2016 the eastern coast of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina was raked by Hurricane Matthew as it traveled north just off of the coast. It was forecast to pass by Savannah, Georgia at approximately 2am local time, within an hour of high tide, and to be either a Category 2 or Category 3 storm. One of the big question that any prepper must ask themselves in a catastrophic even is whether they should stay and ride out the storm, or evacuate to a safer place. I chose to evacuate my family to Atlanta, Georgia. These are my plans, decision-making logic, observations, and lessons learned.
In our advanced hurricane planning (years ago) we established what weather forecast criteria would necessitate our evacuation.
As soon as the National Weather Service forecast models suggested that the storm could affect our area we made a point to fill our vehicles up with fuel at the end of each day. We did not want to be low on fuel and end up in fuel lines should a hasty evacuation have been announced.
In our advanced planning (years ago) we made a list of what we needed to take with us if we were ever to evacuate. As soon as the weather forecast showed a significant chance of severe weather we went ahead and assembled those items together so that we could hustle out in a hurry if we hastily decided that we needed to. As soon as the National Weather Service forecast models suggested that there was a significant probability the storm could affect our area we started prepping the house because we did not be rushed at the last-minute.
Lessons: Have a plan. Give yourself plenty of time to execute that plan. Remember the old military saying that no plan survives contact. Give yourself plenty of time for unforeseen contingencies.
Decision To Stay or Go:
My decision to stay or go was based on a number of factors:
- I have children. I was pretty certain that we would suffer at least some period of time without electricity or other resources. I did not want to be stuck in a house with kids wining because the air conditioning didn’t work or that they couldn’t get online or play their X-Box.
- If there was going to be any chance of strong winds then I expected to have trees fall on my property. I did not see any benefit of staying in my house and exposing my children to the risk of a tree falling on our house and injuring them. I was too easy to leave town and stay in a nice, safe, dry, quiet hotel.
- Hurricanes may appear to be heading one direction and then rapidly turn and slam another location with little warning. They may also spool up unexpectedly and produce much worse damage than originally forecast. I had made the decision that we would leave for any hurricane forecast to be greater than a Category 1 that was expected to hit anywhere between Jacksonville, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. This hurricane met both criteria and so we left.
- If I was going to leave I wanted to make sure that we left before the official order to evacuate was issued so that we would not be stuck in a traffic jam of sheep that are dependent on the government to tell them when and what to do.
Lesson: In your advanced planning decide what factors will necessitate your evacuation. Make sure that you leave before a mandatory evacuation is announced. Leave as early (pre-dawn) as possible to stay clear of traffic. Have multiple routes planned in case your primary route is gridlocked.
There is an old saying that the French and Indians (and US Army Rangers) attack at dawn. This is because most people are still asleep and aren’t expecting it. There were rumors that a mandatory evacuation was going to be announced later in the day that we had chosen to leave. We departed approximately an hour before sunup so as to avoid heavy traffic that we expected to grow as the day went on. Even at 5am there was still a moderate level of traffic congestion on the interstate highway. Later that day as the official evacuation was ordered the highways indeed became gridlocked. By that time we were 250 miles away and had vacated the “kill box”.
Lesson: Leave early before the rush.
Through social media we found out that Chatham County (Savannah, Georgia) had all roads into the country blocked at the border by law enforcement and military and they were not letting anyone back in. Until the utility companies had electricity restored (traffic lights operational and lights on to deter looting), and trees removed from major roads, they did not want anyone else entering the county. They didn’t want looters coming in to prey on the destruction, or legitimate citizens to jam up the debris blocked roads with traffic. We had to stay at our evacuation location another couple of days until the county cleared residents to return.
On the day of our return we again left well before sunup so as to arrive home early in the morning. We were able to avoid the heavy traffic that we found out occurred later that afternoon.
Lessons: Before leaving to return home, make sure that it is legal and safe to do so. Travel very early in the morning to avoid traffic.
I maintain my vehicles to a level that they could be driven across the country with a moment’s notice. Our evacuation and return showed that many people do not follow the same practice. I was shocked that within just a 100 miles of the Savannah city limits I saw at least two dozen vehicles on the side of the freeway with flat tires. Many of their fat, out of shape owners (just an observation) were standing next to their car scratching their heads with no idea of what to do. Most of these vehicles looked like they probably hadn’t strayed very far from the “buy-here, pay-here” used car lot where they had last been purchased. I’m sure that they had no idea of what kind of condition that their tires were in before they evacuated (inflation, tread wear, dry rot, etc.). I’m sure that they had no idea of how to change their flat tire, that they had never checked to see if the spare tire had enough air, or even knew whether or not they even had a spare).
Keep the list of items from Savannah Arsenal’s Car Box Checklist to help you change or plug a flat tire, or make simple vehicle repairs during your evacuation and return.
Lesson: Properly maintain your vehicles. If you can leave tonight and drive to California (from the east coast), then your vehicle is properly maintained.
If you even think that you might have to evacuate you will need to make your hotel reservations as early as possible. Remember that thousands of other people will be doing the same thing. You will be shocked at how fast they sell out, even if hundreds of miles away. A hurricane is a regional disaster. It affects lots of people. They will all be jockeying for the same resources. Don’t wait. Go ahead and make your reservations ASAP. Make sure that you understand the cancellation policy so that you will not be unnecessarily charged should you decide that you do not need to evacuate.
Lesson: Make your plans early. Everyone else will be doing the same.
Social Media & The News:
Provided that the cellular internet infrastructure is still up and running, social media such as Facebook is a great way to gather intelligence regarding when it is safe to return, and what you can expect. There will be plenty of photos of your area, and you will be able to find out if utilities are operational in your neighborhood.
Go online and check out the websites from your local hometown television and radio stations and print media. There will be plenty of videos and photos to show you what to expect when you return, or even if the authorities are allowing you to return.
Lesson: Use social media and the news to see if it is safe and legal to return home and what to expect when you do.
Our neighborhood has underground utilities. Our electricity was restored the day after the storm passed. Many people in the metropolitan Savannah area were without electricity for over a week.
Many parts of Savannah did not have water or were under “boil” advisories for almost a week.
Cable television, internet, and telephone service was out for as much as a week.
Lesson: Be prepared to operate without electricity, water, and the internet for an extended time after the storm. In this case the “three day supply” recommended by FEMA would have not been enough.
Most financial planners and preppers suggest that you have at least six months worth of living expenses saved up for an unforeseen emergency. This is one of those times that you will be glad that you have some cash save up.
Credit card infrastructure went down. ATM machines quickly ran out of money. Many businesses would accept cash only.
Some stores and service providers may not be able to break large bills such as $50 and $100. You will want your cash in small denominations ($5, $10, & $20). Keep your money separated into small stacks. You do not want to pull out a big stack of cash if you have to buy something. You will attract the wrong attention. Also, hide your money in a couple of different locations so that if you are robbed that you don’t lose all of your money (some in your wallet or purse, and some hidden in your vehicle… but not in the glove box or center console).
Lesson: Make sure that you have a bunch of cash in small denominations with you before the run on cash starts.
It really helps if you already own plenty of yard implements: gloves, leaf rake, potato rake, shovel, pitchfork, leaf blower, etc. (gloves are really important).
You already use paper leaf bags year-long for all of your yard refuse. Since you are already going to buy them eventually, go ahead and keep a large stockpile. You will definitely need a bunch to clean up after a hurricane. Leaves and limbs will be down everywhere. Bags will be one of those items that are in high demand at your local home improvement store after a large storm such as a hurricane.
Possessing a well maintained chainsaw (stored without fuel, the engine run until the carburetor is drained, and the blade sharpened and lubricated prior to storage) will make all of the difference in the world in how quickly your yard cleanup goes. Make sure that you have plenty of fuel, chain oil, safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves, and safety chaps. Using pre-mixed 2-cycle non-ethanol fuel, rather than 2-stroke oil that you mix with gasoline, will make your chainsaw will last much longer. If you still must mix your oil/gasoline yourself, try to mix it as precise as possible (exactly one gallon shown on the gas pump mixed with the appropriate amount of oil). If you can’t be precise, it is better to error on the side of too much oil than not enough.
Be careful of shady tree services. Ask to see a copy of their insurance before they start cutting and make a quick call to their insurance company to verify that their policy is still in effect. Get a written estimate before they start cutting and hauling trees on your property. Their prices are completely negotiable. Whatever price they quote (even if it is unbelievably fair) immediately make a face like you just ate something sour and tell them that you will hold off for a better deal. They are fishing for business and hope that you will pay without negotiating. Don’t let them get away with it. The tree service that I used immediately lowered their price by 1/3 of what they originally quoted me.
In our county there were individuals that portrayed themselves as local government officials. They went door-to-door issuing fake citations with potential hefty fines if they did not quickly removed downed trees from their yards (only two days after a major disaster). “Coincidently” a tree service would stop by about 20 minutes later asking if the homeowner needed any help with tree removal. Be on the lookout for opportunist con artists. Call the police on anyone that your suspect of trying to con you.
Lessons: Have lawn tools, leaf bags, and lots of fuel before the disaster occurs. Only use reputable tree removing services. Watch out for con artists.
Food, Water, Fuel, Supplies:
As discussed earlier, residents that didn’t evacuate for the storm were allowed to leave the county, but were not allowed to return. There were news reports of residents traveling to nearby towns outside of Chatham County in search of food and supplies for their families, but then not allowed to return. They were stuck outside the county, and their families were stuck inside without enough food, water, and supplies. See Savannah Arsenal’s Food page.
There are significant parts of the county that have not had water, or that were under “boil advisories” for over a week. Some areas initially had clean drinking water, but many areas had “boil advisories” pop up several days after the storm. This means that these people do not have clean water to drink, cook, or clean with. Don’t be caught without a significant amount of stored water. See Savannah Arsenal’s Water page.
Lessons: If you are going to stay, plan out the amount of supplies that you think that you will need. Then double that amount and purchase it. Do not wait until last-minute to gather your supplies. You don’t want to be caught in a mad rush of humanity trying to get what you need. When returning from evacuation, bring plenty of bottled water back with you, even if your local area does not require it. It may later, and if it doesn’t, then someone else will need the water.
Generators & Fuel:
There were significant parts of the area with the electric grid completely compromised. Some areas were without power for as much as a week. If you foresee needing a generator to refrigerate and cook your food, provide lighting, and run a small air conditioning unit then do not wait until last-minute to try to purchase one. Research and purchase the best generator for your needs well before the storm hits. Many people in the Savannah area evacuated to Atlanta, Georgia. Many people bought generators to take back to Savannah when they returned. In that large city with countless home improvement stores all generators (along with gas cans) quickly sold out. See Savannah Arsenal’s Generator page.
Generators (and your chain saws and vehicles) need fuel. Many gas stations in Savannah were temporarily sold out of fuel, or their power was out and they had no way of pumping fuel. Home improvement stores were completely sold out of pre-mix 2-stroke chainsaw fuel. See Savannah Arsenal’s Fuel Storage page.
Lessons: Safely store enough fuel to run your generator enough to keep your refrigerator cold, charge batteries, and to cold soak your sleeping area prior to bed time for at least a week. A two-week supply even better. When the storm is approaching, fill your vehicle fuel tanks each night so that you will have plenty in case of a hasty evacuation. When returning from evacuation, stop and top off your vehicle’s fuel tank before you reach a point where you know that fuel will no longer be available. Don’t enter the disaster area with a low fuel state.
Self-Defense & Security:
I felt completely confident simply wearing a high-capacity 9mm handgun. I did travel with a “modern sporting rifle” and appropriate accoutrements, but for this type of emergency it was overkill. With the concealed handgun I was able to move about at gas stations, home improvement stores, and my neighborhood without police, National Guard, or other civilians paying me any attention. It might have been a little sportier with an AR slung low-ready. See Savannah Arsenal’s Handgun pages. I did keep a couple of extra loaded magazines in my vehicle, and later under my bed when I returned home.
We carried a Motorola GMRS radio in each car just in case cell communications became difficult. I was worried that as we returned to the weather damaged area that the cellular infrastructure could be compromised and that cell communications could be difficult or impossible. With the handheld radios we would still be able to talk between vehicles even if the cell system was down or overwhelmed. See Savannah Arsenal’s FRS/GMRS Radio page.
After returning we found that in many of the harder hit areas that cellular communications were down. AT&T and Verizon worked very hard and were able to return cellular service to most customers soon after the storm passed.
Comcast cable services (cable TV, internet, and cable home phone service) are still out a week after the storm. It appears that fiber optic based communications are easily disrupted, even in areas that do not appear to badly affected by the storm. You can purchase an old fashion style antennae for your television. Depending on your area you may be able to receive a significant number of network television stations. This will go a long way towards relieving boredom and providing much-needed news.
Lessons: Communications may be sketchy. GMRS radios are a good way to communicate with your other vehicles in your convoy, or with nearby neighbors when the phone system is down. By an old fashion type antenna set for at least one television in your home.
Fortunately this was only a Category 2 storm that was well offshore as it passed by. There was significant destruction to coastal areas with significant property loss due to down trees and flooding, but the worst of the damage was localized near coastal areas. It could have been much worse had the storm been stronger and made a landfall near area. Even though this wasn’t “The Big One”, there were significant lessons to be learned, and it was good practice for what could easily happen again in the future.
Please share your experiences and lessons learned.