Earlier this year, we launched #HurricaneStrong, a new national hurricane resilience initiative to overcome public amnesia regarding the value of advance storm preparations. We did so because readiness declines when land-falling storms are scarce, and resilience is impossible without a prepared public.
In this video, we make the point that decision-making by the individual or family is one of the most important drivers of safety and survival when a hurricane comes ashore as Hermine did in Tallahassee this month.
So from my perspective as part of both the disaster safety and Tallahassee communities, I am offering an unofficial score card on our Hermine performance by benchmarking against the five key focus areas of #HurricaneStrong. For this analysis, I am labeling actions before, during, and after as either “Resilient” or “Rusty”. And, yes, this is anecdotal, but well-informed as it is derived from our impressions as well as those of our vast network here and across Florida.
1) Personal Safety – Know Your Evacuation Zone – It’s still early, but I can confidently say that with respect to evacuation, the behavior of the majority of those at greatest risk in the path of Hermine was Resilient. The most dangerous life safety threat from Hermine was exactly as forecast by the National Hurricane Center—near record storm surge. And most of the residents of our coastline paid attention, and either hunkered down in elevated spaces, or they evacuated as ordered. As a result, no loss of life in Florida occurred from storm surge when the predictions proved accurate. Regrettably, one life was lost in a tree fall in an interior city, Ocala, but thanks to exceptional forecasting and public messaging from the National Hurricane Center, we averted potential for widespread loss of life.
2) Financial Security – Have an Insurance Check-up – This is one where I have to go with Rusty as many seemed unfamiliar with insurance policy basics. Here are the things you really need to know if you live in hurricane country:
- First steps post-storm should be to protect your covered property from further damage, document the losses by taking pictures (before you dispose of property), and contact your insurance company.
- Hurricanes may trigger special, percentage deductibles that are usually higher than dollar deductibles, e.g. 2% of a $300,000 home would mean a $6,000 deductible on physical damage to the home.
- Loss of Use reimbursement may be available if your home is rendered uninhabitable.
- Food spoilage caused by power outage may be covered, typically with a limit of $500.
- Tree removal is not covered unless the tree hits a covered structure.
- Increased electric bills may be covered if fans and other equipment are needed to dry out a damaged structure.
- Temporary repairs are typically covered if they are deemed reasonable and necessary.
- Automobile damage is covered so long as your policy includes “comprehensive” coverage.
- Flood insurance is not covered under a regular homeowner’s insurance policy, and requires a separate purchase.
- Flood insurance policies require a 30-day waiting period, so even in long lead time storms like Hermine, no coverage protection applies until a month goes by.
Flood insurance is critical for families to become #HurricaneStrong as uninsured flooding losses are often the most financially catastrophic byproduct of hurricanes and storms like Superstorm Sandy, the South Carolina “thousand-year flood”, or last month’s flooding in Louisiana.
This is one of the reasons we made insurance a priority in #HurricaneStrong, and why we routinely partner with FEMA’s FloodSmart.gov team to help spread the word. In July, we did so through an appearance on WFTS-ABC Tampa Bay’s “Morning Blend”. This broadcast reached families in the ten-county Tampa Bay viewing area with data like that in the table below:
What this table shows us is that only one-third of those residing in high-risk flood areas around Tampa Bay have a flood policy in force. Further, only five percent of those in low- to moderate-risk areas have a flood policy. This is startling and problematic for a whole host of reasons. As previously stated, life-altering physical and financial losses from floods can haunt families for years. We see this right now in South Carolina where foreclosures and building failures plague many families affected by flooding in Columbia last year.
It is also alarming for low- to moderate-risk areas as floods can occur well away from the high-risk zones, just as they did last month in Louisiana. In fact, 20 percent of all flood claims come from outside the high risk flood zones. One silver lining is that flood policies in those areas are often affordable. My flood insurance policy in Tallahassee is approximately $34 a month.
If you need further convincing, click on this cost of flooding calculator. You will see how quickly the losses add up. Two inches of water in your home will create an average of $21,000 in damages, four inches will cost $29,650. Flooding costs rise almost as fast as the water.
Just imagine what would be happening in Tampa Bay right now if Hermine had turned further east, and those without flood policies had been inundated.
Bottom line? Balanced against the potential cost of flooding, most of us in hurricane country need to make the investment in a flood insurance policy.
3) Family Preparedness – Build a Disaster Supply Kit – The bad news is that this simplest of #HurricaneStrong behaviors earns a Rusty designation post-Hermine. And, I think this is where the amnesia really hurts us. Apparently, many here either didn’t know, forgot, or ignored the basics of family readiness. They didn’t stock up on nonperishable food, water, or ice. They didn’t top off their gas tanks ahead of the storm.
Worse, afterwards, they ventured out too soon for safety. Power lines were sparking, traffic lights weren’t working, and gas station lines were growing by the minute. They showed up at McDonald’s (where they were doing brisk business thanks to a generator), but they couldn’t buy food as they never anticipated the need for cash. Credit cards didn’t work in many spots where the Internet service networks were down.
Food, water, cash, gas—all are “king” post-disaster. So the good news is that this is one of the easiest ways to become resilient. Make the list; secure the supplies. Plan for a generator, and make sure you have gas and oil to keep it running. If you can’t afford a generator, consider cost-sharing a purchase and plan ahead with family or friends to get one residence up and running until power is restored. Remember, those that plan win.
4) Damage Prevention – Strengthen Your Home – The storm surge did cause damage along the coast, and substantially-damaged structures will need to be elevated when they are rebuilt, especially if they want to qualify for future flood insurance.
Conversely, for the most part, the winds were not high or constant enough to reliably test home construction. But they did shine a light on the downside of our love affair with trees.
When we live in a beautiful, canopied area like the Big Bend, trees will topple when the winds blow, but there are things we can do in advance to mitigate impacts. Every year, we need to trim, limb up, and maintain healthy trees. If a tree is dead or dying, we should remove it. Local county extension offices are an excellent source of free expertise to help you decide.
If a storm threatens, and you are staying in your home, you should evaluate where a tree could land on your home and its proximity to sleeping rooms. Many here did exactly that ahead of Hermine, and it was a lively (and morbid) topic of conversation. We can never know if all the families that had trees fall on their houses planned to sleep safely out of the way, but in all but the Ocala case, either by luck or planning, people avoided injury and possible death.
So, overall, I can’t judge this category as either Rusty or Resilient, but I can state the obvious—we are lucky that Hermine sped ashore before she strengthened further. It could have been so much worse.
5) Community Service – Help Your Neighbor – Like the first bucket, I am thrilled to give this one a resounding Resilient. If you know Tallahassee, it should come as no surprise. People here are civic-minded and care deeply about their neighbors. Before, during, and after the storm, Facebook was full of posts with offers to give shelter, share meals, watch pets—anything to help out. When a tree crashed through a roof in one neighborhood, neighbors poured out into the driving rain to help rescue the family.
Post-storm, spontaneous acts of kindness erupted. Businesses gave out free ice, churches gave away hot dogs and cold water in their parking lots, and people opened up their homes to shelter those without air conditioning through some blazing hot days and muggy nights.
Believe me, for the most part, ordinary people behaved valiantly, except maybe the grumpy blogger who unfairly characterized Tallahassee as a community of “whiners” for complaining about power outages. Maybe I hang out with too many social psychologists, but I think he got it all wrong. The Tallahassee “who has power?” social media derby took shape because people were bored, frustrated, and had a way to say so.
“What’s up with my power going down?” is always one of the most common conversations post-storm as it was here for five days with the exception of a few holiday weekend football games (that some couldn’t view without power). With the advent of social media, we just heard more of the conversation, including some truly clever and funny posts.
It may seem trivial from afar that people became obsessed with having electric power, but the outages here caused traffic accidents, disrupted the local economy (many local stores and restaurants remained closed until six days later), and left some elderly sweltering in assisted living facilities.
Later, at the appropriate time, an objective analysis and after-action report will teach us what we might need to do differently to recover more quickly in the future.
So, overall, what has Hermine revealed about our disaster resilience? My score card across the five essential areas include two categories were Rusty, two categories were Resilient, and one was Neither. That won’t get us to #HurricaneStrong. We will never bounce back quickly if we don’t adapt, and get all of these disaster fundamentals right. But, lessons learned here can help us in the next storm, and that’s a good thing.
After all, we still have a lot of hurricane season left to go.