An Old Eagle Scout Waits for Hurricane Ike

Be prepared! That’s the Boy Scout motto. And Emergency Preparedness is a required merit badge for Eagle Scouts. So naturally, Hurricane Ike is a time when old Eagle Scouts like me swing into action. The interesting thing, however, is how little others in Houston seem to be doing. I’ll start out with what I’ve been doing to prepare and then spend some time on what else I’ve seen.

I went through Hurricane Andrew in Baton Rouge back in 1992. I was lucky and suffered no damage to my home, but I went without power for eight days. I’m very sensitized to the potential for a long wait to get power back after a hurricane.

Three years ago, Rita scared the wits out of many of us in Houston. Fortunately, it missed us here in Houston. It was good practice, however. After making the decision to stay put (which the experts have since confirmed was the correct one for people who live out of danger of the storm surge), I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to go to Lowe’s to get plywood, and when I got there at 5:30, it took me about three hours to get eight sheets of plywood, which were being rationed. My wife and I spent the rest of the day measuring first-floor windows and cutting the plywood to size. In the end, we were able to protect six south-facing windows and the front door.

This time around, we had the plywood cut and ready to go. Before Rita, I had heard about a type of spring clip called PLYLOX™ that will hold a plywood sheet in a recessed brick or concrete window facing. They’re easy to install, and reasonably easy to uninstall with a prybar, but they appear to hold well. I used them again for Ike, and we’ll see if they work, since they didn’t get tested with Rita. Since the boards were already cut (the hard work), the installation this time around took only 30 minutes.

The problem with protecting a two-story house, of course, is the second floor. I’ve made a conscious decision to not climb a ladder and try to place a sheet of plywood, especially given that the winds will pick up and run around 10-15 knots two days before the storm. I once had a representative from Home Depot come out to discuss hurricane shutters with me, and surprisingly, he talked me out of it. His basic premises were that the shutters were not proven to work at high wind loadings, that they were expensive, and that I should just depend on my homeowners’ insurance to cover the damage. The downside of doing nothing, of course, is that if the windows on the second floor are breached, things are going to get pretty chaotic on the second floor in the middle of the storm, and then we could have a long wait to get the damage fixed.

The other risk, which plywood, hurricane shutters, or even Rollac shutters won’t touch, is that one of the two large trees in my front yard (the south side, naturally) could fall into the house. We’ve kept them trimmed and healthy, and if they don’t fall or snap a large limb, they’ll make good windbreaks, but it’s a crap shoot in high winds as to whether or not they’ll survive.

With the windows covered, the big issue is being a good neighbor and removing the potential for flying objects. I moved everything around the house that wasn’t nailed down (e.g., patio furniture, potted plants, garden hoses, door mats) into the garage. Unfortunately, my neighbors have been a bit more cavalier, and I suspect they will be shocked on Saturday evening to find that some things they left out will be gone. I just hope none of them are embedded in the side of my house.

As for my power outage worries, here’s my list of chores in anticipation of an extended power outage:

  • Set up electronic payment for any bills that have arrived since the last payment session.
  • Wash and dry enough clothes for the week ahead.
  • Run the dishwasher.
  • Freeze extra ice, including containers of water, to help keep the refrigerator cool.
  • Charge all cell phones, laptops, and rechargeable batteries.
  • Check that portable radios, the weather radio, and the handheld TV work and have fresh batteries.
  • Pull out the ringer phone, which runs off the low voltage on the phone line.
  • Check all the flashlights.

That last item produced a rude surprise. All of my D-cell flashlights were corroded to the point of being worthless because of leaking batteries. I should have known better. Fortunately, I still have several AA-cell lights that work well and a lead-acid battery-powered fluorescent lantern. Next week, I’ll need to buy some more large flashlights.

Low or no water pressure is a possible risk if the city’s pumps lose power. Also, any damage to the municipal water treatment plant could cause a shortage. We’ve filled numerous containers with water, including a five-gallon jug I use for camping, to provide a clean water supply. I also have a hand-pumped water filter, usually used for camping, to clean more water, if necessary. Later tonight, I’ll fill the tubs with water so that we can scoop some out to start the siphon action in the toilets if the water pressure fails.

I also gathered up the garbage and changed the cat litter and moved the bags to the garage since the City didn’t pick up trash today and might well be unable to pick up garbage on Tuesday.

As for the rest of my neighborhood inside The Loop of Houston, there is an amazing sense of nonchalance. Most homes have made no provision for wind damage. My qualitative guess, based on a couple of limited drives through the neighborhood, is that one in ten homes put up some kind of substantial wind protection. A few were silly and taped their windows (and oddly enough, not all of their windows). More businesses boarded up, perhaps as much out of fear of looters as from the wind itself, but many still had no protection. The local ABC affiliate, KTRK, is nearby, and one segment of their facility has Rollac shutters, which were lowered (I had never noticed that the shutters were there until today). The rest of the building’s glass windows, however, are unprotected.

We went out to have lunch, and most restaurants were open and busy. Traffic was light because most people were given the day off, but people still wanted a good last meal before the storm, apparently. We went to Goode Company Barbecue and suffered one of the longest waits we could remember. The issue wasn’t the size of the line, it was the large volume of pick-up orders that the meat cutters had to process. The weather was muggy and breezy, but actually quite pleasant. I did have to laugh at one woman who had brought her children and was dressed for the occasion. She was wearing her new, blue-and-white patterned wellies with a skirt and tee-shirt. I’m sure she had waited for just such a moment to wear those wellies. It must have been a real disappointment for her that the streets weren’t yet flooded with water.

All during the day, my neighbors were out walking in the breeze, some with their children. Since school was out today, some children down the block from us were playing in the street last night at 9:00 p.m., oblivious to the storm to come early Saturday morning.

So far, the State of Texas, Harris County, and the City of Houston have handled preparations for the storm with good sense. I’ll be interested to see the post-mortem reviews when the storm has passed.

About 5:30 p.m., the wind had picked up here, looking to be about 20-25 knots. It’s died down again for the moment. I’ll write again tomorrow, after the storm, or as soon as the power (and perhaps the cable modem service) are restored (I’m assuming we will get a power outage).

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