Four kinds of people ride out a hurricane: Those with no where to go or no one to take them. Those whose clueless bravado having weathered a tropical storm or two leads them to believe hurricanes are just a bit more windy. Those who missed the evacuation window and get stuck. And, those whose Key West hurricane recovery jobs require they stay (and I’m not talking about your favorite bartender or hairdresser.)
Those who end up sheltering in place likely have a finger and a couple of toes in all four categories. That’s how Ranger Ed ended up staying on island for Hurricane Irma in 2017. He was ready to go when Irma changed course, gas ran out and his hurricane recovery skills were needed here.
Most locals need to get gone. Tourists? Even the ones in vacation rental homes? Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey; decency requires I don’t tell you what I really think about that level of ignorant entitlement. Get out of here without arguing, please.
Know this: Riding out a hurricane (think 12 hours give or take) is the really easy part, assuming your anxiety levels withstand the horrifying onslaught of noise like a unending freight train in your bedroom; the creaking of your house as it sways against the wind; the crashing of coconuts, limbs and the neighbors’ pool chairs against your windows and shutters; and, the knowledge that the next “thump” could be the roof — or walls — giving way.
The hard part begins the first night after the storm passes. That’s when the adrenaline and novelty drain away. What’s left is a to-do list that will stretch for days, if not weeks. All accompanied by unrelenting heat, humidity, no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets, trees in your swimming pool, nary a leaf on a tree because they are blasted against your house and car in ways that defy removal. If you failed to empty the refrigerator and freezer before the storm, for sure you’ll be doing so within 24 hours because that stuff will rot even with the doors closed. The mold will grow up your walls and burrow through your closets — even with the windows open, which you likely won’t want to do because, well, mosquitoes.
And, there will be no ice for the martini, no water (hot or otherwise) for the shower and your night sweats will be of legendary proportions. You will be grumpy. That’s for a Cat 1 hurricane. Bump that sucker up exponentially to a Cat 3-5? Most Key West homes and businesses will sustain catastrophic damage, which includes at minimum roofs gone and buildings wiped away. Can you imagine what happens when your neighbor’s roof comes crashing down on yours? And you still think it makes sense to shelter in place?
Key West has not had a direct Cat 5 hit in 150 years. Virtually every structure on the island was built after the last Cat 5. We need to stop this swaggering, misplaced belief that “these old houses have long proved they can survive the worst.” Nah.
Welcome to hurricane recovery. So how DOES one cope?
If you stay, there’s a whole level of additional hurricane preparation on top of the basics and the house hurricane preparation you’ll do if you evacuate. Remember, there’s no one to call. Plus you can’t call or text anyway because, well, no cell or wifi. You are on your own. Emergency services will not give a whit that you need help getting a tree out of your pool. At a minimum, here’s what you’ll need:
- Two to four weeks of water, a minimum of one gallon per person per day, plus same for your pets.
- Two to four weeks of food that needs no refrigeration and minimal preparation. God love Velveeta, SpaghettiOs and Twinkies. Meals-Ready-to-Eat are darn decent these days. Get them at better camping supply places.
- A chain saw (only if you know how to use it), rakes, shovels, hammers, duct tape, buckets, tarps (big ones, too, in case you lose part of a roof.) Dare I say a duly registered gun that you actually know how to use? I do dare.
- Don’t touch downed utility lines. Don’t walk in standing water. Don’t stand under trees and bushes. Leave strange animals alone. Don’t go into abandoned buildings, but do check on your neighbors. Those ought to be commonsense, but we know how that goes.
- First aid supplies well beyond the topical ointment and bandage variety. Be prepared for managing a broken arm, sprained ankle, deep flesh wounds, nail or glass punctures. Again, the EMTs aren’t carting you to the hospital. Two-four weeks of pet and human medicine.
- Battery-operated radio and fans with extra batteries. Solar chargers and cords. Flashlights. Battery or solar lanterns. Please, NO candles. They cause fires. Do you really want to burn down your house if it actually survived the hurricane?
- Big plastic bags for debris clean up outside and inside, because if there’s flooding, you’re gonna be piling wet stuff in those bags, including dry wall, rugs, furniture. Much won’t be salvageable and it may be days or weeks before the garbage trucks are back on schedule. (That’s why hurricane prep includes getting everything in your house bagged tightly and up high on tops of closets, cabinets, etc.) The bags are also super handy for toilet waste. Just drop one into your toilet bowl, put down the seat and, well, go. Wrap tightly afterwards.
- What about a generator? We finally bought ours during Covid. A small one; enough to power one window air conditioning unit at night and the refrigerator during the day. A whole house generator is overkill for Key West and most of us don’t have enough room to meet all the set-back requirements. The biggest downside of any generator is securing and maintaining fuel supplies, regardless of whether you use gasoline or propane, or both, or solar. If you’re going to buy one, keep it simple. Get it professionally installed with a licensed electrician.
Every time I write about “after a hurricane,” I remind myself it’s just the other side of nuts to shelter in place. Leaving is fraught with emotional baggage; I get that for sure. If you cannot take care of yourself for a month, let’s go. I’ll make you a T-shirt that says: I was smart enough to get the heck off the island.