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Thread: Lessons learned from taking a direct hit by a Cat 5 Hurricane- ground zero, USVI

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    Lessons learned from taking a direct hit by a Cat 5 Hurricane- ground zero, USVI

    I promised to post something, and I just got connected at work- one of the few places on the island with power and internet. It's amazing- I had forgotten what magic it was to flip a switch and have light.

    So first- here is the story. We knew we were going to get hit by Irma, but until the last minute we thought it would graze us. I was expecting Cat 2 winds, but in the end we got a near direct hit with 150mph sustained winds, 200mph gusts. Folks, let me tell you- there is no describing what that's like. I decided that even though my house has shutters on every window, and the shutters are 2" thick solid wood, dogged with a solid wood 2x3 bar set into steel holders, and also dogged at the top with hooks that clip into eyes, I went beyond that and screwed boards over every shutter to hold them in place. That, my friends, was the best thing I did for the whole storm. My neighbors lost most of their shutters, and I didn't lose a single one. I also covered the shutters completely on the windward side with thick PVC plastic (not like a tarp, but it's more like 2mm thick and is used like formica) and put battens around the edges of it. This was to prevent water blowing in through the cracks in the shutters. That was the other thing that really paid off. I only wish I had the time to have done that for every shutter. NO water- ZERO- came in on that side. The other shutters did get water, even though I caulked the edges, and put an extra batten down the middle of the ones that didn't fit real tight.

    My plan was to stay downstairs. My house is 180 years old, stone construction, with a layer of brick over the stone on the outside. Downstairs is built into the ground on two sides, and there is a poured concrete addition that has a concrete ceiling (actually it's the floor of the kitchen above). it is solid, and that is my strong room. If that were to fail, I have a cistern from the original house that is buried 100% with a small hatch opening into the floor of the house and that was my last-resort strong room. The whole house could come down and that room would be safe. I may be a while getting out, but I'd survive! I stocked up prior to the storm on Milwaukee M18 and M12 batteries, lights, radio, and phone charger that plugs into the M12 batteries. I was expecting power to go out for a while. I had all your basic hurricane stuff- batteries, flashlights, dry goods, canned goods... all the usual stuff. I fueled up the vehicles and bought extra water.

    During the storm, I actually had internet through most of it. We kept tracking the storm and it kept getting worse- closer and closer, and the track kept moving from missing us to the north, to a near direct hit. I had briefed Amy, and we had prepared our 4yo daughter for the storm in advance- telling her what to expect, and even giving her a coloring book with what to do during a disaster. She was a champ- a complete and total champ- through the storm. I set up the safe area with the radio, lights, and games to play. We started out upstairs, and I made it sound like going downstairs was a treat- something special. There is a built- in "nook" down there that she likes to play in where I built in a bed and reading area. The truth was that it was where we would go when it got bad. I wanted instead for it to seem like a fun place and a treat to get to go there. Child psychology- it worked too!!! Once it got bad, I said, "Okay, I guess you've been good- we can go downstairs." By this time power had been shut off by WAPA intentionally to prevent damage during the storm. She had her own flashlight to play with, and I let her lead the way. We played games and played music on the radio. The truth is that the radio was to drown out the storm when it got bad.

    We watched as the storm kept going more and more towards us. The sound was indescribable as the high winds started to hit. It really did sound like the place would come down. My one and only fear was the roof- it's the original structure and it's made of wood. The house is solid. A bomb couldn't take that thing out- but the roof I was not sure about. As the winds shifted, we lost internet, and that's when I started reading the storm using my navigational skills. You can tell where a storm is by the direction of the wind. When the wind started to come from the west, I knew it was passing just north of us. I kept telling Amy, "okay, it's moving now further north, and probably two more hours of wind." I went upstairs to check on the shutters. Two of them started leaking- badly. Rain was spraying in through the tiniest cracks in the shutters as if you had a water hose spraying. Water was blowing under the soffits on the roof and dripping down the walls. All that water made it to the floor, and then dripped down to the first floor onto the bed. The rest of the time during the storm was spent frantically mopping up water. I put a tent over the bed and we would catch water in it and dump it into a bucket about ever 5 minutes. Shutters were rattling. I went upstairs and there were leaves in the living room. How???? The cracks in the shutters where they meet were caulked, and the shutters were boarded shut. You couldn't stick a leaf through the cracks if you wanted to- yet there were leaves blowing through. The noise sounded like Godzilla was slamming himself against the house. At one point the floor shook as if it were a trampoline. I saw the ceiling shake, and a window frame started to move back and forth in the wall. I thought that was it- I thought the roof was a gonner, and I didn't even think I would make it downstairs. I had to keep everyone calm, so I smiled big and said, "Woooohoooo, that was a good one!!!! Don't worry folks, everything is going as planned- just some wind buffeting a bit." Amy looked pretty scared, and that was about to scare Petra, so I said, "let's dance," and turned up the radio- which amazingly was still playing music- and we danced. That made Petra happy. I didn't tell them that I was 90% sure we were about to lose the roof. What could I do? Nothing. Keeping them calm was the best I could do. I knew our safe room was safe. I decided to go back upstairs and check- because I literally wasn't sure the roof would still be there. My porch was blocked completely off with metal hurricane shutters, so I did not cover up the glass doors- I mean, why bother- they are protected by the hurricane shutters. My friends, I personally witnessed those doors bending in as if they were made of rubber. They are solid wood with glass panes. I was sure the glass would bust. Suddenly the huge petrea vine that grows up my house came crashing down. I ran downstairs and in a funny voice (to lighten the tension) I said, "Well folks, we no longer have a petrea vine... I mean we have it, but it's on the ground..." After that I went up only once or twice as we heard huge crashing noises and I had to check to see if it was the roof coming off or not. One crashing noise turned out to be part of the neighbor's house knocking a chunk of brick out of my house.

    As the storm finally started to pass and the wind shifted from the south, I looked out through a peephole and saw a boat floating up one of the streets in town, below my house. I would say water was 4 feet up the walls of the buildings down there. Never have I seen that before. That ended up flooding most of the generators downtown. That's a point I want you to note- don't depend on your generator. Those on higher ground had their generators impaled, or even demolished. Fuel tanks ruptured, intakes go so much water in them that the generators wouldn't work. Here is an example- somehow my windshield washer fluid got debris blown into it!!! How the heck???? Who knows- but if it can do that- imagine the intake to your generator.

    After the storm we heard that the roof had blown off the hospital. My wife grabbed her scrubs and ran on foot to make the 2 mile trek to the hospital. I headed out to find out if friends were okay. I was climbing over and under telephone poles, using my Milwaukee M12 tester to see if they were energized. Put that on your list of supplies. It took me a very long time to make just three blocks. All the lines were down. There was wood with nails all over the place. There was slippery mud downtown where it had flooded. It was a complete disaster- and that was the part of the island least affected. Later I would venture to the north side where a friend was still missing, and I cannot possibly describe other than to say EVERY SINGLE POWER LINE and EVERY SINGLE POLE were down. Every. One. Trees were completely stripped of leaves and only the trunk and larger branches remained- every tree- even in the forrested areas. Every single tree. The road was so bad that I had to get out my Diston D7 (Shameless neander plug) and saw limbs to get through. We had to SLOOOOOWLY navigate downed lines. Although WAPA had completely shut off all power, there was still the chance of generators back-feeding the lines. Where I live, codes are not very strictly enforced, and you never know. We found my friend.. Her concrete roof had blown off. She was down in the bottom of the building. Oh, and I forgot to mention that after the storm I kept pulling stuff out of my hair. I finally took a look and it was concrete and/or mortar debris that blew in somehow through my closed shutters as it pelted my house. Some buildings were completely stripped of paint and even stucco. Many buildings changed color- new paint stripped to reveal the old paint.

    So that was the CAT5 storm, but remember- there was Jose right behind it. We lost all communication, so all we knew was that last report said it was on the same track and looked like it would be the same strength as the last storm. Instead of cleaning up and looking for people, we had to focus on getting ready for ANOTHER cat5. I had to help all my neighbors repair shutters, roofs, and pick up debris that could become projectiles. I lost count- I think my neighbor lost 13 shutters during the storm. I had to build new ones or repair the old with just a hand saw, hammer, and a drill with one battery left. I grew my muscles tenfold that day!!! One neighbor had his windows blow in- frame and all- even taking some of the brick around the frame. It all blew in under the pressure.

    Finally we got cell service, and I quickly texted my brother, "URGENT! Go to www.nhc.noaa.gov and pull up the track for Jose and send it to me- this is very important." That was the first update I had for Jose, and it was bad- it was coming right for us. I will fast forward now and tell you that it turned north at the last minute, and we had blue skies, sunshine, and little wind. Whew!!!!

    I had burned all my batteries, and the generators I was hoping to rob power from (*I don't have one, but neighbors do) all had issues. None would start. Some started and then stalled shortly after. Some burned up. One generator caught a building on fire WAY too close to my house for comfort. It took two other buildings out as it burned to the ground. Scary times. That is part of what prompted the "Urgent- need to charge M12 and M18 batteries with a car" post.

    So here is what I learned and what I would do different:

    LOVE The M12 and M18 batteries and tools. LOVE LOVE LOVE the phone charger that uses their batteries. That was awesome. I also love the M12 multimeter with the piezo pickup that tells if something is energized- it literally saved my life. One time I was using it to test a downed wire that should NOT have been energized and it was backfed from a generator that someone hotwired to their house. I wish I had the car charger for the batteries, but they don't stock it here. I will now order one for sure. I also finally found the power inverter I bought that goes in the cigarette lighter. That thing was AMAZING> Vector Manufacturing Model VEC415.

    Keep your shop organized. You never know when you might be tripping through the dark looking for tools to save your life. I knew where each tool was, and found it in the dark. I completely urge you to organize your shop.

    Generators are great, but they fail. Surround your generator in concrete. Have a way to drain water away from it. Make your fuel tank out of steel and encase it in concrete. Many fuel tanks ruptured during the storm.

    Hand saws are your friend. You don't know how many times I heard, "We're waiting for the guy with the chain saw" or "Hey man, you got any two-stroke oil?" My chain saw broke years back and I haven't yet replaced it. I thought I'd regret that, but actually a Diston D7 filed crosscut does quite a bit of good and is easy to throw in the Jeep or carry with you on foot.

    TONS of cordless drills and batteries. Also keep tons of nails and multiple hammers. Cordless drills and screws are easier to one-hand as you balance on rubble and hold plywood to fix a window. Screws can also be reused. That's a big plus when the hardware store gets blown away in the storm.

    Keep $1,000 minimum in cash stored in a waterproof container somewhere safe. We are on a cash basis at many stores and fuel stations right now. The island is still without internet in most places and cell service still spotty. Only texts work well, and voice sometimes. The stores are only taking cash.

    Keep a good bit of fuel stored SAFELY in metal containers. If you have a truck or Jeep, get jerry cans that mount on it, and mount them. It is so much easier than having to carry a sloppy fuel can in your car that the fuel guy spilled fuel on. They make you stay in your car and they fill them for you. (security is a big deal now)

    Buy a 12 gauge and lots of shells. Although I am safe, there was looting, and in St. John it got a bit out of hand. In Tortola 125 hardcore prisoners escaped and were running amock. I don't care where you stand on gun control. Get a 12 gauge. Lock it away and lock the bullets separate, but if a situation like I just went through happens, get it out.

    A shovel is great. An axe is good to have, but I used a shovel a lot. I had a concrete wall collapse in front of my Jeep and block my way out. I had to dig out.

    If you live in hurricane alley, buy a satellite phone. Do it today- don't wait. Oh how I wish I still had one. We still barely have cell service. A sat phone would be gold right now, and I am ordering one to be shipped as soon as the airport opens back up. If you don't live in hurricane alley- ya might consider one anyway. Also they have devices that you can text on using satellite service- those would be excellent to have.

    Two-way radios- as many as you can get. Give them to your neighbors before a storm hits, or better yet- give them to your neighbors for any kind of emergency. Great to have. Wish I had thought of it sooner.

    Fix-a-flat, tire plugs, multiple spare tires. This is another win for me. We have two identical jeeps, so that means they both use the same tires. Each jeep has lots of flat fixing equipment. Pro tip: Buy rubber cement and dip your plugs in it to lubricate them when you insert the plug in the tire. You're welcome.

    Bolt cutters. Yes, I used these to cut not the power lines, but the support cables for downed poles to get them out of the way. I also had to cut bolts to get gates off to get to people.

    Pruning shears- made clean-up a lot easier by snipping small branches off.

    Rope, chain, and tug-em straps for pulling trees and vehicles.

    RUBBER gloves- the kind that you would want to use if you had to move a power line to save someone without knowing whether or not it was hot.

    Mops and squeegees, and especially BIG mops and one of those industrial mop buckets with the "mop squisher" or whatever you call it that wrings out the mop... ah that's it- a wringer. duh.

    Keep spare parts for your roof, spare wood, and lots of 3M 5200. I am now looking for more of that stuff. I got one tiny leak in my roof and sadly I used all my 5200 on the boat that not-so-sadly I sold just weeks before the storm! Woot!

    Keep a lot of plumbing and electrical parts. I was able to fix my plumbing, the neighbor's, and the plumbing where we made a soup kitchen to feed folks. One day I was at HD and said, 'Ya know, I'm just going to buy a whole bunch of everything." I just bought two or three of every fitting- four or five of the more common ones- some glue, some PVC, and all sorts of stuff, and put it in a tool kit. Man did that ever come in handy!!!! I was the first to have water. By the way- I learned that PVC primer can evaporate out of the can even if the top is screweed down. Happened to three cans of it!!! Also PVC glue gets gooey after a while. Only one of them was any good- and barely so. Fortunately I had Tolulene, and used that in lieu of primer.

    If you don't have a safe room, build one- today!!!! Not in hurricane alley? What about tornadoes? Earthquake? Robbery? Make a safe room, even if it simply means lining your closet with concrete- better than nothing. I didn't end up needing my safe room, but the fact that I knew I was safe keep me calm and saved energy. When the roof almost went, my concern wasn't for my life- it was just that it would suck to lose my roof.

    I have to go now. Hopefully I have covered most of what got me through. One thing I will end on- COUNTLESS times during and after the storm, Amy said, "I will never ever again complain about any tool or other stuff you buy." Boom! I win!!!! :-)

    P.S. Now every time I go through security the metal detector is going to beep because my kahunas are now made of solid cobalt steel. hahaha. *** I only have internet at work.. Will be slow to respond.

  2. #2
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    An amazing story ... think I'll read it several times. Such pertinent advice.

    Glad you all are still kicking.
    Tim

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    Damn Malcolm! What a story. I think I speak for many/ most / all here, expressing the frustration that we can't just reach out and help you.

  4. #4
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    You have had an experience that cannot be imagined without being there, keep safe and thanks for taking the time to post.
    Chris

    Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening

  5. #5
    Glad you and your family got through it Malcolm. Dave's right - wish we could come and help.
    Fred

  6. #6
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    Malcolm- so very glad to hear you, Amy and Petra are alive and doing as well as could possibly be expected given the circumstances. Mahalo for sharing your story and all the good advice.

    Best wishes for the "recovery period" - Bill

  7. #7
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    Glad that you, your family, and so many others are safe. Hard to call this a near miss, but you're alive and 'stuff' can be replaced.

    And I want to 'meet' your mason, no matter how old he is! I have a job for him and clearly, the work recommends the craftsman. Lots of great advice, but....

    Quote Originally Posted by Malcolm Schweizer View Post
    RUBBER gloves- the kind that you would want to use if you had to move a power line to save someone without knowing whether or not it was hot.
    PLEASE BE AWARE - - There are electrician's gloves made to mitigate (not eliminate) the risk of contact with live electrical gear. They are thick rubber with gauntlets to the shoulders, and have similar leather over-gloves. IT STILL IS NOT SAFE! Like your water intrusion, high-voltage electricity is insidious in its ability to find a pin hole. Especially if your hand, arms, or the gloves are wet. You also need the arc-flash protective hood and jacket that go with such gloves. Setting the wire down may cause an arc, and death, flash burns, or blindness ride on that lightening bolt. This gear is not stocked on the cleaning aisle at HD.

    IIRC from a long ago summer job, the 2- or 3- wire feeders on a neighborhood 30-foot pole are ~7000 volts; cross-country transmission lines are >100,000 volts. I can't/won't tell someone in a life-or-death situation what to do, but make sure you know the risks.
    Last edited by Malcolm McLeod; 09-16-2017 at 8:23 AM.
    Molann an obair an saor.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tim Boger View Post
    An amazing story ... think I'll read it several times. Such pertinent advice.
    My thought exactly when reading that. I'm going to save it and send it to some people who live in Florida.

    Thanks for posting this Malcolm - a success story. It is so sad to hear about people who lost everything.

    JKJ

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    Thanks for taking the time to write that Malcolm. Experience is a great teacher isn't it?

    What I've seen on TV (mostly CNN) the area looks to be devastated. Many people have lost a great deal.

    Sorry to hear of the damage to your house but happy that you and you're family are ok.

    PHM
    Last edited by Paul McGaha; 09-16-2017 at 8:51 AM.

  10. #10
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    Thanks for that Malcolm...I truly appreciate being able to read about your first-hand experience with this incredible storm. I just shared it with Professor Dr. SWMBO, too. Good fortune with the "dual Jeeps", too. I know there's a member of JeepGarage in your area so I hope he also faired well, too.
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malcolm McLeod View Post
    Glad that you, your family, and so many others are safe. Hard to call this a near miss, but you're alive and 'stuff' can be replaced.

    And I want to 'meet' your mason, no matter how old he is! I have a job for him and clearly, the work recommends the craftsman. Lots of great advice, but....



    PLEASE BE AWARE - - There are electrician's gloves made to mitigate (not eliminate) the risk of contact with live electrical gear. They are thick rubber with gauntlets to the shoulders, and have similar leather over-gloves. IT STILL IS NOT SAFE! Like your water intrusion, high-voltage electricity is insidious in its ability to find a pin hole. Especially if your hand, arms, or the gloves are wet. You also need the arc-flash protective hood and jacket that go with such gloves. Setting the wire down may cause an arc, and death, flash burns, or blindness ride on that lightening bolt. This gear is not stocked on the cleaning aisle at HD.

    IIRC from a long ago summer job, the 2- or 3- wire feeders on a neighborhood 30-foot pole are ~7000 volts; cross-country transmission lines are >100,000 volts. I can't/won't tell someone in a life-or-death situation what to do, but make sure you know the risks.
    Absolutely, and I should have been more clear. It's just a small secondary precaution, but really you shouldn't touch stuff that could kill you, gloves or not, tested with a tester or not. When climbing through debris you don't know when you might come across a line you didn't see. Rather than leather gloves, having something rubber gives that teeny little bit of precaution, but again- it can still kill you. You really just don't know what you are touching, and whether perhaps it's shorting to some other hot line, even if what you have is a communication line or coax. Although the power generator for the entire island was shut down, my concern was back-fed lines, and I did find one. By the way, one WAPA employee has already been killed due to touching a live line, and he was a lineman.

    This post was typed really fast off the cuff while I had connection at work. It may be a bit disorganized- I was kind of typing as I thought. Thanks for the replies. Every day things are a little better.

  12. #12
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    My neighbor's house. This home, Casa Santa Anna, was built by General Santa Anna who led Mexico in The Alamo. These windows blew inward. I believe what saved me is I put boards across my windows which leveraged against the walls.

    IMG_2033.jpg

    Our TV station.

    IMG_2103.jpg

    Frenchtown Post Office. Somewhere in all that mess is my Veritas Large Plow that I was anxiously awaiting. It means nothing to me now.

    IMG_2064.jpg

    Everywhere you go there are downed lines. This is a week after the storm. Notice the background stripped of leaves.

    IMG_2101.jpg
    Attached Images Attached Images

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    There is still hope.

    IMG_2096.jpg

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    Wow...awesome rainbow!!
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  15. #15
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    Thank you for sharing this Malcolm and I'm very happy that you and yours remained safe throughout. I hope the rebuilding goes smoothly and things return to normal.
    I wonder how long that will take? And how soon till tourists can return? Much of the economy there must rely on tourism so I'd guess the island would welcome visitors as soon as possible?
    It would be cool if somehow a 'working' vacation could be set up. I would enjoy going to a beautiful place and putting in a days work.

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