Natural disasters: The cost of unpreparedness

4 hard-won lessons in preparing for natural disaster recovery from a medic who weathered Hurricane Laura


Bradley Beard digs as he searches in vain for his water shutoff valve, next to his heavily damaged home and the destroyed trailer home of his daughter in Hackberry, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

If you think preparedness and contingency planning is time-consuming and expensive, it doesn’t even compare to the time and money drain of unpreparedness.

I’ve seen my share of natural disasters; I lived and worked through hurricanes Georges, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Harvey and now Laura, and countless other smaller-scale disasters and storms. Louisianans handle some disasters better than others. Cajuns will board up their windows and party through a hurricane, but put an inch of frozen precipitation on the ground, and they will lose their minds.

Living here, you learn to take it all in stride; stock your supplies, button up the house, leave if you absolutely have to, and after the storm passes, you venture outside and see how much repair and cleanup you have ahead of you. It’s Louisiana. It’s weather. You deal with it, and you move on.

Invariably, though, the people hit hardest are those who were caught unprepared. I’ve seen enough of those tragedies to know how to mitigate the risks, and I thought I was prepared.

I was wrong.

I live over 100 miles north of the southwest Louisiana Gulf Coast; a buffer I thought adequate until Hurricane Laura. By the time a hurricane travels 100 miles inland, the most you’re apt to get is power outages, heavy rain and some gusts, maybe a tornado or three spun off the storm’s rain bands. But Laura was a different animal entirely, still rated as a tropical storm when it hit Little Rock, 300 miles north of landfall.

Geographic buffers are not always sufficient, nor are they constant. New Orleans thought it could weather Hurricane Katrina. After all, it weathered a hard hit from Hurricane Betsy, an almost identical storm in 1965. What residents failed to consider was that the Gulf of Mexico had crept 60 miles closer to New Orleans in those intervening 40 years, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet provided a ready path for storm surge that didn’t exist during Hurricane Betsy.

In the days since Hurricane Laura’s landfall, I have learned some hard-won lessons on preparedness that are applicable to anyone living in areas susceptible to natural disaster. Other EMS1 columnists have provided some disaster-planning tips worth following, and you should read those and prepare accordingly, but following are the practical obstacles you’ll face in recovery. Learn a lesson from my failures, and hopefully you’ll be better prepared than I was.

1. Have a thorough evacuation plan, one that accounts for you and your pets.

Shelters don’t take pets, and hotel rooms for many miles around are going to be booked solid. Between hotels that don’t allow pets and those that are every bit as damaged and without utilities as the home you fled, pickings are going to be scarce. Be prepared to drive for hours to find lodging, or pre-arrange to stay with a relative out of the storm’s projected path.

In hurricane country, that means booking your hotel rooms when forecasters think the storm might come your way, even if that’s 10 days out. By the time a storm enters the Gulf of Mexico, every hotel room within 200 miles of the storm’s projected path will be booked. Make your plans early, and you can always cancel the reservation if the storm track changes.

If you have medical needs – period – you’re going to need a special needs shelter. Last-resort shelters won’t have power or the medical personnel to attend to your needs, and the hospitals for miles around will be inundated with patients as well as the elements. Calling your durable medical supply outlet 24 hours before the storm is either going to result in a busy signal or a sympathetic rep telling you nothing is available.

And the time to leave is at least 24 hours before landfall, unless you enjoy gas lines and traffic jams. In my case, having a girlfriend who collects animals like she’s Snow White meant we’d be sheltering in place, and hoping that the cats wouldn’t eat too much of us to identify if we didn’t survive the storm.

2. Be prepared to be totally self-sufficient for at least 48 hours

You’ll need food, water, supplies, medicine and fuel enough to be totally self-contained. Not only are these things vital necessities, in what the prepper community calls a TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) scenario, things like food, water and ammunition are currency.

It’s too late to buy these things the day before the storm hits; grocery shelves will be bare, and what few gas stations still have fuel will have hours-long lines.

As far as safety, health and security, help will not be coming. Fire, police and EMS are going to suspend operations as long as sustained winds exceed 45 mph. When the winds subside, they’ll still have to cut their way through downed trees or ford floodwaters to get to you. It doesn’t matter how many DMAT teams, ambulance strike teams and utility truck convoys are staged nearby, for the first 24-48 hours, you’re on your own.

3. Diversify your power sources

Remember when the all-electric home was touted as the model of modern, energy-efficient living? After the first week of cold showers and food grilled outside in 95-degree heat and 90% humidity, I was ready for, as Hank Hill calls it, “efficient, clean-burning propane and propane accessories.” The next major purchase at my home will be a propane range and water heater, and a whole-house standby generator that runs on propane or natural gas.

Generators in southwest Louisiana were sold out for 150 miles around a full 48 hours before Hurricane Laura made landfall. My own effort at procuring a generator the day after the storm was a 500-mile odyssey of rumor, waiting in line, false hopes and dashed dreams. I finally managed to buy one, at the cost of my firstborn child and a fistfight for the last generator in the store. Luckily, both my opponents were little old ladies who weren’t well-versed in Brazilian jiu jitsu.

Every hardware store in the storm’s path was destroyed or damaged, and those who escaped Laura’s wrath took the better part of a week to establish a stable supply line. As it stands now, 2 weeks after the storm hit, generator power cords are as rare as honest politicians, and you still can’t find heavy electrical cable or plugs to make one yourself within 150 miles. Want to order one? Even Amazon Prime’s vaunted 2-day shipping is “two weeks … maybe” after a hurricane.

Moreover, portable generators are greedy, gas-sucking little beasts. My 6500w portable generator will run a little over 12 hours at half-capacity, enough to run lights, ceiling fans and a small portable air conditioner. It doesn’t make the house comfortable, but it does make it livable. However, at $2,000 initial investment for the generator, cables, switch boxes, receptacles and an electrician to install it, and rising $50/day in gasoline to run it, a whole-house standby generator is starting to look like the more sensible investment.

That option may cost $10,000 or more, but unlike portable emergency generators, they have been demonstrated to add 150% of your initial investment to your property value; a $10,000 generator adds $15,000 to your home’s worth, with the added benefit of safety and peace of mind. After every hurricane, the death toll continues to rise for days or weeks after the storm from people electrocuting themselves trying to back-feed generator power to their home, or dying of carbon monoxide poisoning from an improperly sited portable generator. If you do opt for a portable generator, carefully budget your appliance wattage requirements and make sure you buy enough generator to handle the load.

4. Plan your days well

There are two types of neighborhood stores when you’re in the path of a hurricane; those without roofs and electricity, and those without fuel or merchandise. There is no such thing as a jaunt down to the corner grocery for supplies after a major storm. You’ll have to drive a lot for what you need, and be aware that mandatory curfews will be in place for the areas hardest hit. Plan your supply runs to start at dawn and end by sundown; you’ll beat some of the lines and avoid running afoul of local law enforcement.

As I write this, I have been running on generator power for 17 straight days, and the most realistic projection of restoring the power grid in my area is another two weeks. We were without water for three days, and will be without phone or Internet for at least another two weeks. I’ll still have a month of brush-clearing and tree-felling to do once some semblance of normalcy is restored. If you ever find yourself at the mercy of the elements following a natural disaster, hopefully the lessons I learned will help you be a little less unprepared.

Read next: Hurricane Laura: A medic’s diary – Paramedic Kelly Grayson recounts weathering the storm that damaged his station and ambulance, and left the city in tatters

Additional resources on disaster preparation

Read these resources for emergency preparedness and share with your community: columnist Kelly Grayson, is a paramedic ER tech in Louisiana. He has spent the past 14 years as a field paramedic, critical care transport paramedic, field supervisor and educator. Kelly is the author of the book Life, Death and Everything In Between, and the popular blog A Day in the Life of An Ambulance Driver.