The Houston Native’s Guide to Surviving a Gulf Coast Hurricane

So, it’s hurricane season again. Everyone’s talking about preparedness and tropical storms and water’s all over the news…blah, blah, blah. It sort of reminds me of this Facebook status I read last winter. It was from a Michigan native who was living in Tennessee. He was whining because his kids were driving him crazy being kept home from school because of snow. “When will Tennesseans learn,” he wrote, “SNOW IS NOT THE ENEMY!”

That’s about how I feel when I read hurricane preparedness propaganda. Or when people from other states get all riled about tropical storm this, and hurricane that. Please. I grew up in this town. Yes, I see the footage too. But, I got a news flash for you— KRPC, KHOU and Fox 26 want ratings. And their reporters…want to advance their careers. As such, they will go find the one lawn chair that got knocked over and report on it all day. (I’ve seen it happen. It’s actually quite amusing).

So, if you are a non-Gulf Coast native, and totally petrified by chilling images of Katrina victims with their social security numbers written on their forearms, calm down. Those were people who lived in a bowl, and were warned multiple times to get out. We don’t live in a bowl. That’s not usually what happens.

Not to say there’s nothing to be worried about. Sure, there are definitely some common sense precautions to take. But, let me put it this way. In my thirty years, I have lived in about thirty different places in the Houston area, and have seen many storms come and go.

I went through Ike (2008) Rita (2005) and the Houston backspray of Katrina (also 2005). I also went through the infamous Tropical Storm Allison (2001). I have been told that I was an infant during the legendary Hurricane Alicia in the early 80’s. I have also been through countless unmemorable tropical storms, and probably a few other hurricanes that came and went without my notice. The worst, the absolute bar none, worse hurricane experience I have ever had was during Ike. We lost power for seven days. And yes, Ike was a doozie. But, for many people, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the photos.

I was between jobs anyway when the Ike hit.  It was a small apartment with three adults, no kids. We were on the second story of a complex on higher ground anyway. So, we waited it out. Once we lost power, we spent a week hanging around the house, chilling, barbequeing, whatever. We read books and played cards by candlelight. About the second day or so, the grocery store down the road opened on generator and let people in thirty at a time. Everyone was a bit tense, but acted very patient and understanding.

Our roads got cleared pretty quickly, so we could drive around our little neighborhood and had a good time surveying the damage, oohing and awing over downed trees and branches on the roads. And then, at precisely the moment when the power outage thing got really old and we felt like we couldn’t take another minute of it, POOF! The power came back on. And that was it.

With most hurricanes, the death toll is below twenty people, and almost all of them are preventable. They are usually the result of two things. It’s frequently because of exasperating a pre-existing medical condition (respiratory problems, or a handicap that didn’t allow someone to seek better shelter during flooding). This is why you are urged to fill your prescriptions before the storm, and elderly or handicapped persons are advised to find alternate housing for the storm period.

The other reason people die is just plain stupidity. Having a “hurricane party” on the beach during the storm, or going out driving in the middle of it, or not paying attention to downed power lines in the aftermath….these are the things people usually die of during hurricanes.

In the aftermath, you may experience some property damage. Do talk to your neighbors about what to expect in your area. Houston in general, tends to flood a lot, but this will completely depend on where in town you live. Some areas will be badly flooded. Many will be perfectly fine. Only your neighbors can tell you what to really expect.

Again, reporters need to advance their careers, so don’t let the news freak you out. After Katrina, there was a lot of talk about the role of the media in disaster preparedness. So, now if two trees got knocked over, they call out FEMA and the National Guard.

For most of us, especially on the Northside, a hurricane is sort of like a thunderstorm on steroids. Once you get past the fear, the nature part of a hurricane is actually rather neat. When i was a kid, my Mom  would get the free hurricane tracker charts from the grocery store, and then we watch the news every night and track the coordinates together as a family. As kids, it taught us a lot about coordinates and weather patterns. It also taught us that hurricanes were a unique part of our culture as Houstonians, and not to be afraid of it.

During the storm, you “hunker down,” as we say, in your house for the appointed period. Many families like to make it a fun time, with blankets and snacks, and watch movies until the lights go out. Pets come indoors, and everyone waits it out together. You watch the windows, and the bravest among you periodically stands on the front porch to comment on how bad the wind is. Then you wait some more, until you fall asleep and then assess the damage in the morning.

Do all the common sense things the meteorologist tells you to do, but don’t stress about it. Outside–garage your cars. Bring in your plants. Clear your outdoor furniture. Inside, stock up on flashlights, batteries and candles. Most natives keep a regular hurricane kit, and just restock it when a storm’s on the radar.

Fill your bathtubs, so you can flush the toilet. Once the storm hits, most people stock a pitcher and flashlight in each bathroom. After you do your business, fill the pitcher from the bathtub, and pour it down the tank so you can flush. Seems small, but trust me, several days with no flush power is no small thing.

Be prepared for a power outage for several days. This means, don’t open the refrigerator all that often, and many people fill their coolers as well. Stock up on food with little to no prep, like sandwiches. For the first day or two with no power, people like to grill all their meat so it won’t go bad. Invite the neighbors, make it fun.

Do invoke hurricane karma by sharing your resources and ideas with others. People come up with some pretty cool survival ideas. As long as you are neighborly, Houstonians are known for uniting in a common bond against Mother Nature.

Don’t give into the panic. Hurricane panic is a great way to spend WAY too much money and make enemies out of neighbors. During Ike, there was a news reel of someone driving through town in a pickup truck with a generator in the back. Taped to it, was a large sign reading, “LAST GENERATOR IN THE HOUSTON AREA…MAKE AN OFFER.” Panic.

Another iconic moment was the gas shortage during Rita. Rita came a few weeks after historic Katrina, which had wiped out New Orleans. Most of the refugees had come to stay in shelters in Houston, and many Houstonians had volunteered in some way or another. So, when forecasts of Rita hit, the images of washed up bodies on rooftops and refugees camps in the Astrodome scared everyone shitless. So, everyone–meaning around 10 million people–tried evacuate Houston at the same time.

All the freeways were literally parking lots. Then the entire Houston metropolis ran out of gas. News channels broadcasted up-to-date listings of the last open stations, and people lined up for blocks just to buy gas. (This was before smartphones). The people lucky enough to get to the pump, were filling milk jugs with gas and selling it to motorists down the line for profit.  Continue reading “The Houston Native’s Guide to Surviving a Gulf Coast Hurricane”