*Hurricane Isabel Lessons*
By: Spitfire
04 August 2005

While I was doing research for a different article, I came across a Hurricane Isabel piece and remembered that I had promised to do an article on our experiences but had forgotten all about it. Not the Rubie way and not my way either, so here it is, better late than never.

On September 18th 2003, Hurricane Isabel came ashore on the East Coast of the United States and pretty well blasted the folks in Southern Virginia. We live in Northern Virginia and still got pounded by rain, high winds and a couple of small tornados. There was flooding and thousands of trees were uprooted, twisted out of the ground or snapped off. Surprisingly, most of the houses came through without any significant wind damage although several had falling tree damage.

Landline phones and cell phones survived virtually intact, but cable TV was out and of course the power went out. Most of the area had power back within a day but our outage lasted three and a half days.

Before the storm we took in anything that might get blown around like patio furniture and loose boards and lashed everything else to our landscape trailer with nylon straps. Tying stuff down turned out to be a good precaution. We were glad to see and somewhat surprised that our normally Sheeple type neighbors had also secured potential windblown projectiles. If they hadn’t I would has suggested it to them so their stuff didn’t end up destroying something in our yard.

During the worst of the storm, Wifee and I retreated to the shelter in the basement primarily in case a large tree came down on the house - while my desire is to die in my sleep, I’d like it to be from old age, not 5 tons of wood falling on me! The power went off while we were down there but we were already on battery lighting and TV. We wouldn’t have noticed except the lights in the main part of the basement went out.

After the storm had passed by, we went outside to survey the damage. We were extremely blessed and had only limited numbers of medium sized branches on the ground. There weren’t any missing shingles or broken windows. A quick look at the neighbor’s houses showed the same good fortune, but since the phones were working we called them both to make sure they were OK. One of them answered the phone and confirmed OK, but the other set didn’t so we walked over to ask in person. Turns out the only phone they owned was a cordless and of course with the power out it didn’t work. I offered to loan them a regular phone but they were actually on their way out to buy one and to get diaper and formula for their new baby! (You see now why we were surprised that they thought to lash down loose stuff in the yard!) I said I hoped there were stores with power and that the roads were clear, advising them to stay away from downed power lines. The husband is a builder and you’d think he’d know that, but they’re young and from what I’d observed in the past he might not have - better safe than dead. They got back around 6 hours later, having to dodge downed trees and power lines and drive three towns over to find an open store with power.

We didn’t have a large enough battery bank at the time to run the fridge and freezer, nor did we have the Jumbo Zero Disruption Water Supply so after a few hours I attempted to fire up the diesel generator and get things going. The generator hadn’t been run in over a year and it wouldn’t start - now that’s embarrassing! After a few minutes of troubleshooting (OK, a half hour of troubleshooting!), I discovered that the fuel line had rotted and air had leaked into the system. Diesel engines do not like air in their fuel lines. What’s worse is that the rotten hose that went to the fuel filter had a crimp fitting on it so it was impossible to just replace the hose (I had hose). I’d have to replace the hose and the filter and of course I didn’t have a spare filter because the generator only had 20 hours on it and the filter was good for 1,000 hours. Now I was the stupid one trying to find a store that was open with power. I didn’t have to go as far as the neighbor and in 3 hours the new hose and filter was installed, the air bled from the system and the genny was happily roaring away, cooling down the fridge and freezer and pumping water for a much needed shower. I was careful to conserve the hot water in the tank by getting wet, turning of the shower, soaping up and then rinsing quickly.

Wifee started preparing food and since the generator was running she used the microwave to heat up MRE’s. You know the food situation was very interesting for me. We’ve got a pretty standard food storage program with canned goods, dry mixes and long term dry goods. There’s enough for the two of us for 3 months of normal everyday eating and a year of emergency eating, yet for the first two days we ate MRE’s and drank tea and water. The MRE’s were really good for a complete meal inserted into a busy and stressful time. After all the immediate problems were over we used propane powered burners ( Inexpensive Propane Stove ) and made "real food" but at first nothing beat the MRE’s.

After dinner I went downstairs to check on the freezer only to find that I had left the commercial emergency lights on and their batteries were now discharged. Man, it was dark down there and I’d never gotten around to putting the main basement lights on the generator circuit. A table lamp and extension cord took care of that problem and I plugged the emergency lights back in to charge up.

After the fridge and freezer were cooled down, batteries charged and the small emergency water supply ( Small Zero Disruption Water Supply ) refilled, we would shut down the generator. Generator run time was about 4 hours per day but it didn’t need to be this long, we just had plenty of fuel and knew that the power would be on fairly soon. After the first 24 hours, the neighbor to the left went out and rented a generator which he promptly ran 24/7 for the duration.

With nothing pressing left to do, we phoned the neighbors on the right to see how they were doing. Everything was OK except the teenage kids were bored out of their minds without cable TV and power for the video games. The girls were complaining about not being able to see to put their makeup on before school so I offered to loan them a couple of portable battery powered lights I’d made but the Mom declined saying they had plenty of candles left. While I’d rate these folks as beginning survivalists, they were actually doing pretty well, mostly due to the Mom’s thinking things through on the spot. They were using swimming pool water to flush the toilets with and she was cooking complete meals on the propane grill. She went out and found a campground that had power restored and paid $2 each for hot showers. She’d used up or tossed fridge food and was carefully checking for ice crystals in her freezer. After a day and a half, she accepted our offer to put her freezer food in our freezer since we had plenty of space and plenty of power. Not bad for someone who had appeared to be a Sheeple.

After a day and a half we had used all the hot water that was left in the electric water heater. There’s really nothing like a hot shower as far as I’m concerned, so I set about fixing that. The generator sub panel that I’d installed didn’t have enough circuit breaker space to permanently wire in both the hot water heater (220VAC) and the well pump (also 200VAC) so when I put it in I choose the well pump, saying that I’d deal with hot water when the time came. Well, the time came! I shut down the genny, pulled the main house breaker (in case commercial power came back on) and physically removed the water pump breakers from generator panel and the hot water heater from the main panel. I wired the water heater into the generator panel and left the water pump breakers hanging in space. I had previously measured the water heater current draw with an Amp Clamp type meter and knew it was 21.5A or 4,730 Watts. Our generator can do 6,000W so I thought we’d be OK, but I unplugged the fridge, freezer and nuker anyway. The water heater didn’t even faze the diesel generator and an hour and a half later the hot water tank was "recharged" (hot). It was a nuisance having to physically rewire everything but it worked.

We basically lived like this until the power came back on 3 and a half days later. After the initial hiccups, it wasn’t too bad at all, but then we didn’t get hammered like some folks did.

Lessons learned:

  1. Anything that can be done to make life easier and less complicated during an emergency should be done. For instance it’s really trivial to provide better lighting in the basement and I should have placed higher value on that item before stumbling around in the dark. Electricity can provide a huge advantage and safety margin.
  2. TEST YOUR EQUIPMENT OFTEN. Generator not running for a year? I know better than that!
  3. Provision spares for your equipment. I was counting on that generator and might not have been as lucky as I was to find a diesel fuel filter in a store that was open that had power to ring me up.
  4. Our alternate energy system was way underpowered and poorly designed. The genny was great but it was loud and the whole neighborhood knew we had it. I noticed while keeping watch that *several* people were driving up the side road near our house very slowly with the windows open looking around at people’s yards. A couple of them stopped at our neighbor’s driveway and were eyeing his rented generator. Maybe they were just interested, but maybe if the power outage had lasted longer they would have been back at night with a couple more guys.
  5. Talk with your neighbors. I’d rather have them as friends then potential enemies. Besides, some of them may not be total Sheeple’s and might actually have a few good ideas.
  6. I don’t care what you think of MRE’s, they were wonderful to have until we got over the initial emergency tasks and had time to cook properly.

Well, that about sums up our Hurricane Isabel experience.

All materials at this site not otherwise credited are Copyright © 1996 - 2005 Trip Williams. All rights reserved. May be reproduced for personal use only. Use of any material contained herein is subject to stated terms or written permission.