Skip to comments.Six months after the Hurricanes of 2017, a tale of experiences and lessons learned (Vanity)
Posted on 03/23/2018 11:52:20 AM PDT by cll
Now that the hoopla about the Trump Administrations poor response to the hurricanes that hit the U.S. Territories in the Caribbean last September has died down considerably, and since my life has now almost returned to normal, Id like to share my experiences during the storms and their aftermath. I do this to set some things straight about what actually happened, to share the practical things we did to deal and cope with the disaster in the hope that someone will find the information useful for their own preparedness, and also as a kind of mental dump of all the stress and aggravation we went through to refresh my mind in preparation for the new hurricane season which is only a little over two months away.
I hope that the reader will appreciate the thoughts of someone who was there, to understand what we went through, and that the lessons learned are useful to anyone who cares. Ill structure this in prose as events happened, with as little sugarcoating or drama as possible. Just trying to be practical.
THE SCENARIO. I live in mid-town San Juan, Puerto Rico. This is a well-developed modern part of the city, about two miles inland, with adequate infrastructure and near everything you need (supermarkets, malls, hardware stores, hospitals, schools, highways all the conveniences of a small city). My home is built of reinforced concrete equipped with storm windows, a 300-gallon cistern, and a small Yamaha 2600 generator that I hadnt used in over 10 years and sat in a closet, wanting for adequate maintenance (more on that life-saving device later). My business is also in San Juan, but closer to the Atlantic Ocean, two blocks from the beach. Just outside the 100-year flood mark. This area is much older than where I live, with aging infrastructure. But it is the touristy area of San Juan. Our building is equipped with a 22K Generac propane/natural gas backup generator, a 600-gallon cistern and rollup storm shutters.
Puerto Rico is located 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The island is about the size of Connecticut, with similar population. The terrain is mountainous, with broad coastal plains to the north and south. Were located smack in the middle of Hurricane Alley, but because we make a relatively small target, storms miss us more often than not. This is anecdotal, but we get seriously hit every ten years or so, which breeds complacency. Our last major storm was Hurricane Georges in 1998. Since then weve had numerous smaller storms which compared to Irma and María were just nuisances. Again, we had become complacent and were not ready, although I dont think anyone can be ever ready enough for two back-to-back category 5 hurricanes.
PREPPING. Complacency is your biggest enemy. Ideally, preparation for the storm season should begin on June 1st. if you want to push it, and know that your area is usually hit during, say, late August or September as is our case, then you should be ready by the end of July. The usual stuff. Trim your trees, clean your yard, clear your gutters, stock up on non-perishable food, water and fuel for your vehicles and backup generators. The government suggests that you and your family should be able to sustain yourselves for three days after the storm, a period after which things should start to return to normal: roads cleared, basic services starting to get restored, stores open and the government there for you. Excuse my French but BULLSHIT. As we learned, you need to be able to sustain yourself and your family for a minimum of three WEEKS. By now that should be obvious to anyone, but in case it isnt, Ill explain further after my description of the storms, below. In any case, complacency got the best of me and I wasnt ready when the hurricane watch for Irma was issued. Thankfully, I was doing some business in the Army base here so I was able to rush to the Commissary and stock up on food and water before the panic buying began. I still had time to work on the yard and the roof and such, but it was too late to find someone to work on my little gasoline generator, which as I said had been sitting in storage for years. Id regret that real soon.
THE STORMS. Except for my time in the U.S. Army, Ive lived all my life in San Juan. So, Ive had my share of tropical storms and hurricanes during my lifetime (Im in my early 50s). Believe it or not, since the modernization of Puerto Rico, particularly the San Juan Metropolitan Area (Im sure people up in the mountains will disagree with this), tropical weather is usually a festive occasion. Like a snow day up north. You prepare for it, you endure it for a few days, then you move on. While it is happening, you make the best of the situation. The anticipation of a storm is even hilarious, when everyone becomes a weather expert predicting what will happen. When a storm misses us, many people are disappointed for having wasted so many resources in preparation, and actually curse that we should have been hit and now it is back to normal. Oh, what a silly attitude that is. Little did we know that this time getting back to normal would take half a year. If ever, for some. The 2017 hurricanes were a completely different animal.
Hurricane Irma. People talk about direct hits from hurricanes. They focus on where the eyewall is and where is it going. They say that Irma skirted Puerto Rico, after dealing the northern Leeward Islands just east of us a severe, direct blow. If you live in or near hurricane-prone regions, you know how dumb that notion is. Hurricanes are hundreds of miles across and while the eyewall is supposed to have the worst of it, for hundreds of miles around it the danger from strong winds and torrential rain is nearly as bad. Or even worse. The eye moves relatively quickly over an area but the whole of the storm lingers for hours and even days, both anticipating the eyewall and then tailing it. In Puerto Ricos case, the eyewall passed 30 miles north of the island, but that was close enough to cause extensive damage. That was the one punch. The hit was bad enough to leave us in a weakened state, without any time to recover for what would happen in less than two weeks. If Irma had been it for the season and it was plenty Puerto Rico was pretty much on its feet ten days later. Or so it seemed. The electric power grid of the island precarious even on a good day was only patched up. But at least we thought we were almost done with the season. In fact, many people naively, after seeing the devastation from Irma in the Leeward Islands, started donating their own hurricane supplies to the victims there. In hindsight, a nice humanitarian gesture but a big mistake. Sorry to say this but everyone should hold on to their supplies until the end of November. Now we know.
The aftermath of Irma wasnt too bad for those in San Juan. My bachelor apartment near my house, which I still own and was vacant but still furnished, got power back in a little over 24 hours after the storm had past, so I was able to move my family there until we got power back at home four days later. My business was without utility power for ten days, but our Generac backup power plant held up non-stop for the entire time. The only challenge was getting the gas refills, as we had opted for propane tanks instead of being hooked to the natural gas line that runs along our street. The gas truck had difficulty filling orders for so many clients without power and many roads were still blocked or damaged. The natural gas pipeline in our area had held up without problems. Even if natural gas is more expensive than propane gas (at least in the islands it is), this is something to think about: delayed deliveries. On the generator, the book says to change the oil every 200 hours of operation. But our maintenance guy says that that is under normal circumstances. Than on emergency situations where the generator is run hard, the oil must be changed every 100 hours. I am glad we did. We would need a reliable backup for what was to come next.
Hurricane Maria. Imagine an F2 tornado the size of your state roaring clear across the entire length of it for 12 16 hours. Thats what happened in Puerto Rico. And the roar. Oh, the ROAR! Ive never experienced anything like this, even after being through so many storms and hurricanes. Usually you get the woooo-wishhhhh howling sound or whistle from the storm, which is scary enough. This time it was different. On top of the usual wind and rain noise, we got THE ROAR. I cannot describe it well enough. It was as if a jet engine at full power was sitting on top of your house. I am not kidding, it sounded like the trumpets of Heaven (or more like the trombones of hell) blaring down on you. It wasnt constant. It came and went, but when it came it lasted for about 20 seconds and the whole house shook. A steel rebar, reinforced concrete home with a solid concrete slab roof. Things were flying outside the house and hitting the sides of it with force. Our home sits at a slightly higher elevation than the surroundings, so we had a 360-degree view of what was going on. Our windows are glass and steel louvered storm/security windows, which held quite well mostly because they werent hit by any flying debris. In that we were lucky. The only thing was that the windows are over 20 years old, so the seals were not perfect, and at the peak of the storm it was as if the hole house was submerged in water and gallons of it poured through the gaps. And that was our only inside damage, just wet walls and a little flooding. Outside it was terribly awesome. There was so much rain flying sideways that if it were possible to stand outside, you wouldve probably had difficulty breathing.
We had obviously lost cable TV and internet access when we lost power the night before, and by 7:30 in the morning or so the cell phone signals started to fail. At this point I posted a question on the location of the eye to Freeper NautiNurse on the Free Republic live hurricane thread. As soon as she posted the satellite image showing the eye just south of us, we lost the cell phone signal. This almost total loss of communications would prove fatal to dozens of people in the days to come. I say almost total loss of communications because after the peak of the storm, only one AM radio station was left on the air. No TV, no internet, no two-way radios, no satellite phones. Nothing but the one AM radio station and the land lines of a few homes that still had the analog phone service. And then, the one AM radio station that survived couldnt give much useful information because they didnt have anywhere to get it from. So, they just babbled throughout the peak of the storm. This was critical because some things happened that hadnt happened before and there was no way to warn anyone or to alert rescuers to what was happening.
I talked about flood zones and 100-year flood maps and what not. We might as well have tossed those away. Areas on the island that had never experienced flooding, flooded. Severely and immediately. There was so much rain coming down that entire mountain roads were washed away, isolating dozens of barrios (villages). Most of the immediate deaths due to the storm happened at this time. People simply drowned in their homes. Unlike in the states, here you cant climb into the attic and hack your way unto the roof. Again, most of our homes are made of reinforced concrete.
They say that Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico in the morning of September 20 and exited out of the northwest by late afternoon. As I have discussed, that is misleading. We started to get hit on the evening of the 19th, and couldnt leave our homes until the 21st. We lost power on the 19th and didnt get it back until October 30. 40 days without power and we were of the fortunate few. Six months on, there are still tens of thousands of people here without electricity.
Weve been criticized by hardcore preppers and survivalists for whining about being without power for so long or for any length of time. They say that temperatures in the 80s are mild and perfectly adaptable to. Well, if you are a hardcore trooper maybe, but to the ordinary citizen, especially the old, the newborn, the bedridden, the infirm, the handicapped, it is hell. 80s in the Midwest, for example, is not the same as 80s in the Tropics. Its the humidity that kills you, to use a cliché. The heat index (opposite of wind chill factor) is more like the 90s. Food spoils faster, bugs go out of control. Walls, bed sheets and clothing become damp and moldy. And to aggravate this you have hundreds of gasoline and diesel generators being fired up at the same time to add fumes and noise to the misery. Out in the boonies a generator might be okay, but in a densely packed urban environment, no. And then finding and keeping food refrigerated was a challenge. Tough guys might be willing to eat canned food for six months straight, but most people arent ready for that. Anyway, whine, whine, but I wouldnt wish this on anyone. I went 40 days without electricity. Again, thousands of people here are still struggling without it. You try it. But that was just at home. At work, businesses cannot operate without electricity, and too many shops were forced to close and thousands lost their jobs. In my case, I was again blessed. I was able to get to my business the day after the storm. It was a challenge driving through San Juan. A drive that usually takes me ten minutes took ninety. It looked like a nuclear bomb went off over the city. When I got to the office, from the looks outside and around our building, I gasped and wondered if we would be able to resume operations. The entire concrete façade of the building was torn off. Half the big oak trees in the parking lot were down. A wooden house and its contents had fallen on top of the company vehicles. The flood waters went well past the 100-year flood line at the end of our property, marking a new limit for us near the beaches. And then the manual crank for the storm shutter on our front door didnt work. I climbed on the roof hoping the generator was still there (I had my doubts) and it was! I fired it up, lighted the place and was able to open the shutter with the electric switch. Then I went inside the building and PTL, the entire office was intact. Not a drop of water. This was the first of a series of little miracles that just kept us going. The next one was that the air conditioners worked. With that, I was able to turn the computer network on (no A/Cs, no computer, no work). As soon as the servers came online and I saw the little monitor icon indicating we had an outside network connection and I didnt believe my eyes. I then hit the browser icon and on came the Drudge Report: Blown back to the Dark Ages, headline with a picture of a devastated island street. We had internet! I then fired up the telephone switchboard and we had a dial tone! I went on facebook to check in with family and friends and made the dumb mistake of posting somebody from the mainland call me at 787-nnn-nnnn to see if were getting calls from the states. That was dumb because people who I hadnt seen since the second grade started calling and I had more pressing things to do, like starting to try and convince our customers worldwide that we were not blown back to the dark ages.
So, those were the storms and their immediate aftermath. Ill now try to discuss briefly the long recovery that lay ahead (if it is possible to be brief about it but by now Ive probably lost the interest of many with my non-dramatic account), and perhaps here is where most of the practical lessons are to be found. So Ill go by themes, of myths and realities.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT RESPONSE. To put it simply, the local government just collapsed. This was admitted to by the head of the State Emergency Management Agency. Not for three days. Not for three months. We practically still have no government. And this should be a lesson to ignorant socialists everywhere. When most needed, the government may not even be there. Yes, there were many local heroics by first responders, but our government wasnt prepared to deal with an event of this magnitude. On a good day, the Government of Puerto Rico just sucks. In a disaster like this, it was like a headless chicken. Our government was broke to begin with, and they just didnt have the resources to mount any kind of significant response. In my worldview during those first few days, it was neighbors and communities doing all the rescuing and stabilization work. I was pleasantly surprise by this, because we Puerto Ricans get a lot of bad press and are often accused of depending on government too much. But as it turned out, we quickly realized that we had to take care of ourselves. I hope this sentiment sticks and translates into smarter voters in the future.
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT RESPONSE. In my opinion, it was TOO MUCH. Really, theres so much the feds can do. They have the manpower and airlift capability of the military, but FEMA is pretty much useless. It is a reactive rather than a proactive bureaucracy. But even then, I am sure we got all the help they could muster. I live below the approach path to the San Juan International Airport. The heavy lift aircraft traffic coming into the island was incessant, day and night. So much so that they clogged what little ramp space we have in our humble airport, and had to reactivate temporarily the old Ramey Air Force Base and the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station to handle the traffic (well, at least the runways were reactivated or used for this purpose). Since then, weve had so much help, that the personnel is just in the way in many areas. As an example, we have not been able to restart the tourism industry, because FEMA and all the others were hoarding hotel rooms and rental cars, leaving tourists without much options.
But at any rate, the people here are not starving. In stateside media, they keep showing images of the immediate aftermath or that of the first couple of months. Yes, there are still a lot of people without homes and with significant challenges. Many businesses disappeared, leaving thousands unemployed. This situation will drag on for some time. But I can assure you that Puerto Rico is not devastated and the Trump Administration response, such as it can be, has been more than adequate.
WHTEFISH ENERGY. This was a fiasco. A fiasco because I dont care about the circumstances of their contract, they were doing their job. Two guys mounted an unprecedented response, subcontracted the expert hands, and were quickly restoring power to the island (they got power to my home in 40 days, way ahead the rest of the island). But then politics intervened, and those self-satisfied politicians who caused the contract to be cancelled, just extended the misery of the Puerto Ricans by months, while the APPA could be mustered to continue the work. It was a real shame. Except that politicians have no shame. They just want to stick it to Trump, even if he didnt have anything to do with Whitefish.
APPA. The American Public Power Association has just been great, amazing, a God send. We got thousands of crews from the states working here tirelessly, and they picked up where Whitefish left off, expertly. We dont have the luxury of having contiguous states here in the middle of the ocean, and just getting all these guys and their equipment here has been a tremendous feat.
HOME RESPONSE. Let me talk to you a little about what we did at home to cope with all this. Our main lifeline was provided by a little 2600 watt Yamaha gasoline generator. This was one of those little miracles because I had it stored unused and without maintenance for over ten years. When we ran out of ice sources after the storm, my wife convinced me to give it a try. I didnt believe it would work after all those years. Plus, there had been not much gasoline available for the first week after the storm so it wasnt like I would be able to use it, anyway. But with no ice to keep food and medications refrigerated, the situation was starting to get desperate. Would you believe it started? Not only did it start after cleaning the carburetor and putting in new oil, but it ran for 40 days, 12 to 15 hours a day, without so much as a hiccup. Another miracle to keep us going! This was an immense relief. Thankfully right after the generator was revived the gasoline supply situation on the island was resolved and we didnt have any issues with that. So, in our situation, a little Yamaha generator made all the difference. Now I have two of those, one to back up the other. This contrasts to those whole house big gas generators and Ill tell you why.
These generators are designed for emergency situations, not for long term use. If you are going to use it for an extended period of time, like we were forced to, maintenance is paramount. Fresh oil is life. We saw far too many of those Costco Honeywell generators fail due to maintenance. People just ran them hard until they burned out. You just cannot expect these to run 24/7 for more than a week. In the office, we were very careful with our 22KW Generac. We ran it for no more than 10 hours a days and changed the oil every 100 hours. It serviced us well for 2 months straight and it is still going, ready for the next one (although I read that the useful life of it is around 2,000 hours, which we are approaching).
Diesel, gasoline or gas, which is better? In our case, the supply of gasoline and diesel became critical immediately after the storm. Only propane and natural gas were immediately and widely available. But propane burns a lot faster than diesel or gasoline. So you have to make a choice, or come up with a combination of sources. In my case, my plan is to buy a whole house gas generator which I intend to use only overnight, and then have my two little gasoline generators as back up, at least to run the fridges.
Now, Ive gone on long enough. I am no expert, but I just wanted to share my experiences in the hope that someone might find this information useful, and to clarify what has been going on down here over the past six months, for those who care. But mostly, I just wanted to get all this out of my head and move on. It has been a real struggle because I am responsible not only for my family but also for a business that employs over 50 people. It hasnt been easy, but with all the little miracles God placed for us along the way, we can now look back at a life-changing experience with great hope for the future. We are here, we are doing well, and after all, thats just life in the Tropics.
Ill be able to answer any questions or comments later tonight as right now I just have to post and run.
That’s good to hear, that in spite of government ineptitude. you managed to persevere. Hopefully, things will work out well in your favor.
Very interesting. Thanks for the first-person reporting.
I wish all the people blaming Trump and US govt. in general for a poor response would choke on it - especially the politicians and celebs.
Biggest issue was the fact that the corrupt government run electric system had been starved with the money siphoned off to politicians, so that when the storm hit, it tore the electric system apart. Now these same politicians are crying that the electric system is not back up. It has to be completely replaced in many areas, not just repaired.
Thank you for your insightful perspective from your vantage point. Indeed we are on our own when it comes to disaster. First comes family, then neighbors, then neighborhood, then community, then town, etc...it all starts in your living room.
Very happy that your business was relatively unscathed albiet maybe there are no customers/clients...but the building and infrastructure is there anyway.
It is amazing what we take for granted...the little luxuries of life, like electricity and refridgeration. Some would argue that refridgeration is the greatest invention of mankind. To be able to preserve food from spoilage for a great period of time.
Bump for an excellent report.
Great report. Thanks!
My nephews and their mom live in the high-rise condos by San Patricio Plaza. They huddled in the central stair well during the storm and they told me that they were between the 3rd and 4th floor, yet could still feel the building trembling and swaying from the power of the wind.
My nephew told me that once Maria had passed and he was able to look around from a higher vantage point in the building, that it looked like the worlds biggest weed eater had been taken to the landscape, as there was not trees or vegetation higher than 10 feet to be seen.
Glad to hear you are doing OK. Pa’lante Boricua!
Thank you for that.
Your article absolutely mesmerized me. I grew up in the Philippine Islands. Between the hurricanes and earthquakes it was a dicey existence after the war. Your well written and heart felt article brought so many memories back...it gets sort of crazy as people try to re-order their lives into something resembling normalcy.
You did a great job for your family and business and all the families involved with that.... I admire you for all of that. And thank you for mentioning Trump and his crew. As you know we seldom hear a good word about that fine man.
Thank you for the honesty of your presentation and the descriptions of your compassionate responses and the responses of others.
Yep, well written. The only thing that saved me after Katrina, and I live 90 miles north on New Orleans, was the pool in the back yard. The temps were in the 100’s, and the humidity factor was close to that number as well. We too were without power for over a month. We still got a bill though, and that bill was double what are bill normally was. About a week after the storm we were able to get over to an open Lowe’s and purchase a generator. Still have it and it still cranks up when called upon. It is certainly no fun living without electric for many many days on end. Anyone who thinks hurricanes are an exciting event full of fun, have never been through a bad one, obviously. Also, those who get upset about it missing them and their efforts being wasted, should instead be thankful. Because a bad one means that the effort wasn’t in vain, and a miss means that you have less to do when the next threat presents itself.
Thanks for posting many LESSONS LEARNED.
A report from one of our Preppers who survived a glancing blow From Hurricane Irma ..
and then a head-on attack from Hurricane Maria.
The biggest enemy of Preppers is complacency and not being adequately prepared, even though you think you are;
and failure to keep an ongoing assessment of routine tools and maintenance as well as seasonal adjustment.
Throughout this post you will learn of what worked, and what didn't work, as well as praise given where it belongs,
as well as the blame for failures.
Also, he has much good to say about our FED.gov response that you won't see in the news or mainstream media,
and has offered a serious critique on local PR politicians.
Learn from his example, his forethought, his prepps, what worked, and then his experience.
This is an outstanding report !
H/t to Sergio
Thanks to all. I’ll get back to this thread after I take my wife out to dinner to the fanciest restaurant I can find open tonight. She was the cook during the whole ordeal and did miracles with just a gas grill at our disposal. I’ll share that next. Later tonight.
It sounds like you probably don’t need that whole house generator for at least 9 more years. You probably need to buy and install it in about 2025 just to be conservative.
I am surprised those Honywell generators lasted that long. Pure mad in China junk. I bought one for my daughter for emergency use. I test run my generators a couple times a year. I test ran hers and it burned up at idle. Took it to the qualified shop (70 miles away)for repair under warranty. There were no repair parts.
They were made in China and that was all there was, no parts available at all. They had to give me a new one. The new had a warranty only till the end of the original warranty.
I couldn’t even start the new one. Donated it.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.