Preparing for the Aftermath of a Coastal Storm: A Personal History

When experts talk about hurricane preparedness it often centers on what we can do before an event to protect our family, ourselves and our property. Much less is said about how we prepare for what follows – once the winds stop blowing, the water has resided and people are allowed to return and begin the process of disaster recovery. In addition, the delivery of preparedness information is often framed as the simple process of following a prescribed series of actions that lead to positive outcomes. This approach fails to reflect the psychological context of disasters as highly personal events. My column seeks to blend these issues – informing people about preparing for the aftermath of a disaster – by reflecting on a highly personal experience.

I grew up in Shoreacres, Texas, a small coastal town on Galveston Bay. While I no longer live there, my mother, sister and stepmother still do. Like many who call the Texas Gulf Coast home, I was glued to the television watching news reports of Hurricane Ike. Ironically, my wife and I were spending her birthday at Sunset Beach in North Carolina when Ike came ashore near Galveston Island.

My mother lives in a townhome in Nassau Bay, Texas. Her home sits less than a quarter mile from the Clear Lake City Hilton, where a large number of the news media reported from during the storm. You know it’s a bad sign when Jim Cantore and other members of the Weather Channel are in your mom’s neighborhood as a hurricane makes landfall.

My stepmother lives in the old bay house where I grew up. Built in the 1920’s, it was one of the first homes built along the northwest reaches of Upper Galveston Bay. It was a great place to grow up. We spent much of our time on the water fishing, crabbing, and eating fresh caught shrimp from nearby Kemah, sailing, windsurfing and swimming. Some of my fondest memories involved sitting on the front porch watching the sun go down or tracking cold fronts move across the bay until the drop in temperature and increased winds signaled their arrival.

As Ike moved into the Northern Gulf of Mexico, we all watched with a growing sense of concern. It had been 25 years since Hurricane Alicia made landfall south of Galveston. While growing up, our family had gone through the routine of evacuations before. We moved the furniture upstairs, brought in items that could become projectiles in high winds, boarded up the house, collected important papers and pets and headed north.

Prior to Ike’s arrival, my mother, sister and niece evacuated, loading up the car with supplies, important documents, and Nana the family dog. They were able to find a place to stay that allowed pets and was far enough away from the coast that the residence did not lose power after Ike made landfall.

My stepmother, who was not from the coast, was unsure of what she should do as Ike approached. She bought a generator, boarded up the house and was considering staying in the house. After convincing her that she had to go, she evacuated.

While my family made the right choices during the evacuation, preparing for the aftermath is more challenging.

The hard part is not knowing what you’ll return to. Are the things you had to leave behind ok?

Following the storm, we all watched news reports of the impacted area, searching for images of our home town or recognizable landmarks. The uncertainty is mind numbing, yet you can’t seem to turn away.

After seeing the endless repeat of the same imagery on the national news, I went to my hometown’s website where people began posting photographs of homes damaged or destroyed by the storm. One by one I viewed a series of pictures of the homes on the street where I grew up. In almost every case, they were severely damaged or destroyed. Windows, doors and entire wall sections had been removed. The contents washed into back yards or out into the Bay. In many cases this included not only furniture, but carpeting and tile leaving a bare slab or subfloor exposed. The pictures, evidently taken from the back of a truck as it drove down the road, stopped one house removed from ours. Apparently the debris generated by the storm surge, including large slabs of concrete stacked on the road blocked further travel. This material, previously located along the shore, served to reduce a long-standing problem of coastal erosion.

The pictures abruptly ended and we did not know how the home fared until neighbors sent us photos of the damage. Like the others, the first floor was gutted and everything that was not located upstairs was gone.

One week after Hurricane Ike made landfall, my mom, sister and niece decided to return and assess the damages to their homes. To our great surprise my mother and sister’s homes received minor damage. Many others in the Nassau Bay area did not fare as well, including those located merely a block away. A week later the power was turned back on in their neighborhoods and they were able to return, go back to work and begin their own process of recovery.

Is Your Community Adequately Prepared to Assist those Who Need Help?
Disasters bring about tremendous anxiety, particularly for those who feel as if they have nowhere to turn, are socially isolated or have few resources to draw upon. Being prepared for recovery means thinking about how you would address these issues before a storm affects you and your community.

• Develop a plan for the possibility of an extended stay away from your home. You may be displaced for days, weeks or months if your home has sustained significant damage. Identify friends, family members or a pre-identified place to stay should you need to evacuate. If local authorities allow you to return to your home, make sure you and your family are willing and able to return if no electricity, water or sewer services are available. Regardless of your choice, make sure you tell someone what you plan to do and where you will be staying. Provide a contact number, if possible.

• Prepare to be self sufficient. This mean making sure you have enough cash, food and water on hand for a minimum of several days. Gas may be unavailable or in short supply and restaurants and grocery stores may remain closed for extended periods of time.

• Coordinate with your employer. Make sure you and your employer have an agreed upon procedure to contact one another after the storm passes. This will allow you to inform one another about the condition of your home and when you can return to work.

• Registering with FEMA. Compile the necessary documents required to register with FEMA. It’s a good idea to go through the registration process as you may be eligible for varied types of federal assistance, including temporary housing, and low interest loans and grants to repair your home.

• Prepare for the possibility of making necessary repairs or reconstructing your home. Be prepared to deal with the repair or reconstruction of your home. If you are a renter, talk with your landlord about their plan and develop your own list of action items if you are required to relocate. Talk with neighbors about experiences they’ve had with builders in the area prior to a storm and seek out those that have a proven track record of high quality, timely and reasonably affordable work.

• Consider all options. Depending on the nature of your individual health and ability to deal with major repairs or the reconstruction of your home, you may need to decide whether continuing to live in an area prone to hurricanes and coastal flooding is feasible.

• Investigate grant and loan programs. Become aware of federal grant and loan programs that may help you repair your home or make it less vulnerable to future storms. If you maintained flood insurance and live in the floodplain you may be eligible for federal grants to pay for the elevation or relocation of your home.

Planning for these realities can be overwhelming to many people. This is particularly true after the storm as people are required to make a series of major decisions with limited information. The elderly are particularly vulnerable and are often unable to address these challenges without help.