TODAY’S THOUGHTS BEFORE THEY BECOME TOMORROW’S “SHOULDA” THOUGHTS!
By Jim "Gymbeaux" Brown, November 3, 2020
Hurricane Katrina came and went. Hurricane Zeta more recently came and went and disappeared very rapidly. In between there were numerous threats of storms. Some folks in our area refer to their home area as living in “the cone of uncertainty.” I had never seen a hurricane move as rapidly as Zeta did, estimated to be about 25 mph, in my lifetime. Our power, during and immediately following both hurricanes and the power of tens of thousands of people in the path of the storm, loss power. Power was lost after Katrina for 4 weeks. Our power was lost during Zeta for about 24 hours and then it was restored for about 5 hours and then it went out again. It was restored at 7:30 pm the next evening. We felt comfortable that the power issue was over. The temporary restoration was both a good thing and a bad thing. When it was first restored it gave our refrigerator and our freezer a chance to work again. It turned out that the restoration only lasted for 5 hours, but during that time we were able to preserve the contents of each. We went to bed and was surprised to awake the next morning to discover the power once again was lost. It was not restored in our area until about 2:30 the following day and has remain on ever since.
I learned several valuable lessons from the two storms, aided by my 33 plus years in the real estate business. These lessons are not listed in any specific order of importance. They are listed as I think of them except for the first two items, water heater and kitchen range, they could be critical considerations.
Hot Water Heater. If you have an electric hot water heater, you will be totally dependent upon the power being activated for you to have hot water for cooking, bathing and general cleaning. Anyone can lose power at any time. It typically fails during severe weather but could also fail for example when someone runs into a power pole or a tree limb falls and breaks a power line. We are fortunate, by accident. Our home had a gas hot water heater when we bought it. It was NOT by design; it just was a feature of the home. As Katrina and Zeta roared through our area and home, we had hot water even though we had no power. Therefore, if you have the ability to choose the type of hot water heater your home will have when you purchase a home or build a home, my recommendation would be to always prefer and even demand that it be a natural gas hot water heater for the purposes mentioned herein. Some areas are not serviced with gas lines and you may not have an option but if you do, choose the gas hot water heater option.
Electric Stove vs Gas Stove. During the 4 weeks following Katrina we, as stated, we had no power. Our home had gas service built into the home to enable homeowners to select an electric or a gas stove. The home came with an electric stove therefore during those 4 weeks of Katrina and the 40 hours following Zeta, the electric stove was useless. With Katrina we lost everything in our refrigerator and freezer. In fact, I returned to the area a week AFTER Katrina for the first time and I cannot describe the stench of rotting food as I opened the doors to the units. Unless you have some aversion to cooking on or having a gas stove in your home, IF you have the option to choose, I would choose a gas stove. In both Katrina and Zeta, we would have at least had the opportunity to cook whereas we didn’t following those two storms as well as many other times we lost power but not for the duration caused by hurricanes.
Building a home. Here are some really nice to have considerations if you are building a home and you have options to select from:
Solar Powered Attic Fans. These are far more practical than electric fans. As a starter, you conserve energy and they are more efficient to operate. They are not that much more to purchase than electric fans. They will work during power outages!
EBULBS and Other Emergency Gear: EBulbs is a new product. It is an LED typical looking light bulb that screws into existing sockets you would find throughout your home. It has a built-in battery charge that when charged will last up to 5-6 hours should you lose power. I don’t know how long the charge will last if you are not actually using the light but it is supposed to last up to 5 to 6 hours on a full charge when you do use them. Very cleaver idea and new technology. Where can you find them? Surprisingly many online places. Do an Internet search for Emergency Rechargeable Light Bulb. They are available at Home Depot. Lowes has a similar light called Blue Sky Wireless. Works the same way but this one has a built-in connect that you can plug your smart phone into to charge your phone/device just using the bulb. That would obviously reduce the amount of stored energy to operate the light as a lightbulb. You can also purchase a 200-Watt portable Solar Powered unit that you can charge using solar power (7-12 hours); from a home electrical socket (9 hours); or from a car battery (9 hours). Cost for unit PLUS solar panels about $250.00. A total waste of money UNLESS you experience a power outage. Search for Portable FlashFish Generator Adventure Emergency. The best part about this device is that you can take it with you wherever you go like camping, boating, the beach where you might need a power source.
Natural Gas Outdoor BBQ. If you have gas service in your area, think ahead. You may not enjoy cooking outdoors and that is okay but the next owner of your home might. It is possible that a gas line to an appropriate spot on your patio might actually add value to your home when it comes time to sell. More importantly, if you happen to have an electric stove in your home, using an outdoor BBQ may be the only source of heat you have to cook food, boil water, etc. Yes, you can have a grill that uses charcoal but that requires a supply of charcoal and a propane fueled grill requires a full tank of propane. There is no refill issue with a built-in gas line service to your grill.
Natural Gas Automatic Emergency Generator. I can assure you that everyone in my area would give just about anything to have had electricity provided by a generator installed in their home, either permanently or as a portable unit. The HUGE difference between these two is the source of fuel to operate them. With a permanently installed natural gas unit, they start automatically when the power goes out for any reason. You could be at home or you could be on a cruise ship, the unit will start and do its business with or without you. If you rely upon a gasoline fueled portable generator, you have to be there for it to operate and you have to keep the tank filled with gasoline. A very important side note, in almost every storm, you hear of gasoline generators starting fires because people don’t realize that the engine is very hot. Then they attempt to fill its tank with gasoline and it spills on the hot engine. A fire probably will erupt in such cases. People also have died because they kept their unit within their homes or garages with the doors and windows closed because of the continuing rainfall and they die of carbon monoxide poising from the exhaust from the engine. Any length of time without power is too long. Four weeks, like Katrina, is indescribable. During power outages it is impossible NOT to think about the food in your refrigerator and freezer. Will it last? Will it be safe to eat? Obvious questions, not so obvious answers and almost impossible to not worry about the problem. And don’t forget about medications you take that require cooling. Without an alternative power source, you cannot cool items that need to be cooled without constant trips to local stores to buy ice. If you rely upon purchasing ice, the store where you purchase it has the same issues that you do, NO POWER. Therefore, they have no ice. If they have ice, it would be in limited supplies and the line to purchase is going to be long. I know these things because… Emergency generators are like homeowner’s insurance policies. They are a total waste of money unless you actually need them, then THEY ARE PRICELESS! They are NOT cheap. They are NOT even inexpensive. This was taken from the internet: “Based on our estimates, you can expect to pay anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 just for the generator itself; $5,250 to $11,250 for its installation; $0 to $900 in electrical wiring, and $165 to $485 per year in maintenance and repair costs.” Installing a whole house generator in a pre-existing home may not be worth the cost. To help determine if it is worth it, you have to ask, how many times a year would it be beneficial should you lose power? Installing a whole house generator in new construction could be built right into the cost of construction and you would be amortizing its cost over the full length of your mortgage. Plus, you would be adding value to your home for when you next sell it. You still owe it to yourself to research your local vendors and they will usually provide you with a free estimate to purchase AND install a whole house generator. What have you got to lose by just asking the question? You can start the estimate process by going to this web site: https://www.localelectricianbids.com
Limitations of Emergency Generators. Emergency generators come in all shapes and sizes. More importantly, they come with limited power capabilities. I am not an expert on things electrical and most people are not as well. It is vital that if you plan to install an emergency generator or if you prefer to use a portable gasoline generator, that you consult an expert in the field. You can usually find one at the stores that sell them. The more you want your generator to do, the larger the capacity generator you will require.
Refrigerators. As a minimum you will want it to operate your refrigerators and freezers to save your food as well as provide you with something to eat during times of crisis. They draw a lot of electrical power.
Air Conditioners. Next, if you live in areas where it gets really hot like my area, you will want it to either run your installed air conditioning unit or possibly some window units. Both require a lot of energy to properly work. These are the big items. I lived in my home without power during the four weeks immediately following Katrina. The temperature and humidity seemed to match numbers; IN THE 90S. I tried everything to be able to sleep at night including lying in a bathtub filled with cool water. It WAS that miserable. Operating some type of air conditioner in hot areas is about as a required item as you can think of.
Electric stoves. If you have an electric kitchen stove you may want to include that in your list of items to power up.
Electric Hot Water Heaters. It too takes a lot of energy. If you have an electric hot water tank, will you want that to operate as well.
Battery Powered Tools. I have electric powered, gasoline powered and battery powered tools in my home. Originally, I didn’t give it much thought as to which type I purchased and in fact, I was like most people and spend the least amount as long as the tool did its intended job. That all changed with Katrina. I have concentrated more on battery operated tools like a hand drill. No power, no drill if its electric. If you are trying to repair items around your home after a storm and you have no power, you have no tools that operate. If your batteries are not properly charged, they too will not work. If they are properly charged when the power goes out, you will have functionality at least for a while. If you have a generator, they will work indefinitely. Battery power tools could include but limited to, hand drill, saw, trimmer, edger, even a lawn mower. More and more power tools and garden tools are becoming battery operated with the advent of larger capacity batteries with longer lives. My advice would be to think of these things when you purchase your tools to be used around the house.
Lights and electrical outlets. You would certainly not need to have every outlet in your home wired to the Emergency Generator. It is possible to have a generator large enough to power your entire home but you are probably looking to provide power to those things that you consider essential. An expert on Emergency Generators can match your needs with the right size unit. Before you get to that stage, you really need to identify the items like those mentioned above that you want to provide power to. You need to look at EVERY electrical device in your home and make a decision if you NEED that device or if having access to the device would be considered “NICE TO HAVE.” Need to have might include the refrigerator and freezer, and a handful of outlets from which you could provide needed light service and tools like your computer. Nice to have might be your television as compared to televisions, plural. Items like electric hair dryers take a lot of energy to operate as do toasters, microwave ovens, mixers, etc. In order to identify what you really NEED you also have to consider how long the power would need to be out before it became a crisis.
Internet. During the recent power outage, I discovered how important having access to the Internet was to me. I doubt most people know how often they use the Internet on a daily basis. As an example, our front door lock operates on battery power but can be controlled through the Internet. Our doorbell also has its own battery that requires periodic charging (a problem that could occur when there is a power outage) but it provides notification through your smart phone via the Internet when someone is at your door and records videos activated by sensing movement. This all depends upon the Internet. After 24 hours the loss of the Internet and iPhone became critical. I did what was necessary to charge my phone and that included charging it using the battery in my car. Internet was extremely slow and caused the phone battery to weaken. I went so far as to activate the HOTSPOT WIFI capability in our Chevy. It costs $15.00 a month for limited data. I discovered when your power is out that limited data dissipates very quickly. If you want to continue, it becomes more expensive. It was definitely worth the $15.00 to be able to check emails, and social media messages, something I could not do in and around my home without access to a WIFI network. There appeared to be telephone service with the more recent Zeta. There was no phone service following Katrina. Oddly we discovered you could send text messages even when you could not use your phone for voice transmission. Never did quite understand that. Even with all the precautions you may take, you may still discover that you are unable to use your phone or your television and WIFI. It was worth doing whatever it took, at least for me, to insure I had access to the Internet. You may not be able to use your television but you can receive television broadcasts for most of your interests via your smart phone. The downside is that your smart phone will need to be recharged more often; plan accordingly.
Batteries. Do an inventory of all your devices that can operate using household batteries. I maintain a shelf on my bookcase where I insure a more than adequate supply of batteries exists and everyone in the home knows where they are. They also know that when the supply of any of the sizes diminishes, to put that size on the “to purchase” list for the next Sam’s Club run. If you wait until something like a hurricane is approaching, you will find that supplies of batteries may not exist at your local stores because so many people are doing the same thing. After the crisis has passed and the power has been restored, conduct an inventory of your batteries and resupply as necessary as soon as possible.
Bottled Water. I do not like bottled water. I have nothing against the water, but I do against the plastic bottles. Yes, bottled water can be considered an essential item in your emergency kit, but like everything you can ingest into your body, not everything is good for your body. Buying multiple cases of bottled water may in the end not be good for your health if you drink outdated water. The plastic bottles are certainly not good for the environment at any time. During long power outages you must have access to safe drinking water and bottled water may be your only option. Most power outages do not last forever and most do not affect your drinking water but some could. When you know something like a hurricane is approaching, you usually have time to buy a case of bottled water and that is fine. My advice would be to use the water shortly after the crisis has past because it does eventually go bad. Check expired dates on the water before and after the crisis and use the water up accordingly
Canned Goods: I would suggest that you have an area set aside for food stuffs, usually canned goods, that can last for a very long time if left unopened. Store them in your emergency space to be used as needed during a time of crisis. Keep a list of items that you may pull from your emergency kit and replace them as soon as possible. Store items that may be eaten without heating because it is possible that may be your primary food during and immediately following a crisis. You can now maintain lists on your smart phones. I would recommend you maintain a list of items used during the crisis on your phone and use that list to purchase replacement items as soon as possible after the crisis has passed.
Blue Tarps. Thank God I did not need a Blue Tarp after Zeta passed. I did after Katrina and I was grateful that I had one. But…as life would have it, I have since used that tarp for other things like a drop cloth for painting and now there are small holes in the tarp I have. They are very inexpensive and they do not take up much room. I can assure you that immediately following a storm, there WILL be a run on tarps and they will be very difficult to find AFTER an event. The time to buy a “blue tarp” is now, before the next storm or disaster. They don’t go bad. They will sit on your shelf forever. Just plan ahead.
Inflatable Water Barriers. It is almost impossible to protect your home if a severe flooding occurs. You can protect your home that may be vulnerable from “street flooding” like our home is. The streets always fill up with water whenever we experience moderate to heavy rains. In severe rainfalls the water often extends partway up the driveway. The water has never reached our home but if it did, we would be unprepared to stop it from doing damage. The one thing you cannot do much about is PEOPLE. People who drive their cars but especially those who drive their trucks that can transit flooded streets. Many of these people have no idea the damaged caused by the wake they create by driving fast through flooded streets. If your home is subject to rising water and/or wake damage, you can now purchase bags from Lowes and presumably Home Depot that act like sponges. You line they up as you would bricks, one on top of another. When the water rises to these bags, it absorbs the water and creates a barrier. Work very similar to sand bags but these end up as bags of water stopping the water.
Real Operating Window Shutters. We have two front windows with faux shutters that do absolutely nothing. I have research having “real” operating shutters for the floor to ceiling front windows. The cost was about $600 per window. I have not purchased them but they are on my list. They can be closed and secured very quickly and can withstand severe winds and wind driven items like branches and building materials. Good investment and may actually add resale value to your home. They are least a future selling point for sellers.
Overhanging Tree Limbs/Branches. When I changed homeowner’s insurance companies, an insurance rep came to the home and all was well except I had a massive Water Oak in my back yard and two of its branches hung over the roof line of our home. I was told they would not insure the home until the branches were removed. That one requirement changed everything. The company I called to remove the limbs suggested the massive Oak should also “probably” be removed. It was not very far from the edge of the building and appeared to be very old. When the neighbors and I agreed that it was okay to remove the tree, I hired the company to do so. We discovered that the tree had a rotten center core and was a fallen tree just waiting for a time to actually fall. The time to take inventory of the trees around your home is not just prior to an approaching severe storm; do it now. Make a plan of action to remove potential hazards before they actually become one. My neighbor has a very similar Water Oak in her front yard and when Zeta came through it took out several of her branches and one cut the power line in front of our homes.
Emergency Kits. Do you have one? You should, you must! What would you keep in your kit? Flashlights, lanterns (not the same thing), batteries, especially batteries, Emergency Weather Radio that is powered by solar, batteries, and hand crank. They can be purchased at almost any hardware store. First Aid Kit. Box of matches. Candles (should be a last resort).
Evacuation Kit. Most people don’t think of building an Evacuation Kit, but should whether you live in a hurricane prone area or not. The Evacuation Kit would contain the most important papers that you would like to retrieve in an instant during and immediately following a disaster of any kind that would cause you to quickly leave your home. You want something that can be easily grabbed with one hand, in a moment’s notice and while “on the run.” Insurance papers would come to mind, birth certificates, passports and any other papers you deem essential to continue your live after the crisis.
Books and Puzzles. When all else fails, have a good supply of books and puzzles to keep your mind occupied otherwise you will go nuts! I say this because…
Are there other things you can do – absolutely. These are the things I think about AFTER a storm like Katrina and more recently Zeta. The time to really think about them was YESTERDAY because what you decide to do could make all the difference in the world to YOU, YOUR family, and even your neighbors during a time of crisis, like a hurricane, fire or flooding, that could happen TODAY!