I’ve just hit the quarter century mark of living in the Keys. In that time, I’ve experienced Hurricane Georges, Hurricane Wilma and now Hurricane Irma plus a spate of some very fantastic hurricane parties that have wiped the other, lesser storm names from the memory bank. That said, there was not one scintilla of doubt that my family and I would evacuate for Hurricane Irma in 2017. And I would not have guessed, before the storm, how many of my “newish” friends had absolutely no idea about what to do if a hurricane was headed this way. And while advice from officials is helpful for the major decisions, like when to leave, it cannot meet the specifics of advice from neighbors and old timers.
1. Read this guide. From cover to cover. That’s step one. Don’t assume anything about an approaching storm no matter how much it “looks like” another historical hurricane. Each storm is different, will approach from a different angle, have higher wind speed, or slower forward motion. Take every single precaution that you can no matter what may have happened “last time.” After that, make every family decision based on the needs of the most vulnerable — whether that’s the aunt with the hip replacement or a newborn.
2. Get the car tuned up at the beginning of hurricane season and make sure it’s road worthy — brakes, tires, etc. If it’s not, put one of the rental car places on speed dial, because the cars will be rented very, very quickly. Or make advance arrangements with a friend to drive out an “extra” vehicle. If you’re leaving a vehicle behind, park it away from the ocean and on high ground. (Ask a local, they have all the spots scoped out.)
3. When the storm starts brewing, even if it’s a thousand miles away, that’s the time to begin cleaning up the yard and bringing in the breakables. Then get the shutters ready to go — make sure all of them are opening and closing (accordion shutters) or that you know EXACTLY where the mustache clips are (panel shutters). I stack mine below the windows until they are ready to deploy.
4. Call the doctor’s office right away and get extra prescriptions to take with you. Call the veterinarian’s office and make sure you have paperwork that says your pets’ shots are up to date. If you wait too long, the doctors will be gone. By the way, how are your pets’ crates going to fit in the car? For that matter, do you even have a crate?
5. Gather all your important papers and all the family photos. Take them with you. I don’t hear anybody saying they wished they saved grandmother’s ceramic farm animals. If a bad storm hits, everyone suddenly gets very practical about what can and what cannot be replaced.
6. Turn off the electric to the house at the panel. Turn off the water to the house at the meter. Empty the refrigerator of everything and wedge it open. Some of folks worst Irma nightmares involve the smell of rotting food; unimaginably bad.
7. Put it up. Put it up as high as you can. It’s better to stack stuff on shelves attached to the wall than furniture that might float and tip over if the water gets in. If you have a dryer that vents to the outside, or a window a/c unit, do you best to cover those holes, too. Mitigate the storm surge with flood shutters. That can be as simple as a piece of plywood on the lower half of the door that slows the water’s entry. In Irma, locals went nuts with spray foam and duct tape and Gorilla Glue; you should too.
8. If you’re evacuating for a hurricane, there’s no need to stock up at the grocery store. Some extra water, some extra pet food and a couple extra gas cans is enough to get you out of harm’s way. The other supplies can be purchased on the mainland as you return, which is a safer bet than stashing them in your Keys home which may have washed away. (But if your destination is a public shelter, you will need to take supplies. See page 22.)
9. It’s not a bad idea to evacuate with the chain saw and the generator. Post-storm, these will be your most valuable tools; don’t risk them getting ruined in flood waters. Personally, I am never returning to the Keys after a Category 3 or higher storm without a piece of heavy equipment. I’m too damn old to clear the yard with hand tools.
10. Got a boat? Get it out of here. Sail it out, motor it out or drive it out. Boats and hurricanes don’t play nice. If that’s impossible, pull it and place it on the trailer in the most secure location. Tie the trailer to an immovable object. Pray.
11. Take photos of everything before you leave. Every. Thing. Every. Angle.
12. Save some money. These suckers are expensive.
Coming back early? Well, that’s your choice. Even if power has been restored to most of the Keys, that doesn’t mean your house will necessarily have juice. Bring a five gallon bucket with a pool noodle split lengthwise to cushion the blow of not pooping on an American Standard toilet that is designed for your butt. And bring a portable A/C and small generator to run it. Bring everything else you need, as well, like groceries and drinking water and hygiene products and bug spray. Bring a sense of humor, too. Sometimes there’s little to accomplish in the first few days with limited resources.
There are NO shelters open in the Keys for a Category 3 or higher storm in the Keys. None. Get out.