Hello Dolly! Hurricane Preparations

There have been some hurricanes that have hit Houston square-on, Alicia in 1983 and Allison in 2001.Alicia was notable for the damage it did to buildings due to the high winds.

There have been some hurricanes that have hit Houston square-on, Alicia in 1983 and Allison in 2001.

Alicia was notable for the damage it did to buildings due to the high winds. All the high-rises downtown had their glass walls blown out. Even emergency personnel stayed away from the office buildings because of the constant rain of shattered glass. In the city and suburban areas house roofs and backyard fences were either ripped off or flattened.

Allison did most of its damage by flooding because it just sat in one place in Galveston Bay and rained continuously for days. Particularly on the southern side of the city and those areas with bayous or creeks nearby, all of them were under 100 year flooding levels.

Lucky for me I was out of the Houston area both times. So preparing for hurricane season is a standard annual procedure in this part of the world. We've been on the edge of numerous other hurricanes at other times. At least you can prepare in advance for a hurricane unlike earthquakes and other natural disasters.

My family's home is about 40 miles from the Gulf Coast, literally 2000 feet south of the southern edge of Houston. The local elevation is about 45 feet above sea-level. I don't have to worry about high tides but we do qualify as low-lying territory. During Rita our suburban city was part of the evacuation zone.

During the evacuation, incredible numbers of people were stranded on the highways going north after running out of gas. Rita changed directions in the last few hours and came ashore well east of Houston, negating the need for evacuation. It was 3 days of total panic flight-driven chaos that probably caused as many deaths as a hurricane would have. The difference from an actual hurricane event is that the deaths and injuries occurred on congested interstate highways where emergency personnel could not get to the people in need. So if you are going to evacuate the area, you needed to be on the road and headed north BEFORE they announced the evacuation.

Since it seems unlikely that I will be able to foresee where a hurricane will land in enough time to avoid the chaos on the highways, dealing with it sitting in place is something that has to be prepared for.

Something else learned long ago, sitting in the dark, is that the power utilities' repair priorities are not going to be set by the lowly residential utility user. Katrina and the near miss of Rita (at least for Houston) reminded me again that the power utility companies don't have the manpower needed to quickly rebuild the electrical infrastructure on the Gulf Coast. Some residential areas in New Orleans took 6 months to have power restored. I understand the need for setting public service or repair priorities but I don't have to like where it puts me on the list! Self-reliance has become a necessity if you want to prevent having to stand at the rear of the power restoration queue.

Actually during a power outage, keeping computers running is not my highest priority. Trying to maintain some measure of a working household is much more important. Last year I managed to find enough cash to buy a 5.5 kW 120/220 AC generator and a bunch of 5 gallon gas tanks. That should keep the refrigerator, some lights and a small AC going until the power can be restored assuming it only takes a few days. Obviously the reefer's contents will be the first post-storm meals in the case of a long-term power outage. Then it gets turned off.

It might seem extreme to use a generator to keep a small AC unit going but it will be obvious after a day or two of 100% humidity @ 95°F+! Having sweltered for days in more than one post-storm event, its not just physical comfort, its mental and physical health as well. If there are family members that are disabled with chronic illness, having some air conditioning in at least one room to keep them comfortable is important. A number of fatalities in New Orleans were simply hospital patients that expired from heat stroke.

My parking lot near-encounter with lightning was just one of the almost daily small-cell thunderstorms that herald the beginning of hurricane season so the computers are being turned off a lot. I just didn't get them turned off at all the right times. I suspect that Debbie's hard drive got trashed during this particular storm cell.

Unfortunately I don't own very good UPS technology. The UPS in use here is essentially a low-current battery charger, a battery and an AC inverter run off the battery when a power fault is detected. Generally its good enough but the best UPS type is the constant on-line charger\inverter system combination. They are expensive simply because you're talking about twice as much circuitry as in the typical battery-backed up inverter only system. Because of the cost competition at the low-end of the UPS market, most constant on-line systems start around 3 to 4 KVA in capacity. Usually those systems are usually about 50¢/VA. That translates to $1200 to $2K just for a full UPS backup system. They are worth it in mission-critical systems but a home server and network system built out of castoffs doesn't really qualify!

I didn't have an automatic software backup system in place yet for Debbie so I was burning DVD-Rs once a week to keep recent copies of the file shares. (Yes I know I could have written a cron script!) I just hadn't gotten to automating the process yet when this year's spring/summer monsoons started. The DVDs were exactly what I needed though to get things up and running again after Debbie got trashed by lightning, or at least that's my assumption as to why the hard drive was damaged suddenly.

Thinking about emergency preparations has me planning for the possibility of having more than an occasional hard drive crash. Obviously making full drive images of all of my family's computers is the first step.

Do I want to store or package a completely built-up computer system in a water-tight case as a backup? No laptops will not do. Laptops do not like water at all! Obviously building or buying something low-powered like the OLPC XO is an obvious start. But to be honest I'm not sure how critical a computer will be post-hurricane.

Something that I haven't tried out yet is trying to operate a standard PC off of my generator. Is there a way to successfully power a computer off the generator without destroying the computer? I do know from my work that small generators such as my recent purchase aren't very well regulated.

The on-line UPS units we buy at work are specially modified to work on drilling rig site generators that are better regulated than my home generator. The kind of UPS I have at home doesn't operate off a generator very well, especially alongside a variable inductive load like a refrigerator or an AC unit!

A few minutes looking at color doppler radar through a web site connection either local or statewide tells me more than listening to the local TV “reporters” standing in the blasted rain ever do! Damn Dan Rather!* There is a local color doppler radar sited about 15 miles away with a website so you can look at specific neighborhoods in pretty good detail. So there have been more than a few times when a computer was more informative than a TV or a radio.

The wireless broadband service is still so new, I'm not sure if you can rely on it during or after a storm. In addition, the service areas for broadband wireless cells are so small that the local access point is as likely to be in the same power service area as your house. In any case, cell phone service usually saturates during emergencies and becomes nearly useless.

Cable television and the digital data service they offer is not a real option. At least in this area, you get 6 inches of rain, kiss the TV cable good-bye.

We subscribe to a satellite television service so we'll still have the Weather Channel but only BEFORE and AFTER the storm is over!

For use as an emergency 2-way communication device, a computer is going to have to have a phone company wired DSL or dial-up connection.

Telephone service has been remarkably reliable. Even in the worst storms the phones seem to continue to work. I'm hoping that extends to the phone-DSL service as well. Along with radar coverage, email would be useful to still have access to. Our home's phone service is a buried phone line that comes up at the corner of the house to a termination box. Luckily the first phone cable junction box is in my own backyard so I should be able to either connect or re-connect if necessary to the phone service and DSL.

Continuing my phone cable trace, there is a second junction box located about ½ mile away that I know directly connects my phone service to the switch at the local central office. This inter-cable junction box is on a slightly elevated concrete platform so it shouldn't be flooded even under much worse conditions.

From there the phone cable remains buried until it enters the switching center, about a ¼ mile further. Telephone switching centers are powered by large 48 volt battery banks. That is how they manage to continue to operate even in general power outages. All of this is good to know but I hope never to have to test that knowledge in some disaster scenario.

I hold an amateur radio license and the radio equipment I have (really old) still works and could be used as well if necessary. Prior experience though tells me that aid agencies here in the US view amateur radio as useless and will not expend time and energy attempting to work with even willing amateur radio groups. Likely my HF radio equipment would be used to “jump” past the local aid groups and communicate with other radio amateurs outside the disaster area that will be operating in ad-hoc networks.

The key to all of this communication ability is going to be an AC to 12V DC lead-acid battery charger. Every communications gizmo I have operates off of either 12VDC or alkaline or rechargeable nicad or lithium batteries. I can build a power supply system to run a PC off of a 12VDC battery so that might be a means to engineer around the question of a generator run PC. Another project!

Something I've also avoided to this point in my discourse is the question of using solar cell arrays as a post-disaster power source. Solar cell arrays are expensive, bulky, fragile and if not protected will likely be totally destroyed in a hurricane. I have done some solar panel testing but their cost has been so high I've not been able to afford them. The advantage is that they require no fuel other than sunlight. Eventually they will become part of the system assuming I can engineer a mounting that allows easy disassembly and storage of the panels.

This time of the year I maintain a fairly traditional hurricane kit in my house. A couple of large plastic boxes containing: large flashlights, batteries of every type, first aid supplies, candles and matches, 3 large bags of charcoal, plastic tarps, 3 or 4 rolls of duct tape, a hammer and nails, other basic tools, a crowbar, a wind-up AM/FM/Weather radio, bleach, rope, extra dog and cat food (yes we have 2 of each), etc. Most of the time the kit just sits there. Additions and deletions get made to the kit. Usually batteries continually disappear, I have 2 kids after all. This year I'm trying to make sure every necessity I can think of will be either at hand or in the kit. In reality, the hurricane kit is a means to plan for emergencies, all kinds.

As a mental exercise I go through this sort of assessment each year. Sometimes more detailed, sometimes less. Its the most important part of the hurricane kit. Its a way to both actually prepare for the worst as well as steel myself to an actual event. So far I haven't had to preform under the gun for awhile, lets hope it stays that way.

* Dan Rather got his big break and moved to CBS by standing in near waist high rain flooding during hurricane coverage for a local station in the early sixties here in Houston. Since then, every idiot reporter that does hurricane coverage puts on a plastic raincoat and stands in the wind and rain to do their stand-up. Duh! They look like idiots every time.

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