By Alan Markoff
If Hurricane Ivan in 2004 taught the residents of Grand Cayman anything, it was that hurricane tracking is unpredictable and it’s important to prepare for the worst whenever there’s a hurricane anywhere in the Western Caribbean Sea.
While there is no real way to make a home 100 percent hurricane proof, there are several steps residents can take to at least give their home and belongings a fighting chance against a storm.
PROTECT THE WINDOWS
The best way to protect your home is with hurricane-resistant windows, however, they can be expensive. Most people are left with two more economical solutions – hurricane shutters or plywood.
For those who can afford them, hurricane shutters are the way to go because they are very easy to deploy once installed. Just know that not all shutters are created equal and you generally get what you pay for. Thinner gauge aluminium shutters will not perform as well as that are thicker when tested by a major hurricane.
Those who live close to the sea or at higher elevations, where hurricane winds are stronger, should strongly consider the heavier gauge shutters.
Putting plywood over windows will also work. It’s best to buy plywood in advanced and store it in a dry place. Make sure to use proper screws – and have the right amount of them – to anchor the plywood to the side of your home.
PROTECT YOUR STRUCTURE
Hurricane straps on the rafter system are a vital protection for roof structures. Homeowners with houses that don’t have them should see about getting them retrofitted.
Before the storm, residents should clean their outside yard of anything lying loose that could become a projectile during a storm and knock down any coconuts hanging from nearby trees.
Any double doors should be shored up with a brace to prevent the wind from blowing it in. Deadbolt single outer doors or use other methods – such as the old chair under the doorknob trick – to shore up their strength.
SEAL ALL WINDOWS AND DOORS TIGHTLY
Storm surge is a very real threat during a hurricane. If there are any openings in a home, water will find a way through them. Seal gaps in doors – especially near the bottom – with either silicone caulking or duct tape, or a combination of both. If possible, seal all doors from the outside.
Put duct tape over outside electrical outlets and dryer vents. If practical, put duct tape over eave vents to prevent wind-blown rain from entering through the eave vents and damaging attic spaces and interior ceilings.
Flooded septic tanks can cause toilets and sinks, especially on the ground floor, to back up and flood apartments. Turn off the water to your toilet, flush it and then bail out any remaining water. Then put a sand bag or two over the drain hole to prevent sewage and storm surge from back-flowing into the home.
PROTECT YOUR BELONGINGS
Put valuable possessions up high, on top of cabinets, closet shelves and other permanent structures. Even in homes flooded by several feet of storm surge during Hurricane Ivan, items placed high generally survived, as long as the roof stayed on.
Those living in an area that was flooded by storm surge during Ivan are probably at a higher risk of being flooded again but because different storms can cause different conditions, any home in lower elevations is at risk, so steps should be taken to protect belongings.
Those who live in a home that has more than one story can consider taking valuable furniture and belongings upstairs for a hurricane. Another option is to raise downstairs furniture off the floor using cement blocks.
Cover items like beds, artwork, electronics and other things that can be damaged by water with plastic. Water coming through the ceiling damaged a lot of property during Ivan.
Keep important documents like passports, birth and marriage certificates, and other legal documents in a sealed plastic bag and close by so that you can take them with you if you have to evacuate your home on short notice.
Remember to unplug everything electrical in your house to protect it from surges due to lightning strikes.
PROTECT YOURSELF AND LOVED ONES
Ultimately, the safety of you and your loved ones is what matters most.
Unless you are sure the structure you live in could sustain a major hurricane, do not stay there. Hurricanes can intensify very quickly in the warm water of the Western Caribbean Sea, as we learned with Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which went from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane in under 12 hours less than 200 miles south of Grand Cayman.
Preparing for an approaching hurricane means much more than just going to the grocery store. It’s also important that residents take steps to protect their homes and belonging, whether they live in a house or an apartment.
If you do stay at your home, stay alert so that you can act at a moment’s notice. Don’t participate in boozy hurricane parties that could diminish your ability to act and think quickly and effectively in a time of crisis.
If the power goes off, flip the main breaker to your house to prevent power from coming back on when flooding might be present. Should storm surge flooding in your home start before the power goes out, turn off the breaker immediately.
If you are using kerosene lamps or candles for light, make sure they are properly situated to avoid the chance of fires. Do not use too many lamps or candles as all combustion creates deadly carbon monoxide gas.
Never use a gasoline generator indoors – the amount of carbon monoxide it generates will almost always be lethal indoors.
During the storm, stay indoors until the all-clear is given. Do not venture outside if the eye of the storm passes overhead.
Once the storm starts, only leave your home if it is a matter of life and death. Do not leave your home for matters of comfort. If the roof blows off, stay in your home, preferably in the bathtub, and cover yourself with a mattress.
Be very careful when you venture outside after a storm, especially if there is standing water. Nails, glass and other sharp objects could be under the surface of water and not visible to someone walking through it.
Lastly, do not drink water from the taps after a storm, it might be contaminated. Beware also of taking dogs outside near contaminated water, which killed a number of dogs after Ivan.
Having a charcoal or propane gas grill can come in extremely handy after a storm, but under no circumstances should they be used indoors.