PREPARING FOR A HURRICANE – A HOUSE SITTER’S GUIDE
12 July 2018
12 July 2018
Experiencing Hurricane Irma’s 250 mph gusts of wind during our 2017 house sit in the British Virgin Islands was undoubtedly the most traumatic experience of our lives. That we lived through it was a testament to a combination of teamwork, perseverance and a good dose of fortune.
And, of course, our preparation during the 48 hours prior to Irma’s arrival.
But, if we’re honest, our preparation could have been better. Much better. Which, of course, is easy to say with hindsight. But we probably underestimated the sheer ferocity of what turned out to be the largest Atlantic storm to make landfall since records began.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that many ex-pats who live in hurricane (or tropical cyclone) zones such as the Caribbean, choose to spend their time there during the dry season (December to May) and leave for more stable climates at some point during the hurricane season (June to November). Which means that there are house sitting opportunities in paradise for those willing to accept the regular storms that will undoubtedly pass through.
But, riding out a tropical storm and surviving a major hurricane are two very different propositions. So, if you find yourself house sitting where a hurricane is forecast to hit, you’d be wise to make all the preparations you can to keep yourself safe, along with any pets in your care.
And, with the full benefit of hindsight, our house sitter’s guide should help you to do just that.
But before we continue, you might want to read our harrowing three-part account of how we survived Hurricane Irma. It still gives me goosebumps when I read it now. And it might give you some perspective for how important the recommendations I make in this article are.
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What’s a “major” hurricane
Accoring to the Saffir-Simpson Hurrican Wind Scale, there are five categories of hurricane:
Category 1 Sustained winds of 74-95 mph (119-153 km/h)
Category 2 Sustained winds of 96-100 mph (154-177 km/h)
Category 3 Sustained winds of 111-129 mph (178-208 km/h)
Category 4 Sustained winds of 130-156 mph (209-251 km/h)
Category 5 Sustained winds of 157 mph (252 km/h) or higher
Anything that’s Category 3 or above is considered a major hurricane. Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 with sustained winds of 180 mph (285 km/h) and gusts up to 250 mph (402 km/h)!
Discuss the possibility with the owners at the outset
Setting out expectations with the owners before you accept or start a house sit in a hurricane zone not only makes good sense but it also safeguards both parties from potential misunderstandings and even litigation.
Trust me, one of your main priorities will be to keep your stress levels at manageable levels so you won’t want to be locked in negotiations with the owners over what you should and shouldn’t do.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because there haven’t been any hurricanes that have directly hit for the past 30 years (as was the case in the British Virgin Islands) that they’re unlikely to strike while you’re there.
So, as a minimum, you need to establish:
- What the owners would expect of you if a hurricane is forecast to strike (you’ll normally have advance warning of at least 72 hours). What if the forecast is for a direct hit (the eye of the storm passes right overhead)? What if it’s predicted to be a category 4 or 5 hurricane? Would you be expected to stay put no matter what? Or at what point would you evacuate? What help, if any, could they provide? And would they have contingency plans for their pets if you’d agreed to leave?
- Is there a safe room where you would retire to during the storm? This would ideally be a room that doesn’t have windows or overhead objects such as chandeliers. It’s an important question as you don’t want to be inside a room where there’s potential for blown-in windows and flying debris. Even if the safe room is actually a corridor, identify it and agree on it with the owners (as long as you are happy with it).
- Are there any specific places for the pets to stay securely or would they stay with you in the safe room?
- Do they have a written hurricane procedure (Including evacuation) for you to follow?
- Are there any weak points in the house that need attention, such as an external door or window that doesn’t close properly?
- Are the windows hurricane proof? Do they have hurricane shutters? If not, how would you board them up?
This might sound alarmist to some, but in the event of a major hurricane, you’ll want to have already answered each of these questions.
Our safe room during Hurricane Irma ended up being a small closet housing just a toilet, a sink and one small window
Monitor the potential for a hurricane
You would benefit from periodically checking a number of online services to help you monitor the likelihood of an approaching hurricane.
Firstly, the National Hurricane Centre and Crown Weather websites provide definitive forecasting for all tropical storms in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific. They’ll show you the predicted path and intensity for any particular tropical storm and they’re updated multiple times per day.
Better still, Windy.com provides a 10-day animated weather forecast that dramatically shows the predicted path of a hurricane. In fact, we actually took screenshots of the projected path so that we had a good idea of when Irma was likely to have passed.
Just be careful, though, as using it can become obsessive!
A screenshot of Hurricane Irma as it approaches the British Virgin Islands – as predicted on Windy.com
So you’ve established that a hurricane is on its way to you. And you’ve agreed with the owners that you’ll be on site for the duration. What next?
Well, this is where the real preparation begins. If you’re lucky, the owners will have provided you with a thorough hurricane preparation checklist or manual. But whether they have or not, we’d recommend you do the following:
Listen out for local news and instructions
Check the local government websites (in the British Virgin Islands the Department of Disaster Management website provided news and instructions in the lead-up to and wake of Hurricane Irma). You’ll find information there such as the latest weather reports, evacuation routes and locations of hurricane shelters etc.
Check with your embassy and make sure they know you are there. You may be reliant on them in the event of a major disaster.
Joining local social media groups can provide support and may be especially useful after the hurricane has passed.
Prepare a hurricane survival kit
This is worth spending some time over. What will you need to hand in the event of a worst case scenario? What if you have to remain in your safe room for 16 hours (like we did)? Or what if the property you are staying in is badly damaged and you have no power or water?
Firstly, you’ll want to stock up on canned or dried food that doesn’t rely on cooking or chilling. So plenty of dried fruit, nuts, protein bars etc. Bottled water, too (at least three days’ worth for drinking and sanitation). And don’t forget a can opener!
Make sure you put sufficient aside for consumption while you’re in the safe room and place them in there well ahead of time. In addition, prepare a first aid kit.
Of course, the pets in your care will need plenty of food, too.
Don’t risk losing any documents that are important to you. Place your passport(s), electrical items and other personal stuff in a dry bag and keep it with you at all times.
Get hold of at least one torch and make sure the batteries are fully charged. It’s best to avoid candles in case there are any gas leaks. However, if you do want to ensure you have dry matches to hand afterwards, keep them in a watertight container.
If there’s a generator on site, stock up with diesel as you might find that supplies will be difficult to find in the days after the storm.
Other items to consider include a whistle, duct tape (for a multitude of repairs), sleeping bag, change of clothes, fire extinguisher and bin bags.
Secure the house
First of all, you’ll need to remove anything from outside the house that’s a potential projectile – tables, chairs, awnings, pagodas, garden tools etc. If it can’t be moved, strap it down (eg: large plant pots, gas cylinders etc).
Remove all potential projectiles that are inside the house, too (for instance, pots and pans hanging in the kitchen).
Board up any windows and doors that aren’t hurricane-proof. You should have already checked this with the owners at the outset.
If there’s a pool, partially drain it so that it doesn’t add to any flooding.
Identify weak spots in the property and secure them. For instance, do the doors move about in their locked position? Are there any gaps where gusts of wind could force open a door or window? If so, try and secure them (we identified a set of patio doors as a weak spot and so strapped a mattress up against them).
There’s not normally any need to switch off the electricity at the mains as the power is likely to shut down anyway. And you’ll be grateful for it switching back on automatically once power is restored. However, it would be wise to unplug all appliances because of the risk of power surges.
One thing we did that we’ve since learned you shouldn’t do is to apply duct tape to all exposed windows in a kind of criss-cross fashion.The supposed benefit was that it would stop the glass from splintering into tiny pieces. In reality it just meant that the glass would splinter into larger, and ultimately more dangerous, shards.
Establish a plan for the pets in your care (as agreed with the owners)
Bring them inside in plenty of time and close off any escape routes as a frightened pet may make a bolt for it. Although I admit that two of the cats we were looking after managed to escape before I closed the kitchen door and spent the duration of the storm underneath the house.
Think ahead to when the hurricane has passed
What can you do in advance that will make your life easier during the days afterwards?
A good example is turning the fridge/freezer to its coldest setting so that if the power is down for some time you’ll stand a better chance of keeping perishables chilled or frozen. If possible, completely fill the fridge/freezer for maximum cold temperature retention and don’t open the door unless you absolutely need to. It’s also a good idea to include five-gallon containers of water which not only helps to keep eveything else frozen but provides you with extra drinking water as it defrosts.
Liaise with family and friends
We found that having one central point of contact back home was the most efficient way of updating family and friends. Especially as we had extremely limited access to communications. In fact, due to the severity of our situation, we only managed to speak to our one point of contact who then updated news about us on Facebook.
Obviously, situations will be different but if you know that a hurricane is going to hit, then planning how you’ll be able to communicate with people back home could save a lot of worry afterwards.
It’s also a good idea to warn them of a potential communications blackout in the immediate hours and days after the hurricane.
We used a mattress to close off a potential weak spot – patio doors in our bedroom
During the hurricane
If you’ve never experienced a Category 4 or 5 hurricane before then, no matter how good your preparation is, you should probably expect it to be much worse than you think. In fact, the worst thing you can do is be complacent – something we’ve questioned ourselves about when we’ve reflected on the lead-up to Hurricane Irma’s arrival.
Stay hydrated, remain calm
Easy to say, but it’s so important. If circumstances take a turn for the worse, it’s vital that you think straight and not make rash decisions. After I suffered a smashed finger while 200 mph winds raged around us, it was Nicky and Lauren’s calmness of thought that ensured we retrieved some medical supplies before we dragged ourselves to the safe room. Without that I would have undoubtedly lost not just my finger, but I would have been susceptible to septicemia in the days that followed.
Remain within the safe room
No matter how tempting it might be to take a look outside, until the storm has passed you should “stay with the plan” and remain in your pre-determined safe environment.
This is especially true if the eye of the storm is predicted to pass overhead. If it does, there’ll be a sudden but temporary period of calm – maybe 15 minutes or so depending on the size of the “eye”. But then the full force of the storm will return as abruptly as it left. Don’t be caught out.
Don’t open an exterior door or window at any point
Once you’ve secured the house and double-checked the doors and windows, don’t at any point be tempted to open them again once the storm has arrived. Not even a crack. The pressure inside the room will change and all hell will break loose. Believe me, once the wind finds a way in it’s going to be on the lookout for a way out again. As we found when two of our doors blew open and the windows on the opposite side of the room blew out.
Don’t venture outside
The storm has arrived and something outside you thought was strapped down has come loose. Or you’ve forgotten to put something away. You’ll want to brave the conditions and sort it out, right? Wrong! Don’t even think about going out there. If you’re not actually swept off your feet by the wind the flying debris will probably get you anyway. Let me stress the obvious – things can be replaced, you can’t.
Don’t risk injury or exposure to the hurricane in pursuit of a photo/video opportunity
Wouldn’t it be great to capture some video of a Category 5 hurricane and upload it to You Tube whereupon you’ll have hundreds of thousands of views within a matter of weeks? It’s probably as sensible as having a selfie taken with a pissed off grizzly bear. And you wouldn’t do that would you?
Or in the immortal words of Barrie, our BVI neighbour and fellow Irma survivor, ‘Hurricanes aren’t for tourists’.
After the hurricane has passed
If you’re lucky and local power has been restored you’ll be able to check the local government website for the all-clear to venture out. However, this wouldn’t be likely in the immediate aftermath of Category 4 or 5 hurricane. So, once you’re satisfied that the storm has passed – at least 30 minutes of relative calm – you should be good to go.
However, you should be prepared for a scene of devastation.
Listen for local instructions
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the only way the authorities could get information out was via a small team of people in a jeep with a megaphone. Which meant that I had to run down the steep hill leading from our property to hear what they had to say.
So, assuming that internet and phone services may well be down, check with neighbours and locals to find out what they’ve heard. In our case we established that another hurricane (Jose) was on its way and that a 6 pm curfew was in place.
Once power has been restored, check the local government website and social media groups.
Be vigilant and aware of potential dangers
With law and order in disarray during those first few post-Irma days, looting was a very real problem. Desperate people will often take desperate steps to feed themselves and their families.
And then, of course, there are the opportunists.
To make matters worse for us, some 100 inmates from the local jail had escaped. Suffice to say, securing your property as best you can is a priority. And certainly observe any curfews in place.
Don’t forget either that broken glass, gas leaks, downed trees and power lines present their own dangers. Especially when you first venture out.
If the damage is particularly severe, consider your options for evacuation
Not just the damage to the property you’re staying at, but the environment around you, too. On Tortola, the destruction was so bad that we felt we were actually a burden on resources which would be better directed at local people. And my finger needed proper medical attention, anyway. However, as the airport and ferry terminals were damaged there was no way off the island in the first few days. In the end we were lucky enough to be evacuated by helicopter to Puerto Rico.
Again, listen out for local updates on transportation options.
After reading this article, you’d be forgiven for wondering why you wouldn’t just evacuate a housesit rather than have to try and survive a major hurricane. And, to be honest, I can’t think of any reason why we’d want to experience what we lived through during Hurricane Irma.
But it’s not always as simple as that. The severity and direction of an approaching hurricane can change unexpectedly. Options for evacuation can become very limited if left too late, especially off smaller islands. And, having taken on a commitment to look after pets (in our case, four cats) in a hurricane zone during hurricane season, we felt we had a responsibility to “see it through”.
In truth, we never once thought about evacuating but were solely focused on how we were going to deal with it. Where we naiive? Possibly. Would we have evacuated had we known just how bad it was going to be? Maybe. Perhaps we’ll never know.
However, we can say with certainty that the experience taught us a lot about ourselves and how we are able cope in moments of extreme stress.
But it also taught us about the incredible power and unpredictability of one of the most destructive manifestations of nature.
What did you think? Have you experienced a house sit during a hurricane? Do you have any recommendations to add? Or perhaps you’re thinking of house sitting in a hurricane zone soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.