A fish scientist’s 10 tips for surviving a hurricane: Lessons learned from Puerto Rico

Guest Authors: Zach Moran and Mackenzie Gunn
Editor: Patrick Cooney

On September 20th, 2017, Puerto Rico was directly hit by a Category 5 hurricane. We were on the island conducting research on fish and found ourselves unaware of all the proper steps to take ahead of time to prepare ourselves for the aftermath.

Blissfully conducting fish research before the storm arrived.

Hurricane Maria brought sustained winds of 165 miles per hour, with gusts up to 200, and battered the island for over 12 hours. It was the largest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928. In the aftermath, millions of people lost power, water, and communication. Record flooding destroyed roads and filled reservoirs to the point of bursting. The latest reports state 34 people have lost their lives from this powerful storm. This number is only expected to grow as communications return and authorities are able to access the center of the island.

As scientists, we are no strangers to mishaps and setbacks during our research. As a general rule, anything that can go wrong in the field definitely will. Lower unit failures on outboard motors and seized bearings on trailers are commonplace. However, what does one do when researching fish and a hurricane is approaching?

In this article, we want to share some helpful tips that will canalize your preparations if you are ever faced with a Category 5 hurricane.

Tip #1: Get out.

News flash: hurricanes are dangerous. The best possible thing to do when a hurricane is approaching is to evacuate. But why didn’t we follow this brilliant advice? Unfortunately, Maria upgraded from a category 3 storm to a category 5 almost overnight. By that time, flights off the island were unavailable, and we were trapped. We can’t stress this enough: if there is a chance a hurricane will hit your area, LEAVE!

Tip #2: Bulk up.

When suddenly that little category 3 hurricane upgrades to a category 5, and you “can’t get the hell outta dodge,” your next best option is to prepare for the storm. This means stocking up on as much water and food as possible.  All of those coolers you use for live-wells, old milk containers, and anything else you can find, fill them up. If you do not have coolers, buy enough gallons of water to last you for two weeks. You’ll need half a gallon per person per day to stay hydrated, a gallon for sanitation, and a few cups extra for cooking. Stock up on non-perishable food items like canned vegetables, rice, dried beans, peanut butter, and plenty of Oreos.

Tip #3: Go to the bank.

Credit and debit cards are easy to use and invaluable as legal tender. Unfortunately, they are worthless when there is no power. Be sure to withdraw enough cash to buy gas and food for two weeks. After the hurricane, banks will only give limited amounts of cash to account holders, and hundreds of people will be waiting in line.

Tip #4: Get gasoline.

After a hurricane, the third most sought after supply, following water and wifi, is gasoline. Fill up all of your vehicles and gas cans ahead of time, and be prepared to wait in line for 5-6 hours to buy more. Umbrellas, water, and lawn chairs are perfect for this situation. Try to conserve gas by only running the generator in the morning to make your coffee and at night while cooking.

Gasoline lines we waited in after the hurricane.

Tip #5: Get that generator going.

Generators become a very hot commodity when a hurricane approaches, and your chances of buying one at the Home Depot are slim to none. If your project is lucky enough to have a broken down Chinese clone generator, do not fret, maintenance is fairly straightforward. Generator maintenance should include: new spark plugs, extensive carburetor cleaning or replacement, and an oil change. YouTube is an excellent source for information regarding all things mechanical. If you are like me and have a tendency to break things, make sure you buy plenty of pull rope. Make sure you learn how to wire a generator to your house, and keep the generator outdoors so you do not succumb to carbon monoxide.

Tip #6: Batten down the hatches.

In a category 5 hurricane, everything that can get blown away, will get blown away. One of the biggest dangers you will face are from flying objects. Be sure to bring all field equipment inside, and put boats and trucks in areas protected from falling trees. If your house does not have storm shutters, a 4×8 foot 5/8” piece of plywood will do the trick.

Falling and flying debris can be very dangerous.

Tip #7: Establish communication.

After the hurricane, we were only able to get cell coverage by driving to the top of a mountain and using domestic roaming to connect to Puerto Rico’s cell provider, Claro. Find out what the local cellphone company is and make sure your cell phone provider can connect to it. Talk with your advisor or employer about the possibility of installing a Ham radio.

Tip #8: Master the gallon shower.

After the hurricane, we have running water. Therefore, showers were limited to a friend’s house who didn’t lose water, or a gallon of cold water. Mastering the gallon shower takes practice and a lot of soap in your eyes, but after two or three times you can perfect your technique.

Tip #9: House of cards.

No electricity means no television, computer, or video games. Therefore be sure to invest in a pack of playing cards and some board games. Card games I’d recommend are Cribbage, King’s Corner, Slap-Jack, and Crazy 8’s. Board game suggestions include Sorry, Life, and Backgammon.

Tip #10: Lend a hand.

After the storm, be sure to get out and get involved in the community. After so much destruction, the clean-up seems almost insurmountable, but many hands make light work. Ask neighbors if they need help, go to the seaside communities and clean washed up debris, or find a tree blocking a road (there will be plenty) and move it. Plus, who doesn’t love cutting things up with a chainsaw all day?

Following a hurricane, there are always people who will need help in the recovery efforts.

To those reading this post: we hope you never have to experience a hurricane. However, if you do, these tips will help ameliorate the situation.

We were lucky to have the resources to leave Puerto Rico (two weeks after the storm), but there are people much less fortunate than us who still do not have water, power, or communication. Please consider donating to the following charities to help aid the people of Puerto Rico: ConPRmetidos, UNICEF, GoFundMe, and the American Red Cross.

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