Hurricane Frances 2004

Ken Steinhoff Hurricane Frances clean-ip 09-12-2004

I hadn’t forgotten Hurricane Frances, but I HAD forgotten that it was nine years ago that I was hunkered down at the office waiting for it to blow through.

This was a slow mover that was only a Category 2 storm with 105 mph winds, but it just sat on top of us and pounded away for hours.

Winn Dixie roof peeled off

Winn Dixie roof Hurricane Frances 09-05-2004I felt secure at work because the windows were designed for 120-mph winds and I designed the telecommunication area to be even stronger. The architect insisted on having laminated glass windows on the exterior of part of the area for esthetic purposes, but behind the glass, he put a gap, a sheet of drywall, a metal lath, another sheet of drywall and another air gap. He made a mockup and challenged my staff to try to penetrate it by throwing concrete blocks against it. We couldn’t, so I withdrew my request for block walls.

The building went to generator power when the winds hit about 45 miles per hour because the power lines were slapping together causing transformers to blow and surges and sags to come down the line. The big diesel was sucking down fuel so fast and the storm was moving so slowly that we were concerned that we were going to run the tank dry. (It was a 10,000-gallon tank, but it hadn’t been topped off.)

The Winn Dixie supermarket next to us didn’t come out so well. We stood in the 4th floor lobby outside my office and watched the wind get beneath the roof covering and peel it off. The repair they did after the storm must not have been done too well, because we got to see the same thing happen during Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Neighborhood lost power

Dove after Hurricane Francis 09-05-2004_5290Wife Lila was in Orlando with Son Matt and family and I encouraged her to stay there. We had no power at the house (and wouldn’t for several days), and I was perfectly comfortable sleeping in air-conditioned comfort on air mattress on my office floor. If she came back, I’d have had to fire up the generator I bought after Hurricane Hugo ten years earlier.

The two-mile-drive to check out our house as soon as the winds died down was the longest two miles I think I’ve ever gone. (Until 2005 when we got hit by two more storms). I both wanted to hurry up and yet I wanted to keep from seeing if we still had a house as long as possible.

Trees and limbs down

Hurricane Frances 09-05-2004_5280As it turned out, we had a lot of trees and limbs down, but our house, built in the mid-1930s had stood up to the storm quite well. The apartment building across the street didn’t have our luck: a fairly large tree went through the roof.

Clean-up was NOT fun

Ken Steinhoff Hurricane Frances 09-11-2004 5309Our side of the street had our power restored in a few days. The neighbors on the other side were fed by a different line and were dark for a week or 10 days. We “haves” on the south side stretched heavy-duty extension cords across the street to the “have-nots” so they could at least keep refrigerators and a few lights running.

Fix-a-Flat is your friend

Debris left after Hurricane Frances in 2004I’m glad a had a stock of Fix-a-Flat. The streets were full of debris, nails, screws and other stuff just waiting for you to run over them.

As soon as I could, I gave my 3,000-watt generator to Matt and upgraded to a 7,500-watt one with electric start. The best thing I did was buy a kit to adapt it to run on natural gas, propane or gasoline. I also rewired the electrical panel so we could drop off the commercial grid and run the house off the generator if we were careful with our load balancing. It paid off during the next two storms.

I chased 13 hurricanes as a photographer. Let me tell you, covering somebody else’s hurricane is a lot more fun than having one chase you.

Preparing for Hurricanes

Tropical storm and hurricane warnings are something you get used to in Florida. It’s not a matter of IF, it’s a matter of WHEN. We’ve been coasting since the 2004-2005 season when four hurricanes passed over us, so I used the prospects of a brush from a Category One storm to check out the generator and take inventory. (Click on any photo to make it larger.) Looks like you folks might get a little rain out of this one. I hope it’s not like Ike that missed us but blew down trees in the Midwest.

Hurricane supplies

I’ve always been a disaster buff. I chased 13 hurricanes for the paper and wrote the hurricane coverage plans for the newsroom. When I moved into telecommunications, my staff was responsible for figuring out how to keep the phones and networks linking our remote offices up as long as possible. I took a lot of ribbing for my multiple layers of redundancy, but it paid off. Generally we never had to touch Plans C, D and E.

We have a 10×30 shed in our back yard. A 10×10 section is where I keep old prints, film and clips, plus my bikes. A 6×10 section has a workbench and tools; the back 4×10 room contains the pump for our sprinkler system, garden tools and the hurricane supplies.

This shelf has tarps, extension cords and a plastic container with Coleman air mattresses from the days when I had to camp out at the office for the duration of the storm. We’ve been lucky that we haven’t had to use the blue tarps except to make a covering for the generator. I did loan a couple of 30×30 tarps to a coworker who had a tree go through her roof.

Hurricane Central

I finally got the supplies organized where they are easy to find and deploy. The Generac 7550 EXL generator is stored under a shelf and next to the aluminum storm panels that cover the doors and windows. On the shelf above the storm panels are miscellaneous items like cans of Fix-A-Flat. The streets are full of nails and debris after the storm. We found the two most valuable things to carry were Rain-X for driving DURING the storm and Fix-A-Flat for driving AFTER the storm. You’re on your own and there aren’t many places open to patch tires.

I have extra oil and several oil filters for the generator, plus the wrench needed to change them. (It’s smaller than your car filter and a bear to get to.) There are nylon tie-downs to strap our aluminum awnings down to keep them from acting like big kites. I have two electric chainsaws with spare chains and chain oil. (I prefer electric to gas because they don’t require as much care. They aren’t as powerful as gas, but I have a whole lot better luck with them.)

Aluminum hurricane panels

I used sheets of 3/4-inch plywood to cover the windows for years, but it was heavy and took up lots of room. In the early 2000s, I switched to aluminum panels. I wish I could have afforded accordion shutters or hurricane-rated windows, but what I bought was a big improvement over plywood. The coffee can and plastic box contain the hardware to put up the shutters. When I finish with it, I spray it down good with silicone spray to make it spin on easier the next time.

If one of the kids is available to help, we can cover the whole house in about two hours.

I love my generator

After Hurricane Hugo, I bought a 300-watt generator and didn’t use it for 10 years. Even at that, I considered it a bargain. After the first time I used it, I upgraded to a 7500-watt unit and bought an adapter that would let me run it on gasoline, natural gas or propane. (Kid Matt inherited the old one.) It was great not to have to run around buying and storing gasoline for storms that missed us. Running on natural gas meant that I didn’t have to run out to fill the tank every few hours, either. The best part was that I didn’t have to worry about the gas going stale and turning to varnish.

I tried to make a practice of dragging it out annually to crank it up for 10 or 15 minutes and change the oil and filter. I got sloppy and hadn’t done any maintenance on it for at least two years. The battery had been hooked up to a trickle charger, but it was going on eight years old and didn’t have enough oomph to start the motor. I yanked on the starter cord a couple of times and was rewarded with a satisfying throaty roar from the engine. A roar that lasted about eight seconds.

Yank, Yank, Yank ROARRRRR, silence

Yank, Yank, Yank, ROARRRRRR, eight seconds, silence. I was too old to do the yank, yank, yank part, and eight seconds wasn’t long enough for me to try to make any adjustments on the running engine. I went in search of a new battery. Eighty-two bucks?!?! It fit in a bracket that was on odd size, so you couldn’t just walk into your basic big box store and pick up a generic one.

I opted for a lawnmower batter for less than half that amount and hooked it up with a (too-long) length of  No. 6 gauge wire. Once I got the thing running, I figured I’d go back and make it pretty. It turned out to be more battery than I needed. Kid Adam has the same generator and the same dead battery problem. After seeing my experience, he opted for a less expensive, less powerful battery and found that the existing cables were long enough that he didn’t need the extension.

How to keep your generator

Generator theft is a big problem. I heard a story which is just strange enough to be true. If it’s not, it should be.

A guy put his generator right outside his bedroom window so he would know if anyone was fooling with it. It had enough power (like mine) to run a small window AC unit so he could sleep comfortably. About three in the morning he felt the room getting hot. The AC unit had shut off and the light at the side of the bed didn’t turn on. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong because he could hear his generator purring away outside the window. He grabbed a flashlight and went out to see if the cord had vibrated loose.

What he found was a lawnmower running where his generator used to be. Like I said, the story deserves to be true.

The frame of my generator is bolted down with the biggest chain I could find. If I get really paranoid, I’ll take the wheels and handles off it. It has a shipping weight of 270 pounds, so they’d have to REALLY want it to carry it off.

Load balancing is important

The gray box at the bottom of my breaker box is where I hook up the generator. The first step is to throw the main breaker to take us off the grid. I don’t want to be sending power down the line where it could electrocute some utility worker. If I balance the load properly, I can keep the refrigerator, ceiling fans and most of the wall receptacles going. A small window AC unit will cool one bedroom.

We use natural gas for the generator, stove, hot water heater and dryer, so we’re better off than most folks. During one of the recent storms, a major water main broke, cutting off water to a lot of the city. The generator kept our sprinkler pump going, so we ran a hose into the bathroom to flush the toilet. We had enough bottled water on hand for drinking and cooking.

Solar lights are great

If you’re looking for a great source of light, pick up a few Solar Garden Lights. They’re cheap, put out a lot of light and recharge in sunlight. They take AA batteries, so you could charge several and have them on hand or use regular AA alkalines if there hasn’t been enough sunlight to give them a full charge.

Chemical light sticks

Hit the party aisle for a handy light that doesn’t put out heat, stores practically forever, lasts eight to 12 hours and is inexpensive. Cyalume Chemical Light Sticks will give enough illumination to move around a room when they’re first activated. Even when they start to fade, you throw them on the floor to help your find your way down hallways.

We bought a bunch of them at the office to hang over door knobs to mark “safe rooms” that would have been the shelter places of last resort. We never got a storm that strong, fortunately.

Cops found a unique use for them in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. They didn’t have the manpower to process looters, so they would break open the plastic tube and splash the harmless glowing chemicals on the bad guys, saying “This is your one warning. If we see you glowing on the street again, we shoot.”