Ready for the next big storm?
Did you just shrug?
The tough thing about persuading people to prepare for the kind of weather that will flood basements, knock out power, chase them out of their homes and shut down the city, Samantha Phillips said, is that the last big storms, Irene and Sandy, weren’t as hard on Philly as they might have been.
Phillips, the city’s assistant managing director for emergency management, said people don’t seem to appreciate how big storms can affect their lives, especially since “Super Storm” Sandy did not make a direct hit on Philly in late October.
Old news, perhaps, but what’s new is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that this year’s hurricane season will be active to extremely active. Between seven and 11 Atlantic hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or stronger are forecast.
So, the question bears repeating: Are you ready for the next big storm?
“I don’t think we take hurricanes seriously around here,” said American Red Cross spokesman Dave Schrader. “But I think people are starting to do that.”
“It’s going to be difficult to convince the public to take this seriously,” Phillips said in a May 29 phone interview. “We don’t want to scare people, but we want to get them prepared.”
The steps are not hard, she said. Those who do a little bit every week starting now, she said, will be prepared for the eventuality of no lights, no heat and food stores with empty shelves.
We’re in hurricane season right now and it will last until Nov. 30. The city usually doesn’t feel the impact until midway to the end of hurricane season, Phillips said.
Last year, Sandy took a wicked turn and slammed New Jersey and New York, but it wasn’t as rough on Southeastern Pennsylvania. In Philly, rain was steady, but never heavy. Local waterways didn’t overflow.
“If Sandy had turned left a little bit earlier,” Schrader said, “it would have been us in the direct path of destruction.”
Still, winds did gust to 70 mph, and some 119,000 PECO customers in Philadelphia lost power for days. Regionally, that number was 850,000, according to PECO spokesman Greg Smore.
“That’s half our customer base,” he said. Most had power again in a few days, he said, but added some were in the dark for a week.
The city’s emergency management team has been getting ready for the next big storm since Sandy blew out of town last year.
Phillips said the city extensively examined how it handled Sandy, trying to improve its planning and how government departments coordinate with each other as well as with businesses and nonprofits. The city is working on a plan designed specifically to help it weather tropical storms, she said.
“And we refine our plans to take into account things that can change in 12 months,” she said.
What’s different this year, for example, is that some schools are closing. That fact has to be worked into emergency plans because schools can be used as shelters, she said.
Phillips said she gets weather briefings from the National Weather Center and from state and federal emergency management agencies. What she worries about is projections of rainfall and flooding.
Communications are key not only to utilities, the Red Cross and city agencies coordinating during big storms, but also to individuals. Anyone with a computer or a mobile phone can get weather alerts at www.readynotifypa.org. It’s very easy to sign up. Just visit the site and follow the instructions.
Phillips said those who do sign up will get text and email alerts as storms approach and arrive.
“It’s one of the best tools,” she said, especially since the city can send out an “all-users” message in case of emergencies.
Sign up for text alerts by texting PHILA to 411911. The alerts are free but your wireless provider might charge for text messaging.
Lots of tips are available on the city’s Emergency Management website, www.phila.gov/ready.
Useful information also is on www.RedCrossPhilly.org or by following @RedCrossPhilly on Twitter.
“There are Red Cross ready online tools, a downloadable app and web-based training modules available,” said Renee Cardwell Hughes, the CEO of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Red Cross.
The Red Cross’s free hurricane smart phone app provides storm alerts, hurricane tracking information, locations of nearest shelters and tips for before, during and after a storm.
This winter, PECO set up a Twitter account at @PECONNECT and a Facebook account at facebook.com/pecoconnect. These social media connections have storm preparation tips and safety tips.
Customers can check on outages at www.peco.com/outagecenter, Smore said. The site will present information on a storm’s progress, outages and power restorations. It’s easy to use and has maps keyed to where outages are.
Smart phone users can sign up for pecosmartmobileon-the-go by downloading access from their phones. It’s free, Smore said.
Schrader said the local Red Cross chapter didn’t have any power outages during Sandy, and had some redundancy and backup plans in place if power had gone out.
But what if wireless communications blinked off? Schrader said the Red Cross relied heavily on wireless, so the chapter conducted a drill in March in which staffers and volunteers didn’t have cell phones or any wireless devices.
“We had to communicate the old-fashioned way,” he said, referring to land lines.
“We had to make sure we had all the land line numbers … and we were amazed by how many needed to be updated … some people don’t even have land lines.”
SMARTER NEXT TIME
Phillips said apartment dwellers in Philadelphia shouldn’t be without renter’s insurance, which is very affordable. Such insurance covers losses of personal property they might suffer in storms or other emergencies.
The Red Cross advises that flood insurance information can be found at www.FloodSmart.gov.
Schrader said some of the people who came to the 17 shelters the Red Cross operated didn’t come with everything they needed and expected more than a cot and warm meals.
“A common problem was people not bringing their medications,” he said.
Pet owners should think ahead, he said.
“We would never want your pets to be the reason you stay behind and in danger,” Schrader said, and cautioned, “People assume their pets can go where they can go … and that’s not true.”
Smore said homeowners should make sure they know how to turn off their appliances safely and where their houses’ circuit breakers are so they can cut power if water is going toward their electric outlets and appliances.
“Water and electricity don’t mix,” he said.
And a customer who loses power should report the outage at 1-800-841-4141, Smore said. Don’t assume a neighbor made the call. Your call can help PECO determine the location of damages to its system so the utility can restore power.
Also, people should assume that any downed wires can be carrying electric current, Smore said, and they should stay clear of them.
The best advice, Phillips said, is to take weather warnings seriously.
“When we tell you there is a storm coming, heed those warnings,” Phillips said.
Yes, she said, meteorologists can get it wrong, but that doesn’t mean people should gamble that a storm won’t hit hard.
“Be careful,” she said. “You will save yourself an extraordinary amount of time and money if you are prepared prior to a disaster.” ••
An ounce of prevention:
• Stock up on water, batteries, nonperishable food, medicines, pet food.
• Make sure you have working flashlights, lanterns, a portable radio, candles, matches, a first aid kit, area maps, extra medicines for yourself, family members and pets.
• Buy sump pumps, caulk and generators now, not two days before a huge storm arrives.
• Make evacuation plans now. Put together a “go bag” that has food, water, clothing, blankets, flashlights, batteries, extra house and car keys, some cash in small bills, toilet paper, child-care supplies, pet supplies, sanitizers, shoes, rain gear, a multipurpose tool, health information and medicines. Such a bag is good for any kind of emergency.
• Put personal records in a safe place like a safety deposit box.
• Put irreplaceable personal computer data on a flash drive.
• Put important phone numbers in your mobile phone, but also write them down along with important account numbers.
• Buy extra cell phone batteries, a cell phone charger you plug in to your car, or a hand-crank battery charger.
Bookmark useful sites:
• Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management: www.phila.gov/ready
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov or m.cdc.gov
• National Weather Service: www.weather.gov
• National Hurricane Center: www.nhc.noaa.gov/mobile
• American Red Cross: www.redcross.org or www.redcross.org/mobile
• Free checklists can be found at www.redcross.org/preparednessfastfacts
Sources: Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, PECO and the American Red Cross.