Hurricane Preparedness: Lessons Learned From Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rican Preppers

In late 2017, the deadliest category 5 hurricane swept through the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, causing billions of dollars worth of damage to the Puerto Rican infrastructure.

Hurricane Irma claimed 52 lives and caused $77B worth of damage. In Puerto Rico, approximately 50% of the island had no power, and half of the telecommunication towers were knocked out. Two weeks later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc again – two of the five costliest hurricanes in human history within two weeks of each other.

Whereas Hurricane Irma caused a glancing hit on Puerto Rico, Maria smacked the island right on the chin. The damage was catastrophic to the US territory as the power grid was effectively destroyed, less than half the population had water, and 95% had no cell service. Ports were shut down and roads were destroyed or flooded creating a logistical hell for importing goods. Even several months after the hurricane, millions were without water and power, grocery stores carefully rationed food and water, and many were still homeless. Even today, five years later, tens of thousands of homes in Puerto Rico are still uninhabitable.

At the time, the typical Puerto Rican hurricane preparedness plan went like this:

Stock up on a few weeks’ worth of food/water.

Close your hurricane shutters/board up your windows.

Get drunk and wait.

Some would spend the night at a hotel since the buildings had large backup generators and comfortable accommodations. Nobody was prepared for months of food, water, and energy shortages, or a double whammy.

If a hurricane were headed your way would you be able to take the hit and handle the aftermath?

Financial Prepping for Hurricanes

Escaping the storm

We start off with financial planning because you can preemptively avoid being in the path of a hurricane. Hurricanes move at around 10-40 mph and modern hurricane models can show the path of a hurricane within a projected cone of probability. If you see a powerful hurricane headed your way this is the time to use your emergency fund to buy plane tickets out (if you’re on an island or want to avoid evacuation traffic in the states) and find a place to stay in another state until the hurricane passes. In the end, your home, money, and possessions can be replaced.

Escaping the chaos after the storm

When Maria came, many residents packed up their families and flew to the states to wait out the hurricane avoiding any risk to their lives. There were some residents that discounted how dangerous the hurricane would be (residents had never experienced a hurricane like this before) and chose to shelter during the storm. In the aftermath of the hurricane, there were many residents that wanted to leave but didn’t have the financial means to do so as airline ticket prices had risen. Cruise ships offered free fare but conditions aboard were terrible and required weeks of sailing to the other island to pick up more refugees.

Rebuilding your home

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, you might be waiting for authorities to come and help you but it will be a while before they get to you. The priority for FEMA is to get the infrastructure working again in your area. Any type of compensation you receive from FEMA will take a long time and will be far, far less than what you need to rebuild your home. In Puerto Rico, the many people counting on FEMA had to wait years to get their homes fixed. Residents with insurance fared much better but some insurance carriers stalled on paying out claims or found reasons not to do a payout. For instance, if a resident decided to fix something themselves the insurance company would use that as a reason not to do the payout. Even five years after the storm, there are many condominium buildings with damage from Maria that are still going through a dispute with insurance.

Plan your finances in advance (checklist)

Here are the following items to get in order NOW before disaster strikes:

  • Homeowners Insurance – Research your insurance company. Look them up on AM Best to see their financial strength. You want an insurance company that will pay out even when faced with billions of dollars in payouts. Review your policy in advance to make sure you are covered for Wind/Hurricane/Flooding. Keep in mind, that you have to add this coverage well in advance. Many insurance companies will not add coverage if a storm has entered a certain distance from your house.
  • Emergency fund- Budget for airfare, accommodation, food, and lost wages (if applicable).

Building up a large emergency fund can be daunting but absolutely possible by living within your means. Personal finance should play a big part in your prepping for worst-case scenarios and this means living well within your means. Personal finance advice is outside of the scope of this article but we have found great advice in the book “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey.

Shelter

Concrete or Concrete block homes are your best bet to stay safe in a hurricane and protect your belongings. In Puerto Rico it’s the vast majority of buildings are made out of concrete so the damage was not as bad to buildings as you see in other gulf coast states. However, there are some buildings that have wood roofs and even some with wood structures and during Maria, most of these homes were damaged and roofs were swept away by the wind. In addition, many homes did not have hurricane shutters which led to broken windows.

If your home is not built with concrete you can still take steps to protect your home and possessions. Some states, like Alabama, offer grants for hurricane fortification. We highly recommend getting a FORTIFIED™ evaluation done of your house. Check with your state to see if they offer grants for this. Check with your insurance broker to see if they offer any discounts as well. You can also check the FORTIFIED Home Website to see a list of recommendations. If your home has already met the standard you can skip the first 3 parts of the checklist below.

Hurricane-proof your home (Checklist)

  • Contact a roofer to inspect your roof- Ideally you want to upgrade the roof edge to resist high winds and seal deck seams to reduce the risk of water entering. In addition, you want to install hurricane straps to your roof so it doesn’t fly away. If you already plan on installing a new roof, we highly recommend installing a metal roof. These types of roofs can resist winds up to 140-mph.
  • Get hurricane shutters, impact windows, or plywood- Keep in mind there are insurance discounts if you have hurricane shutters or impact windows.
  • Replace wood doors with fiberglass doors- These doors can withstand a higher force than regular wooden doors.
  • Evaluate your garage door- Garage doors are your largest entry to your home so you want to make sure you buy impact-rated heavy-duty doors that can withstand high winds.
  • Water barrier- Sandbags or expanding water barriers to keep the flooding water out of your home.
  • Sump Pump – basements commonly get flooded during hurricanes, however, anything that gets past your water barrier should ideally be pumped out as soon as possible. There are many pumps you can find at Home Depot but to protect your house in your hurricane you want a pump that can “outrun” the incoming water. This means getting a pump with a high GPH rating like the one below:

Food & Water

When a hurricane approaches your area it’s very common to have a run on food and water in your area. Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, many residents had already stocked up some supplies from the grocery stores and in the aftermath, grocery stores were low on supplies. In addition, logistics were a mess so it was hard to get new supplies into the stores which led to rationing restrictions. Puerto Rico has very fertile land and it’s common for people to grow crops in the backyard but the hurricane destroyed nearly all the crops on the island leaving people to rely on FEMA and their local grocery stores. Residents who waited in line for hours to get into a store were allowed exactly one grocery cart of food and one case of water. FEMA attempted to send food and water to residents but due to corruption and incompetence by authorities it was not properly distributed and residents had to fend for themselves.

When it came to water, a lot of Puerto Ricans had issues as well. With the scarcity of water, locals used any water they acquired for drinking and found local rivers to bathe in. Some of the rivers were contaminated which led to many people getting sick.

If you were caught in the same situation how would you deal with it? Keep in mind, that this was not 30 days. There were months and months of food shortages affecting the island. The outdoor garden you were banking has blown away with the wind and the emergency food supply you had was rapidly dwindling by the day.

Food and water prepping is generally one of the first things that preppers prepare for and we have written extensively on this topic in our articles “27 Best Survival Foods to Stockpile” and “Off-Grid Water“. We recommend keeping several months of food supply, a sustainable food supply, a replenishable source of water, water storage, and a quality water filter.

Energy

Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico had an unstable infrastructure and it was very common to deal with blackouts. Many large businesses, condo buildings, and wealthier residents had generators. Others relied on smaller portable generators. Solar was rarer to see in use. When the grid went down, the island was in complete darkness for weeks. In September, the average temperature in Puerto Rico stays in the high 80s with a humidity of 80+%. Many people spent countless nights sleeping in hot and humid conditions.

If you were lucky enough to have a generator, you were able to escape the worst of it. You had a cold fridge and running ACs. At least temporarily. With the supply chains a mess, gas stations started rationing gasoline to 5 gallons a person. One resident said “Every day, our daily agenda revolved around finding gas. We would ask around, share rumors, and split up to go pick up gas. When we went to the gas station there would be a line of cars about 2 hours long and sometimes by the time it was our turn, there was no more diesel.” Even with a consistent supply of gas/propane for the generator, even middle-class residents found it financially unfeasible. A 12kW generator consumes roughly 1 gallon an hour, costing approx. $3k/month (at $4/gal). Those with smaller portable generators realized the plants are not designed to run for days at a time, only for shorter durations when the grid goes down. Even larger whole-house propane generators begin to overheat at the 24-hour mark and need oil changes every 150-200 hours.

How do you prepare for a long-term power outage?

The ideal hurricane preparation for energy is a hybrid system with solar, battery, and a whole-house generator.

The solar panel system should be sized to handle the needs of your house. The panels themselves should be secured to your roof properly. Ironridge creates racking systems that can sustain winds up to 170mph, however, you also have to worry about debris flying around and breaking your panels so it’s best to either familiarize yourself with how to remove the panels yourself and store them securely.

LifePo4 batteries are your best bet for energy storage. They offer better depth of discharge (you can drain it more), cycles(use it more), and require less maintenance than lead-acid batteries. You want to make sure they are sized properly to cover at least 12-16 hours of no sun.

Keep in mind, that after a hurricane the sun does not start shining right away. So even if you saved your solar panels and set them up right away, you’ll still have to wait a few days to start producing substantial energy from your system which is why it’s good to have a backup generator. Diesel generators are very reliable, durable, and efficient, but they are very expensive and diesel gas only lasts around 6 months or 12 months with a fuel stabilizer. This means once or twice a year you have to run your generator for a week to cycle out the diesel. Propane generators are preferred here if you already have solar. Propane doesn’t go bad like diesel and the generators are fairly reliable. A couple of 120-gallon tanks should cost around $1000-$1200 total and power a typical house for a week or two if necessary.

You can tie everything together with a quality hybrid inverter. Modern smart inverters will use solar as the main source of power, fall back to the grid, then battery when the grid goes down, and when the batteries get drained it will remotely start your generator to power the house and recharge your battery bank.

Waste

As one resident told us: “We learned when it’s yellow let it mellow, and sometimes let the brown mellow too.”

With no water in households, the priority was drinking water. Using precious water for flushing a toilet was seen as waste and was used sparingly. People adapted by collecting leftover water from bathing or collecting runoff from their roof gutters to use to flush toilets.

Besides biowaste, the other issue was getting rid of garbage. Hurricane Maria created a massive amount of debris spread across the island that clogged the landfills. In addition, several landfills were flooded from the hurricane and couldn’t take in any more trash. In the months after Hurricane Maria, it was very common to see houses with piles of garbage sitting out front. Some places sold out of garbage bags and residents had to leave trash right on their sidewalk unwrapped.

A soccer field that has been converted into a dump. Photograph by José Jiménez.

Residents quickly adapted to this by reusing some products and splitting out compost from their waste. Any products that could be reused were reused. All other trash was packed as tightly as possible into contractor trash bags and placed in front of the house.

Don’t wait for a disaster to start cutting down on waste. Cutting out waste from your household is good for the environment and keeps your house clean of clutter. Remember to keep several months of trash bags in storage.

Security

In the first few weeks after the hurricane passed, the community pulled together. Neighbors helped neighbors, food and water was shared. They strived to set an example for the world that in Puerto Rico, they were united in the recovery. After the first month is when people started to get hungry, thirsty, and strained. Alarm systems went down with the power grid and police were too busy to assist with robberies. Homicide rates inevitably went up. People were robbed for their daily allotment of gasoline or groceries. Every gas station had armed security coordinating gas rationing.

Thankfully Puerto Rico has relatively gun-friendly laws. You can buy an AR-15 just as easily as a handgun. There is a little bit of training required but you can carry a concealed weapon as long as you have your permit.

Residents relied on carrying their guns openly to get gas and groceries, knowing they couldn’t rely on the authorities to protect them. One resident said “I never carried gas cans openly in my truck bed. I kept a low profile and never discussed how much gas or food I was able to score that day.”

In a SHTF situation, you cannot rely on authorities to help you and you can be sure that people will want what you have. Always remember to keep a low profile, stay armed, and be ready for attackers. Typically, attackers are looking for easy targets so you want to present yourself as someone who’s carrying guns but nothing else.

Medical

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Similar to when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Puerto Rico’s health care system was destroyed by the hurricane. Although 64 people, sadly, died directly from the hurricane, an estimated 3000 people died after the hurricane due to the collapsed infrastructure and medical network.

For situations like this it’s recommended to keep an ample supply of medical supplies and medication in your home. Professional medical care is always recommended when it is available, however, in a SHTF scenario you can always rely on your medical preparedness. We have written in detail regarding medical preparedness on this site so we’ll leave you with this: Make sure your med kit is prepped and we highly recommend taking medical training or at least watching some training videos ahead of time so you are prepared. Some resources:

Tools

As expected, there was a shortage of contractors willing to come to people homes as they were too busy trying to take care of their own households. Many residents didn’t have the tools to fix leaks, generators, or cars. One condominium complex was cut off from the main road by a large tree blocking the parking lot entrance. The only tools the condo residents had were machetes and it took the better part of two days to finally cut the tree apart and clear the road.

We recommend always having a full set a of tools available to fix stuff in the house as well as a full mechanic’s set of tools for your car. Everybody’s requirements will be different but you can check out our article “50 Must-Have Tools for Preppers.

How Maria Changed Hurricane Prep for Residents

Hurricane Maria brought so much death and destruction to Puerto Ricans that the scars still remain today. Today, it is uncommon to NOT have a generator on your home. Most middle-class homes have a diesel or propane whole-house generator and at least a 1000 gallon water cistern. At Home Depot, Walmart, or Costco it’s common to see a generator in a customer’s shopping cart. Solar power installations are flourishing! In some middle-class neighborhoods you can see up to 30% of those homes have solar panels installed on the roofs. Even in 2022, solar contractors are booked 6-8 months out.

Most residents keep their food storage topped off with at least a 30 day supply and they are quick to restock at the earliest sign of an approaching storm.

Hurricane Maria permanently changed the lives of Puerto Ricans and young and old have learned to be self-reliant, never trust authorities to be there for them, and to be “Always Ready.”

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