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The Day My Life Turned Upside Down

For reasons I can't put into words, it occurs to me I've never taken the time to sit down and really write about our experience during Hurricane Ida last year, though I have talked about it on the podcast and posted some short vlogs on our YouTube channel. I thought this might be a good moment to unpack that experience, in light of the one year anniversary fast approaching.

Hurricane Ida was a Category 4 hurricane (still being actively debated, as many unconfirmed sources and weather instruments pegged this storm at Category 5 easily) with documented wind speeds of 150 mph sustained and gusts far higher. Upon landfall, it caused approximately 55 BILLION (with a B) dollars in associated damage, sent approximately 1 million Louisiana citizens back to the stoneage without any running water or electric service, and further hamstrung recovery efforts due to an absolutely astounding number of trees knocked down. Years earlier, during Hurricane Katrina, the primary after effect was flooding and a levee breach. This time, the effect was induced by shear windspeed, though flooding in lower lying communities around New Orleans and nearer the coast were definitely a concern.

Given the anticipated storm track, our lack of proximity to the coastline, and our experience riding out smaller hurricanes that hit us nearly head on, we felt comfortable riding this out in our home.

Pros: We have literally enough non-perishable food and bottled water to camp out for a month, easily. After that, I have rain catch and filtration options. I have sufficient propane and firewood to boil water and cook food until we run out. I have enough fuel to run our generator for several days straight, maybe most of a week if we cycle it on and off to save fuel. We have the means to defend ourselves if looting becomes an issue as it sometimes does after big hurricanes. Mostly, we SHOULD have been 50-75 miles from the eye of the hurricane on the small side of it (east sides of hurricane typically have smaller rain bands and winds do not reach as far from the center.)

Cons: Power is guaranteed to be out for a day or two. It is August. It is hot. There will be no Netflix.

And then, the track shifted towards us. A little at first, then more, and more. By the time the track had firmed up, we would no longer be catching the very edge of a Category 3 hurricane, we were going to get most of the ugliness of a Category 4. Whereas we anticipated 60-70 mph winds based on initial forecast, the nearest weather station to us logged 130 mph winds.

Our refuge through the night, as a still very angry storm made it's way inland to our home, was the hallway of our home. Years earlier, we had identified this area as our default tornado shelter, a place we could shield ourselves from broken and flying glass, underneath the main beam of the roof that would hopefully shrug off a falling tree. From approximately 6:00 PM on August 29th through the night and into the morning, we sat, kept each other company, and tried our best to keep a very frightened child and very unhappy dog calm. The night was made slightly more tolerable by the knowledge we had ample ways to recharge our phones, therefore had them available to distract our minds. We also have a battery backup on our home wifi router, which lasted until our internet service was finally interrupted sometime in the early morning. At roughly the same time, cellular data service was cut off, as it would stay for the majority of August 30th. Sometime late into the night I drug my old Army cot into the hallway for my daughter to sleep, and fell asleep in a chair. My wife could not sleep until roughly 4AM when the intensity of the storm dipped as it passed us.

Being a prepper, I kind of pride myself on being ready for anything. I will say that my family's immediate necessities were well taken care of. We had food, we had water, we had most of a roof above our heads. NOTHING I have experience since my last time in a warzone prepared me to walk about my back door, around my house, and look at the once quiet street we lived on. On the left, is my home, swallowed by three large oak trees knocked over by a combination of merciless winds and ground made soft by an unusually active rainy summer in this state. The cleanup effort would be massive, made worse by me having very few neighbors I could honestly depend on in a situation like this (most physically unable, several unwilling to even try.) I honestly looked at the state of the family and examined my options.

My truck, being on the other side of the driveway furthest from the woodline, was spared any damage save some errant tree branches and leaves. This is what greeted us when we looked at my wife's Grand Cherokee. Step 1 was simply going to be cut enough of the tree away to access the vehicle, and see if our bugout option was going to involve 1 or 2 vehicles. Two adults, a child, and three pets plus preps were going to be a tight squeeze in a mid size truck, something we had a contingency plan for but would be far from optimal. Thankfully, both vehicles were fully fueled up, had aired up tires, and no outstanding maintenance issues. If they needed to drive, and weren't prevented to from damage, they were able. Power was out, and would stay out for several days at least. Water pressure had dropped sharply courtesy of a tree falling on the holding tank servicing our neighborhood. Thankfully, we had non-potable water on standby to flush toilets and bathe, and drinking water to keep ourselves hydrated.

My worst fears weren't realized. A couple of superficial dings on the fender and hood, no smashed windshield, no slashed tires. The Jeep was ready to go if called upon, so now we surveyed our options. Knowing we had closed off some options deciding to ride the hurricane out at home, a bugout would almost certainly mean a 200+ mile journey across roads likely still littered with fallen trees and downed power lines to find somewhere unaffected by the storm with available lodging. At the earliest, that journey wouldn't be safe for at least a day or two. Just as troubling was the fact that with the cellular network for AT&T down in our area, we could not contact family to let them know we were OK or contact my parents or in-laws the next town over. Wife and I huddled and agreed, if we couldn't raise them by the next morning, we were leaving a sign on the front door (in case they stopped by on their way East and we missed them), loading up to live out of our truck for several days, leaving food and water down for the cats for a week, taking the dog, and going to make contact with our family. Would it be reckless? Maybe, but neither of us would be able to rest without knowing they weren't trapped in their homes or worse. Fortunately, at 4:30 PM that evening cell service came roaring back. We got in touch with everyone, and confirmed they were okay. That just left us with one enormous mess to clean up while we waited for the roads to clear.

With my wife on the ground doing what she could, I cut and removed the part of the trees that was draped across the roof of our garage. The larger mess leaning against the front of the house would have to wait. By this time we had heard from her sister and brother in law, and they confirmed they were coming our way from North Louisiana (thankfully spared from the same storm that hit us) with chainsaws, fuel, and anything else we thought we needed to dig out of the hole we were in.

PREPPERFAIL #1: I did not own a chainsaw. Being a suburban homeowner, I had never really had a need for one, anything I needed cut I did with a bow saw, a polesaw, and in the extreme an axe. The mess in my front yard was not going to be swayed by these implements. Until my brother in law arrived with his chainsaw from his farm and my new Stihl, we weren't going to make a massive dent.

Still, we did what we could. I cut and cleared what I was able. I cleared the Jeep and the front of the garage so we could at least get in and out of the house that way (the front door would not be accessible for two more days). Always through this we stayed aware of being hydrated and forced ourselves to eat, we kept on guard for cuts and blisters that under normal circumstances would be a nuisance but in this situation could spell trouble (after a major hurricane, hospitals are often overwhelmed and many doctor offices closed until power is restored, simple skin infections become extremely serious without proper medical care.) Somewhere along the way, my daughter drug her kite out of the garage and proved how incredibly resilient children can be during situations like this.

PREPPERFAIL #2: That day I set up the solar panels for my Jackery to recharge it, intending to use it to keep our chest freezer from thawing. That morning we shuffled the contents of the upright freezer into the chest freezer and moved the contents of the refrigerator into the upright freezer. Our thought was the Jackery could run the chest freezer quite happily, but for the fridge we would need to get our 5K generator stood up. Back story, this was a generator I had gotten from my father and intended to give a good service before hurricane season before a run in with Covid sidelined my plans. When I cranked it up that was not behaving well. It sputtered and popped unless you ran the choke halfway closed. While this would let us limp it along and keep the food from spoiling it was EATING gasoline at a rate that was not sustainable. Suddenly, our ability to hold out in place dropped. Sure, without the chest freezer we had plenty of non-perishable food but knowing that in a day and a half that would all spoil we had substantially less holding us in place and far fewer options for keeping comfortable in what was admittedly brutal summer heat. The next afternoon, our in-laws from North Louisiana arrived.

Fast forward. My brother in law and sister in law showed up with their three kids (aged 16-19), two chainsaws, every gas can they owned filled to the brim, more food, more water, and literally anything I could think of that I didn't myself already own. I think they even packed a tent in case our home wasn't habitable. This is where having prepper-minded family comes in super handy, as my brother in law did exactly what I would have; he came ready for war not knowing what he would encounter. Five minutes after they dismounted and hugged everyone, my sister in law was putting out tables and firing up camp stove to make dinner while my brother in law and nephew were putting on chainsaw chaps and work gloves. Everyone dug in hard, and we could actually see the front of the house by the end of the day. The next morning, after a little late start due to sore muscles and need for coffee (thankfully, I was well stocked on food to feed this little army) we arrived at what you see above. The roof had one substantial hole in it and one smaller one, but the attic showed no signs of structural damage that would worry me. Water pressure (that had dropped sharply the day after the hurricane) had returned easing our worries and letting us flush toilets and shower with impunity. The front yard was mostly clear save for an 8' tall brush pile and tons of smaller debris. My formerly unhappy generator had seen some of my brother in law's mechanical aptitude for small engines and carb work and was behaving much better, allowing us to repurpose the window AC unit from my garage to cool half the house. We were comfortable in the house, and in a good place to ride out the next several days. This would have been roughly September 2nd by this point.

September 4th late in the evening, the power came back on and stayed on. We could hear cheering across the neighborhood, and the sound of generators finally powering down. Our central air powered up, and we all bedded down in our bedrooms for the first time in several days, relieved to not sleep on air mattresses or cots near the only window AC unit in the house. I would love to think that was the end of the troubles but we still had MONTHS of fighting with our homeowner's insurance ahead of us to compensate us for the holes in the roof and patiently waiting for the parish to come pick up our debris pile. Now, almost a full year later, the only reminders of that horrible storm are our still broken gutters (they'll get fixed one day) and the mysterious absence of trees that used to border our home. As in any experience that tests you, we came out of Hurricane Ida licking our wounds and knowing where our weak points were. The generator has now had a full rebuild and runs like brand new. One of these days, I'll finally get around to wiring it into the home's main panel, but for now I can run extension cords and know I can keep us in better shape than without. The lack of chainsaw? Fixed with a purchase, some quick instruction and safety checks from family, and a lot of research into proper use and technique and some practice doing further clearing in our yard.

The one thing I can't ever improve is my mental conditioning. I can not explain just how demoralizing it was to hold a crying child that night the hurricane passed over us, or look into my wife's eyes when she was just as frightened. I didn't have an answer for "How are we going to clean all of this up?" other than to figure it out and dig in with what we had. That first day, after hours of backbreaking work with the wrong tools and not much to show for it, I sat down on the trunk of a tree that tried to eat my home and I cried. I was exhausted, I was emotional, and I felt like a moron for not evacuating ahead of the storm despite having made a decision with the best information we had available to us. Mostly, I had reached a level of physical and emotional exhaustion where I just needed to let it out. The next morning, my in laws showed up and I can not overstate what a boost to our spirits that was. Not just the chainsaws, knowledge, and fuel they brought, but just us knowing we weren't in that fight alone anymore. Our tribe had to come help. That is the one thing I regret so much about the living situation we find ourselves in. Despite having good neighbors we are friendly with, none are preppers, not even in the slightest. When the rubber met the road, we were alone, and that is a very difficult situation to find yourself in when your life turns upside down.

Phil Rabalais

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