This e-mail was sent by a member of the class of '58 at Pomona College to his classmates, and I distribute it with his permission.
My classmate is obviously not a "typical" resident of westernmost Florida. He is a healthy and vigorous, retired physician who has sailed extensively throughout the world and clearly has extensive experience and resources with which to deal with a disaster. Nevertheless, his story related below is a powerful argument for emergency preparedness. He and his family were unhurt, and his property suffered minimal damage. This wasn't by chance. He was aware of Hurricane Ivan long before it hit Pensacola, he took aggressive protective measures, he evacuated his family before the last minute, he had multiple means of communication, and he served as a leader in helping his neighbors, both short-term and long-term.
Chair for Emergency Preparedness
Barron Park Association
28 September 2004
I shall share our experience of the last 2 1/2 weeks something which I hope never to repeat or that any of you have to endure.
We had been following Hurricane Ivan since its formation as one of the most southerly and potentially intense storms in recent decades.
On Sept 11th, I became convinced that Pensacola FL was going to be in the very destructive path of Ivan. Sunday Morning the 12th, one of my friends awoke me with the news that plywood was available only about 40 miles away. I left without breakfast and waited almost 3 hours in line to purchase 15 sheets of 1/2 inch plywood (we were on the waiting list for steel window coverings, but those were at least three weeks away). At noon, my wife and I began cutting and fitting plywood to all of the windows of our waterfront home. Our home is 11 feet above high water, on a bayou, across the street from Perdido bay (Alabama-Florida border). We also took all antiques, easily moveable electronics and computers upstairs into an interior second-story room. We packed copies of all important papers, back-up CD's and insurance policies into the motor home. We finished this task by Monday PM, and Tuesday AM was spent with minor tasks, plus getting my wife, her 88-year-old ill mother and our three dogs in our motor home and ready to leave for Mississippi. My wife left at 2 PM, and by 9 PM she had made it to an RV park just south of Montgomery AL. This was 140 miles in 7 hours! The evacuation traffic was already bogged down. The next day, I put away all loose objects around the outside of the home. I then moored our 28-foot boat in the middle of the bayou, using 3 large anchors and 8 lines to trees and docks etc.
By 2 PM Wednesday the 15th, the house was as secure as I could make it. I had 26 gallons of extra gas in cans for our generator--which I had checked out. I made one more run to the only gas station still open and filled up my 19-foot Van/RV conversion and headed 10 miles inland to stay at a small farm owned by a friend. By this time we had about an inch of rain an hour, and the winds were over 50 miles per hour. All traffic lights had been taken down.
I put my van close to a barn and a safe distance from a large oak tree. My friend's wife brought out a hot plate of spaghetti for dinner, and I hunkered down with a ham radio and police-band scanner, plus an LCD TV (ran on the van batteries as well as 110 volts). By 8 PM we had hurricane-strength winds, and I called some of my friends on the cell phone. Some had elected to stay with their waterfront homes. All was well, but power was off in most areas. At 11 PM we lost the TV signals, but the radio continued to broadcast at low power. The emergency center announced that it was too dangerous for police and paramedics to be on the streets and that all emergency calls would be answered only after the storm passed. The northeast eyewall (most dangerous part of the storm) passed directly over our home. Winds of 165 knots in gusts were recorded at an airfield 3 miles from our home. Steady winds were about 130 knots.
I was able to get about 4 hours sleep during the night (remember I have been in hurricane-force winds at sea on my own boats, and knew I needed my strength for the next days). At 1 AM on the 16th, the barn I was near was coming apart, and I moved the van a hundred feet away and upwind. The large oak tree was almost completely gone.
The next AM we awoke to see almost all trees in this area down. Most of the metal-roofed farm buildings and industry were demolished. Many local people had lost every tool in their business. We began to walk -talking to people and attempting to find out what happened with our friends. Cell towers were down, and no communication was available. Finally we walked out a path, thru a field, down several miles of utility right-of-way, thru another pasture, to a road which was not blocked with trees. The wind was still blowing 40 knots. I left my extra generator, which I had in the van/RV and went with my friend to our neighborhood in his 4-x-4 high-rise truck along the utility right-of-way, over trees, thru streams, etc. As we drove, there were many times we had to inch under or go around live power lines. We had to go off-road around trees or debris. A mile from our home, the street was flooded. I watched out the window for any signs of sink holes or large debris as we inched down the road in water which was over 2 feet deep.
Finally we got to our street (all waterfront homes, with a wildlife preserve across the bayou behind). As the water got to 3 feet, we had to leave the truck and wade/swim to our houses. Mine was now on an island, and the water had come within an inch of the entrance--but not inside! The porches and garage were full of mud, but the water was rapidly receding.
Our house had minor damage to two chimneys and some fascia; we lost the pool screen enclosure, which punctured the pool liner. The pool was full of salt water and mud. The boat didn't have a scratch--the cars were fine in the garage (we had custom reinforced steel doors). I fired up the generator and got the refrigerators and freezers going. Miracle the phones worked! (for about 6 hours and have been out since). Water came on by 1 PM (boil to drink), and I began with the pressure washer cleaning the mud out of the garage, porches, pool deck and eventually the dock, as water receded. My wife finally got a cell phone call through to me, and everyone was fine--she was to stay in Mississippi for two more days.
We were very lucky we had about $20,000 worth of damage, but nothing which could not be fixed easily. My neighbor across the street had refused to leave she is a mid 40's Ph.D. who had her 70's mother and the mother's 80's boy friend. A wall of water came into their home at about 3 AM (the same wall of water which took out both lanes of the I-10 bridge over Escambia Bay). They had climbed on the kitchen counters, then up onto the ledges above they had 16-foot ceilings. We called the fire department on my Ham radio and got a boat to get the elderly out. The neighbor lost everything in the house, including the cars. The water broke down the plywood, the windows, the bricks, the 2x6 walls, and the wall board.
This was not the only house so treated by the sea--some actually collapsed. We estimate that 6 houses will have to be bulldozed. These houses have nothing covering the walls below 4 feet level (brick, sheet rock, insulation all gone). The building inspector condemned 33 of the 43 homes in our subdivision. 9 additional homes were flooded, but did not receive structural damage to keep from habitation. Typical is my next door neighbor in her mid 70's, widowed. The house flooded with 30" of water, she lost her car, all furniture and all paper records, photo albums, clothes, etc. The computer, one TV, and the grand piano survived. She, the dog, and the cat are living with us for the time being. Her insurance agent said not to take anything out of the house and it was a week before an adjuster came. By this time nearly all of the walls were covered with mold. Most of the shingles had blown off, and the OSB was exposed, with water leaks in every room. It took 4 of us 2 full days to get the wet carpets out and then wash and squeegee the house to remove most of the mud.
Consider you are in your 70's using a walker and no car. Your family does not appear for 10 days. We have become her surrogate family and sort of a buffer between the various factions, who want her to move in with them or go to an assisted-living facility. She wants to return to her home. This is a story repeated a number of times on our block and hundreds of blocks in the city. There are at least 10 families which have lost every thing on our block.
I know you have seen the pictures on TV or in the papers. Multiply this damage by hundreds and it is the real picture. We were lucky to have water almost immediately. We got power in 10 days and cable yesterday. Still no phone. There are many parts of Pensacola still without power (and with power comes sewer!). Those of us who planned with generators, gas, and extra water in containers did fine--others were dependant on the shelters or FEMA and Red Cross.
There are hundreds--probably over 1000 yachts which are destroyed. There are thousands of homes which are not habitable, yet people are living in them.
Comments on insurance: we had flood insurance and hurricane insurance. There is a 2% deductible--on the value of the policy i.e., if you have a $500,000 insured value, you have a $10,000 deductible. The flood insurance does not pay for any living expenses while the house is being rebuilt--in this area we estimate it will take a year to rebuild the houses. Many elderly and lower-income people cannot pay mortgage payments and also pay for temporary housing. So, if you are in an area of flood, you really need other resources for living expenses during reconstruction.
FEMA they are here. The search and rescue teams took center stage but only did a fraction of the rescue and search (we had 11 deaths). There is a lot of disorganization with FEMA, and contradictory information given. One should get an interview with a FEMA inspector as soon as possible. Incidentally, don't say that you have a place to stay. One neighbor said he was staying "next door", and they denied any temporary housing help. We think this may be a factor with our neighbor who is living with us.
Great help from the Red Cross, Salvation Army and many fire departments from other areas. We have many thanks to the utility workers who came from as far as Montana! They worked 12 hours a day to restore power.
Insurance adjustors: There are not enough hotel rooms for them, so many are living several hours away. They are often not full-time adjusters. I have heard that there are 30,000 adjusters in the area just for this storm. Be prepared to argue for your rights. With no phones and limited cell phones, it is difficult to get adjustors or agents. Many friends still have not yet seen adjustors. Most responsive seem to be USAA and State Farm.
Preparation: From our traveling, scouting and outdoor life we were very well-prepared. We had generators, first-aid supplies, water, food for a month, etc. all ready and put in secure places. We put computers, valuables and electronics in secure places, and we made copies of papers and ran CD's of the important information on our hard drive.
Personal behavior: You really see what people are made of. Most of our neighbors all pitched in and worked as a team. One was a caterer. She had freezers full of food, so several of us got our barbeques and started cooking for the neighborhood. Most of us took in our neighbors who had no shelters; no one from our neighborhood had to go to a public shelter. However, there were a couple of folks who said "I can't deal with this"--left their houses with open roofs, did not help tenants in rental properties who lost everything, and did not return until all utilities were back on and their neighbors had cleaned up the streets and yards. Those of us who stayed had developed great bonds, and it makes us stronger neighbors.
Looters: we had a few of these and still do. I put a sign up at the entrance to the street: "Residents Only, Armed Patrol", and one of us walks the street every hour during the night in shifts. Most of us have "concealed weapons carry" permits.
I apologize for the length. But we have survived, and we will rebuild Pensacola. I estimate the total damage to be about 10 billion dollars. There are losses not normally noted; many businesses were not adequately insured. The wall of water reached 22 feet in some places, and many did not have flood insurance. Real estate values have dropped. One friend had 4 condos which would have sold for $600,000 each 3 weeks ago. The building was condemned and will be torn down. He will get only $400,000 in insurance, rather than the 2.5 million he would have received if he had sold the buildings. Businesses are gone; rental incomes in a resort area will be gone for one to two years. It is a real blow.