Right before Hurricane Harvey hit, Roberta McPhie, of Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston, finished her hurricane preparation. Her family ate the last of their Blue Bell ice cream. (Pity you poor westerners who’ve never tasted Blue Bell. Think BYU Creamery-deluxe!)
She had time for an ice cream break because she’d prepared at the beginning of hurricane season, just like she did every year.
“I was totally ready, which is fine, because we couldn’t get out of our neighborhood for a couple of weeks,” she said.
2017 provided a dreadful reminder to prepare for Mother Nature’s wrath. Damage from U.S. natural disasters alone cost about $306 billion, demolishing the $215 billion record set in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit. At least 362 people were killed.
Here are just some of the natural disasters the year claimed.
In one month, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria slammed the Texas coast, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Adam Wood, of Richmond, Texas, another Houston suburb, spent Sunday, August 27, watching the water rise in his never-before-flooded neighborhood.
“Sunday morning, we were trapped in our little area. We watched the water rise up our driveway. By Sunday night, water was seeping into the house,” Wood said. Eventually, the water rose to two feet in the home.
At sunrise Monday morning, his family evacuated. He and his wife loaded their three boys and a dog on an air mattress and an inflatable raft they normally used as a tiny swimming pool. They waded almost a mile and a half to the nearest drugstore, where friends were waiting to drive them out. Wood’s wife and children left, while Wood spent the rest of the day fishing out neighbors with the raft.
He feels fortunate. His family lifted most of their valuables, including furniture, atop tables and counters before the water rose too high, so they didn’t lose much. And their landlord quickly paid for repairs, so they moved back in six weeks.
McPhie also counted her blessings. The water also cut off her neighborhood, but it never reached her home, and her power only flickered. Her son, Joshua, on the other hand, lost almost everything. Before the hurricane, Joshua, a reserve firefighter, took his dog in a kennel to the fire station. The flood reached eight feet in his rented room.
He couldn’t get back to his house to save anything, because he had to take care of everybody else,” McPhie said.
Seven months later, the home still isn’t ready for occupation.
Jerry Rivera and his mother, Ruth Lezcano-Bonilla, had to mop flood water out of their home after Hurricane Maria smashed Puerto Rico in September. But they quickly discovered the aftermath was worse than the storm. Power was gone. Lezcano-Bonilla couldn’t keep her insulin refrigerated or replace her other medications. Rivera had to walk to a stream for water and climb on the home’s roof to get faint cell phone service. Within the next two months, both left the home, which was still without power and water. Power was restored to her area not long after Lezcano-Bonilla returned, but seven months later, parts of the island are still electricity-less. Rivera remains in Florida.
Alas, hurricanes weren’t the only supersized natural disasters. On September 19, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in central Mexico killed at least 361 people, injured more than 4,500 and collapsed 44 buildings. In a strange coincidence, it took place on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed 10,000 people, and just 12 days after an even larger earthquake off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico.
Eric Smith, of West Jordan, Utah, can empathize with the people of Mexico City. In January 1994, he, his wife and preschool-age daughter lived in an apartment 10 miles away from Northridge, Calif., when that earthquake shook the region.
Almost a quarter of a century later, he still remembers how he woke in darkness to everything shaking. The quake shook a closet door open and sent the room’s entire contents around a corner into the bathtub, then slammed the door like nothing happened.
“I don’t think I could have thrown it like that if I tried,” Smith said.
The family had a 4-foot by 2 ½-foot freshwater fish tank. The shaking sloshed all but about four inches of water onto the carpet below.
“All the fish were huddled at the bottom looking scared,” he said. They all survived.
He considered himself fortunate. The quake demolished his cousin’s Northridge home and crushed his cousin’s car when the garage’s heavy beams fell on it.
The earthquake killed 57 people, injured at least 8,700 and caused between $13 and $50 billion in damage.
California came in for its share of damage in 2017, but not from earthquakes. Five of the wind –driven wildfires between October and December were among the state’s 20 most destructive wildfires ever. In October, fires in Sonoma, Napa and Solano and Mendocino killed 39 people, destroyed more than 7,000 structures and burned almost 200,000 acres.
The largest fire in California history burned almost 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara in December. The Thomas fire also killed two people and destroyed more than a thousand structures. The 2017 California widlfire season was the most expensive in history.
Karen LuBean saw a fire in Wenatchee, Wash., explode from nothing to 4 ½ square miles in half a day in June 2015. Overnight, the fire burned 29 homes and an industrial area, according to an official fire report. In an interview shortly after, LuBean said she could smell ammonia fumes four miles away.
“The wind changed, and the fire came so quick, that people … had five minutes to get out of the house,” said LuBean who witnessed the devastation from her home across the Columbia River. “Some people were only able to get their purse. They grabbed a few legal documents and stuff like that.”
“For a whole city block on both sides, almost every house was just burned to a crisp,” she said.
Winter wildfire season is finishing in California, but the state’s summer fire season is only a couple of months away. Tornado season began in March. The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. Earthquakes can happen any time. Now is the best time to prepare for natural disasters, not right before the hurricane hits or after the earthquake. In my next article, I’ll return to all these people and learn how they’ve prepared for disasters – and what they learned from what they lived through.
Click here to read part two.