Podcast featuring Glynn Cosker, Managing Editor, Edge and
Dr. Chris Reynolds, Dean, Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development, American Military University
The 2020 hurricane season was a recording-breaking year with 30 named storms, but because none of them brought significant devastation, most people were unaware of the number of storms. In this episode, Glynn Cosker talks to AMU’s Dr. Christopher Reynolds about the importance of preparing for hurricane season by packing an emergency disaster kit and hardening your house and property. Also learn why it’s dangerous and frustrating for emergency management personnel when people don’t evacuate when told to so.
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Glynn Cosker: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Glynn Cosker, your host, and joining me today is Dr. Christopher Reynolds, American Military University’s Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development.
Chris is a certified emergency manager through IAEM, and his career in emergency and disaster management spans more than three decades and includes on the ground responses to the Oklahoma City bombing, various major hurricanes over the years, including Andrew and Katrina. And various earthquake response and recovery operations, including the Haitian earthquake in 2010. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of Dr. Reynolds’ career. How are you today, Dr. Reynolds?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Hey, Glynn. I’m doing very well. How are you today?
Glynn Cosker: I’m living the dream. Let’s start out by talking about the hurricane season, and 2020 saw a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season. There were actually 30 named storms, 11 of them made landfall in the US. But I would guess, if I was to ask 100 random people, that very few people would even know that we had a record hurricane season, because there weren’t any headline-making, huge ones. I mean, if I was to ask that same 100 people in 2005 if they knew about Hurricane Katrina, then, of course, I’d say 100 out of 100 would know about it. But, of course, that was a huge and devastating storm.
But, Dr. Reynolds, any hurricane can be devastating and we should be ready for anything, right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, first of all, I would say that the 2021 hurricane season officially began June 1st, and it runs through November 30th. And, of course, that’s the time when folks that live along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast and even some of the inland states need to be prepared, need to make sure that they have all and any type of a family preparedness kit prepared and ready in the event a hurricane threatens them.
Looking back at the 2020 season, which, Glynn, you already touched on, people don’t realize that it was a record-breaking year because, as you noted, we didn’t have any major storms that received major news coverage.
The only exception really was Hurricane Laura, which struck in August down in Louisiana. That made headlines, but in terms of named storms that was really the only one. So your analogy with the 2005 season with Hurricane Katrina where nearly everyone knew what Katrina was or what the hurricanes were that year, contrasting it to last year, most folks don’t remember.
And really the, I guess you could say the scary thing, is that NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, again, for 2021 is predicting an above-normal hurricane season for this year, and that in itself should get folk’s attention.
Glynn Cosker: That’s true. They’re actually forecasting 13 to 20 named storms this year, and six to 10 of them forecasted to become hurricanes. Of course, they don’t all become hurricanes, some remain tropical storms. And then further to that, they’re even talking about some of those hurricanes being Category 3, 4, or 5. They’re predicting that there will be up to five of those, and that’s a little scary.
But going back to preparedness and the fact that there is no “good” hurricane, tell me something about what happens when people aren’t prepared. For instance, a Category 1 hurricane, although the winds aren’t strong, that could produce flooding to the extent of causing a lot of damage because, obviously, once it makes landfall the winds might die down but the rain stays there. Is that right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: That is absolutely correct. Folks should realize, most people do realize, that hurricanes are rated from hurricane levels one to five, or categories one to five. And if one thinks of a minor hurricane, which would be Category 1, Category 2, and the wind speeds and what they produce, that is what categorizes them as a not-so-severe hurricane, that, Glynn, as you mentioned, even those not-severe hurricanes can bring damaging wind and rain, and in coastal communities it can cause tidal surges and the low level flooding.
And the flooding events are what kills most people. It’s not really the winds, it’s the flooding. It’s the sudden surge of water that people are ill prepared to deal with, and it traps them, or worse, they’re out on the road in a car or an automobile and it catches them unprepared.
Glynn Cosker: That’s true, and that’s something that happens anywhere in the US. I’ve never experienced it, thank goodness, but I know people who have, and it’s a very scary situation when you feel like you’re out of control of the vehicle. And it doesn’t take much for somebody to get into some real trouble from flooding, right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. In fact, it only takes about eight to 10 inches of moving water to move the vehicle. And I’m sure most folks have seen on YouTube videos or on TV where cars have attempted to go through running water that’s perhaps ran across a roadway, and the hydraulics and the weight behind the water simply lifts the car and moves it. And that’s why people have to be so careful when crossing flooded roadways, because there is no telling, first of all, how deep the water is number one. And number two, how fast the water’s moving.
Glynn Cosker: That’s true, and yet people still do it. They still drive through those things. And the best advice would be to just step out of the car, it’s just a car, and go find some shelter and stay safe.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Exactly.
Glynn Cosker: So if I might ask you for some perspective on what it’s like to see the aftermath of a major storm, like we just said, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting a pretty serious 13 to 20 named storms this year, not quite as many as the 30 that we had last year.
But you’ve been boots on the ground, so to speak, for a few major hurricanes. I know about Hurricane Andrew, for instance, where you were part of the rescue effort and Katrina as well, Andrew in ’92 and Katrina in 2005. If you could think back, what is the first thing that you saw and had to do during those hurricanes?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Wow, that’s really a good question, Glynn. I suppose one thing that really stands out in my mind and probably the minds of anyone who has responded to these incidents, it’s not just what you see or what one sees, it’s all encompassing. It’s the wind, it’s the smell, it’s the fact that most of the critical infrastructure has been taken out, the fact that there’s either no electricity or there’s running in water. And you just have devastation, you’re surrounded by devastation, you’re surrounded by buildings that have collapsed or that have been severely flooded, debris in the streets.
A lot of times you’ll see people out roaming around in their neighborhoods trying to get a sense for what’s happened to them. It’s almost surreal. Of course, a human being when confronted with that as a responder they also feel much of those same feelings that people that live there do, they feel sorrow and they want to help. So in terms of what stands out, it’s just the fact that you’re suddenly immersed in utter devastation.
In 2005 when we landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, two days after Hurricane Katrina struck and after the levees all broke, we were confronted with severe flooding and masses of people that were stranded that needed rescues. And one can go back and look at the news reports or see videos of people being plucked from rooftops, all forms of airlift being utilized.
People were brought to the Louis Armstrong Airport where we were to be assessed medically, and those that needed to be transported to hospitals were either transported to local hospitals in the New Orleans area that could receive them. And if they couldn’t receive them they were put on aircraft and flown to host cities where they could be seen.
So, it’s just really all encompassing. There really isn’t any one thing that stands out, it’s a combination of nearly everything. And most emergency responders that have responded to disasters carry much of the weight and much of the loss with them into their older life. I mean, gosh, I’m 63 right now, and Katrina was so long ago yet I still have vivid memories of the smells and the sights and some of the things that we did just like Oklahoma City, it was even further back.
Glynn Cosker: You were talking about Katrina, and you were one of the people, like you said, that just arrived there. But what are the different entities of emergency disaster management? I mean, what type of professionals are gathering before or during a hurricane like Katrina? What are the different departments who might be on the ground or landing to offer aid to the victims?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Great question, Glynn. One of the things that a hurricane provides responders and city planners, community planners is it generally provides enough time for planning to occur. Generally, with the way the National Hurricane Center tracks the storms we’re going to know pretty much 72 hours out where that storm is headed to, so it gives communities a chance to prepare.
But I want to say that when that storm is 72 hours out, is not when communities should be preparing. They should be preparing a year, whatever, in advance of a storm and have the infrastructure in place to deal with the storms once, of course, they hit. Some of the local agencies, of course, are your police, law enforcement, your fire and emergency management, your emerging medical, any community works, rows, and streets.
Any one of the local infrastructures that helps the community or rather runs a community day-to-day that most people don’t even think of will all be prepared. They’ll have personnel on standby, they’ll generally have them somewhere outside the area or within the area that is well protected. State agencies also, state law enforcement, state emergency management, state Division of Forestry, they also will be preparing and have standby teams.
In fact, the US Forest Services overhead incident command teams, will also be involved, and they’ll respond in the setup their incident command system which will then sow in or involve the local emergency management folks and fire and rescue and law enforcement people, their incident command structure.
Federally, you have mainly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, that pre-stages resources into the general area. Now, we have 10 FEMA regions in the country, and primarily the hurricane season affects FEMA Region Four along the East Coast and around the Gulf Coast. So you will see assets pre-deployed to staging areas to include power company trucks, water works trucks, dump trucks, loaders, again, a taskforce of emergency response vehicles. You’ll see anything that a community would need to survive in a staging area.
So, that’s where the planning occurs. The planning and mitigation are really important, and this is where, essentially, you forecast what your needs are going to be, you then assemble those resources, and you stage them. And then once the hurricane or once the storm has hit and it’s post-disaster, that’s when they respond out and start going into the areas that are stricken.
Glynn Cosker: Right. And the personnel that you mentioned, they can only do so much in preparation. I hate to bring it up, but there are people who have hurricane parties, and I’m sure you love those people, Chris. But it must get frustrating sometimes to emergency disaster management personnel and FEMA and etc. when they have this proactive approach to everything and yet there are people still who don’t climb on board with that proactive approach and they think that they’re going to have a reactive approach. And sometimes those people are affected by the hurricane so much that they’re not able to react in time or they are severely injured or worse.
And so, a big part of it is the community and educating the community. And it must be difficult, I would think, for somebody in the field of emergency disaster management to deal with people who are just like, “Oh, I’ve seen worse, it doesn’t look that bad.” And that probably, and I would actually say certainly, would get frustrating, right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Absolutely. One of the things that most folks don’t realize is that people who are in a mandatory evacuation area and they don’t evacuate, it requires additional resources to either convince him to evacuate or to move to the next people that want to evacuate.
And post-disaster those are the first people we have to go back and look for and attempt to rescue. So they make the jobs of responders more difficult, and they also make it more life threatening, because now we have to go in and get that individual or rescue that individual or search for that individual.
I think it’s human nature, part of the pride, and we can call it American pride, I’m not going to do whatever you tell me to do, I think that I’ve lived through enough of these storms, I know when it’s going to be bad and I’ll be okay. That seems to be the default response when you try to evacuate.
But the mere fact is that we don’t have the time to waste time on individuals that refuse to evacuate short of a deputy sheriff or a law enforcement officer putting them in protective custody and forcing them out. And that doesn’t occur very often because there are plenty of people in those areas that want to be evacuated, they just need the help.
Most folks don’t realize that we’re dealing like with nursing homes or ACLF buildings that have the elderly or have the special needs populations in them. We spend a lot of time there evacuating those folks and getting them into a safe area.
So obstinance from the population that lives in evacuation zones that say they’re not going to evacuate, quite honestly, we don’t have the time to waste on them. They run the risk of losing their lives and also threatening the lives of responders, that are going to have to come in after them and look for them.
Glynn Cosker: It’s just common sense.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: It is.
Glynn Cosker: But yet every year, every year. And even in today’s world where you get a tweet telling you to evacuate, you get a tweet or a social media message saying there’s a cat five coming towards you. I mean, before the internet, and before huge mass communication the only real warning that you would get would be in the newspaper or on network television, and that’s if you are watching network television, I’m talking years ago. So, the fact that we have so many ways to inform the public to evacuate, that just heightens the frustration I’m sure.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: It sure does. I mean, look at it, Glynn, we’ve gone from the time where a barometer’s really the only way we could tell if a low pressure hurricane was even approaching. And you mentioned the use of newspapers and radio primarily, and now we’re in the 24-hour news immersed cycle, social media, there really isn’t any way that a person would not know that a storm is coming their way.
Now, I will also say that local communities and their emergency management agencies do a really good job notifying their populations of a storm and its approach. And they go beyond just notifying, they provide resources, they let them know where evacuation shelters are. They let them know the correct routes to get to those shelters. They also provide them, and I would put a plug out for FEMA’s Ready.gov that provides a number of resources for folks that can go and look at to find out what they need to survive a storm.
If they go to an evacuation shelter, what should I take with me? How soon should I leave? At what point do I fill up all my fuel tanks? At what point do I execute whatever this task is? It’s really important that folks that live in threatened communities have an understanding of what those requirements are, because that will help them survive the storm, and moreover, help them survive the recovery.
Glynn Cosker: And you mentioned Ready.gov, you mentioned earlier, of course, in your own experience, arriving at the hurricane scene, that the water is out, the electricity is out. In fact, I would imagine all the utilities are out, whatever it is that powers your whatever has gone. And ready.gov, I believe, has details on an emergency kit that everybody should have on hand, especially if they live in. And it’s not just a hurricane zone, but obviously there are earthquake zones as well. And the same thing applies. An earthquake, of course, will take down all of those same utilities maybe on a wider scale.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Absolutely.
Glynn Cosker: So tell me about what should be in that emergency kit in order of importance downwards, I guess.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Sure. Be happy to. But you mentioned earthquakes, anybody who watched any of the news last year saw the wildfires out in California, same thing, wildfire. What’s called as a hurricane kit or more commonly called a disaster kit, one wants to think of that as the bag, if you will, that contains all the things I need to survive for at least 72 hours once a storm hits.
People that shelter in place, that stay at home, which is fine, that’s what we do a lot here in Tampa. I’ve had my whole family over here sheltering in place when storms have come through. We’ve never been in a mandatory evacuation zone, so that’s not an issue that we face, but if we did, we’d certainly go to a center.
Well, so a hurricane kit really should contain non-perishable food, and by non-perishable I mean you don’t want to have any hot dogs and baloney or meat or anything like that. It needs to be essentially boxed food, canned food, something that will sustain without cooling in a refrigerator and that can be easily opened and gotten to, to feed your family.
You also want to make sure that you have enough water, and that water, again, needs to be 72 hours, that you have to have that water availability. Now, folks go out and buy a pallet of water, and I’ll say a full pallet, but they’ll buy cases of water, they can have them around, which is a good idea.
It’s not a bad idea to fill up your bathtub and stop it, put a stopper in it and have standing water in there as a backup, not as a primary but as a backup. If you have a swimming pool, obviously, that’s not going to provide you very clean water, but still it’s a water source, and if necessary, it can be filtered, it can be prepared and be made safe, but you want to use that as a last resort.
Most importantly is to have a first aid kit. And that first aid kit should contain bandages, ace bandages, band aids, gauze wrap, anything that you would need or a family member may need if they’re cut by something or they get an insect bite or something that needs to be immediately taken care of.
Now, it’s really important too that you have at least 72 hours of your medication. So, if a evacuee or a shelter in place person is on blood pressure medication or diabetes medication they should make sure they’ve got enough on hand to sustain themselves for that 72 hours.
Personal hygiene is another item. You want to make sure that you’ve got bottles of instant soap or some way to clean your hands to keep sanitized and keep clean. Anything to do with making sure that your hygiene is kept up to date, I guess, you could say. Because, again, you’re not going to have air conditioning, you’re not going to have running water, it’s going to be a pretty bad austere situation and you want to have the ability to keep clean.
Obviously, flashlights are important. Enough batteries for those flashlights are also important to have those on hand. And lastly, one of the things that ready.gov recommends, particularly, is to have a battery-operated radio. Now, radios are probably the most important thing to keep in touch with what’s going on, but you don’t want to have a radio that only runs off your 110 outlet, because if your power’s out, it’s not going to work for you. So you want to have either a hand-crank radio that builds up juice as you turn the crank or enough batteries in a radio so that you can at least find out what’s going on around you.
You also want to be sure for preparation, and this goes beyond the kit itself, is you want to be sure that you have all important papers: passports, birth certificates, tax records, if you’ve got them for the last year. Pt them in storage containers that are waterproof, keep those in the house, keep them up high so that they aren’t damaged when the storm comes.
If you have generator make sure that before hurricane season begins that you start and run your generator to make sure that it works. You should always remember that you should never run a generator inside a house or inside an enclosure or even under a pool deck. That generator has got to be out in the open where the carbon monoxide that it emits, not going to take a risk on being poisoned by that.
Vehicles, you want to make sure that your vehicles are at least three quarters or above in fuel. If you’ve got three cars, hurricane’s approaching, season’s here, make sure your vehicle stays full of gas because you just never know where you’re going to have to go with that vehicle to find an evacuation shelter or to find someplace safe.
Glynn Cosker: Right. And ready.gov, I’m sure, also teaches people how to prepare their property for hurricane. A lot of people might jump to sandbagging and boarding up windows, but those are the two primary things that popped into my head so they probably pop into most people’s head, but what other things can you do to secure a property?
And I’m talking about not just the house but vehicles and, like you said, there might be a pool, there might be some sort of structure near the house. There are trees. There’s not too much you could probably do, well, maybe there is. Why don’t you tell our listeners something about that?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, hardening your house, and that’s what it’s called, it’s called hardening your house or your home. And the way you harden that, first of all, is working in a concentric circle from the house out to the perimeter of your property or starting from the perimeter of your property and working into the center of the house.
So if you start out on your property working towards the house you want to make sure that anything that’s loose, lawn chairs, bird feeders that are lightweight, any type of lawn ornamentation that one may have, you want to make sure those are brought in and either put in the garage or put up close to the house so they don’t become driven by the wind.
Again, you look at the speed, and the wind primarily is going to want to lift those items and propel them and they can propel them into your home, into your car, worse it could propel it into yourself and you don’t want that to happen. So as you work in you want to make sure that any garden hoses that you have connected are disconnected and stowed properly.
If you have an outbuilding, it’s important that if you have an outbuilding, a lawn building, that it’s tied down to the ground, either through an auger system with cables. You don’t want to have an outbuilding that sits free floating on the grass. If you do there’s really not much you can do as a hurricane approaches, but prior to the hurricane season beginning it’s not a bad idea to make sure those are tied down.
As you come in to your property into your pool area, pool furniture, anything that you have that’s sitting around your pool deck you might consider getting that stowed properly. And I’m not advocating this, but a lot of people will put their pool furniture physically in the pool. I’ve done that before myself because I ran out of places where I could put things.
Then as you get into the house you want to make sure that if you have the capability to board up your windows and you’ve got the plywood that’s already been pre-cut or you go to the lumber store to get plywood, that you anchor it properly. Because those sheets of plywood can be deadly in a windstorm, and a hurricane will just propel those, and they’re like flying guillotines, and you don’t want that flying around. So, make sure you do that
If you have sandbags, and most local communities, primarily at fire station locations, will have piles of sand in bags, and it’s generally up to the public to bring their shovel and the manpower with themselves to fill sandbags. And sometimes they’re limited to the number of bags they can take, but it’s not a bad idea to have sandbags on hand to sand bag your door sills at the bottom of your door. So if water is blowing or is running towards the house you can at least keep it from going under the door sill. So those are some of the ideas with sand bags.
Glynn Cosker: Right. And it’s interesting. You mentioned securing the outside items. I’m actually looking at my bird feeder right now, and it has a point on the top of it, I mean, an actual point. And you were mentioning how things become projectiles, I can’t even imagine that thing flying through the air, and the same with the plywood.
I guess people assume that they’ve attached the plywood to the house correctly, but it wouldn’t hurt, I suppose, for a refresher on how to do it exactly right if there was a cat five hurricane heading towards the house.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Yeah, well, honestly, a cat five hurricane the plywood’s going to do for a little with a cat five hurricane because the wind speeds are so enormous.
Glynn Cosker: See, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Knowing that a cat five is on the way, those are the ones that you really, there’s no point in doing too much, you just got to get out of there, you’ve got to follow the evacuation orders, because that’s realistically the only way to survive. Am I right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Absolutely. There really isn’t any sheltering in place for a zone or a cat five hurricane that’s headed, it certainly isn’t the optimal choice to make. You think about a hurricane that has wind speeds than are in excess of 150 miles an hour, almost 160 miles an hour. There’s very little that’s going to stand in its way, it’s going to go where it wants to go. And it’s going to blow over or take with it whatever it wants to take with it. That’s part of the scary part of these storms, is that you just don’t ever know, you don’t know how it’s going to intensify.
And we’ve all seen news reports where hurricanes have started, and they’ve crossed from the Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 3, then the prediction centers says, well, it’s probably going to go to a Category 2, and then it hits the warm waters in the northern Gulf of Mexico and just before landfall they strengthen into Category 4 or 5.
And, again, that’s the gamble. That’s the gamble that people take if they say, “Well, I’m not going to evacuate. I can survive this.” And that’s a fatal mistake that people make that they should not make, they should not risk their lives.
Glynn Cosker: That’s true. And I have to say this because it’s often something I’ve thought about, but even when the cat fives hit you get some chucklehead on the TV in their raincoat with a microphone leaning into the wind saying stuff. And that’s always boggled my mind. I don’t know about you. But that’s just telling people, well, if that guy could do it, he’s about my height, about my size, yeah, sure, I’ll go out there and give that a go. And, of course, it just makes the whole situation worse, right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: It does. Let’s face it, we all know that the media, it’s all about ratings. And they can get somebody out there to look like they’re getting wind blown and beaten in a storm to bring the live report, that one ups the competition. But that’s very dangerous, because even the news media they put at risk not just the reporter, but the sound person, their camera person, everyone’s at risk during that for the shot.
And you see here, again, one of the fallacies of that is if you see these individuals leaning into the wind and talking they just don’t know if a piece of plywood is going to come along and hit them. They don’t know if a piece of debris is going to fly through the air and hit them. They don’t know if they’re going to have their feet taken out from under them and blown into the water. It’s extremely dangerous.
Thrill seekers, the same. It’s not uncommon to see right before a storm you see folks with their surfboards down on the beach trying get that one wave they want to get in, not realizing there’s rip currents involved in that, and the risk they take drowning. And, again, not just their risk, but the risk of the responders that have to go and rescue that individual, should they have a problem. Pretty selfish really.
Glynn Cosker: That’s true. I will say I think a majority of people these days are adhering to the precautions and what the first responders and what the FEMA teams are telling them. Would you agree with that? We’re getting to a low percentage of people that are out there trying to find that wave and walking into the cat five storm.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Yeah, I agree with that. I think that the more people are educated the better off and the better informed they are of the risks they’re taking.
Glynn Cosker: Right. And one other thing I wanted to mention, I’d like to be prepared for things to the point where nowadays you can look at theweatherchannel.com or the Hurricane Center website and all the other different websites that deal with hurricanes, and you can see these tropical depressions leaving the coast of Africa.
And so, I mean, in this day and age, there is so much time for people to be keeping an eye on those things. Because although you don’t know what’s going to happen to that tropical depression leaving the coast of Africa, history tells us that it might just head straight for North Carolina or South Carolina or Georgia, Florida, etc. So is it advisable for people to be that proactive and just take a note of those radar and satellite images of what’s happening even far east of where they are?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Absolutely. I absolutely believe they should. It doesn’t take but a few minutes to watch the local weather. And, generally, the local weather reports will also provide national weather, and most of those national weather reports will point to the potential for hurricane development or storm development in the tropics.
The Weather Channel and any of the 24 hour weather services, The Weather Channel’s really good. We used them quite a bit in the Air Force when I was an emergency preparedness liaison officer. We relied on The Weather Channel quite a bit to look at and compare against our Air Force forecast maps, and they were very close.
But if you can look and see a disturbance that’s developing off the southern coast of Africa and you know that’s going to basically propel itself along the southern Atlantic into the Caribbean, that’s when people should start to be paying attention.
And forewarned is forearmed, Glynn. And this is an area where too much information is a good thing and not a bad thing, because from a preparedness point of view the earlier you’re aware of the threat the more time you have to prepare.
Glynn Cosker: I’m Glynn Cosker. My guest today has been Dr. Christopher Reynolds. It’s always a pleasure to speak with him. Please join us for the next podcast, and until that time stay safe.
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