Irene Got Me Down But Not Out

Come On Irene…

OK, I know that’s not really the name of the classic rock song, but it sounds good. Irene was not as hard as they predicted when she hit, but she was still a dangerous storm and did a lot of damage. This was not my first rodeo when it comes to hurricanes, but it was the one I was most involved in.

As I put out on Friday, our generator had failed with no warning, despite my monthly test runs. I left the house a little after 5 a.m. that morning to go to work, where I had to report to the city’s Emergency Operations Center to help manage the response to the storm. Shortly after arriving in town, I was interviewed by the Lee Brother’s Patriot Radio show on WRVA, AM1140. They were interested in some of my last minute suggestions for the grasshoppers out there, and they gave several positive plugs to If It Hits The Fan.

I then reported to the EOC where we began a 24 hour shift. It would typically be 12 hour shifts, but that would put the next shift change near the peak of the storm, so we had to gut it out. I was on the logistics team, with primary responsibility of helping organize shelter operations. We already had one community shelter up and operating and soon opened up a second one. A combination of school bus drivers and firefighters driving school buses assisted with evacuating citizens who for whatever reason were unable to evacuate themselves. Many of these were “medically fragile” but others were just carless. By the next morning, we had over 200 folks in one shelter and nearly a hundred in another.

As the storm got worse, I took on the role of managing the traffic plans for the city. Every couple hours I got a report from the 911 center identifying streets that were blocked by flooding, fallen trees or downed power lines. I then used Google Maps to figure out alternate routes and detours around the blockages. By 3 a.m. we were up to over five pages of blockages. By 7 a.m. we were back down to less than two pages.

Back on the home front, my wife left the house about the same time I did to go to Lowe’s where they were supposed to have been getting an overnight truck load of generators. I can’t tell you how proud I am of what she managed to do. She bought the genny (a 5,000 watt Generac) and had Lowe’s staff load it in the back of her Murano. She got it home and used board ramps to get it unloaded. She then put it together, got the wheels on it, filled it with oil and gassed it up. She then got it hooked into our electrical panel and got it fired up. It took her about 3 hours in a growing wind and rain environment, but by golly, she did it! A couple hours later she lost power, but had the generator ready to go and was able to watch TV, keep a couple fans blowing, have the well pump available and keep the refrigerator and freezer going. She is amazing!

In the EOC, we tracked the winds and goings on throughout the city. It’s a coastal city and Irene was centered about 40 miles away. Parts of the city hit hurricane force sustained winds, the rest stayed in the tropical storm force range. Rain was in the neighborhood of 8-15 inches, depending on the part of town. Early on, we had a fatality. A little boy was killed when a tree fell through his apartment’s roof. Other than a few fairly minor injuries, the rest of the city stayed pretty safe. The last report I saw showed 17 homes being condemned because of tree’s destroying them.

About 4 o’clock Sunday morning I was able to slip away to the parking lot to nap in the Element. The worst of the storm had passed, but there was still a driving rain and heavy wind gusts that kept it from being a very restful nap. My relief was there for the 7 a.m. shift change and after getting him briefed in and ready to take over, it was almost 8 a.m. before I headed home. I was again called for a radio interview, this time with Jimmy Barrett for a special storm edition of Richmond’s Morning News, again on WRVA. I was a little loopy from being on the go for so long, but I stressed that people need to maintain care during the recovery stage and to use caution with chain saws, generators, and food that may have become unfrozen or otherwise gone bad.

My normal trip home is about an hour. The interstate was pretty clear, with just a lot of leaves and small branches making up most of the debris. As I got off the interstate, it normally takes me about 10 minutes to make the 8 mile ride to the ranch. As I went down the road, I zigged and zagged around and under trees and brush in the road, some of them where folks had already cleared a path. I then came to a big pile of trees in the road with a kid playing on them. He let me know that the entwined power line was dead, so that’s why his dad let him play on it…. Wow. Anyway, I had planned ahead and brought my chainsaw with me. I broke it out and got to cutting on one side of the pile. The dad came down with his saw and attacked from the other end. A couple other drivers approached from the opposite directions and helped us pull out logs as we cut them. About 30 minutes later, we had the path cleared. I loaded back up and headed closer to home. A little ways later, I came across another big pile of downed trees that was too much for me to safely go after by myself. I turned around and tried another route. I again had to dodged trees and wires, and as I came to my road, the damaged got much heavier. About a mile and a half from the house, there was a big blockage, but it was beside a farmer’s field (luckily just weeded over at this point) with tracks already going through it. I hadn’t tested out my Element’s 4x4 capabilities yet, so this would be it. I went right through the muddy ditch, up the slight embankment, and tooled on across the field. As I came to the driveway, the family was sitting on their front porch. I waved and hollered out an apology and thanked them and they cheerfully told me to carry on and get home. A few more zigs and zags and I got to the church just down the road from my house. I could see my mailbox. I could also see the three giant hardwoods, bigger around than two men can reach, laid across the street and power lines, entangled at the top. I was ready to park and walk home, but the cavalry was coming. Within a few minutes, there were about 40 people wielding chainsaws, working tow straps and pushing and pulling with tractors and 4 wheelers. We got it opened and no body got hurt. I made it home and it was 11 o’clock… Much like Gilligan and the Skipper, a three hour tour. We made a quick trip down to the neighbors to check on them. They lost two giant trees. One fell 180 degrees away from their house, and the other fell between his truck, the shed and the chicken coop, causing no more damage than a bent radio antenna on the truck. My wife had carried down two of our handheld radios before the storm, so they were able to communicate and could have helped her if she needed it.

I then took a nice hot shower thanks to the generator, and collapsed in the bed, cooled by genny-powered fans, and slept like the dead after 32 hours of being on the go. I got up a couple hours later feeling somewhat refreshed, and we headed up to the nearby small town where the in-laws live for a “cook all the food before it goes bad” cook out. After eating, we headed home, but not before checking on the most famous house in town, the one from the movie “Major Payne,” where Damon Wayans’ character day dreamed about a life with the lady counselor and little boy, getting interrupted by a VC commando. The House of Payne has a great big tree laid across the front of it now. I took a picture of it and put it on the FB page.

We are still without power, running on generator. Thankfully, it’s not too hot, so we’re pretty comfortable. We’ve lost phone and internet service too, so I’m having to be a little creative with getting this blog post done. I’ll try to get out something every day or two until we get back to normal. I’d be real surprised if we get power back before the weekend, and no telling when the phone and internet might be back. I’ll keep you posted and continue to share some things I learned out of all this.

Enough about me… how did you and your families fare? If you were affected by Irene, please leave a note in the comments to let us know you are alright, how your preps helped you and anything you might have learned that you can do better with in the future.


  1. I wasn't in this storm, but was glad to get updates via Facebook, etc.
    You were busy! And so was your wife!
    I really don't see myself having all your energy and stamina in an emergency/crisis like this.
    Your concern and education of others is to be commended~

  2. Hi, I was in it right with you. I live on Harris Creek in Hampton, on the water, and what we saw was somewhat less than we got with Isabel. Our power stayed on longer than others; it went out about 5:00p on Saturday and we got it back Monday morning about 5:00a.

    Did you run your genset during the actual storm? I always wait until after the rain stops, but I suppose it would be better if I could build a little shelter for it and get some power back on sooner.

    The flooding was bad, but again not as bad as Isabel. The creek rose up in the back and completely covered our yard -- ever see whitecaps where your garden is supposed to be? -- and the street back-flooded from the storm drains and rose up over the sidewalk and started up the driveway. But it never got too deep; my 4x4 Suburban would have handled it fine (it wasn't flowing), but I had nowhere to go so I stayed put.

    I also spent a few hours with a chainsaw on Sunday morning, since my tree out front dropped several big (and by big I mean 18" diameter at the base) branches on my neighbor's driveway, completely blocking his vehicles in his garage. Oops! But most of the rest of the fallen branches will just have to wait until this weekend.

    Luckily, I didn't need to leave the house until Monday morning for work (NASA was open for business!).

    Things I'd like to do differently, maybe for Katia (yikes!):

    (1) Never go anywhere without an LED flashlight in your pocket, even during the day. NEVER.

    (2) Get the genset running sooner, which means some kind of shelter on the back downstairs deck.

    (3) Immediately put on DEET bug repellent, and reapply often. From all the work before and after the storm, and also from going in and out of the house so much, I'm covered in bites from mosquitoes, chiggers, and ticks. I really, really, didn't need this.

    (4) Start working the list earlier. Now this one's not really my fault for this storm, because we were on vacation in the Midwest and I had to fly back Thursday to start working on a list that normally takes two people three days to complete (did I mention that we live on the water?). Boat and boat lift prep, purple martin housing, shed and chicken coop, (empty) rain barrels, board up north-facing windows, deck furniture on two decks, plus getting ready for potential flooding of our first floor, etc etc etc. Hot and exhausting work, and the humidity Friday was killer!

    (5) Get some 12V fans, so I can stay cool(er) at night without having to run the genset. I have multiple deep-cycle marine batteries.

    But the family is back in town now, power is on, and life is good. And it shouldn't take more than a week or so for me to recover from sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion.

  3. Your wife deserves something real nice for pulling off what she did with the new genertor!

    I'm in Minnesota so all I got to do was watch Irene pull her bombing run up the coast.


  4. Good to hear everyone is all right and safe. I commend you on doing your job so well and making sure others were OK and safe. You have a thankless job and don't get enough credit for what you do. I am glad that we have people with your level of dedication working to keep us safe.


Please feel free to comment on my posts. I do ask that you keep the language clean. I reserve the right to moderate comments and will delete any that violate the principles of respectful discourse or that are spam. I will not delete your comment for simply disagreeing with me.