The D.C. area may seem a safe haven from Katrina-class hurricanes, but it's no stranger to welterweight storms that still pack plenty of punch.
That's the lesson local homeowners and renters learned in 2003, when a downsized Hurricane Isabel slammed into the area, snapping power and telephone lines, tainting drinking water and paralyzing businesses. The storm left behind a clear message: Be prepared. Taking sensible precautions can help reduce the disruption and discomfort of storms, including tornadoes and blizzards.
Helping people to be prepared is the mission of Katie Murrin-Finch, communications specialist for the Alexandria office of the American Red Cross. She learned Isabel's lesson firsthand, when rising water in southern Fairfax County swallowed her new Honda Accord and lapped at her second-floor living quarters. But the worst came three days later, when health inspectors declared her condo unfit for habitation, leaving her few possessions but powerful impressions.
Today, she tells people to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Develop a plan that addresses disaster response, family emergency communication and evacuation. "If you have a plan," she said, "you don't have the stress of wondering, 'Oh, my God. Where are we going to go? How are we going to do this?' "
Red Cross preparedness expert Keith Robertory said a disaster plan assumes extended loss of electricity, telephone service, drinking water and food from stores and restaurants. As Hurricane Katrina showed, people should be prepared to go it alone, surviving off disaster supplies until help arrives from utility crews and relief workers.
Murrin-Finch recalled the frenzied run-up to Isabel, when local store shelves quickly emptied of bottled water, milk, infant formula, batteries and bread. The Red Cross tells people to create a home disaster kit and stock it with the following items: Water, food, first aid supplies, tools and other emergency supplies, clothing and bedding, and special medical needs.
The Red Cross has designated September National Preparedness Month. The organization has partnered with retailer Target to sell starter disaster-relief kits in area stores, but these kits are just that, starting points that must be tailored to each family's needs, Murrin-Finch said. To these bare-bones basics, the Red Cross Web site suggests adding extra eyeglasses, backup computer media, pet food, leash and an ample supply of prescription medication. Other experts recommend crank-powered flashlights and radios and extra cell phone batteries.
All disaster plans should address several key issues:
* Water. The Virginia Emergency Management Administration recommends keeping at home a minimum three-day supply of bottled water, allotting one gallon per person per day -- half for drinking, half for food preparation and sanitation, agency spokesman Bob Spieldenner said.
According to the Red Cross, children, nursing mothers and people who are ill typically require more water, especially during hot weather.
"Our studies show that most people have enough water for about two days," Spieldenner said. After Isabel, an estimated 1 million Virginians had no access to potable water, he said.
* Food. People stocking a disaster kit should focus on compact, lightweight, nutrient-rich foods that need no refrigeration, cooking or preparation with water. Rotate items to keep them fresh. Refrigerated perishables can be preserved with bags of ice during brief power outages but are typically lost over longer periods, Robertory said. "My own plan is . . . to eat the perishable food first and save the canned food for another day," he said.
Without water or electricity at home, people might hope to find food and comfort at a nearby restaurant. But Alan Brench, chief of the Maryland Division of Food Control, said Maryland regulations prohibit restaurants from opening when they too lack electricity or potable water.
For people who don't have water and food at home, Spieldenner said, the alternative is waiting for help to arrive and then queuing up for water, food and service in long lines.
* Electrical service. Preparation for power loss is a smart idea, Pepco spokeswoman Mary-Beth Hutchinson said. "In a major storm," she said, "power outage for five to seven days is not unreasonable considering what needs to be done" by repair crews.
But most people fail to plan, she said, and "don't get their interest up until the storm is knocking at the door."
Pepco recommends that customers with "special electricity-dependent medical needs" register with its special-needs notification program but says registration does not place people at the top of a power-restoration list.
Pepco also says customers should unplug sensitive electronics when the power is out -- only critical items should stay plugged in -- as a start-up power spike could damage components.
Joe Scott of Shockley Honda in Frederick discouraged people from plugging household appliances into the power invertors found in SUVs, trucks and minivans. "The product literature warns against running anything with a motor or that creates electrical spikes or surges," he said. "That eliminates refrigerators, sump pumps and medical equipment, among others." Ignoring this advice can damage the vehicle's electrical system.
* Generators. As even small storms frequently trigger power loss, portable and whole-house standby generators have become increasingly common lifelines for area families, according to John Kelly Jr. of Kelly Generator and Equipment Inc. in Upper Marlboro.
While generators provide emergency power, Kelly said people should know how to use them safely. Spieldenner said a "lot of the deaths after Isabel were from people using generators improperly."
Portable generators should never be operated in basements, inside garages or near open windows. When in doubt, ask an expert.
Kelly said most portable generators need shelter from rain. Henry Head of ServiceMaster in Chantilly agreed and said water infiltration can turn a brand-new generator into a "$500 paperweight."
In sunny weather, by contrast, these units are typically robust, he said. "We've used them around the clock for two to three weeks straight and they still work just fine."
Allow the engine to cool before refueling and check and change oil at recommended intervals.
Kelly suggested thinking twice before connecting computers and other electronics to portable generators. "The voltage regulation is not stable at all," he said. "A bad enough power spike could get through a [surge suppressor] and cause damage."
* Key documents. Robertory suggested placing inside a disaster kit copies of important documents -- sealed in plastic bags -- such as wills, real estate deeds, credit cards, insurance information and home inventory.
"Having multiple copies is important," he said.
Some people scan copies of these documents and store them on a computer disk.
* Evacuation. Make plans for possible evacuation, too. Murrin-Finch said evacuation plans should factor in the boarding of family pets. Residents of the devastated Gulf Coast recently learned that neither the Red Cross nor government shelters allow animals inside shelters, she said.
* Insurance. Robert Hartwig, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute, noted that homeowner insurance typically covers "wind-related damage." As an optional endorsement, people can obtain coverage for losses due to sewerage backup and sump pump backup or failure. Water entry pushed by wind is typically covered, he said, but only flood insurance covers losses from flooding.
The federal government issues flood insurance through insurance agents; it must be purchased at least 30 days in advance of a loss, so waiting until a storm is forecast is too late.
A landlord's insurance will not cover a tenant's possessions. Tenants can obtain their own renters insurance.
* Communication. Robertory encouraged people to discuss how they will communicate with loved ones after a disaster. Telephone and cellular lines may be jammed or not working, he said. Cordless phones that plug into electrical outlets won't work when power is lost.
This communication plan should identify an out-of-town contact who can relay information to others. Robertory said, "It's important to tell people what you plan to do before a big storm happens, as opposed to saying three days later, 'By the way, here's where I am.' "