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How to Survive a Hurricane

Civil Engineer Shares Plans for Making Home, Family Safe During Storms

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juan rodriguez

Juan Rodriguez on the job.

Photo courtesy of J. Rodriguez
Updated May 22, 2013
Juan Rodriguez, About.com Guide to Construction and a civil engineer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, knows firsthand how to survive a major weather event like a hurricane or tropical storm. Married and the father of three daughters, Rodriguez experiences each storm with both a personal and professional perspective: concern for his family's comfort and safety, and knowing what types of buildings and infrastructure are most likely to survive in the path of a storm. Each storm and hurricane is a learning experience.

Puerto Rico has a six-month-long hurricane season, lasting from June 1st to November 30th.

Rodriguez took time after Hurricane Sandy hit the island and as it approached the eastern United States to share suggestions for preparing for a storm, riding it out, and dealing with the aftermath of a major weather event or natural disaster.

Q: Do you feel Puerto Rico is better equipped than other regions of the world because it has a history of major weather events?

A: Well, pretty much everything here is made out of reinforced concrete, because we are also in a high seismic activity zone. Hurricanes and storms like Sandy and others that struck New York City and the East Coast are more common for us, but with one huge difference. Most of our construction is concrete and steel, except for the homes of lower-income people, which are built out of wood and have zinc roofs. These are the people who suffer. Because Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean, we get hit almost every year. Sometimes twice. But we have learned from each storm, and now we are ready for them.

Q: In your lifetime, which hurricane has been the worst to hit Puerto Rico?

A: We just received lots of rain from Hurricane Sandy, but the worst in recent years was Hurricane Georges in 1998.*

Q: What do you have at your house in the way of generators, back-up or safety equipment?

A: My generator, which also includes an automatic transfer switch, is located in the yard, only about 30 feet away from the house. The automatic transfer switch is the 'control' that allows the generator to turn on when the main power is disconnected or has been interrupted.

Q: Do you have emergency kits or supplies for during and after a hurricane or storm? What storm prep tips can you provide for gathering personal food and water supplies? Any ideas that are not commonly known?

A: Actually a smart way to be prepared is to follow these steps:

  • Store at least 5 gallons of water per person per day, because that is the actual estimated rate of consumption.
  • Smart ways to get water during and after the storm: Fill the washing machine, fill plastic 2-liter Coke (or soda) bottles, or whatever you have available so it can be used to flush toilets. If you have a pool, that water can be used too (not for consumption, but for other things, like washing clothes, flushing toilets, etc.)
  • Fill your refrigerator a couple of days before the storm strikes, in resealable plastic bags filled with water. That way, water can squeeze into existing voids, turn into ice, and it will keep your fridge cooler for more days.
  • As for food, prepare your barbecue, so if you lose power you can prepare or heat food. Never use the grill or barbecue inside a house or other structure.
  • Get canned food, for at least two days. (More is better.)
  • For babies, have plenty of food, powder milk, medicines.

Q: What other items should we have accessible at our homes before a storm?

A: Get a battery-operated TV / radio set along with replacement batteries and keep it handy. Also keep your cell phone charged and nearby. Make sure you have plenty of board games to keep children busy.

My three daughters are terrified of thunderstorms. But the area where we live doesn't get flooded. I try to prepare them for storms the best that I can. They understand, it is so common here!

Q: As someone who has survived many major storms in Puerto Rico, what do you feel is essential in planning ahead -- long before a hurricane approaches?

A: On the first day of storm season (not the first day of a storm), prepare one bag (suitcase) per person with, at the very least, a jacket, underwear, shirts, pants, socks and shoes. In case you have to evacuate quickly, these items will be together in one place. It's especially important for children, w ho may have outgrown last season's clothing). Prepare and safe-keep all of your important documents, such as deeds, passports, check and savings account information, social security identification, and whatever documents you might have. Place them in the highest location possible inside the house, using a waterproof bag, plastic wrap or container to keep them safe and dry. It's extremely important to have an escape route identified and know where the closest rivers are located so you can drive farthest away from them.

It is also recommended that you take photos of your property before the storm arrives so you can use it for any insurance claims.

Q: Any additional tips?

A:Fill the gas tank of your car when you first hear about an approaching storm.

*Hurricane Georges hit the island of Puerto Rico in mid-September 1998 and was the first hurricane since the San Ciprian Hurricane in 1932 to completely wash over, or cover, the entire island. Georges caused an estimated $2 billion in damages, along with three direct deaths; nine others from medical complications (heart attacks, etc.). About 80 percent of the 3.8 million people on island were without food and water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates 33,113 homes were destroyed in Puerto Rico, with nearly 50,000 more suffering major or minor damage. The storm destroyed 75 percent of the coffee crop, 95 percent of Puerto Rico's plantains, and 65 percent of its chickens.

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