Prepare now for a rough hurricane season

Ready for the next big storm?

Did you just shrug?

The tough thing about persuading people to prepare for the kind of weather that will flood basements, knock out power, chase them out of their homes and shut down the city, Samantha Phillips said, is that the last big storms, Irene and Sandy, weren’t as hard on Philly as they might have been.

Phillips, the city’s assistant managing director for emergency management, said people don’t seem to appreciate how big storms can affect their lives, especially since “Super Storm” Sandy did not make a direct hit on Philly in late October.

Old news, perhaps, but what’s new is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that this year’s hurricane season will be active to extremely active. Between seven and 11 Atlantic hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or stronger are forecast.

“I don’t think we take hurricanes seriously around here,” said American Red Cross spokesman Dave Schrader. “But I think people are starting to do that.”

Maybe.

“It’s going to be difficult to convince the public to take this seriously,” Phillips said in a May 29 phone interview. “We don’t want to scare people, but we want to get them prepared.”

We’re in hurricane season right now and it will last until Nov. 30. The city usually doesn’t feel the impact until midway to the end of hurricane season, Phillips said.

Last year, Sandy took a wicked turn and slammed New Jersey and New York, but it wasn’t as rough on Southeastern Pennsylvania. In Philly, rain was steady, but never heavy. Local waterways didn’t overflow.

“If Sandy had turned left a little bit earlier,” Schrader said, “it would have been us in the direct path of destruction.”

Still, winds did gust to 70 mph, and some 119,000 PECO customers in Philadelphia lost power for days. Regionally, that number was 850,000, according to PECO spokesman Greg Smore.

“That’s half our customer base,” he said. Most had power again in a few days, he said, but added some were in the dark for a week.

The city’s emergency management team has been getting ready for the next big storm since Sandy blew out of town last year.

Phillips said the city extensively examined how it handled Sandy, trying to improve its planning and how government departments coordinate with each other as well as with businesses and nonprofits. The city is working on a plan designed specifically to help it weather tropical storms, she said.

“And we refine our plans to take into account things that can change in 12 months,” she said.

What’s different this year, for example, is that some schools are closing. That fact has to be worked into emergency plans because schools can be used as shelters, she said.

Phillips said she gets weather briefings from the National Weather Center and from state and federal emergency management agencies. What she worries about is projections of rainfall and flooding.

Communications are key not only to utilities, the Red Cross and city agencies coordinating during big storms, but also to individuals. Anyone with a computer or a mobile phone can get weather alerts at www.readynotifypa.org. It’s very easy to sign up. Just visit the site and follow the instructions.

Phillips said those who do sign up will get text and email alerts as storms approach and arrive.

Sign up for text alerts by texting PHILA to 411911. The alerts are free but your wireless provider might charge for text messaging.

Lots of tips are available on the city’s Emergency Management website, www.phila.gov/ready.

Useful information also is on www.RedCrossPhilly.org or by following @RedCrossPhilly on Twitter.

The Red Cross’s free hurricane smart phone app provides storm alerts, hurricane tracking information, locations of nearest shelters and tips for before, during and after a storm.

This winter, PECO set up a Twitter account at @PECONNECT and a Facebook account at facebook.com/pecoconnect. These social media connections have storm preparation tips and safety tips.

Customers can check on outages at www.peco.com/outagecenter, Smore said. The site will present information on a storm’s progress, outages and power restorations. It’s easy to use and has maps keyed to where outages are.

Smart phone users can sign up for PECO Smart Mobile On-the-Go by downloading access from their phones. It’s free, Smore said.

Phillips said apartment dwellers in Philadelphia shouldn’t be without renter’s insurance, which is very affordable. Such insurance covers losses of personal property they might suffer in storms or other emergencies.

The Red Cross advises that flood insurance information can be found at www.FloodSmart.gov.

The best advice, Phillips said, is to take weather warnings seriously.

“When we tell you there is a storm coming, heed those warnings,” Phillips said.••