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Hurricane Charley came through Central Florida last Friday night. It was a scary, exciting time. The next morning everyone was walking around in a daze but still wired. The neighborhood was relatively lucky : a few homes lost some roof shingles, several big live oaks were damaged, streets and lawns were littered with leaves and branches torn from trees, and the occasional mailbox or flagpole was uprooted, concrete base and all. But by and large we came through in good shape.

By ten o’clock on Saturday morning everyone was outside, cleaning up. It was like a block party. Now it is Tuesday and we are still cleaning up, but the fun is gone. People do what they can, when they can. I was up at first light today, trying to get in several hours of yard cleanup before going to work.

If you are ever in a hurricane – and I sincerely hope you never are – I am passing along what I have learned about the work involved on the part of a homeowner after the hurricane.

First things first. Most likely you will have no electric power. Do not open your freezer or the fridge. Keep the windows and doors closed to preserve the inside temperature. Power did not come back to my subdivision until late Saturday afternoon, but I managed not to lose any frozen food and, despite a 90-plus degree outside temperature, the interior of the house was livable.

Walk around the outside of your house and check for damage, both apparent and potential. Downed power lines, of course, are first on the danger list, as are any exterior light fixtures that may have been torn loose. If you have big trees on your property, inspect the canopy carefully. Often broken branches will be dangling by a shred of bark and will fall later.

Start your cleanup by removing anything that is blocking your access to the street. The municipality will be sending trucks around sooner or later to pick up curbside trash. When you pile your debris along the curb, do not put it on the street itself. There is usually a severe rainstorm within 24 hours of a hurricane. If you block the gutters you will have a flood in front of your house.

If you have big trees that are down, do not try to move them yourself unless you really know what you are doing. Two of the sixteen deaths attributed to Hurricane Charley were those of men who had a tree they were trying to move fall on them.

A hurricane clause on your homeowner’s insurance policy will generally cover tree removal only if the tree has fallen on and/or damaged a structure. Be aware, also, that hurricane insurance usually has a 2% deductible : it’s best to do what you can safely do yourself.

Assuming that you have no major damage, you can now start the cleanup. Began with the roof. It will be littered with leaves and twigs, as well as big branches. Three of us banded together to get our roofs cleared : I had an extension ladder and a 200-ft. power line, one neighbor had a gas generator, and another had an electric leaf blower. You can also use a wide garage broom to sweep the rubbish over the edge of the roof. A fiber broom will do less damage to asphalt shingles than a wire or plastic leaf rake. Don’t forget to clean your roof gutters after doing this. It is also an opportunity to check for loose roof shingles.

A word about gas generators – never use one inside the house, a garage, or in a confined space. The fumes can, and often do, cause asphyxiation. Another danger after a hurricane is the use of candles inside the house during a power outage.

Drag any big fallen branches to the curb. Normally municipalities require such rubbish to be cut into six-ft. lengths and banded together, but in a post-hurricane situation exceptions will be made. The same is true of fallen leaves. As a rule it is necessary to bag these in big plastic trash bags. We were told to pile everything neatly on the tree beds. City crews then came around with a dump truck and a front loader and scooped up the piles of trash. They will not do this indefinitely ; if you have mixed debris get as much as you can out to the curb while the special pickups are still scheduled. After that you will have to bag all the garden trash.

After the big branches are out of the way, start on the smaller ones. Here I worked with a wheelbarrow and a branch cutter. My cutter has long extension handles to increase leverage, and an adjustable anvil on the cutting edge. With it I can crunch through branches up to 2-1/2 inches in diameter. I strip off the side branches from the main branch. These smaller branches will then stack in the wheelbarrow without tangling. Once you get the fallen branches out of the way you can start raking up the twigs and leaves.

If you know a hurricane is coming, mow your lawn before it arrives. My back yard is what I prefer to call “rustic”. My property backs into a wooded piece of land and I leave my grass fairly long. It is very hard to use a leaf rake on grass that is six or seven inches high. A pitchfork would have come in handy to move the piles of leaves from the ground to the wheelbarrow. I am running out of garden trash bags and there are no more available in the local stores. That is another item to stock up on before the hurricane hits.

I am eligible for senior discounts, which means I’m not as young as I would like to be. And walking the dog three times a day is no training for the kind of yard work I’ve been doing. Be sure to pace yourself in the cleanup effort. Try to work in the early morning hours when the sun is not so hot. One trick I learned from my neighbor is to roll ten or twelve ice cubes inside a thin scarf and then tie the scarf around my throat with the ice on the back of my neck. A terrycloth sweat band for your forehead is indispensable. Be sure to wear a hat. A pair of shorts may be more comfortable than long pants, but you will end up with terrible scratches on your legs. You may want to use insect repellent; mosquitoes breed fast in wet leaves.

Once you have the lawn cleaned, look at the outside walls of your house. It might be necessary to wash them down with a hose, or brush them with that wide garage broom. Leaves and bits of wood will be plastered to the stucco, bricks, or shingles. Your outside window sills will be littered with debris, and window screens trap it, also. Inspect garden sheds, trellises, gates and fence posts. You may find them knocked off their foundations or damaged in some way. A hurricane is a powerful force.

The night of the storm: see August 15, 2004

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