Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy

To set the record straight, the storm that hit the Northeast in late October 2012 was a hurricane! In fact, it was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. And it was second only to Katrina in costliness. So as owners of a home and vacation rental on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, just a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, we have no truck with this “Superstorm Sandy” stuff. (People in general and the press in particular have a special weakness for alliterations.)

The Mid-Atlantic got clobbered by Hurricane Sandy. Many residents, especially those with property close to the ocean, lost everything: homes, vacation properties, cars, boats, and, of course, tens of thousands of beautiful, stately old trees. Sandy’s effects on us and our vacation-rental property were relatively minor in comparison. Still the storm taught us some things—or revealed some things—that we didn’t know.

Just to set the scene: We lost power for six days. That means no heat, no light, and most important of all, no running water. (Like many in our area, we pump our water from a well in the back yard.) It also means refunding the money from a $2,000 booking because our vacation-rental cottage sits next to our main house and, thus, was also without heat, light, and water.

We also lost our century-old barn when Sandy sent a silver maple with a four-foot wide trunk slicing through it, crushing our Toyota Highlander and most of our porch furniture, which we had just moved there—and carefully covered with plastic sheets—for the winter.

But in the grand scheme of things, that really doesn’t matter all that much since we have an excellent insurance policy from Chubb. As the saying goes, “It’s just stuff.” No one was injured (or, in the case of a friend of a friend in a nearby town, killed in his own driveway by a falling tree).

 

Four Things the Sandy Disaster Taught Us

For the benefit of our fellow vacation-rental owners, here are some of the things we learned from our experience with Hurricane Sandy, and what we’re doing to be better prepared when the next storm hits:

Lesson #1. If you live or own a vacation rental in a place prone to power outages, you might want to think long and hard before “cutting the cord” on your phone service. We have a good friend who went completely Verizon FiOS about a year ago. The backup battery in his home system died shortly after the first day of the power outage. He couldn’t use his wall phone, couldn’t charge up his cell phone, and couldn’t drive to a Starbucks with an Internet hotspot because the police had closed the roads due to downed trees.

Most people aren’t aware of this any more, but the old-fashioned, “twisted pair” copper-wire phone network is “line powered.” That means that when you lose power, you can still take and receive phone calls. (At a reduced power level, your phone will probably ring “less enthusiastically.” But it will ring.)

Having a working phone line was crucial to keeping in touch and up-to-date with the guest who was scheduled to check in at our vacation rental the day Sandy hit. She had to move from one hotel to another in New Jersey during the crisis. Some of which had power, some of which did not.

 

Lesson #2. What about Internet access? About a year before Sandy, we had a 12-hour power outage. It was not a huge problem. We built a fire in one of our fireplaces for warmth, lit a bunch of candles, and invited our vacation-rental guest—who returns every year—to join us and wait out the power outage together. He brought a bottle of wonderful single malt Scotch, and we had a very pleasant evening.

But that incident prompted us to order a second battery for our Dell laptop and to make sure that it remained fully charged. That would give us about four hours of laptop usage. We combined this with a service called Budget Dialup (www.budgetdialup.com), a pre-paid dial-up Internet plan that you access via your phone line. 

Your laptop will need a built-in modem and phone jack, and Budget Dialup only operates at 56K, but for those occasions when your power and cable service are out, it’s a godsend. If you have a smartphone and a hand-crank radio/charger, that would be another option, though we have no idea how much cranking it takes to fully charge a phone. 

 

Lesson #3. In an extended power outage, lanterns are far preferable to flashlights. That’s because lanterns—whether they are battery- or oil-powered—shed light in a 360-degree circle. Flashlights send a shaft of light in only one direction. We have always provided flashlights and candles for our vacation-rental guests, but we’re definitely going to upgrade to lanterns in the near future.

 

Lesson #4. Finally, as a result of Hurricane Sandy, we’ve learned a thing or two about “business interruption” insurance. As noted above, because of the extended power failure, we had to refund over $2,000 to the guest who was scheduled to check in the day of the hurricane. That hurt, to say the least. But we felt that it was the right thing to do. 

We thought that our business policy, which includes a provision for “loss of business income,” would cover this situation. But, not so fast, pardner.

Apparently, if we had lost rental income because of storm damage to the structure itself that made the property uninhabitable, we would definitely have been covered. But because the income loss was caused by the extended power outage, we may be out of luck.

We’re still pursuing this with our insurance company. In a later post, we’ll let you know how this issue is resolved.

 

What About a Backup Generator?

In the meantime, we’re seriously thinking about installing a backup generator. We both grew up in the Midwest (Louisville and Northeastern Ohio). We never had power outages. Ever. Here in the Mid-Atlantic region, power outages are a regular occurrence every year. The only variable is how many hours or days the power will be out.

It may or may not be the same in the region where your vacation rental is located. But if outages are frequent enough to cost you income from lost bookings, you probably should look into installing a backup generator. Preferably one powered by natural gas piped to your property, or by a big tank of propane. You want one that will turn on within seconds of the power failure.

The other alternative is a less expensive gasoline-powered generator. We had the great good fortune to have a friend who had such a unit and volunteered to let us use it. (He even wired it into our home’s electrical panel.) It worked beautifully, powering the entire house.

But it was noisy. And it was thirsty. During the crisis, gasoline was not always available. One morning, we got the last gas from our favorite station before it put the barriers up and closed for the day.

As members of the HomeAway Community, we will look forward to updating you on our “business interruption” insurance situation, as well as on our investigations of what’s involved (and what it costs) to install a backup generator for our main house and for our vacation-rental cottage. Stay tuned, as the saying goes!

Happy Renting,
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner


Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner own and operate a very successful vacation-rental property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (www.buckscountycottage.com). They are also the founders of FullyBookedRentals (www.fullybookedrentals.com), a website focused on helping new and experienced VR owners advertise, market, manage, and make money from their second homes.