Plastic sheet shelter wards off winter, too

February 15, 2003|By ROB KASPER

Some may call it preparation for a possible terrorist attack. I regard it as belated winter maintenance.

I am talking about the serious plastic-sheeting project I finished yesterday on a couple of windows at my house. It was my attempt to answer the question resounding across America: What are we supposed to do with all this recently purchased plastic sheeting and tape?

The impetus for this project was this week's advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on ways to prepare our homes against "a chemical release" or other side effects of terrorism. Part of the advice was to get rolls of plastic sheeting and duct tape and to be ready to use them to seal up a room in your house where you can wait until the dark cloud of trouble passes by.

I picked the basement as our "just-in-case" room. This, I learned later from the FEMA Web site (www.fema.gov), was probably not the ideal spot. The recommended "shelter room" from a "hazardous material incident" is one that is above ground, has the fewest exterior doors and windows and is large enough to accommodate all household members and pets.

I gravitated to the basement for several reasons. First of all, that is where I always ran when I was a kid and tornadoes whipped through the Midwest. When you grow up believing that whenever there are dark clouds on the horizon you should scoot to the basement, it is a hard habit to break. Secondly, the basement has small, easy-to-seal windows. Thirdly, it has a pool table. I figured if I am going to be spending days trapped inside a plastic bubble with my family, I am going to need a diversion.

Once I started cutting and taping, I saw that the anti-terrorism window routine was amazingly similar to one way - the ugly way - of insulating windows from winter's cold. In both cases, you cover the windows with plastic. In one scenario, you are trying to keep out noxious gases. In another, you are trying to keep down your gas bill.

I did not opt for the thin sheets of plastic or the rolls of ordinary duct tape. I splurged and got the extra-thick plastic sheeting and the rolls of super-duper weatherproof tape.

The mellow mood at my neighborhood hardware store, Belle Hardware on McMechen Street in West Baltimore, did not match the panic buying that reporters found at hardware stores around the nation. Here, there was plenty of plastic and tape within easy reach.

The lively topic of conversation in the hardware store was love, not war. Customers and staff were sharing their plans for Valentine's Day weekend, and their opinions on the local romance scene. The only "shortage" discussed was a "shortage of good men." I learned that besides providing the nuts and bolts of life, the store's staff also occasionally serve as matchmakers, introducing customers to each other. Talk about full service.

Back at my house, I covered the interior of two basement windows with sheets of plastic, then sealed up the edges with tape. The FEMA guidelines did not say I had to start sealing things up right away. Rather, they recommended that I should be prepared, at short notice, to cover the doors and windows of my designated shelter room with pre-measured sheets of plastic. But, I figured that once I had moved the piles of junk that had taken up residence under those windows, I was not going to be content with merely taking preliminary measurements. I was ready to seal.

And seal I did. When I stepped back to admire my work, I noticed that the cobwebs on the basement ceiling - my early warning system - had stopped shaking when the wind gusted outside. This was a sign that my attempts at building a plastic bunker were working.

However, when I put my newly sealed windows to the noxious fumes test, the results were disappointing.

Crouching outside the basement windows in a bitter February wind, I fumbled with several matches before successfully igniting two incense sticks, one for each basement window.

I let them smoke away outside the windows, then walked down to the basement and started sniffing. I was no closer than 5 feet to one window when I got a distinct whiff of incense. My defenses had been breached. In a few minutes, the entire basement smelled like a shop in Haight Ashbury back in 1968.

I went back outside, snuffed the incense sticks out in a mound of snow and took stock of the situation. My house was not ready to take on the level of preparedness outlined by FEMA, and neither was I. The old rowhouse has been around since shortly after the Civil War. Its windows have weathered returning Confederates, two World Wars and the fumes of the train tunnel fire of July 2001. But no amount of plastic sheeting and tape can keep those windows from leaking.

Similarly, I am too loose a character to be comfortable with the high level of disaster preparation - stockpiling supplies of canned food, bottled water, bandages and petroleum jelly - that the FEMA guidelines recommend.

While my effort to seal myself in a plastic bunker was not successful, it nonetheless yielded some benefits.

The basement windows now have an extra layer of protection against the wind. They may not be tight enough to repel a gas sent my way by Osama's fanatics, but thanks to the plastic they are better prepared to ward off Ole Man Winter. And according to the latest reports, Ole Man Winter is set to strike again this weekend.

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