If you live in a hurricane zone, you need to know what to do before, during and after a hurricane to protect yourself, your family and your property.
I know this from firsthand experience. I have lived through several Category 1 to Category 3 hurricanes that have caused major damage to my home, my county and the entire state of Florida.
How Hurricanes Form
When warm, moist air circulating over warm ocean water rises and begins to spiral, it produces a tropical cyclone or tropical depression–an area of heavy rain and thunderstorms in which winds can reach up to 38 miles per hour.
When the wind speed increases to 39 to 73 miles per hour, the storm is classified as a tropical storm. A storm becomes a Category 1 hurricane (defined by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Categories scale) when winds continue at 74 miles per hour or higher. As the speed of the wind circulation within the storm increases, so does the hurricane’s category, which is an indicator of the storm’s damage potential.
The amount of rain that falls is not related to the hurricane’s category, but rather the size of the storm and how quickly it moves across an area. A storm’s direction and traveling speed are steered by the prevailing weather patterns that surround the hurricane, which are different from the speed of the wind circulation within the hurricane itself. Slower-moving, larger storms can drop more rain on an area, causing severe flooding.
How Hurricanes Move
A full-fledged hurricane is characterized by an internal wind speed of at least 74 miles per hour and a spinning structure in which the wind rotates around the center of the storm–called the “eye” of the hurricane.
The strongest wind and heaviest rain occur in the area encircling the eye of the storm, called the eye wall. As the hurricane moves, the eye wall will give way to the eye and the wind will calm, the rain will lessen or subside and the sun may even be visible. This doesn’t mean that the storm is over.
As tempting as it may be, you should not leave your place of shelter until you receive word from the weather station that the storm is over. This is because once the eye passes, the wind and rain will pick up again as the dangerous backend of the storm passes over your area.
Although Hurricanes generally move west, they can also move north, northeast and northwest. They are often unpredictable and you may notice that several different storm paths are forecast before a hurricane actually makes landfall. This is because many factors can change the course of a hurricane or cause it to strengthen or weaken.
In fact, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the southeast coast of Florida as a Category 1 hurricane. From there, it continued to travel slightly south before heading west across the peninsula and moved into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It traveled north for several days, gathering size and power, finally pummeling into the Louisiana coastline as a large Category 3 Hurricane, with winds reaching 125 miles per hour.
When and Where Hurricanes Strike
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, peaking from mid-August to late October. During that time, six hurricanes will form in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico and two hurricanes will form in the Central Pacific Ocean. During a typical 2-year period, an average of three hurricanes will make landfall along the U.S. coastline, and one of them will be a Category 3 or higher.
The most hurricane-prone coastlines include:
- North Carolina
- Central to South Florida and Northwest Florida
- North East Texas
How to Prep Before a Hurricane
During 2004, I lived in West Palm Beach and saw two hurricanes over the course of one month uproot 100-foot trees, rip off entire roofs, overturn cars and pick up grills and lawn furniture and hurl them through neighbors’ windows, walls and garage doors.
In early September 2004, the Category 2 Hurricane Frances, a particularly large and slow-moving storm, passed across West Palm Beach causing severe flooding and wind damage. According to news reports, Palm Beach County had 15,000 houses and 2,400 businesses damaged and approximately 4.27 million customers were left without electricity.
Later that month, the much smaller, quicker and stronger Category 3 Hurricane Jeanne barreled through and knocked out power lines again, ravaging roofs and felling even more trees already weakened from Hurricane Frances. I experienced power loss for nearly two weeks and over $38,000 of covered damage to my home and property because of these two storms.
In addition to the wind damage and rain, if you live on the coast, the storm surge (a rise in the wave level due to the increased winds) can pose the greatest threat to your life and your property.
Here’s what you need to do before hurricane season starts to help you prepare:
Create an Evacuation Plan: If you live in a hurricane evacuation zone, put together a written plan detailing where you and your family will evacuate to and how you’ll get there, should an evacuation order be issued. Select a location (e.g., a family member’s home or a public shelter) outside of the evacuation zone. Be sure to consider your pets when developing your plan, as most local shelters do not allow pets.
Put Together a Hurricane Kit: You’re going to need supplies to get through the storm and its possibly lengthy aftermath. Stockpile enough water, non-perishable food (and a can opener) and medicine to last everyone in your household (including your pets) for at least one week. You’ll also need clothing, blankets, flashlights, batteries, a hand-crank radio, and extra tarps and plywood for securing any damaged areas of your home.
Get a corded phone, as the phone jacks may still work even if the electricity and cell towers go down. You may want to purchase a crank- or solar-powered USB charger for your cell phone. You could even invest in a small or whole-house generator. Store important documents in a large, waterproof envelope, including social security cards, licenses, insurance policies, property photos, emergency numbers and repair numbers.
Strengthen Your Home: Make sure your home is in good repair and up to local hurricane building code specifications well before hurricane season begins. Many pre-hurricane safety projects don’t cost as much or take as long as you might think. Before hurricane season starts, purchase the appropriate plywood, steel or aluminum panels for protecting your windows and doors. And check that your garage door is up to code. If necessary, have the support bracing retro-fitted as the garage can be a weak spot for wind.
Review Your Insurance Policies: Call your insurance agent or company to check whether you have enough homeowners insurance to repair and even replace your home’s structures and contents in the event of hurricane damage. If you are in a flood zone, you’ll need a separate flood insurance policy (for which there is a 30-day waiting period before your policy will take effect), as standard homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover weather-related flooding. Review your car insurance and boat insurance policies as well.
Take Pictures of Your Property: Photograph all four sides of your home’s exterior, as well as any other structures covered by your home insurance policy, such as outdoor buildings, decks, fencing or pergolas. They will be extremely helpful if you have to file an insurance claim for hurricane damage. Print the photos and store them in a safe, waterproof location, but be sure to save copies online as well.
How to Stay Safe During a Hurricane
When a hurricane has been forecast, cover your windows with the plywood or shutters. Also secure anything movable in your yard (e.g., lawn furniture, lawn ornaments, potted plants and the grill) in a safe location, such as your garage.
Just before the winds and rain pick up, turn your refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings and keep them closed to hold in the cold in case you lose power later. Lock all doors and windows once everyone (including pets) is inside. Be sure to stay inside until you receive the official all-clear, even if you think the storm has subsided, because it may just be the eye passing over.
As much as you might want to watch the storm once the wind and rain begin to blow, stay away from your windows to avoid injury from flying debris and broken glass. Hunker down in a room with no windows (or the least windows). Try to take shelter on the lowest floor of your home in case the roof is breached by trees, flying debris, wind or heavy rain during the hurricane.
Check your local weather service using your battery-powered radio or device every 30 minutes to keep up with the status of the storm, as well as any emergency notifications that have been issued.
What to Do After a Hurricane Has Passed
The Department of Homeland Security website warns that you stay clear of debris and especially downed power lines. Don’t walk or drive through flood waters, as just six inches of moving water can knock you down and if the water is fast-moving, it can sweep you and even your vehicle away. Furthermore, flood waters can obscure all types of dangerous debris or sink holes and can also be electrically charged by underground or fallen power lines.
Once you receive the official all-clear and it is safe to go outside, inspect your property. Photograph any damage and call your insurance company to file an insurance claim as soon as possible if necessary.
Be sure to do everything you can to prevent further damage to your property (in case of another storm). For example, secure a breached roof with a tarp or other approved covering. If you do not, any further damage to your roof or personal property may not be covered by your insurance policy.
Remember, hurricanes are incredibly destructive and have the potential to cause a catastrophic loss of life. Begin preparing well in advance to help ensure the safety of you and your loved ones.
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