Have a good plan prepared when hurricanes threaten your area.
By Daniel DeNoon
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Don't wait until your radio blares out a hurricane warning. There's a lot you can do to protect yourself, your family, your pets, and your home -- if you act in time.
Who's at risk? It might be you. One in six Americans lives in a county on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts -- not to mention other at-risk areas such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Nearly 90% of people now living in hurricane-prone areas of the U.S. have never experienced the core of a major hurricane. Even if we don't live in these areas, many of us vacation in areas of the U.S., the Caribbean, or Mexico where hurricanes habitually hit.
Relatively few of us have experienced a major hurricane. We've all been through some pretty big storms -- but that can actually be a problem. It leads to overconfidence -- and underestimating a hurricane is a big mistake.
U.S. hurricane season runs from June through November. Mid-August to late October is peak season.
How Hurricanes Harm
- By definition, hurricanes pack sustained high winds of 74 mph or more. Gusts can be much faster. 1988's Hurricane Gilbert, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Western hemisphere, had sustained winds of 175 mph.
- It's not just the wind that's a worry. Items such as toys left in the yard, signs, and construction materials become deadly missiles in hurricane-force gales.
Storm Surge and Storm Tide
- A storm surge is a dome of water -- topped by battering waves -- that sweeps the coastline when a hurricane hits the shore. At the water's edge, it's the greatest threat to life and property. Storm surges can be 50 or even 100 miles wide. A 15-foot storm surge is not unusual for a major storm.
- The storm tide is the storm surge combined with the normal tide. If it's high tide when a hurricane hits, the storm surge adds to the water's height. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused a 20-foot storm tide in South Carolina.
- Hurricanes often spawn tornadoes far from the center of the storm.
- Hurricanes carry rain -- lots of rain. These rains often cause flash floods, landslides, and mud slides.
- Slow-moving hurricanes cause the most flooding.
- Flooding is the major threat to people and property not directly on the coast. Hurricanes often cause catastrophic flooding hundreds of miles from the coast.
- In 1969, Hurricane Camille dropped 27 inches of rain on Virginia. Severe flash floods killed 150 people.
What to Do, and When
- Get a weather radio and keep its batteries fresh. The National Weather Service suggests that people have a weather radio equipped with a Specific Area Message Encoder (SAME) feature. This automatically broadcasts an alert when there's hurricane information for your area.
- People with hearing or visual impairments can get weather radios that connect to strobe lights, pagers, bed-shakers, home computers, and printers.
- If you don't have a special weather radio, keep a battery-operated radio handy. Know how to tune it to a local station that broadcasts severe-weather warnings.
- Know what to listen for: A hurricane WATCH means that conditions are right for a hurricane to hit. It's time to check your hurricane preparations and review your evacuation plan.
- A hurricane WARNING means a hurricane is expected to hit your area within 24 hours. Leave the area if local officials say to do so.
Before Hurricane Season:
- Put together a disaster supplies kit. It should contain: 1) A first-aid kit. 2) Canned food and a can opener. 3) Three gallons of water per person. 4). Clothing, rain gear, and bedding or sleeping bags. 5) One flashlight per person, with extra batteries. 6) Any special items or medicines needed for infants or people with disabilities.
- Learn whether you live in a flood zone. Call your local emergency management or planning/zoning office to find out. If you are in a flood zone, it's a good idea to buy flood insurance -- normal homeowners' policies don't cover floods. Remember, most policies don't take effect for 30 days.
- Learn how to turn off your home's water, electricity, and gas. Don't turn the gas back on without professional help.
- If you live in a county near the coast, make sure your house is hurricane resistant. If you're not sure, have a licensed engineer check it.
Originally published Sept. 17, 2003.
Medically updated June 23, 2004.
SOURCES: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service. American Red Cross. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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