Few things can be quite as frightening as being stuck in the middle of a hurricane. In fact, research suggests that between 20% and 40% of those affected develop PTSD. When you also consider other natural disasters – earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and more – the world can seem like a truly fearful place.
There’s no reason to be fatalistic or overly apprehensive about these dangers, though. While events like these are certainly devastating, the chances of them happening to you are actually quite small. More importantly, it’s possible to shield your family and yourself from the worst of their effects, and the same preparations you’d take against a hurricane will also come in handy when any of a number of other calamities strike.
- Is Hurricane Season Getting Worse?
- What to Do While You Still Have Clear Skies
- When a Hurricane Watch Is in Effect
- Staying Put
- After the Storm
- The Aftermath
- In Conclusion
Is Hurricane Season Getting Worse?
The yearly round of hurricanes certainly forms part of the ongoing controversy over climate change, a flooded city just isn’t something you can ignore.
Are these storms actually getting stronger and more destructive?
Looking back over recent history, there doesn’t seem to be any crystal-clear upward trend, with good and bad years alternating:
Any large-scale storm with winds of 40 m.p.h. or over is assigned a name. Hurricanes, which are a special class of large, rotating storm, are classified according to the Saffir-Simpson scale, which is mostly based on wind speeds: a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane is referred to as “major”.
In other words, a hurricane with 100 m.p.h. winds that lasts a week is still called Category 2, while one that peters out within 24 hours but blows at 140 m.p.h. would be Category 4, even though the former will probably cause much more damage.
A more accurate picture is painted when using ACE (Accumulated Cyclone Energy), which measures the power of a hurricane directly. Glancing at a graph of this figure, either by hurricane or by year, also doesn’t reveal any obvious pattern.
Climate science is, however, a little more complex than just looking at charts.
As soon as you start applying statistical techniques to the data and account for normal year-to-year variations, it becomes clear that hurricane season is, on average, getting worse. All signs point to this trend continuing in the near future. This means stronger winds, heavier rains, and – perhaps most worryingly – hurricanes that travel more slowly, giving them time to wreak even more havoc on any given area.
In case you don’t quite trust the math, you should still know that warm oceans and hurricanes most certainly go hand in hand. It takes a long time for the entire Atlantic to heat up; there’s quite a lot of it. Once this ball gets rolling, though, it’s not easy to stop, and sea surface temperatures have definitely been increasing over the last few decades:
A difference of a degree or so may not seem like much, but multiplied over several hundred square miles of sea, it represents an enormous amount of energy available to create or strengthen a storm.
In other words, although the number and strength of hurricanes vary greatly from year to year, pretty much all climatologists agree that they are, on average, getting more numerous and more powerful. This is a problem that’s not going away any time soon.
What to Do While You Still Have Clear Skies
You may be familiar with this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:
Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.
He probably meant this as a rebuke to political opponents who didn’t share his energetic leadership style, but it’s also a useful maxim to live by, especially when it comes to being prepared for the worst. Much of the groundwork needed to be hurricane-ready can and should be laid long before summer and fall come around.
Get to Know Your Neighbors
You don’t need to become best friends or even know each other’s birthdays. Still, being on nodding terms and exchanging phone numbers with the people who live close to you is a great way of improving you and your family’s safety. Only minimal effort is required to be friendly, but the rewards can be great.
Having someone who will check up on you in an emergency, or who’ll share resources in a pinch, can make it much easier to weather any storm. This, of course, is a two-way street, but cooperation with others usually benefits everyone involved.
Strengthen Your Home
Recommendations for keeping your home storm-resistant vary from state to state. Some even form part of the local building code. Regardless of where you live, though, there are a few steps you can take to keep your property and its inhabitants safer:
- Trim any trees in your yard before hurricane season. A dead, broken branch in a 100 m.p.h. wind is basically an organic, gluten-free missile.
- Consider installing storm shutters to protect your window glass from flying debris.
- Revise your insurance policy. Many, for instance, don’t cover flood damage well or at all.
- Clear your gutters and check that your roof is in good condition. Even if it doesn’t normally leak, a torrential downpour might overwhelm it.
- Get a supply of sandbags. Placed with care, they can induce floodwaters to flow past instead of into your home .
Prepare a Hurricane Kit
In a disaster, a good rule of thumb is that you’ll have only what you take with you. In spite of the life-and-death nature of this fact, only 39% of Americans have any kind of emergency kit at all.
Though putting a kit together may cost a few hundred dollars, this is arguably money well spent if you live in a hurricane zone. Try to include all of the following:
- A flashlight along with extra batteries,
- First aid kit, including any prescription and non-prescription medication you’ll need,
- Battery-powered radio to listen to news and announcements,
- Moist towelettes for hygiene,
- Copies of identity documents,
- Emergency cash – forget about ATMs and credit cards working,
- Food – 3-day supply, canned or otherwise, sealed and preserved (and don’t forget a can opener),
- Water – ideally, 1 gallon per person per day,
- Chlorine bleach for disinfecting water,
- Waterproof matches.
Ideally, all of this will fit into a bag you can quickly toss into the car (or even carry while walking) without worrying that you’re forgetting something. In case you choose to ride out the storm at home, you might also want to keep a generator, a propane stove, a larger supply of bottled water, and similar items in storage.
Even if you’re a fairly level-headed person, fear and panic will affect your judgment exactly when you need to make good decisions. The only way to avoid this is through practice and planning.
Your emergency kit should contain a map (on actual paper) with your preferred and alternate evacuation routes marked in pen. You might as well include a list of important phone numbers (police, local hospitals, your state’s Emergency Management Office, insurance companies, etc.) – don’t expect these numbers or even the phones to work once the storm starts, but you’ll kick yourself for not having this information handy if you need it.
Most importantly, your plan has to cover every member of your family, including pets.
If your children are at school when an evacuation alert is issued, should they stay there or try to make their way home?
If you have an older relative in an assisted living facility, is their safety your responsibility or that of the institution?
If you get separated, who do you call to tell each other where you are?
These kinds of questions need to be asked well before you really, really need answers to them. Having all of this information in someone’s head is not sufficient; writing it down and making sure everyone understands what’s expected of them will make all of you safer when the time comes.
When a Hurricane Watch Is in Effect
From about May to November on the Pacific coast and June to November on the Atlantic, a hurricane is a distinct possibility. Since they form offshore, there’s usually at least 36 hours warning before they make landfall.
At times, though, meteorological conditions are highly conducive to storm systems forming, even though no actual hurricanes have been detected yet. When this happens, a “hurricane watch” is issued, meaning that extra caution is advised but no specific action is indicated as of yet.
Taking Care of Your Early Warning System
One of the nastier aspects of hurricanes in the age of global warming is called rapid intensification. This means exactly what you think it does: instead of a storm developing in a more leisurely fashion, it can jump several categories in strength during less than 24 hours, leaving less time for people to prepare and evacuate. This is exactly what happened with Hurricanes Michael and Maria.
Even if you normally find the news depressing, it’s a good idea to keep your car radio on during hurricane season. If you own a home weather station, so much the better – several of them can send an email or text alert to your phone, in real time, if they detect the atmospheric conditions that typically precede a major storm.
Check Your Emergency Kit
Chances are good that you or somebody else has “borrowed” some batteries or other supplies from your hurricane go-bag at some point and forgot to replace them. Now is a good time to go through it one last time, checking expiration dates on food and medicine and visiting the store for whatever you may need. And don’t forget to keep your car filled up. If you wait too long, everything from pharmacies to gas stations may be closed or out of stock.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
At some point, you have to strike a balance between being Chicken Little and Captain Ahab. When the authorities issue a hurricane watch, it means that tropical storm conditions are possible but not necessarily expected. If this should be escalated to a hurricane warning, it means that a major storm is likely to occur within 36 hours.
When this happens, evacuating the affected area will probably be recommended, while mandatory evacuation orders may be issued especially for low-lying areas. Getting out of town will by now be an obviously good idea, meaning that almost everyone will be doing just that:
Like with shopping, getting a head start on the herd can save you a ton of aggravation. Unfortunately, your job or other commitments may compel you to hang around longer than is really prudent, in which case you’ll be glad that you’ve identified alternative routes well beforehand. In case you can’t reach your planned destination, FEMA has an app that will help direct you to an open emergency shelter.
For a variety of reasons, some people prefer to remain home during less severe hurricanes. Whether you evacuate or decide to tough it out, you should make sure that someone, perhaps a relative living out of state, knows what your plans are. You probably don’t want to waste everyone’s time by being reported missing when you’re actually safe, nor be left stranded somewhere because no-one is looking for you.
Obviously, staying behind to brave a hurricane is not a decision to make lightly. Doing so implies a particular set of mental and physical challenges, but as long as the storm isn’t too strong and the structure you’re sheltering in is sound, it can also be a safe option.
General Safety Tips
While riding out a major storm in your home, accept that you’ll have to sacrifice some comfort for security. Hopefully, your house will contain a “safe room”: one without any windows (flying glass, anyone?) and located higher than any expected storm surge. Depending on circumstances, and especially if you didn’t have the chance to evacuate, you might also want to look at schools, community centers, and other sturdy buildings as possible shelter.
It’s important to keep listening to the radio or television in case the storm is upgraded in strength. If you’re ordered to evacuate, place your valuables on an upper floor to protect them against flooding, turn off the gas, power, and water supply to your home, and leave. Disaster management officials have access to better information than you do – if they say it’s time to go, it probably is.
One pitfall many people don’t take into account is just how boring sitting in a room with no internet or electricity can get. Especially if you have children, including a deck of cards and some board games in your emergency kit can keep everyone from losing their minds, as well as distracting them from what’s going on outside.
Food and Water
Plenty of people come to harm from water after the rain has stopped. The reason is simple: flood water picks up sewage, animal carcasses, and other pollutants, making it extremely dangerous to drink. Even tap water should be considered contaminated until confirmed otherwise.
Water filtered by any number of means isn’t considered dependable either, mainly because (a) filters degrade over time, so the one in your emergency kit is probably no longer 100% effective, and (b) water filters intended for domestic use generally aren’t up to the task in the first place.
In general, only bottled water is safe to drink, and any non-sealed food that has come into contact with flood water has to be discarded. Equally, many people get sick while trapped in a hurricane or directly after from eating spoiled food.
Perishable goods from your fridge or freezer should be treated with suspicion if the power has been out for any length of time. Buying some dry ice before the storm hits will keep your meat and dairy fresh for longer. Assuming you’ve planned ahead, though, living without refrigeration doesn’t need to be a hardship; here are some recipes to get started with.
Once the wind abates, you could be excused for breathing a long sigh of relief. Also, since this is (hopefully) the only time in your life you’ll experience anything like this, you’ll probably want to go see the landscape outside and maybe snap a few pictures.
Don’t, however, be too hasty. Sometimes, a calm only means that the eye of the storm is passing over you and the full force of the hurricane is ready to return at any moment. Tornadoes are also very likely to form immediately after a hurricane. It’s therefore best to be careful and wait for the “all clear” to be announced over the radio.
After the Storm
When the rain has subsided to less-than-biblical proportions and the wind has died down, the real struggle begins. Most likely, bridges, power lines, and other infrastructure will have been washed or blown away. You should not expect normal life to resume the day after a hurricane, especially when it comes to services like power and telecommunications.
Most people expect that the government will step in, but this is, by their own admission, not the best policy. FEMA has made great strides since the double disaster of Katrina (first the hurricane that made 80% of New Orleans uninhabitable, then the inept official response). Their resources are still limited, though. If you’ve followed the above guidelines, you will probably be in better shape than 90% of people in your area, so expect any help to go to them first.
It may take anything up to two weeks for emergency services to even reach you. Don’t be too concerned, though: it’s actually rare for society to devolve into some kind of Mad Max scenario. People tend to help each other instead, and when looting occurs, the victims are generally large stores, not private residences. Put the shotgun down, Paw-Paw.
Almost without exception, if you’ve weathered the storm at home, it’s better to stay where you are unless flooding or some other danger forces you to leave. If you chose to evacuate, the temptation to see what’s left of your property may be overwhelming, but please wait until the authorities have declared the area safe. When the streets are flooded waist-deep, trying to get to higher ground or even taking a stroll around the neighborhood is neither smart nor safe. If you do decide to venture out, steer well clear of any downed power lines. Some of them may still be carrying voltage, so stepping in the wrong puddle can kill you.
Don’t, however, try this yourself unless your name is literally Hideaki Akaiwa.
In case you have a camera-equipped drone, you can use this to look around the immediate area, assess the situation and even carry messages. This way, you’ll be able to find any emergency services that happen to be near you and perhaps locate people in need of help. Drones have been used in disaster areas before, both for observation and light transport.
Never try to drive through running water. Cars may seem solid, but currents are often much stronger than they look; just look at the following:
Nothing makes you appreciate your washing machine and microwave as much as not being able to use them for a week. Restoring electricity to affected areas is usually a priority after a hurricane, but if the damage was severe, you might have to wait several days for this to happen.
Under no circumstances should you run a generator indoors, or even within 10 feet of your house. Many people still don’t know about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, but ignorance won’t protect you. Similarly, if cooking over a gas stove that’s meant to be used outdoors, do it outside.
Also, never hook up a generator to your house’s wiring. The transformers that “step down” transmitted voltages of several kilovolts to a usable level also work in reverse, meaning that you’ll be sending dangerous tension into the grid and endanger repair workers’ lives.
Apart from physical destruction, most of the monetary cost associated with hurricanes takes the form of buildings being damaged by rain or floodwater. Although you will probably have to get a professional contractor in at some point, your chances of one being available immediately after a hurricane are approximately the same as picking up a $3 bill.
The sooner you get started, the less it will end up costing you. Mold can start growing in as little as 24 hours, and once you have it, the only solution is sometimes to tear out and replace all affected materials.
You shouldn’t, of course, try to take on this job without proper safety equipment, including waterproof boots. Start by sucking up all remaining puddles using a shop vacuum or portable pump, making sure your drains haven’t been clogged by storm debris. A dehumidifier or fan can be left running to reduce the humidity inside and dry out materials like wood and drywall, though this takes some time. Finally, if something like carpeting is obviously beyond repair, don’t be sentimental; rip it out and pile it outside for later disposal.
Very importantly, you should take pictures of everything before you start your cleanup and keep a record of all the work you do and materials you use. This evidence will be valuable when making a claim from your private insurer or the National Flood Insurance Program. Insurers can even reduce your payout if you didn’t take prompt, reasonable action to reduce the damage, so start cleaning up as soon as you can.
At some point, the streets will have been cleared, utilities restored, and schools re-opened. Life will go on, but perhaps not exactly as before. Some neighborhoods take years to recover from the effects of a hurricane.
Since 4 out of 5 Americans live paycheck to paycheck, applying for any available Federal relief and contacting your insurance will probably be a priority. If you’ve done boring stuff like keeping an up-to-date inventory of your home’s contents, this should be easy. If you didn’t bother before…well, at least you’ll have learned a valuable lesson.
Less tangibly, but of no lesser importance, people who’ve lived through a hurricane or returned to a home in ruins often develop psychological problems, including anxiety and depression. Children are especially vulnerable, as their world will have been turned upside down in a way they simply can’t understand.
While it’s a good idea to know what’s going on, make a point of switching off the TV instead of seeing images of death and destruction even well after the actual event is over. Establish a reassuring, predictable routine for your kids, make sure to listen to what they have to say, and don’t hesitate to talk to someone yourself if you feel the need. Hurricanes are indeed unpredictable and scary, but young people are surprisingly resilient when provided with the proper support.
How to prepare for a hurricane and what to do when one’s on the way isn’t rocket science. Why, then, are so many people caught off guard each time one hits?
This is probably partly due to Ostrich Syndrome: “As long as I keep my head in the sand, nothing can hurt me.” This strategy has never, ever worked for anyone. If you live in a hurricane-prone region, you should be thinking in terms of when, not if. A stitch in time saves nine, and when the chips are down, you’ll be more than glad that you spent a few hours and dollars on keeping your family and home as safe as they can be.