People all along the East and Gulf coasts have an odd apprehension of storms with names. To the uninitiated, a tropical storm with the name of Mary or Susan may sound benign enough. To those who have spent generations in this region, they know there is nothing benign about the storm attached to the name. They look out to sea for telltale signs, they pay close attention to the weatherman on local news and they almost subconsciously begin to buy extra water and supplies.
In the beginning of the storm season all through the Caribbean and South Atlantic, tropical depressions, storms and other atmospheric conditions stew. A majority of them become nothing more than major rainstorms that empty their energy on the open ocean. Some, however, stay together and gain strength as they slowly head towards the U.S. coastline. The worst-case scenario is that all of the unfortunate components fall into place and they become a full hurricane. With the official hurricane season kicking off on June 1 of each year and running to November 30, residents along the coast endure an uneasy six months each and every year.
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As with all aspects of meteorological science, there are clear definitions of what constitutes a hurricane. Officially, it is defined as any tropical or subtropical storm with sustained winds above 74 miles per hour. The recipe for a hurricane begins with a tropical disturbance, which can become a tropical depression. These depressions can then become official storms that can grow into hurricanes. On average, over 100 tropical disturbances develop every year. Of those, 25 will become tropical depressions. Ten out of that group will expand to become tropical storms. Out of these remaining 10, six will actually grow to hurricane strength. History shows that, on average, two of these storms will hit the United States each year.
While we are looking at definitions, it is important to understand what a “category” refers to in reference to hurricanes. This refers to a method of categorizing the overall strength of the storm. It is officially defined as the following by the National Weather Service: “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is a 1 to 5 rating based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed. This scale estimates potential property damage. Hurricanes reaching Category 3 and higher are considered major hurricanes because of their potential for significant loss of life and damage. Category 1 and 2 storms are still dangerous, however, and require preventative measures. In the western North Pacific, the term ‘super typhoon’ is used for tropical cyclones with sustained winds exceeding 150 mph.”
Hurricanes are a powerful force of nature that words can barely describe. In size and duration, they are unlike any other weather phenomenon in the U.S. With eyes that can be as large as 20 to 30 miles in width and an overall diameter of up to 500 miles, hurricanes are beyond imagination at times. Unlike storms faced by the interior of the country, a hurricane can last as long as two weeks, wreaking havoc and damage along a huge path. Along with high winds, torrential rain and storm surges increase the destructive power of the storm.
Hurricanes can also spawn tornadoes further inland. Flooding generated by torrential rains also causes damage and loss of life. Following a hurricane, inland streams and rivers can flood and trigger landslides. One of the biggest dangers caused by hurricanes is the storm surge. The storm surge is a rise in the ocean level caused by the storm, which drives it inland. It can be 20 feet at its peak and 50 to 100 miles wide. These surges can devastate coastal communities when they push ashore. Nine out of 10 hurricane fatalities are attributable to the storm surge.
The most powerful hurricane recorded in the U.S. struck the Florida Keys in 1935. It was a Category 5 storm that killed over 400 people. Close behind it was Hurricane Camille, in Louisiana and Mississippi, which took 256 lives and caused flooding all the way to New England. The deadliest hurricane in U.S. history occurred in 1900, at Galveston Island, Texas. Estimated to be a Category 4 storm, it claimed more than 6,000 lives and is noted as the worst natural disaster in our country’s history. More recently, we have experienced both Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina; both have left their mark on the entire country. As we endure these storms, we must continue trying to get better at preparing for and surviving such events.
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In Harm’s Way
An area often overlooked regarding hurricanes is the cost. The costliest hurricane in U.S. history was Andrew. When it came ashore in August 1992, it caused over $25 billion dollars in damage. More recently, Hurricane Sandy caused enormous damage all along the East Coast. What was unfortunately discovered by many, especially in the New York area, is that they did not have hurricane insurance.
Many homeowners learned the hard way that their insurance policies did not cover all hurricane damage or, even as important, flooding. Hurricane Katrina was a painful example of the complicated nature of hurricane insurance. The storm left many homeowners wrestling with insurance companies over whether the damage they suffered was from wind or water. Almost 10 years later, many cases still have not been settled. What is important to understand is that while most homeowner policies in the region cover damage done by hurricane winds and related damage, they will not cover flooding.
In most cases, homeowners need to purchase additional flood insurance. Hurricane Sandy was a painful example of the how flooding becomes a major issue in storms. We all recall the images of flooding in New York City. It is important to understand where your property lies in relation to storm paths. New York is not a name that is synonymous with hurricanes, yet it suffered extensive damage because of flooding caused by the storm. Many people were caught unprepared insurance-wise because of this. As a rule, if you live near any body of water, you should consider flood insurance. While helpful, traditional “flood maps” are not always accurate. After Sandy, FEMA was forced to restructure its flood zone maps and add over 35,000 buildings to its flood danger list. Plan ahead.
The cost of insurance can be high in some areas and deductibles are substantial. Many just consider this the cost of living in their chosen paradise. What is important, though, is that you plan ahead. Most insurance companies will not write insurance during the actual storm season. Educate yourself on the fine details of your home insurance coverage and know what is and isn’t covered.
Many things draw people to the coastal areas. These are beautiful regions filled with great people and an enjoyable lifestyle. The cost of that lifestyle is the necessity to plan ahead for the inevitable storms that frequent the area. By being prepared and being safe, residents can endure just about anything. The best advice that has ever been spoken was shared by a longtime resident of South Florida: “Make a plan, embrace the plan and live the plan.” With this attitude, life during and after a storm will be much easier to manage.
Storm Survival Checklist
The key to surviving a hurricane is planning. If you choose to live in an area that is prone to these storms, you must be serious about the threat that they present. We have compiled the top 20 things you can do to prepare for a hurricane and survive in the aftermath of its destruction.
1. Improve your fortress. By making modifications to your home, you can better protect your home and possibly your life. These improvements include storm shutters or boarding up your windows. Add storm clips to your roof to better secure it to the house and help minimize roof damage. Keep all gutters clear to help direct water.
2. Have an evacuation plan. If instructed to do so, it is always wise to evacuate the area. Have a plan in place with your family on just how that will play out. Over 44 million people reside in coastal areas from Texas to Maine. Explore different evacuation routes away from a potential storm as traffic could become a real issue.
3. Keep your vehicles completely fueled up. If a hurricane makes landfall, gas will often become scarce because of power issues. Make sure you have enough gas to get away from the damage if needed.
4. Bring all items inside, such as lawn furniture, barrels, tables, etc. With winds over 100 mph, these object can become lethal when airborne.
5. Turn off all utilities, including propane if directed
to do so. Prior to that, set your refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings and don’t open the door. If power fails, your food will last longer.
6. Store sufficient amounts of non-perishable food. If the power is off for a prolonged period, the food stored in refrigeration will spoil. Canned foods work best.
7. Store enough water to last for at least a week. This includes water for sanitary purposes, such as cleaning and toilets. Fill bathtubs and any other large containers. Companies such as WaterBob (waterbob.com) sell specific kits to help you safely and sanitarily store water in the bathtub for long periods.
8. Assemble an emergency kit. This should include a serious flashlight like a SureFire (surefire.com) or Fenix (fenixlight.com), extra batteries, an emergency hand-crank radio such as the Eton Scorpion (etoncorp.com/en) or Midland ER200 (midlandusa.com), candles and a first-aid kit with any medications needed. Additionally, glow sticks can be a safe alternative to using candles.
9. Assemble an “after the storm” kit. It should have items such as blankets, books, games, copies of identification, handheld can openers, personal hygiene items and plastic tarps.
10. Buy a generator. One of the major problems faced after a hurricane is loss of power. If the storm is large, it can devastate the infrastructure, leading to a long period without power. Safely store fuels for the generator and keep a regular maintenance schedule for it.
11. Keep emergency cash on you. As with gas pumps, when the power fails, cash will be hard to come by. ATMs will be non-functional and cash will rule the local economy.
12. Keep extra clothes for you and your family in a water-tight bag like SealLine Storm Sacks (seallinegear.com). Also include rubber boots and rain gear.
13. When the hurricane hits, stay indoors. Do not be tempted to go watch the storm. It is a very dangerous event and safety should be your first concern as it approaches.
14. Move to a basement or cellar. If this isn’t possible, then stay in the center of the house or building. Lie on the floor or under a heavy object.
15. Close all interior doors, curtains and shades. This can help control flying debris inside the building.
16. Do not leave your shelter until told to do so by emergency authorities. In many cases, the calm that is experienced is the eye of the hurricane passing over. The next section of the storm is more than likely not far behind.
17. Once the storm has passed, exit your structure carefully. Debris and damage from the storm can cause dangerous situations.
18. Be psychologically prepared to be on your own for at least a week. While rescue crews and emergency services will be scrambling to assist, it is ultimately up to you to maintain until help arrives.
19. Avoid spending too much time in the storm flood water. This will quickly become contaminated with sewage and other debris.
20. Inspect your structure for significant damage. If there is substantial damage, you should leave and make your way to a shelter. Damaged structures are prone to collapse even after the storm has passed.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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