Hurricanes are powerful tropical storms that batter coastlines with heavy rains, strong winds and surging waves. Inland flooding is one of the most dangerous effects of a hurricane. With winds of at least 74 mph (119 km/h), hurricanes can also damage buildings and cars by blowing debris.
The most important thing a person can do to prepare for a hurricane is to start planning well before the tropical storm season begins, experts say. Hurricane season in the Atlantic begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30, according to the National Weather Service. The Eastern Pacific hurricane season begins May 15 and also ends Nov. 30.
"Everyone who lives in an area affected by hurricanes needs to take personal responsibility and accountability to be prepared," said Erik Salna, associate director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami. "It has to become a way of life, something you naturally do."
Start with a plan
The most important step is to know what you and your family will do in the event of a hurricane. Write out the steps and share them with your family and friends. This is called a hurricane plan. A simple planning guide is available at www.ready.gov. The guide’s basic preparedness tips include:
- Know where to go. If you are ordered to evacuate, know the local hurricane evacuation route(s) to take and have a plan for where you can stay. Contact your local emergency management agency for more information.
- Put together a go-bag: disaster supply kit, including a flashlight, batteries, cash, first aid supplies, medications, and copies of your critical information if you need to evacuate
- If you are not in an area that is advised to evacuate and you decide to stay in your home, plan for adequate supplies in case you lose power and water for several days and you are not able to leave due to flooding or blocked roads.
- Make a family emergency communication plan.
- Many communities have text or email alerting systems for emergency notifications. To find out what alerts are available in your area, search the Internet with your town, city, or county name and the word "alerts.”
If you have pets, you will need a hurricane plan for them as well. A separate section for pets follows.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends these planning tips:
- Think about whether you will evacuate or stay at home. Do you live in a hurricane evacuation zone? Find out your zone and your local evacuation route (some roads will be closed or have lanes reversed to ease traffic). Try contacting your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter, and ask for the community hurricane preparedness plan. This plan should include the safest evacuation routes and the nearby shelters.
- Where will you stay? With another family member, relative or friend living in a nonevacuation zone? Or in a hotel or shelter in a location out of the hurricane watch and warning area?
- What will happen if you're at work, school or otherwise separated from loved ones when a storm strikes? How will you find each other? Sometimes texting works better than calling when phone systems are overloaded during an emergency. Also, ask an out-of-state relative or friend to serve as the "family contact." Make sure everyone knows his or her name, address and phone number.
Don't forget those with special needs. They will require an individualized, more detailed plan, Salna said. And if you have a loved one in a senior or nursing care facility, make sure that person will be OK, he added.
Prepare your home
The website ready.gov recommends these tips for preparing your home:
- Hurricane winds can cause trees and branches to fall, so before hurricane season trim or remove damaged trees and limbs to keep you and your property safe.
- Secure loose rain gutters and downspouts and clear any clogged areas or debris to prevent water damage to your property.
- Reduce property damage by retrofitting to secure and reinforce the roof, windows and doors, including the garage doors.
- Purchase a portable generator or install a generator for use during power outages. Remember to keep generators and other alternate power/heat sources outside, at least 20 feet away from windows and doors and protected from moisture; and NEVER try to power the house wiring by plugging a generator into a wall outlet.
- Consider building a FEMA safe room or ICC 500 storm shelter designed for protection from high-winds and in locations above flooding levels.
In the longer term, check into flood insurance. "If you can afford it, every homeowner should have it," Salna said. Standard homeowner's policies do not cover flooding damage from hurricanes. There is normally a 30-day waiting period before a new flood insurance policy becomes effective.
Consider retrofitting your home to better withstand wind and water, Salna said. Elevate water pumps and other equipment under the house, install wooden storm shutters on windows, reinforce door hinges and latches, and make the roof more wind-resistant with sturdier shingles and hurricane clips. Strengthening connections throughout the house helps prevent high-speed winds from tearing apart the structure.
Teach family members how and when to turn off gas, electricity and water. Tell children how and when to call 911, police or the fire department, and which radio station to listen to for emergency information.
Buy emergency supplies
One of the most common mistakes in hurricane preparation is waiting too late to buy hurricane survival kit items, Salna told Live Science. Before a storm, store shelves may empty quickly. And once a hurricane hits, you can't safely search for supplies.
FEMA recommends that families and individuals prepare a supply kit with enough food, water, clothing and supplies to last at least three days. Some often-overlooked supplies are medicines and copies of insurance certificates. Salna also recommends stashing an emergency tire repair product, such as Fix-A-Flat, in vehicles. FEMA recommends these supplies:
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Portable, battery-operated weather radio and extra batteries
- First aid kit and manual
- Emergency food and water
- Nonelectric can opener
- Essential medicines
- Cash and credit cards
- Sturdy shoes
You can also keep contact information for contractors for repair work, vendors for home clean up and materials for temporary home repair, Salna said.
During a hurricane watch
When a storm is on the way, make sure it never catches you by surprise. Listen to a battery-operated radio or television for hurricane reports.
Check and replenish emergency supplies as needed, visit an ATM for cash and fuel your car.
Outside the house, bring in outdoor objects such as lawn furniture, garbage cans, toys and garden tools that can fly in strong winds. Secure buildings by strengthening windows and doors with shutters or wood. (Tape does nothing, Salna said.)
Inside, you can turn the refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings. Store drinking water in clean jugs and bottles. Store valuables and personal papers in a waterproof container on the highest level of your home.
During a hurricane warning
Never ignore evacuation orders. "Leave as soon as possible when told to do so," Salna said.
Listen constantly to a battery-operated radio or television for official instructions.
Stay inside, away from windows, skylights and glass doors. If need be, stay inside a closet or a room without windows. You can also lie on the floor under a table or sturdy object.
Avoid using open flames, such as candles and kerosene lamps, as a source of light.
Avoid flooded roads and watch for washed-out bridges. Do not walk through moving water. Even 6 inches (15 centimeters) of water can make you fall.
Planning for pets
Pets should not be left behind during a hurricane, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Instead, take your pets with you, either on leashes or harnesses or in a pet carrier.
A hurricane plan for pets should include information on current vaccinations and photos in case they are lost during the storm. Keep this information with your family emergency plan. Find someone who can care for your pets in case of an evacuation — family or friends, a pet shelter, a clinic, or a boarding center. Not all hotels and emergency shelters will accept animals.
Securely fasten a current identification tag to your pet's collar with your phone number and the phone number of your out-of-state contact.
Prepare an emergency supply kit for your pet. Pack a week's supply of food, water and other provisions, such as medication or cat litter. The kit can also contain a pet carrier, immunization records, a muzzle, a collar and a leash.
Do not wait until the last minute to evacuate if you have pets. Rescue officials may not allow you to take your pets if you need to be rescued.
- FEMA provides information about hurricane planning, emergency kits and disaster preparedness.
- Learn about hurricane preparedness and safety tips from the American Red Cross.
- Find the latest forecasts and track current storms at the National Hurricane Center.