Most Florida residents know the Atlantic Hurricane Season begins each year in June and lasts for six months until November 30. The season typically peaks in August and September. The strong winds, rain, and flooding of a hurricane severely impact both lives and property every year, making hurricane preparedness essential.
A Columbia research paper found that the public worries most about the heavy winds but largely forgets about the dangers of heavy rain and flooding. The paper found that the economic toll from hurricanes on U.S. communities continues to rise even with the recent advances in hurricane prediction.
There have been dramatic improvements in forecasting a hurricane’s track. In 1990, the average three-day forecast was off by about 300 nautical miles (about the distance from Tampa to Panama City). Today, it’s off by about 100 miles.
The forecast lead time has also improved. Today’s five-day storm track forecast is as accurate as a three-day track was in 2001. While forecasts can provide advance notice, hurricane preparedness is essential in helping save lives and protect property.
Storm Terms to Know
It is important to understand the different terms the news media and storm forecasters use when referring to storms. A general term for any weather system in which the winds rotate inwardly to an area of low pressure is called a cyclone.
Technically, all hurricanes are cyclones. The terms used to describe different cyclones are based on the maximum sustained wind speeds.
Tropical Depression: Maximum sustained wind speeds of 38 mph or less.
Tropical Storms: Maximum sustained wind speeds between 39 and 73 mph.
Hurricanes: Maximum sustained wind speeds of 74 mph or greater.
Note: In the North Atlantic (includes Florida), central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific, the term hurricane is used. The same type of disturbance in the Northwest Pacific is called a typhoon. However, in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, the generic term tropical cyclone is used regardless of wind speed.
Forecasters will issue storm watches and warnings 36-48 hours ahead of their anticipated landfall based on windspeeds and predicted impact.
Tropical Storm Watch: A tropical storm with 39-73 mph winds posing a POSSIBLE threat to a specific coastal area within 48 hours.
Tropical Storm Warning: A tropical storm with 39-73 mph winds is EXPECTED in a specific coastal area within 36 hours or less.
Hurricane Watch: When sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are POSSIBLE within a specific area. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the Watch is issued 48 hours in advance of the onset of tropical storm-force winds.
Hurricane Warning: When sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are EXPECTED somewhere within a specific area of the warning. A Warning is issued 36-hours in advance of the onset of tropical storm-force winds.
Home preparations should begin when weather forecasters issue a hurricane watch. Use the advance notice to secure property and prepare for possible evacuation in the event a warning is issued (details below). When a warning is issued, carefully follow the directions of officials. If officials advise residents to evacuate, immediately leave the area.
Long-time Florida residents often stockpile extra food, water, and personal hygiene products as the hurricane season approaches. Early preparations help avoid last-minute, panic buying of basic necessities.
Anyone living within an area frequently hit with tropical storms and hurricanes can benefit from having a hurricane preparedness kit. The kit is necessary when residents find they are:
Forced to evacuate the area.
Faced with a loss of power and utilities in their home.
Having the necessary items available beforehand is essential. The announcement of an incoming hurricane often causes panic shopping. So, it is vital to be prepared with emergency food, water, and supplies if forced to evacuate or stay at home without power.
Everyone should have important papers, electronics, and medicines readily available if evacuation is necessary. Keep smaller items and important documents in a backpack or have another convenient way to carry several smaller items. These must be immediately available when forced to leave quickly. Having supplies ready beforehand helps avoid the stress and time of purchasing necessary supplies after forecasters issue a watch or warning.
The State of Florida recommends that each person should consider having a personal preparedness kit that includes:
Three days’ worth of non-perishable food. Canned goods, dried fruit, and other foods with a long shelf life that can be stored at room temperature.
A first aid kit.
All personal prescriptions and medicines.
A wash bag with toiletry necessities.
Flashlights (with spare batteries).
A battery-operated radio (with spare batteries).
Matches and a lighter.
Reading material or games for passing the time.
Special needs items (pet supplies, baby supplies, and such).
It is also essential to have enough cash available to handle immediate needs. If it is necessary to evacuate the area, take the checkbook for large purchases should credit/debit card purchases not be possible due to power or internet outages. Make sure cell phones have a full charge, and all necessary electronic chargers are included in your hurricane preparedness kit if you evacuate. Consider having an emergency solar-powered portable power bank for cell phones should electricity not be available.
Hurricane Preparedness: Property
Not all hurricane warnings come with evacuation orders. However, it is important to protect property from damaging winds, storm surge, and flooding. These steps include:
Covering windows with either hurricane shutters or wood.
Where possible, add straps and clips to help secure the roof to the home structure.
Place all outdoor items (patio furniture, garbage bins, decorations, and anything else) not tied down in an enclosed structure.
Reinforce the garage door.
Move vehicles to higher ground or park them in the garage against the garage doors.
Move appliances away from exterior doors and windows and store smaller appliances in cabinets or interior closets where possible.
Before hurricane season, homeowners should check trees and shrubs to see if they need trimming. Improperly pruned trees increase the possibility of breakage during a severe storm. Many of the fallen and damaged trees after a storm are due to improper pruning.
Hurricane Preparedness: Power Outages
A typical problem following a hurricane is a lack of electrical power. The outages can last for several days or even weeks. Some of the ways to prepare for power outages before a storm arrives include:
Gas: Homeowners should secure gas soon after hearing the hurricane warnings. Two to three days is sufficient notice to fill vehicles and generators in preparation for power disruptions. People often leave it until the last minute, resulting in long lines and the possibility of gas stations without supply.
Cell Phones: All communication devices should be fully charged and used sparingly once the power goes out. USB rechargeable battery packs are a good investment that will pay off.
Water: Besides drinking water, it is crucial to have water for washing and flushing during a power outage. Fill the bathtub or large containers for this purpose. Have bottled water on hand for drinking in case of an extended outage.
Food: A refrigerator will keep food safe for about four hours. Group food together in the freezer to help it stay cold longer. Prepare coolers with ice packs when a storm warning is issued. These coolers can store food and drinks for about four hours. The USDA has a Food Safety guide with information about how long it is safe to store refrigerated and frozen foods during an extended power outage.
Air Conditioning: A loss of power means a loss of air conditioning, which can make typical August and September heat unbearable. If windows are no longer covered for protection from the storm, close indoor window coverings to help limit heat build-up from sunlight. About 76% of sunlight on a standard double-pane window will become heat in a room.
Generator: Many Florida homeowners invest in a generator to be prepared for power outages after a hurricane. Be sure to follow all safety procedures with a generator and only run a generator outside. A gasoline-powered generator should be 15 feet or more from any window, door, or vent. Never run a generator in a garage, even with the door open.
The Hurricane Cycle
A hurricane or any strong storm can be deadly and has the potential to cause widespread destruction. Florida residents should plan yearly for hurricane season.
Prepare the outside of the home by trimming trees and landscaping.
Have enough material to cover and protect outside windows.
Have an escape route planned before an evacuation becomes necessary.
Have emergency supplies ready to remain at home without power or leave home if an evacuation is necessary.
Expect an extended power outage.
It is important to remember the three A’s of the hurricane cycle:
Begin preparing for the storm. Know the weather forecast.
Arrival. Secure your home or find safe shelter before the storm’s arrival.
Aftermath. Proceed with caution in the case of flooding. Avoid fallen trees, power lines, and debris.