How To Lower Your Risk During a Hurricane

True story. One of my previous weather-tech companies, EarthWatch Communications, created 3-D weather graphics for the 1993 movie blockbuster “Jurassic Park”. While filming special effects at Universal Studios, I had a chance to chat with Steven Spielberg. My brush with fame. What did we talk about? The weather, of all things. Spielberg described filming conditions on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai as Category 4 Hurricane Iniki approached during September of 1992. “Hotel staff led us down into the basement to ride out the storm” Spielberg explained. I remember being shocked by this. “The basement? In a tornado you want to be in the basement but during a hurricane you want to be on a higher floor to escape the storm surge” I said. The legendary film director’s eyes got big as we shook hands to say goodbye, but I remember being a little shaken by the encounter. How could hotel officials living and working within yards of the Pacific Ocean have done something so dangerously stupid?

When it comes to hurricanes there is still a fair amount of misinformation, handwaving arguments and armchair quarterbacking. But during an extreme hurricane landfall, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time is a recipe for disaster.

What’s it like to live through a major hurricane? Remember the last severe thunderstorm you experienced; a brief firehose of rain, swaying trees and window-rattling winds? Multiply the wind and rain by two or three — and have it last for the better part of a day with water rising all around you, dodging flying debris and praying the walls and roof remain intact. That’s what a hurricane is like. They are the fiercest storms on Earth, by an order of magnitude. With careful preparation and a sound plan, it’s possible to survive even the most intense hurricane.

Situational Awareness is critical; monitoring media, trusted sources, on social media and The National Hurricane Center (NHC) web site for latest hurricane status, watches, warnings and hurricane alerts. It’s important to have multiple safety nets. Don’t rely on only one source. TV, radio, web, smart phones, SMS Notification and NOAA Weather Radio can all work together to keep you ahead of the storm. Review FEMA Evacuation Guidelines. NHC Communications Officer Dennis Feltgen advises residents near the path of the storm, the “cone of uncertainty”, to keep checking time of arrival, to know when sustained winds are forecast to reach tropical storm strength. “Emergency responders will pull their people off the streets once sustained tropical-storm-force winds begin. The reason is simple — it’s too dangerous to be outside. The same holds true for everyone else. You are placing your life in danger by driving in these winds” he said.

Consumers are faced with important choices as a hurricane approaches, but they’re hardly alone. Businesses in the path of hurricanes have special needs and requirements to prepare for storms that may disrupt operations for days, even weeks. In a recent interview AerisWeather COO Dave Hubbard explained how a leading financial institution stocks their ATM’s with cash along hurricane evacuation routes, to make sure civilians are able to provide for themselves and loved ones when a storm is approaching. “Creating that financial security blanket for civilians is paramount to tropical disaster relief. If people won’t be able to access a bank for an extended timeframe, having their funds accessible to them during evacuation is key” Hubbard said.

Assemble Supplies. Evacuating vulnerable barrier islands well in advance of the storm is critical — not waiting until the last moment, when causeways to the mainland may be underwater and impassable. Is the building you’re in up to code? Are you sure it’s not in the Storm Surge Evacuation Zone? Do you have enough food, water, medicine and cash on hand? Supplies for your favorite pet? A battery-powered radio in the likely event the power goes out? Topping off the gas in your vehicles is a good idea, because local gas stations may run out of fuel. Prepare for the worst — while hoping for the best.

Shelter in Place. As the hurricane approaches vertical evacuation is critical — as the storm surge arrives with a battering ram of ocean water you don’t want to be on the bottom two stories. A higher floor in a well-constructed building offers the most protection. “Stay away from any windows or doors that are not properly boarded up. The interior of the house is the safest area.” Feltgen adds. According to NHC you should cover up your home’s windows in advance. Permanent storm shutters offer the best protection. Another option is to board up windows with 5/8-inch exterior grade or marine plywood, built to fit, and ready to install. A word of advice: stock up on supplies before the hurricane season rather than waiting for the pre-storm rush.

Lower Your Risk. There is no need to turn off natural gas, but you can turn off gas to individual appliances. Most city codes now call for a small supply turnoff valve for each gas appliance in Florida, which is America’s Hurricane Alley. If the power goes out use flashlights, not candles, to lower the risk of fire. At the height of the storm avoid exterior walls and windows — flying debris is unpredictable and potentially deadly. If the relatively calm “eye” of the hurricane passes nearby winds will subside, but only for a brief period. “Unless you must make a dire emergency repair and are able to do so quickly, do not go outside. The wind will return very soon at peak strength from the opposite direction. You will have little chance of survival if you’re caught outside” according to NHC’s Dennis Feltgen.

In recent years inland flooding, sometimes hundreds of miles away from landfall, has been the biggest killer. There is no place for complacency. If flooding is threatening your home, turn off the power at the main breaker, and go to a higher level in the building. Remember, 9–1–1 responders will not be able to pay you a visit during the hurricane.

Hurricanes spin up a myriad of threats, from storm surge and inland flooding to severe wind damage. Spiral bands funneling moisture toward the eye spawn tornadoes, triggering swaths of extreme damage. Living through a major hurricane is an experience you’ll never forget. Rapidly rising water and flying debris can create a frothy, blinding meteorological blender; not as extreme as a tornado — but spread out over far more anxious hours.

Things to remember. Vertical evacuations are critical — second floor or higher in a well-constructed structure. Even well-built homes are vulnerable. If a Category 3–5 hurricane was approaching and I couldn’t drive to a safer location well inland, I’d be looking for the nearest steel and concrete-reinforced office tower or better yet, a hotel to ride out the storm.

During hurricane season it pays to be paranoid. It cuts down on potentially unpleasant, life-threatening surprises, like the one Steve Spielberg nearly received during Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Technology is amazing, but it doesn’t replace the need for personal responsibility, careful preparation, diligent monitoring, and common sense. Don’t count on government meteorologists or local emergency responders to save you in a pinch. There is no substitute to taking personal responsibility to increase the odds of a favorable outcome. It’s up to you to do the right thing.

Step one: make a hurricane plan — and then stick to it.

Paul Douglas is a nationally-respected meteorologist, with 40 years of broadcast television and radio experience.