Hurricane preparedness must knows

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Hurricane Season is June 1 to November 30, 2017

According to Elizabeth Dunn, adjunct faculty member in the USF College of Public Health’s Department of Global Health, 12 named storms have been predicted this season to come out of the Atlantic Ocean, including six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

“Regardless of the anticipation of an active or moderate hurricane season, knowing how to prepare you and your family for a hurricane could save lives as you reduce risks to potential hazards that may arise when a severe storm impacts the area,” Dunn said, who specializes in disaster preparedness.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Hurricane Facts

Understanding common terminology used during the hurricane season can help the public be more informed and ready to respond in the event that an evacuation is issued.

“The intensity, wind speed, and size of the storm can vary and the impact to your neighborhood could be influenced by the direction in which the storm may approach the area,” Dunn said. “Listening to the forecasters, news reporters, emergency managers, and your elected officials is vital when an approaching storm is heading your direction.”

According to Dunn, there are various levels of strength of a hurricane including tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes.

Each of these are determined by their wind speed in which the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (SSHWS) is used to classify the different categories of a hurricane.

Tropical depressions are storms with sustained wind speeds under 38 mph while tropical storms will reach between 39-73 mph winds. Hurricanes have winds 74 mph and greater ranging from a Category 1 (74-95 mph) to a Category 5 (> 155 mph).

Here are some important terms:

  • Mitigation: To eliminate or reduce the impacts and risks of hazards by taking preventative measures before a severe weather event.
  • Sandbags: Bags filled with sand or soil to help prevent or reduce the impact of water damage in the event of flooding in the area.
  • Hurricane watch: Hurricane conditions are possible in the area when a watch is declared. At this time, homeowners and businesses should start preparing their home and developing an evacuation plan in the case there is a warning issued for the area. Watches are usually issued about 48 hours before projected occurrence of tropical storm force winds to reach the area.
  • Hurricane warning: When a warning is issued for a community it means hurricane conditions are expected. During an issued warning, it is important to follow the directions of officials, and to leave the area of impact if it is advised. Warnings are typically issued 36 hours in advance of anticipated tropical storm force winds.
  • Eye of the storm: The period of time during a storm where there are calmer conditions and is usually a well-defined center. People may believe that the storm is over at this moment and be lulled into a false sense of security. It is important to know that strong destructive winds will pick back up and send debris flying once the eye wall approaches the area again.
  • Eye Wall: Surrounding the eye of the storm is the eye wall. This is where some of the most severe weather occurs as this is the point in the storm with the highest wind speed and largest amount of precipitation. It is important to remain inside during the eye of the storm to ensure safety as the eye wall approaches.
  • Rain bands: Bands that come off of the hurricane that can produce severe weather conditions such as heavy rain, wind and even tornadoes.
  • Storm surge: Water that increases quickly and that floods coastal areas and rivers that are inland due to ocean water rising after the storm has made landfall. Storm surge is often underestimated as water levels increase rapidly and can be extremely deadly.

(Photo courtesy of The Weather Channel)

Hurricane Forecasts

“Predicting a hurricane’s path can be a challenge since there are many factors that could impact the movement of the storm,” Dunn said. “The size of the storm and path can influence wind patterns that may escalate or impede the growth of the storm.”

According to Dunn, computer models are utilized by weather forecasters to manage large amounts of data that have been collected in an attempt to predict the direction of the storm.

In many cases, Dunn said, the National Hurricane Center is able to calculate the path of a tropical storm or hurricane two to three days out from landfall to an area with accuracy. They have the most up-to-date information on any developments and weather alerts to help monitor the storm as it approaches.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Get a Plan, Make a Hurricane Kit

“Keep in mind that emergency response vehicles may not respond to a 911 call if wind speeds are over 39 mph to ensure the safety of first responders,” Dunn said. “Citizens are encouraged to be prepared and self-sufficient for at least three days, but ideally seven days after a storm has passed, through in extreme circumstances. With downed power lines, trees, and major debris, it may take a few days for roads to be cleared and bridges to be opened to allow assistance to get to your area.”

Dunn said priorities for the government agencies during the first 72 hours are to get search and rescue efforts underway, establishing security efforts, and addressing any immediate life-safety hazards that could cause further harm.

“It could take days for humanitarian assistance from non-governmental disaster relief organizations and governmental agencies to get established,” she said.

In preparation for hurricane season, it is important to create a supply kit for use during a time of evacuation or loss of power.

“Keep in mind that once a storm is approaching many people may rush to gather the supplies they need and preparing ahead of time can alleviate the stress of having to rush out to collect items last minute and possibly dealing with items not in stock,” she said.

Dunn urges the need to know where current storm surge evacuations zones are located. It is also important to know if a structure is secure enough to withstand if a hurricane were to approach.

“If required to evacuate, make a plan for where you would go and how you would get there. Many local public transportation lines have evacuation routes to get residents to pre-identified hurricane shelters,” she said. “Many local shelters do not allow pets unless you have pre-registered to come to a designated pet-friendly shelter. Lastly, make a point to sit down with family members to talk through your plan of action in case you are unable to get in contact with each other and are separated due to the storm.”

When creating a kit, the bag should contain items that are easily portable.

“Ensure to pack items that are needed for those in your care including small children, the elderly, those with medical needs and, of course, pets,” Dunn said.

Some recommended items to include in the kit are:

  • Non-perishable food to last at least three days per person
  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days for drinking and sanitation
  • First-aid kit with prescription medications that may be needed
  • Personal hygiene and sanitation items (i.e. moist towelettes, garbage bags, soap, bleach)
  • Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Manual can opener for canned foods
  • Lighter or matches
  • Flashlights with extra batteries
  • Battery operated or hand crank radio with extra batteries
  • Local maps
  • Chargers or solar chargers for cell phone
  • Pet supplies and baby supplies, if applicable
  • Cooler with ice packs
  • Waterproof container with cash and important documents
    • Family and friends addresses and phone numbers
    • Bank cards, credit card numbers and phone numbers
    • Copy of passport, driver’s licenses, social security cards, credit cards
    • Adoption/foster records or naturalization/immigration documents if applicable
    • Insurance information
    • Immunization records
    • Current prescription list
    • Deed and titles for home and/or vehicles, or lease information
    • Birth certificates, wedding licenses, wills, death certificates

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Mitigation: Protect Your Home

Hurricane mitigation comprises the actions and measures that are taken before a hurricane strikes in an effort to protect a structure, Dunn said.

Knowing if a structure is vulnerable to storm surge, flooding, and wind is the first step to assessing the potential risks in the case of an approaching storm.

There are online hazard and vulnerability assessment tools that are available to identify risks and to take the proper mitigation measures to secure structures.

Check if for risk of flooding by checking the FEMA Flood Map or rate flood risk with the portal.

“Homeowners can take steps to protect their property and help alleviate the impact of storm surge, flooding, and wind damage by taking into consideration protective measures to reduce vulnerability,” she said.

Some of these measures include the following:

  • Utilize sandbags to create a barrier to stop floodwater from entering a structure.
  • Cover all windows, either with hurricane shutters or plywood
  • Although tape can prevent glass from shattering, keep in mind that this does not prevent windows from breaking
  • If possible, secure straps or clips to securely fasten the roof to the structure of the home
  • Make sure all trees and shrubs are trimmed to reduce potential debris and clear rain gutters
  • Reinforce garage doors, if applicable
  • Bring in all outdoor furniture, garbage cans, decorations, and anything else that is not tied down. Clearing the yard of these items will reduce the amount of debris that can fly into the home or vehicle

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Flood Water Safety

Storm surge and flooding are a major threat to communities, while high winds allow debris to damage structures or cause personal injuries, according to Dunn.

“During a hurricane, the number one cause of death is drowning due to storm surge and flooding. In the City of Tampa, some neighborhoods could actually experience 20 foot storm surge,” she said.

Dunn said during Hurricane Katrina, some areas experienced upwards of 28 foot storm surges along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast that lead to high mortality and morbidity rates within the neighborhoods that were impacted by the flooding. With Hurricane Sandy, areas along the coast experienced 6 to10 foot storm surge with waves reaching up to 29 feet.

“First and foremost, it is important to know that the water currents from storm surge and flash flooding are too powerful for even the strongest swimmers,” Dunn said. “There are various risks to take into consideration when having to navigate in water with low visibility, as well as including the fact that in many cases the flood waters could conceal storm drains, manholes without covers, or potholes that people can fall into which lead to injury or death by drowning.”

Electrical lines could be down following strong winds and severe storms.

If there is flooding with live down power lines on the ground, the area may become charged causing electric shock.

Vectors such as snakes, rats, and other biting insects could be in flood waters which pose a threat.

Furthermore, being trapped in a vehicle could be a major concern as it is a leading cause of death during flooding events.

“It is important to avoid flooded intersections, making the decision to turn around and find other routes to get to your final destination could save your life and protect your property. Water depths as low as 6 to 10 inches of water are strong enough to ruin an engine or carry away your vehicle if the flood waters are moving fast, according to Dunn.

According to Dunn, other considerations that need to be taken into consideration are flood waters may contain chemicals that have been released into the waterway from storm water runoff and products that are stored in homes, garages, and local businesses could end up in the flood waters as well.

Fecal matter and other by products from sewage are often detected, therefore wading through flood waters should be avoided if possible.

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Power Outages

In the event of severe weather that cuts power, there are a few points of consideration for being prepared and staying safe beyond typical hurricane preparedness measures.

  • Gas: Keep gas tank full in advance of an approaching storm since most people wait until the last minute­—when everyone then rushes to get extra gas reserves for their vehicles and generators, gas stations can run out early
  • ATMs: Make sure to have extra cash on hand in the event electricity goes out and ATMs are not working
  • Cell phones: Charge cell phone and use it sparingly after power is out
  • A/C: Losing power during a storm will result in the loss of A/C. Reduce the amount of light coming into the home to keep temperatures down—exposure to extreme heat can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes
  • Water: Toilets will stop working when the electricity is out—fill bathtubs and large containers with water for washing hands and flushing only, not for consumption
  • Food: Freeze any food or drinking water that can be frozen if a potential power outage could occur—check out this guide on properly freezing food: Freezing and Food Safety
  • Health/Safety: Indoor use of portable generators, charcoal grills, or camp stoves can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Remember, preparation ahead of time and listening to the advice of officials in regards to evacuations is one of the best practices for preventing unnecessary injuries or death,” Dunn said. “Whether experiencing tropical storm wind speeds or a category 5 hurricane, any storm can be fatal and destructive. Preparing a hurricane kit, securing your home, finding a safe shelter to ride out the storm, and knowing how to remain safe after the hurricane has passed are essential.”


Story by Elizabeth Dunn, USF College of Public Health