How to Prepare for the Coming Hurricane Season of 2006 and Beyond

Even as Hurricane Epsilon recedes into memory way out in the North Atlantic, most of the residents of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States are sighing with relief as the busiest hurricane season ever recorded comes to a welcome end. For the next six months, people who live anywhere between Eastport, Maine to Brownsville, Texas can look forward, at least in theory, to a respite from tropical storm advisories, the anxious days watching a new cyclonic storm’s progress on the Weather Channel, the last-minute panic buying of such staples as batteries, Coleman lamps, plywood to protect windows, canned goods, ice, and bottled water, and, of course, the terrible choice between riding out a hurricane’s wrath or evacuating.

It’s an interesting bit of human nature, I suppose, that most people (even Floridians who, by now at least, ought to know better) often take the December to May pre-hurricane season lightly, leaving the somewhat unpalatable chores of preparing home and hearth for the possible strike by a tropical storm or hurricane of any category. And I am not merely talking about John Q and Jane Public, but also big utilities such as Florida Power & Light (FPL), law enforcement, and even all levels of government, ranging from the smallest township to the Feds in Washington, DC. One need look no further than what happened in the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina left a vast part of the Gulf Coast devastated; the city of New Orleans and many communities in Louisiana and Mississippi have been seriously damaged, and the government response at all levels was nothing less than disgraceful. Just as many homeowners didn’t bother to prepare their homes (and themselves) for the 2005 hurricane season, the powers-that-be, ranging from power utilities that didn’t bother to maintain utility poles, to a miserly Congress that cut the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget requests for the fiscal year – which of course hampered any upgrade to the vulnerable New Orleans levees.

Such complacency, unfortunately, must now become a thing of the past. The 2005 season, with 25 named storms – 16 of which affected the U.S. – wasn’t a “freak of nature” but rather the curtain-raising act of a decades-long period of cyclonic activity as the Atlantic Ocean enters one of its periodic warming cycles. Warmer ocean temperatures will, inevitably, spawn more tropical storms and hurricanes.

Why more hurricanes during a warming trend in the Atlantic basin? Basically, cyclonic events begin when areas of low pressure interact with neighboring high-pressure areas, warm sea surfaces, and the earth’s rotation. In the Northern Hemisphere, this rotation is counterclockwise. The spinning low-pressure area draws in air from the highs, and eventually what happens is that thunderstorms will wrap around the center of the system, which – unless it is torn apart by wind shear or other strong atmospheric winds that will disrupt the cycle – evolves from wave, tropical depression, tropical storm, and finally, a hurricane. Storms that form in the eastern North Atlantic or eastern Caribbean sea usually travel first on an east-to-west track, then the Coriolis effect bends their path to the north or northeast. Storms that form in the western Caribbean sea or the Gulf of Mexico often travel initially westward and sometimes survive the trek over land to become Pacific storms, but more often than not the Coriolis effect also takes them due north then to the northeast.

And because hurricanes thrive over warm water, it stands to reason that when ocean temperatures rise, the number of storms – and their intensity – also increases.

The Saffir-Simpson scale: Hurricanes vary in size and strength, so meteorologists use the Saffir-Simpson scale to rate storms by their potential damaging impact on a coastal area.

Category 1: Once a tropical storm’s sustained winds reach the 74 to 95-mph threshold, it officially becomes a Category 1 hurricane. Usually, the damage is limited to toppled trees, dents on mobile homes, and toppled tool-sheds and other unsecured structures, but in areas where infrastructure has been neglected or there is shoddy construction, the impact of a Category 1 can be more destructive.

Category 2: When the sustained winds reach the 96-110 mph mark, things get a bit hairier. Damage to doors, windows, and roofs are more likely, and even sturdy trees can come down as if a giant had kicked them. Tornadoes and some flooding, especially along the coast, are likely.

Category 3: The sustained winds range from 111 to 130-mph; if you own a mobile home, you can be sure it will be destroyed, and even the sturdiest of roofs can be expected to fail if hit by a Category 3 storm. Trees will really fall like so many bowling pins after a strike, and severe flooding can occur both on the coast and inland.

Category 4: Packing sustained winds of 131 to 155-mph, a Category 4 will not only cause serious inland flooding, but it will also wreak damage inside and outside to even really solid buildings. Houses and hotels near a beach can expect to have their lower floors seriously weakened or even destroyed.

Category 5: This category, with its sustained winds of 155-mph and above, is definitely going to ruin everyone’s day. If you own a beach-side home, prepare to take a long look at it and memorize the details the day before the hurricane hits, because it is more than likely that it won’t be standing after the storm passes. If the floods don’t destroy it, the winds will certainly flatten it. Hurricanes, believe it or not, pack more punch than any nuclear weapon.

How to Prepare:

Step One: Accept Reality. As much as those of us who live in hurricane-prone areas hate to admit it, cyclonic storms are no longer going to be rare, once-in-a-blue-moon weather events. Almost every article relating to the 2005 hurricane season, including the Miami Herald’s Years of intense storms likely (Sunday, November 27, 2005) points out two salient facts: (a) that the past season wasn’t the climax of hurricane hyperactivity, and that (b) states such as Florida will be hit more frequently. To think otherwise and not accept this unpleasant reality is not only foolish but inherently dangerous, so the first step you should take to prepare for the 2006 hurricane season is to shake off your notion that nothing bad will happen weather-wise between June 1 and November 30. As Cher says in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!”

Step Two: Begin Getting Ready Sooner, Rather Than Later. Another common error most of us make is to wait till late May or even way into the hurricane season to begin preparations. Many people don’t stockpile on essentials such as bottled water, batteries, Sterno cooking stoves (and the fuel packets), non-perishable canned foods, cookies, soft drinks, juice boxes, or non-electronic pastimes, and lots of people are blissfully unaware about the existence of many hurricane-related items (such as the aforementioned Sterno cooking stoves). Then when the storm approaches, thousands of panicky shoppers rush to the supermarket and sporting goods stores and scramble for now-scarce items that were readily available before the first storm watches were posted.

To avoid this, all you have to do is to start buying some items (batteries, Coleman lamps, hand cranked radios, portable TVs, and even non-perishable foods) as early as January, then as June approaches purchase stuff like bottled water and other staples of “hurricane cuisine” with each regular trip to the grocery store. That way you don’t have to run out at the last minute to fight over the last bottle of Gatorade or bag of ice.

Now is also a good time to find a good contractor (if you can find one) to look at your home and check out such things as your roof’s integrity and to have any flaws fixed beforehand. Also, sometime before May, make sure your trees have been trimmed properly (not “hatracked”) by a professional landscaper, partly so it doesn’t fall onto your car, your house, or a neighbor’s, but mostly to avoid knocking down a power line. Yes, most utilities have tree-trimming crews and sometimes do this chore on their own, but here in the Sunshine State Florida Power & Light has been cutting expenses (while maximizing profits), and tree-trimming has been reduced significantly.

Protecting Your Windows: Installing shutters – if you don’t have any and can afford it – is also something to be scheduled sooner rather than later. In Florida, as well as in the states affected by Katrina and Rita, this is easier said than done since many, many people are scrambling for shutters or the newer, more expensive “storm-proof” glass. Aesthetically speaking, the new glass is the way to go, but it is prohibitively expensive; to upgrade a typical house with at least five windows costs around $13,000.00. Shutters are less expensive, depending on the type or material, and even the simple act of boarding up with well-installed plywood sheets gives a homeowner a modicum of protection.

The one thing you should not do is to put tape on your windows, not even if you use the strongest possible duct or electrician’s tape. Tape will not stop a wind-driven piece of debris from breaking a window. Even a bit of straw picked up by a gust of 140-mph wind can penetrate a palm tree, so tape, even applied in X-shaped patterns, isn’t going to stand up against a hurricane-blown brick, a garden tool, or anything solid from crashing through glass. All it will do is cause the glass to break in bigger shards. Worse, when the sun hits the window and the temperature rises, the adhesive on the tape will stick to the glass and become almost impossible to remove.

Be Aware, Plan Ahead, Be Prepared: While none of these steps will ensure your survival, it is essential that you are aware of your surroundings and possible options. You have to see (and your local telephone book probably has a hurricane preparedness section with a map) if you live in a flood-prone or coastal evacuation area. If you do, now is a good time to check out if

(a) there are any public schools in your area that are designated hurricane shelters
(b) there are any pet-friendly shelters
(c) how much motels and hotels in other states not in the projected path of a storm charge
(d) a relative or friend out-of-state take you in for a few days or weeks?
(e) your homeowner’s insurance policy up-to-date, and does it cover hurricane-related damages? Is your insurance company reputable?
(f) you have plastic bags to cover up all your electronic devices (TV sets, stereos, PCs, DVD and videotape players, game consoles, etc.)? Even if you are staying home, cover up as many of these items as possible.
(g) have enough bottled water on hand? If local public health officials declare that the water supply is unsafe and a boil-water order is issued, you will need a gallon of water per person a day. To be safe, you should figure on having at least enough bottled water for one week; if you can afford it and have storage space, a 10-day supply would be ideal. (Note: the gallon-a-day of water covers most uses of water, including brushing your teeth.)
(h) have enough books, magazines, board games, and other pastimes to keep everyone entertained? Have plenty on hand. Even if you do have battery-operated TVs and radios, most of the programming will be hurricane-related, especially if the storm causes a great deal of damage.

Also, make sure you have secured or brought inside any item, no matter how small, that can be picked up by the hurricane’s winds and converted into missiles. Garbage cans, recycling bins, patio furniture, flower pots, hanging plants, garden tools, and bikes should be brought indoors, that way they don’t go flying into a neighbor’s car or house windows…or even yours.

If you can afford it, buy a generator several months in advance. That way you can at least operate one or two essential appliances (stove, refrigerator, or, for brief periods on hot days, the air conditioner). Make sure you follow all the instructions and never run the generator indoors – the exhaust is deadly.

If you have a barbecue, particularly a portable one, you can use it to heat water or cook simple meals with it. Again, use it with caution and always outdoors.

Be psychologically ready for the effects of power outages. It is a bizarre side effect of our modern way of life, but the more attached we are to technologically advanced gadgets and the Internet, the more vulnerable we become psychologically to boredom and discomfort after a storm. In the summer months, the lack of air conditioning during the long sunshiny day makes the heat unbearable, and the absence of such “e-comforts” as watching TV or chatting on-line makes night seem oppressively mind-dulling. Having good battery-operated lamps suitable for reading lights, portable televisions, or even radios and small devices such as MP3 players and CD players, helps ease the stress and ennui that follows even a Category 1 hurricane that leaves thousands, even millions, without power for days, even weeks.

Helpful hint: As soon as the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL issues a hurricane watch or warning in your area, set your refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings. When the power goes out, the lower temperatures will keep your juice boxes, sodas, and water cold for at least the first day or so.

Use Your Common Sense: Ironically, most hurricane-related deaths occur after a storm passes, mainly because people will go out and do silly things without thinking about their surroundings. They’ll go out and explore their property or neighborhoods and bam! A tree limb will fall and crush them, or they’ll step into a puddle of water near a live power line and get zapped. Also, many people fail to treat intersections without working traffic lights as a four-way stop and get into a car accident, getting either seriously injured or even killed. Thus the best thing to do is to simply calm down and stay put for a while. If you have bought all the hurricane supplies you need beforehand, there’s no need to head out in a car and look around at the damage. Only drive when it’s absolutely necessary!

Also, if you see a downed power line, treat it as though you know it’s live. Don’t go near it, especially if there is standing water around it. If you have a working land-line telephone that is not dependent on electricity, call your local power company and report it.

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