Part I: Before the Storm
The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs through November, is expected to be another active season. Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict a 70-percent likelihood of 10 to 16 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 5 to 9 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 1 to 4 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes.
The 2017 season saw 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among other places.
Ten years ago, Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 with a Category 4 storm surge, erased parts of Galveston and Chambers Counties in Texas, claimed more than 100 lives, and ripped 2.6 million people off the electrical grid for weeks.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina sunk one city and Rita chased another out of town. In June, 2001, a tropical storm named Allison washed away everything residents of Houston, Texas, knew about flooding.
And about six years ago, Hurricane Sandy raged in 24 states and most of the Caribbean.
Lessons learned: 1) No two storms are alike. 2) Prepare while the sun is shining.
“People die in hurricanes, not only from 15-foot storm surges, but from flying debris, spin-off tornadoes, carbon monoxide poisoning and electrocutions,” says Robert Emery, Dr.P.H., vice president for Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
The following two-part hurricane and flood handbook gives you tips on how to prepare before the storm and what to do after the storm has arrived. Print this out and keep it handy: this is the combined wisdom of those who have weathered true weather.
Before you see the weather warnings
Long before the weather reports start crawling along the bottom of your TV screen, have these items on hand in your home:
Food and medicine
- Clean containers for water
- At least 5 gallons of water per person (which should be enough to last 3 to 5 days)
- A 3 to 5 day supply of food that doesn’t go bad (like canned food)
- Baby food or formula
- Prescription medicines
- First aid kit and instructions
- Fire extinguisher
- Battery-powered radio
- Extra batteries
- Sleeping bags or extra blankets
- Supplies to make drinking water safe (like iodine tablets or chlorine bleach)
Personal care products
- Hand sanitizer
- Wet cleaning cloths (like baby wipes) in case you don’t have clean water
- Tampons and pads
Make sure your supplies are stored together in a place that’s easy to reach. Also, make sure you have recently checked your insurance policy if you are concerned about “rising water.” Most homeowner/renter policies do not cover rising water damage. They do however cover “driving rain”, hail and wind damage, including water damage from roof leaks. Contact your insurance agent for information about flood insurance.
Make an emergency car kit
In case you need to leave quickly during a hurricane, always keep an emergency kit in your car, too. Make sure you include:
- Food that doesn’t go bad (like canned food)
- Jumper cables (sometimes called booster cables)
- Tools, like a roadside emergency kit
- A first aid kit and instructions
- A fire extinguisher
- Sleeping bags
- Flashlight and extra batteries
Having a GPS — either in your car or on your smartphone — can help during an emergency too.
Leave a paper trail
- Keep on hand cash, Traveler’s Checks and some money in coins. In case of a serious power outage, bank computers may be off line.
- Take valuable original documents to a safe deposit box.
- “Freezer file cabinet” - Put copies of valuable papers in freezer bags and put them IN the freezer (that’s right — it’s fairly fire, flood and wind-proof.)
- Make copies of your prescriptions or place empty medication bottles in the freezer, too.
- Store extra toilet paper (don’t laugh — it’s the one item you’ll wish you had.)
Who ya’ gonna call?
- Add to your “freezer file cabinet” phone numbers of family members/friends located in another geographic area in case phones are out and you need a point of contact. (Alert friends and family that if you can’t be reached by phone, they are to call your out-of-area contact. Use this number as a check-in station.)
- Take the time to teach your parents, older family members or text-challenged friends how to send and receive a text message in the event of a hurricane or evacuation. If cell phone towers or electricity is knocked out, your older family members need to be able to communicate with you and you, them. Texting seems to have a better success rate, even when cell phone transmission is interrupted.
- Plug all relevant numbers into your phone, but redundancy is key in a weather emergency: also write them down.
- Know your area’s evacuation routes, shelters and emergency numbers, including FEMA.
- Have your insurance agent’s numbers handy.
Important odds and ends
- Know how to turn off your electricity, water and gas. Remember that you’ll need a professional to turn on your gas after the storm.
- Clear your yard. Make sure there's nothing that could blow around during the storm and damage your home. Move bikes, lawn furniture, grills, propane tanks and building material inside or under shelter.
- Cover up windows and doors outside. Use storm shutters or nail pieces of plywood to the window frames to protect your windows. This can help keep you safe from pieces of shattered glass.
- Fill clean water containers with drinking water in case you lose your water supply during the storm. You can also fill up your sinks and bathtubs with water for washing.
- Lower the thermostat in your refrigerator and freezer to the coolest possible temperature. If your power goes out, your food will stay fresh longer.
- If you still have electricity, stay tuned to weather coverage and charge your cell phone.
- Alert your friends/family list that a hurricane is headed your way and you might lose contact by land line.
- If you’re at work, have back-up plans to retrieve kids from camp/school/day care.
- Arrangements for pets — they need food and water stockpiles, too.
- Keep an emergency backpack loaded with extras: medications, hidden cash and coins, personal hygiene supplies, change of clothes, sweater, comfortable shoes, extra socks, packaged snacks, bottled water, deck of cards, notepad and pen.
- Make a mental note to move to high ground any cardboard boxes sitting on the closet floor or under your bed. Items “out of sight” are often forgotten. (In other words, your baseball card collection is worthless once it is sopping pulp.)
When the TV reporter is soaking wet and windblown
If a hurricane might be headed toward you, you need to prepare. Listen for National Weather Service alerts on TV or radio or check for them online. There are two kinds of alerts:
- A hurricane watch means that there's no hurricane yet, but weather conditions could cause one. Experts will announce a hurricane watch 48 hours before they think dangerous winds will start.
- A hurricane warning is more serious. It means a hurricane has already started or is just about to start.
Once the National Weather Service has issued a warning and your area must evacuate, grab the following items:
- Cell phones and chargers for car and electrical outlet
- Your map of evacuation routes and contraflow routes
- “Freezer file cabinet”
- Emergency backpack
- Bed roll if you have room in your car, in case the shelter runs out of mats
- Pets, pet food and water and pet leash
- Only take what you really need with you, like your medicines, identification (like a passport or license), and cash.
- Make sure you have your car emergency kit. If you’re evacuating by car, move your emergency car kit from the trunk to the back seat before you start driving.
- If you have time, turn off the gas, electricity and water. Also unplug your appliances.
- Follow the roads that emergency workers recommend even if there's traffic. Other routes might be blocked.
‘Fleeing in place’
If you are one of the million-plus Houstonians who found themselves going nowhere fast during Hurricane Rita, you know what “fleeing in place” means.
It means confidence is high that you will sit in a steaming car in gridlock traffic longer than you had planned if your major city must mass-evacuate. Consider the following:
- Plastic misting bottles: not only will a mist of water cool you down if your car’s air conditioning must be turned off to conserve gas, you’ll also save the life of your pet and the health of elderly passengers. Pets, particularly cats, might not drink in a moving car or when nervous. Spraying them down will make them lick their fur. Ill or very elderly passengers may only be able to take in fluid through a misting spray.
- Dignity takes a back seat to a 26-hour traffic jam. If you are concerned about restrooms, learn from your children — or childhood: take along diapers.
- Gasoline is safe to carry in your trunk if it is in a certified gasoline container. Check with your hardware store before hurricane season.
- Make sure you have hats, sunscreen and good walking shoes in case you need to leave your car.
- Don’t depend on your car’s radio: take your battery-operated weather radio in the car.
- Use a car charger adapter for any necessary electronics.
- Above all else, know your gas mileage before you evacuate. If you can’t get to your chosen destination on one tank, you’ll need an alternative plan.
Driving in high water
According to the Red Cross, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), vehicles are involved in half of all flood-related deaths.
One simple physics equation is all you need to remind yourself of how dangerous it is to attempt to drive or stay with your car in high water:
- When you are submerged deeply enough, the weight of the volume of water that you’re displacing is equal to your own weight. You become buoyant.
- So, when the weight of the water that is displaced by the submerged part of your car becomes equal to the weight of your car, your CAR becomes buoyant.
Most cars will float in two feet of water.
What to do while driving
- If you are driving through forceful winds or hail, get to a covered area, such as a parking garage if possible.
- If you are driving through water: Assume that at some point during your journey, there will be impassable water. Consider pulling off to a gas station or parking lot that sits higher than the street until the rains slow or stop.
- If you are driving through streets flooded to curb height, keep your speed low and your foot on the accelerator to avoid water back-flowing into the exhaust pipe, which will stall you. If you drive a truck or SUV, curb your confidence and slow down so that you do not displace enough water to flood smaller cars. Then pull into a higher area off the street as soon as possible.
- If you approach an area that looks too deep, it probably is. Do NOT attempt to cross it. Look up the road so that you do not have to stop at the impasse and attempt to turn around which not only raises your chance of flooding, but also creates traffic chaos.
- If you do find yourself in increasingly deeper water, immediately roll down your window in case you need to swim out of it. If your windows are electric, they will fail if the car stalls.
- If your car stalls in high water, abandon the car immediately. Two feet of water can sweep a car or SUV away. Climb to higher ground.
When the TV reporter is blowing sideways
If your area has been advised to shelter in place and/or your neighborhood streets are already flooded or winds make it too dangerous to leave your home:
- Keep listening to the radio or TV for updates on the hurricane.
- Stay inside. Even if it looks calm, don't go outside. Wait until you hear or see an official message that the hurricane is over. Sometimes, weather gets calm in the middle of a storm but then gets worse again quickly.
- Stay away from windows. You could get hurt by pieces of broken glass during a storm. Stay in a room with no windows, or go inside a closet. You can even protect yourself by getting in a bathtub and covering it with a sheet of plywood.
- Be careful. Winds can blow debris — like pieces of broken glass and other objects — at high speeds. Flying debris is the most common cause of injury during a hurricane. You're also at a higher risk of breaking a bone or cutting yourself on loose nails, metal or other objects.
- Be ready to leave. If emergency authorities order you to leave or if your home is damaged, you may need to go to a shelter or a neighbor's house.
- If you’ve lost electricity, turn on your battery-powered radio.
- Secure patio furniture, sun umbrellas — anything that can be picked up by strong winds and turned into a missile.
- Watch for downed power lines in your yard.
- Put candles and matches in a high dry place.
- Do not slosh through your flooding neighborhood streets: Fire ants, roaches and snakes are also looking for things to cling to, like a sloshing leg.
- Before evacuating, leave no wooden or other water-swelling drawers containing anything in place in the dresser. Move the drawer ANYWHERE, but don’t leave it in the dresser! When the water rises and the wooden dresser and drawer are soaked, the drawer frequently cannot be opened. If the contents are clothes or paper, mildew and mold will take over before anything dries out and the drawer can be opened. A soaked drawer sitting on a flood-soaked carpet is better than a soaked drawer captured in a dresser.
When you see Dorothy grabbing Toto...
Most people are injured or killed not by the tornado itself, but by flying debris.
Besides an obvious twisted funnel of wrath, NOAA lists the following signs and symptoms to look and listen for:
- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel.
- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can't be seen.
- Day or night: Loud, continuous roar or rumble which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder.
- Night: Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
- Night: Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning, especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
If you are in your home (and do not have a basement):
- In a house with no basement, a dorm or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows.
- Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection.
- Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail.
- Myth: according to NOAA, it is a myth that you should open two windows to avoid a negative-pressure build-up (and house implosion.) They advise that you keep windows closed to avoid debris. They also say that most “explosions” occur from large debris crashing into structures.
In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper:
- Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building away from glass. Then, crouch down and cover your head.
- Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly.
- Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
If you are in your car:
- Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far away and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado.
- Otherwise, park the car as quickly and safely as possible, out of the traffic lanes. Get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building.
- As difficult as it may seem, leave your car if you are in the open country. Run to low ground away from any cars (which may roll over on you). Lie flat and face down, protecting the back of your head with your arms.
- Avoid seeking shelter under bridges which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection from flying debris.
Find out what to do after the storm by reading Part II of our Hurricane & Flood Before and After Handbook.