Katrina. Fran. Audrey. Andrew. Summer and Autumn are both optimal seasons to travel to the coast for some rest and relaxation.
But depending on where your plans take you, your trip could be sabotaged by a big threat. In the past, those vacation destroyers have had names like Katrina, Fran, Audrey, and Andrew … hurricanes that devastated cities and uprooted people from their communities.
Between June 1 and November 30 each year, hurricane safety and survival are the highest priorities for many residents along the East and Gulf Coasts.
While the forecasted number of storms varies from year to year, one thing remains the same—the science behind hurricanes. Understanding hurricanes and knowing how to prepare when one is forecasted for your area can help you survive the next big storm that has the U.S. in its sights.
The perfect storm
Atlantic hurricanes, also referred to as tropical cyclones, most often form off the western coast of Africa, near the equator. It’s there that one of a hurricane’s key ingredients exists in abundance—warm water.
According to Dr. Mark Bourassa, an associate professor of meteorology at Florida State University, the warm water gives off water vapor as it evaporates. This warm air rises, where it encounters cooler air that causes it to condense, forming clouds and rain.
This process makes way for more warm moist air to enter the developing system while also producing a great deal of energy and heat.
A hurricane is stacked vertically, like a pipe, and the system requires strong surface winds to feed surrounding air into that pipe and provide a continual source of tropical air. “One of the key factors in hurricane development is the wind pattern,” explains Bourassa. “In order for a system to transition from a thunderstorm to a hurricane, the winds closer to the ocean’s surface must be stronger than those that are aloft or higher in the atmosphere.
This enables the system to continue to pull in more warm, moist air to feed itself and being the telltale cyclone pattern.” When the warm air and energy meet up with ideal wind conditions, a tropical system develops.
As the system grows and becomes more organized, what began as a thunderstorm moves through three stages as it strengthens—tropical depression (winds of 38 mph or less), tropical storm (winds between 39-73 mph) and then hurricane (wind speeds greater than 74 mph). “Once a storm reaches hurricane status, it often has three characteristics—wind speed of at least 74 mph, a defined eye and eye wall and low barometric pressure,” Bourassa says. Storm sizes can vary greatly, he says. “We’ve had small storms like Wilma (2005) and larger systems like Isaac (2012),” he notes.
But take away any of the components of a system, and it dissipates. Passing over land, cold water or encountering dry air all significantly reduce the energy a tropical cyclone is able to generate.
Checklist for hurricane survival
- Survival kit that contains a portable radio, flashlight, batteries, candles, matches, non-perishable food and water for each household member, including pets.
- At home, bring in or secure any furniture
- Board up windows
- Secure or dry dock any watercraft
- Fill your car with gas
- Know the routes to your nearest evacuation shelters
- When deciding whether to evacuate, listen to authorities as well as your instincts.
- Practice your plan
- Pay attention to local weather forecasts
The dangers of hurricane
Each storm carries with it unique dangers, ranging from wind to flooding to storm surge, that can affect both those along the coast and inland. Well in advance of a storm, deadly rip currents affect beaches, making swimming extremely hazardous. Higher seas are also a leading concern, especially for ships at sea. Hurricanes are also known to spawn tornadoes
During a storm surge, the winds within the hurricane push water toward the shore. When combined with regular astronomical tides, water can rise several feet above normal levels, leading to flooding that damages roads, buildings and trees.
The storm surge during Hurricane Katrina caused many of the storm’s more than 1,500 deaths, either directly or indirectly, the National Hurricane Center notes. “The storm surge is the most prevalent side effect of a hurricane,” Bourassa says. “Naturally, a larger hurricane can trigger a larger storm surge. Also, storms that track along the coast, like Dennis in 2005, can create a bigger surge.”
But Bourassa advises that those inland are not immune from a hurricane’s effects. “Inland, flooding and strong winds can wreak havoc on property,” he says. “Rain from hurricanes can saturate the ground, causing trees to blow over onto homes, automobiles, power lines and roadways.” People who live near the coast, in a floodplain, or near a river or other waterway are particularly at risk of flooding.
Be prepared for hurricane
If you find yourself projected to be in the path of a hurricane, regardless of size, ensure that you are well prepared.
This includes having a survival kit on-hand that contains a portable radio, flashlight, batteries, candles, matches, non-perishable food and water for each household member, including pets.
You should also prepare your home and property. Bring in or secure any furniture or other items in the yard that might blow away in strong wind, board up windows, and secure or dry dock any watercraft. Fill your car with gas in case evacuation is imminent, and know the routes to your nearest evacuation shelters.
When deciding whether or not to evacuate, listen to authorities as well as your instincts. Regardless of local recommendations or mandates, evacuate if you feel you or your family is in danger.
And don’t forget to practice. Bourassa and his family have “hurricane nights” several times a year during which they prepare meals without any power. This enables them to determine the best foods for their survival kit, because “you need food you’re willing to eat if you don’t have access to power, restaurants or stores,” he says.
Most importantly, pay attention to local weather forecasts. While technology cannot predict a hurricane’s exact path, especially once it makes landfall, Bourassa indicates that the average error in landfall prediction has greatly decreased in recent years. “The improved accuracy of hurricane tracking is very beneficial,” he says. “The deadliest hurricane in U.S. history hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900, during which nearly 8,000 people died because they had no warning.”
When hurricanes spawn tornadoes
When a hurricane makes landfall, it can trigger other weather phenomena, including tornadoes. Traveling over land produces friction that slows a hurricane’s ground-level winds. However, the winds that are aloft, or near the top of the storm, often maintain their momentum and speed.
This wind speed difference sets up a fairly strong vertical wind shear that provides ideal conditions for tornado development.
While tornadoes can form anywhere, these conditions are more prevalent on the right front side of a hurricane, particularly in rainbands. Hurricanes can spawn tornadoes within a day or two prior to landfall and up to three days after it hits. Historically, most tornadoes occur on the day of landfall, but some of the most damaging tornado outbreaks took place up to two days later. Hurricanes on record that spawned tornadoes include Beulah (1967), Danny (1985), Beryl (1994) and Ivan (2004).
Rise in hurricanes
While recent statistics show a rise in hurricane activity, by planning ahead and knowing the dangers one of these storms can bring, you can help ensure you and your family makes it through safely.