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The Dos and Don’ts of Surviving a Hurricane

Here are steps you can take to prepare and common misconceptions to keep in mind.

Hurricane preparation.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Hurricane Idalia is the first Atlantic hurricane of the 2023 season to make landfall in the continental United States, but it will by no means be the last. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has predicted an “above normal” hurricane season for the year, driven in part by record-high sea surface temperatures.

Hurricanes bring many variables with them, and their effects don’t end when the wind and rain stops. I spoke with Joel Cline, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, about steps you can take to prepare and common misconceptions to keep in mind. Here are the dos and don’ts of hurricane season:

Do: Harden your home

Preparing for a hurricane can begin long before hurricane season. If you live in an area that tends to see storms, consider investing in structural improvements that can harden your home against a hurricane, like roof braces and storm-rated doors and windows. Some states, including Florida, provide subsidies to help defray the costs of those improvements, and the earlier you have those improvements in place the better protected your home will be. Just remember that “hurricane-proof” is a bit of a misnomer; each hurricane is different, and one set of improvements, like storm shutters, won’t protect against every variable.

Do: Write up a plan

Long before a hurricane arrives, you can create a plan for how your family should react. Map out local evacuation routes and decide meeting points in case you get separated, like a local emergency shelter.

Once you’ve made your plans, discuss them with friends and family members who live elsewhere — if you have a kid away at college, for example, talk to them about what they should do. Ready.gov, the federal government’s landing page for disaster preparedness, has many resources available to walk you through each step of the process.

Don’t: Evacuate to somewhere near a river

The locations of evacuation shelters are chosen for many reasons, such as being located outside of flood zones. If you have to evacuate and choose not to go to an evacuation shelter, stay away from rivers. You might feel safer being away from the coast, but rivers can often flood in the wake of a hurricane, Cline told me.

Do: Assemble your emergency kit and secure important documents

Put together an emergency kit with food, water, and medicine; Ready.gov suggest several days’ worth of non-perishable food and water, including one gallon of water per person per day. Toss in items like backup batteries for your phones, flashlights, and a battery or hand-cranked emergency radio so you can listen for alerts. Also make sure you have copies of your important personal documents in case they get lost or damaged.

If you’re planning on staying at home, make sure you’re prepared to spend a few days without utilities. “I don't think people prepare enough for being without power for a long period of time,” Cline said. “We've become very dependent on power, so people don't have enough resources to get by, like canned foods or ice or water to flush toilets.”

Do: Properly set up a generator

If you have a generator or decide to buy one, make sure you have enough fuel to last you a few days and prioritize only the most essential needs — no TVs, for example. Generators should be kept at least 20 feet away from your house; according to NPR, carbon monoxide deaths often spike in the wake of large storms due to improperly-placed portable generators. If you can, try to get a few carbon monoxide alarms that are either battery-powered or have battery backups.

Don’t: Fixate on the storm’s category

Instead of just paying attention to a storm’s categories, keep an eye on how local conditions are changing.

“I think people rely too much on the categories of systems for their own preparedness levels,” Cline said. While categories are a handy shorthand for storm severity, they don’t say much about what localized impacts should be.

Rather than focusing on that number, Cline told me, people should look for information specific to their area. “They should prepare for the impacts for their area by listening to the local weather forecast office. Local forecast officers track the local conditions, so they'll know about how the rainfall, storm surge, and winds will impact your area.”

Cline said one of the most common mistakes people make ahead of a storm is a behavior called anchoring, or locking firmly onto information that suggests the impact of a storm might not be too bad. This is a normal human trait: We want to be reassured. But that can be dangerous.

“Don’t anchor on something your neighbor might have told you about how the storm will miss your area or won’t be too bad,” Cline said. “That might have been true 24 hours ago, but not anymore.”

Case in point: Idalia was upgraded from a tropical storm to a hurricane, and as it approached Florida it danced between Category 2 and Category 4, eventually making landfall as a Category 3 storm before weakening back down to Category 2. Those changes happened quickly, and could have been easily missed.

Do: Stay off your phone

Call one person outside of the impacted area to give them an update on your situation, but otherwise try to stay off the phone. Cell service is often impacted in the wake of a storm, and emergency personnel need to use those phone lines to coordinate their response.

Don’t: Rush outside or back home

Hurricanes linger in more ways than one. It can be easy to assume that the coast is clear once the storm has moved on, but Cline said that can prove deadly.

“When the sun's out, and there's no wind, and it’s a couple of days after the storm, you may drive around to look at things,” Cline told me. “That’s not a good idea, firstly because emergency people are trying to get around, but also because you might end up driving into a flooded roadway. And that's where we lose a lot of people as well. People don't understand the lingering impacts.”

Don’t go back to your home until officials give the all-clear. When you return, look out for hazards like downed electrical wires or chemicals. Take stock of your home and contact your insurance company. Once you do, rebuilding can begin.

Yellow
Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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