Injuries and deaths from hurricanes are one of the most avoidable natural disaster dangers out there, because unlike tornadoes, we can see a hurricane coming well in advance. Some storms may not be strong enough to warrant evacuation, but others are, and people die because they don’t take the danger seriously or otherwise make a stupid decision to “tough it out” in a vulnerable place. If you have kids, you’re not allowed to be stupid. Take the cautious approach and get your family out of harms way.
Storm Surge: The Primary Danger from Hurricanes & Cyclones
Contrary to what many people believe, the primary danger from hurricanes is not wind, but water. “The biggest single killer in hurricanes is storm surge,” says Jamie Rhome, a storm surge specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (Rice, 2011) As a hurricane travels over the ocean, its strong winds will actually change the topography of the water. The low pressure inside the hurricane’s eye can act like a straw, creating suction that builds up additional swells around the storm’s edge. As it nears shore, this pushes that entire swell onto land. A strong category 4 or 5 hurricane can lift the ocean up to produce a storm surge of 20 to 30 feet. Here are some other important things to know about storm surge:
- Hurricane scale categories only measure wind speed, and are not necessarily a good indicator of storm surge risk.
- A storm surge can be highly localized, varying according to the area. The same storm of equal intensity may produce only 6 or 7 feet in Florida, but more than 20 feet of surge in Texas.
- The highest storm surge tends to be in the front-right quadrant of the storm.
- When evacuation orders are given, the threat of storm surge is the primary reason.
- 40% of respondents who live in a storm surge prone area believe they’re not likely to experience it.
Safety against storm surge
- Know whether or not you live in a storm surge prone area. If so, it’s particularly important you adhere to any mandatory evacuation orders that are administered.
- As a last resort, keep life jackets and have a durable, inflatable raft handy should your home be inundated and you need to evacuate afterwards. Don’t plan on being in the water with life jackets alone. It will be cold, and floating in cold water for large amounts of time poses its own dangers.
Other hurricane precautions
- If you insist on riding out the storm, stock up on enough food and water to last at least a week. Extra batteries are also a good idea.
- Stay away from windows and do not go outside. A strong category 4 or 5 hurricane can produce wind gusts equal to an EF4 tornado, sending debris flying through the air and shattering windows. Even a smaller category one can produce winds equal to a weak tornado.
- Assuming you’re inland and in no danger of storm surge, it’s best you gather the kids and hang out and sleep in the basement. One of the biggest dangers is that hurricanes are great at ripping apart trees, sending branches or even entire trees toppling over through the house. It’s also common for a hurricane to produce tornadoes within the storm, which are more destructive than hurricane winds because they are tightly wrapped, gusting within a much smaller space. So it’s safest to be underground. You don’t want your children to be crushed in their sleep from a falling tree.
- Keep a cell phone with an extra charged battery, but avoid calling 911 unless you’re in immediate danger. Phone lines will be swamped with people who need help.