Catastrophic Damage. Life-threatening flooding. Mandatory evacuations.
These aren't words commonly used by the National Weather Service (NWS). Unfortunately, we saw these warnings come to life with Hurricane Harvey, the monster Category 4 hurricane that made landfall on the Texas coast last month.
I'm a meteorologist and I remember the incredibly dire language used in warnings back in 2005, the night before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. Back then I was driving to work, about to do an overnight shift on national television. On that ride, I kept thinking about the people in the warning area, and hoped they would be safe in the dangerous storm to come.
Those same thoughts turned the people in Texas, and now to the Caribbean and Florida as Hurricane Irma threatens even more lives.
I often receive messages on social media from people wanting to know more about tropical storms and hurricanes, and how to prepare for them.
The first thing you need to do is understand your risk based on where you live — and it's not just coastal dwellers who are affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the impact from hurricanes can extend from the coast to several hundred miles inland and the most common forms of injuries or death are drowning or being hit with wind-borne debris.
Here are six ways to prepare for dangerous weather — and stay safe — during hurricane season:
1. Make sure you have supplies on hand, including a "go bag"
FEMA recommends having enough food and water to last for three days for every family members. That includes roughly one gallon of water per person for three days for both drinking and hygienic purposes. Stock up on shelf-stable, ready-to-eat food items like canned meats and vegetables, granola or protein bars, nuts, peanut butter, and non-perishable milk (think: nutrient-dense, high energy foods). And don’t forget a manually-operated (not electric) can opener for your canned food as well as any utensils you may need.
You'll also want to keep a "go bag" for use during storm or in case you need to evacuate. It should include food and water as well as flashlights, batteries, chargers, a first aid kit, sanitation and hygiene items, as well as any medication you or your family may need if you're displaced. You’ll want to have a battery-operated radio (with access to NOAA’s seven main channels) on hand, in case you lose power and cell phone service goes out to make sure you hear any emergency alerts.
Set aside an emergency fund of cash and coins as ATMs may not be working, and or difficult to get to. Copies of personal documents (passports, birth certificates, insurance policies, etc.) should be stored in waterproof containers. Put these items in the most secure area in your house, preferably on higher ground and away from windows.
2. Take precautions against flood water, high winds and lightning
If you're in an area where flooding or high winds may occur, it’s important to prepare in advance. Before the storm hits, clear outdoor drains, removing any excess debris, to allow for proper storm water drainage. Bring in children’s toys, garbage cans, bicycles or unsecured furniture from outside that may become airborne or float away during the storm. Park your car in the garage, out of the elements. Another point of entry for winds during a hurricane are your windows and garage door. Make sure they're as secure as possible.
Unplug appliances, but don’t wait to take this step during the storm, as lightning poses an additional hazard. Also, stay off corded phones, they can be dangerous during a storm. According to NOAA, about 4 to 5 percent of people struck by lightning are struck while talking on a corded landline phone.
When a flooding is imminent, bring what you can to a higher floor. In my book, "Extreme Weather," I interviewed Mary Theriot, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina along with her husband, young daughter and two cats, who climbed up to her attic just as her home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans filled with water. The family was eventually rescued by boat to safety.
Just remember that winds get stronger as you go up in height, so if you are on a high floor you will face more intense winds then at ground level. Reinforce your windows according to FEMA guidelines (masking tape is not an effective way to this) and secure any loose objects or furniture that may become airborne during a storm. Keep your drapes closed, and stay away from the windows during a storm.
4. Have a family disaster plan
It's drill time. Discuss and practice what do with every family member in the event of a weather disaster. FEMA recommends identifying both a central meeting place and an out-of-own contact for families to touch base with if they are separated. Post emergency telephone numbers by your phones and make sure your children know how and when to call 911. Teach all family members how to use text messaging and subscribe to alert services as soon as a storm is reported. Text messages are often more likely than phone calls to get through when networks are disrupted. Many communities now have systems that will send instant text alerts or e-mails to let you know about bad weather, road closings, local emergencies, etc.
5. Know your evacuation route
It’s the worst-case scenario, but if you have to evacuate before a storm hits, you should have a plan in place. Know your city's or town's evacuation routes ahead of time and keep your car filled with gas. Plan to leave as early and as quickly as possible if an official evacuation order is issued. Choose a destination close to home to minimize drive time. And if a motel or hotel is your evacuation destination, call ahead to make your reservations because it may be booked by the time you arrive. If it's too late to get to a motel or another person's home in safety, go to a shelter. Download FEMA's mobile app, which will direct you to the closest shelter near you.
6. Make a plan for your pets
Evacuating with animals adds additional challenges, but there are steps you can take before the storm to keep them safe. Dr. Charlotte Krugler, an Emergency Preparedness Veterinarian of Clemson University Livestock-Poultry Health, in Columbia, South Carolina cautions that “any change from their normal environment could be a stressor for pets.” Dr. Krugler says. “Make sure each pet is wearing identification. A microchip is the best insurance against getting your pet lost." If your pet isn't micro-chipped, Krugler recommends keeping a photo of you and your pet in your emergency kit in case you become separated.
She also advises not to leave your animal behind, especially tied up to something. Animals may be in more danger if they can’t escape flooding or flying debris. And if the roads aren’t cleared after a storm, you may not be able to return to check on them for days or even weeks. If you can, get your pet to a friend or family's home, away from danger, as early as possible. Often, pets aren't accepted at shelters.
Remember, hurricanes can strike quickly and wreak vast destruction. Be aware of the weather by paying attention to meteorologists' forecasts, and following the instructions from emergency management officials. You can also monitor the track of tropical storms and hurricanes online through the National Hurricane Center.
After the storm threat subsides, NOAA recommends waiting until your area is declared safe before heading home, and FEMA urges residents not enter damaged buildings until they are inspected by qualified professionals.