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How to prepare for a Hurricane Michael: Safety tips for before, during and after

Knowing what to have on hand — and when to leave — is crucial for keeping your family safe.
Image: Trees sway as Storm Gordon descends on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S.
Trees sway as Storm Gordon descends on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. on Sept. 3, 2018.@Saralina77 / Reuters

Hurricane season may be nearing an end, but it’s not going out quietly.

As the Carolinas recover from the damage of Hurricane Florence, Florida is bracing against the wrath of Tropical Storm Michael, which was updated to a Category 3 hurricane on Monday, and is expected landfall along the Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast on Wednesday.

“This will be a hard hitting and fast storm,” Anthony Tornetta, spokesperson for American Red Cross tells NBC News BETTER.

Here are Tornetta’s tips on how to prepare for Hurricane Michael, and what to do to keep you and your family (including your pets) safe.

The North Atlantic Hurricane Season spans from June 30 to November 1.

Have an evacuation plan in place before a hurricane warning comes

Hurricanes, unlike other natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, typically don’t strike out of nowhere. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) issues hurricane watches 48 hours before an anticipated onset, and releases hurricane warnings in an advance of 36 hours.

If your area has a hurricane watch or warning in effect, your best bet is to pack up and go ASAP — but you should have a plan in place ahead of time.

“We encourage the very three simple steps: get a kit, make a plan and be informed,” Tornetta tells NBC News BETTER. “This is key when facing a natural disaster. You need to know where to go if you have to evacuate.”

A storm is by nature chaotic and securing a place with family or elsewhere before the storm reaches landfall is key. If family or friends aren’t available, know where the local evacuation centers are. You can find those nearest to you by entering your zip code in the Red Cross app, which is available for free in the Apple Store, Google Play and online.

Your hurricane kit staples: chargers, food, contact lenses and more

Hurricane emergency kits can be bought in stores and online, but no matter what you buy, Tornetta underscores that you’re going to have to tailor it to fit your needs.

“Going through a disaster is not a normal occurrence, so we want to put some sort of normalcy to a rather un-normal situation,” he says.

In addition to the staples such as a flashlight, batteries, bottled water, non-perishable foods and a first-aid kit, Tornetta notes that you’ll also want to add the following:

  • Any medications you’re taking (at least a week’s worth).
  • Spare glasses and/or spare contact lenses if applicable.
  • Charging cords for devices
  • A powered brick charger
  • More bottled water and more non-perishable foods
  • A can opener
  • Documentation and ID cards
  • Living wills
  • A wallet with cash and credit cards
  • Anything you'll need to function in the next 72 hours.

An evacuation center is not a shelter — bring food, water and essentials

An important distinction Tornetta notes is that an evacuation center is not a shelter. It may become a shelter if the evacuation wins up being long-term (i.e., if you cannot safely return home), but you need to bring your own food, water and other essentials for your family for up to two days.

Make sure to bring your kit with you.

“Evacuation centers are not set up for long-term stay like shelters are,” says Tornetta. “They’re there as a safe place to get you out of the storm as it passes. You may be able to go back home within 24 to 48. Bring enough stuff (food, water, etc.) to sustain yourself and your family for that time.”

If you can’t go back home within a day or two, your evacuation center will likely be converted into a shelter, with cots and other staples brought in to accommodate you and your family.

‘Riding out the storm’ is never a good idea, but if you do…

Plenty of folks have inspiring stories of riding out super storms and hurricanes safely. But think of all the people who don’t have those stories, or who didn’t make it through? It’s a morbid thought, but a reminder to get out while you can.

“Time and time again we see people ordered to leave and deciding to ride out the storm, perhaps because they’ve rode out past ones,” Tornetta says. “Then we see the emergency rescue. We ask people to please heed local authorities. If the local news station is telling you about a mandatory evacuation, please evacuate. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Now, if you are going to take the potentially deadly route of riding out the storm, be sure you know what you’re in for and prep as well as you can.

“I don't want to pigeonhole into saying you must do this for your house, as everyone's home is different, but absolutely board up windows, and if it’s getting late in the evening and there’s a possible flash flood, don't stay on the first floor.”

Keep your emergency kit close at hand and be prepared for a prolonged power outage by having those phones and flashlights fully powered. Tornetta also recommends investing in a hand crank radio.

Shelters have partnerships to protect your pets — and often you can visit them

Now, if you’re anything like me, the doting mother of two dogs, you may be thinking, “No way am I going to a shelter where I’ll be separated from my pets.”

True, you may not be able to keep them in the shelter with you and other folks seeking refuge, but most shelters have partnerships with community organizations to accommodate your pets.

“We work to make sure pets have a safe place to go,” says Tornetta. “Shelters are typically partnered with community groups that have a safe place for pets where you even have visiting rights. One shelter we worked with in Baton Rouge a few years ago had a pet shelter that was not attached to the people's shelter but we provided transportation for people to visit their pets be they dogs, birds or fish.”

Shelters are typically partnered with community groups that have a safe place for pets where you even have visiting rights.

If you have the luxury of time, talk to your veterinarian about alternative options for pet boarding during a storm. Know which hotels or motels will accept your pet if you take that route. The ASPCA also recommends that you have an emergency kit for your pet. This should include a pet first-aid kit and guide book; a week’s worth of canned (pop-top) or dry food; bowls, disposable litter trays (the aluminum kind we use for cooking are perfect for this); at least a week’s worth of bottled water, litter or paper towels, dish soap and disinfectant, garbage bags, a spare collar and spare leash; copies or a USB containing medical records; a crate or carrier (one for each pet); a flashlight, a blanket; recent photos of your pet just in case they get lost, and of course, toys.

It’s also highly recommended that your pet not only have a collar ID, but a microchip with all your current information.

After the storm can be the worst, use caution and don’t touch light switches

As past hurricanes have proven, the days after the storm passes can be the deadliest, so you’ll want to make sure that it’s safe to return home. When it is, be cautious about what you touch when you enter.

“One of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen was [in New Orleans] the morning after Hurricane Katrina,” says Tornetta. “Just because the storm has passed, please don't run home. Listen to local authorities about when it is safe, and when it is, keep in mind you could open the door to feet of water and power lines could be down, which is not a good mix. It sounds cliché, but common sense comes into play. Think about what you would normally do to feel safe.

If a food is supposed to be frozen before you cook it and it has thawed out, [discard it]. Also keep in mind the possibility of shocks if you touch a light switch. I would wait and let the power come back on its own and not touch anything [potentially shocking].”

Volunteer! Others need our help

If you are lucky enough to return to an undamaged home, or if you never face evacuation in the first place, consider helping others by volunteering for the Red Cross or another organization.

“We are 90 percent made up of volunteers and we really can't do it without them,” says Tornetta. “If you're reading this and want to help, please contact your local Red Cross and learn about becoming a volunteer.”

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