Hurricanes: Why They Happen and How to Prepare for Them

Hurricanes are one of the most dangerous types of natural disasters to threaten parts of the United States. They can do billions of dollars worth of damage and sweep away entire communities. A hurricane brings with it the threat of winds that can destroy homes and other property. In addition, hurricanes can cause flooding from rains and storm surges, which results in further and more lasting water damage, particularly to coastal regions. Furthermore, the potential for loss of life rises severely when a hurricane hits. People who live in areas where hurricanes strike will need to have emergency preparedness strategies in place not only to minimize the loss of property but also for their own personal safety and that of their family or household.

What Are Hurricanes?

Hurricanes are the most destructive form of windstorm in the United States. They usually strike on the East Coast, although they may also start in the northeastern part of the Pacific Ocean. A hurricane is a fast, rotating storm system that starts out in the basin of the Atlantic Ocean and may make landfall. They feature a low-pressure core and are easily identified from space by their size and the gap in the cloud formation at the center, also known as the "eye." A hurricane ranges in size from 50 miles in diameter to more than a thousand miles across and can cover large parts of a continent when it reaches land. In addition to highly destructive winds, hurricanes also bring heavy rains and flooding. The winds may also drive ocean water onto land in the form of high tidal waves. Unlike their counterparts in the Southern Hemisphere, northern hurricanes' winds blow counterclockwise. When a hurricane reaches a large landmass, it eventually weakens and dissipates due to the loss of its source of strength, moisture from the ocean.

The minimum speed for hurricane-force winds is 64 knots or 74 miles per hour. Hurricanes are classified according to the Saffir-Simpson scale, in which they are given category designations. Category 1 is the least destructive form and has the minimum wind speed to qualify as a hurricane. Category 2 is for storms with wind speeds of 83 knots or 96 miles per hour, Category 3 hurricanes have wind speeds of at least 96 knots or 111 miles per hour, and Category 4 starts at 113 knots or 130 miles per hour. The most destructive hurricanes are classified as Category 5 and boast devastating wind speeds of at least 137 knots or 157 miles per hour. The area around the eye of the hurricane, or the eyewall, is where the wind speeds are strongest. This is the part of the hurricane that does the most damage when it reaches land.

How Do They Form?

The life cycle of an Atlantic hurricane begins as a storm that usually develops near Africa, moving west and then north, while storms in the Pacific begin around Mexico and Central America. They derive their energy from the warm waters near the equatorial region. Warm waters evaporate, and the warm and moist air rises into the atmosphere. Combined with existing westward winds that form a counterclockwise rotational pattern, the weather system becomes a thunderstorm. At this point, the storm is a tropical disturbance and evolves into a tropical depression, then a tropical storm, with wind speeds of at least 34 knots or 39 miles per hour. It eventually gathers strength, speeding up until it grows into a hurricane.

Preparing for a Hurricane

Hurricane season starts in June, while the last ones of the year typically occur in November. They tend to strike along the eastern and southeastern coasts of the United States, though they may also hit Hawaii. It is important that the people who live in these areas prepare for potential storms long before hurricane season begins. Families can start to prepare by forming an evacuation plan, regardless of whether they live in a hurricane evacuation zone or not. People need to plot several routes that will take them to designated evacuation centers in the area, and they should plan to leave as soon as it becomes evident that they cannot stay in their homes in order to avoid being trapped in traffic and unable to get to safety. Family members should agree on a place where they can meet after a storm has passed in the event that they are separated. Although members of a family generally keep phone numbers programmed into their phones, they should also write them down on a card that is small enough to keep in their wallet or purse. This is helpful if cellphones are lost or broken and one needs to borrow a phone to contact loved ones. In addition, families should have a designated friend or family member who lives in another town or city who can provide a central point of contact or a meeting spot if necessary.

In making plans to protect personal property, people should reinforce their homes with hurricane shutters and repair any current damage to their home to make sure that it is structurally sound. Recreational vehicles should be stored in a location where they are safest from hurricane damage. One should also routinely back up data and important documents, particularly those that cannot easily be replaced. Insurance coverage in hurricane zones is another issue to be aware of. Homeowners need to make sure their home and automobile insurance cover both windstorms and flooding, the latter being the most expensive and difficult situation to obtain coverage for.

Building a Hurricane Emergency Kit

An important part of preparing for a hurricane is making a hurricane emergency kit for use whether one is staying home or evacuating during a major storm. An emergency kit should contain basic supplies such as a first aid kit, a flashlight with fresh batteries, and a gallon of bottled water per person per day. In addition, it should include spare clothing, blankets, canned or non-perishable food, vitamins, and food for babies if needed. The kit should not only carry non-prescription drugs such as aspirin, laxatives, activated charcoal, and diuretics to fight diarrhea but also several days' worth of any necessary prescription medications. Also stock an emergency kit with toilet paper, traveler's checks, cash, a wrench to shut off gas and water supplies in the house, a whistle, a signal flare, a fire extinguisher, and a map of the area, especially one with the marked locations of shelters.

By: Steven Moore