Hurricane: Know the Terms
Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a hurricane hazard:
An organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 MPH (33 knots) or less. Sustained winds are defined as one-minute average wind measured at about 33 ft (10 meters) above the surface.
An organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39-73 MPH (34-63 knots).
An intense tropical weather system of strong thunderstorms with a well-defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 MPH (64 knots) or higher.
A dome of water pushed onshore by hurricane and tropical storm winds. Storm surges can reach 25 feet high and be 50-1000 miles wide.
A combination of storm surge and the normal tide (i.e., a 15-foot storm surge combined with a 2-foot normal high tide over the mean sea level created a 17-foot storm tide).
Hurricane/Tropical Storm Watch
Hurricane/tropical storm conditions are possible in the specified area, usually within 36 hours. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for information.
Hurricane/Tropical Storm Warning
Hurricane/tropical storm conditions are expected in the specified area, usually within 24 hours.
Short Term Watches and Warnings
These warnings provide detailed information about specific hurricane threats, such as flash floods and tornadoes.
One of the most dramatic, damaging, and potentially deadly events that occur in this country is a hurricane.
Hurricanes are products of the tropical ocean and atmosphere. Powered by heat from the sea, they are steered erratically by the easterly trade winds and the temperate westerly winds, as well as by their own energy. As they move ashore, they bring with them a storm surge of ocean water along the coastline, high winds, tornadoes, torrential rains, and flooding.
Each year on average, ten tropical storms develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, or Gulf of Mexico. About six of these typically strengthen enough to become hurricanes. Many of these remain over the ocean with little or no impact on the continental United States. However, about five hurricanes strike the United States coastline every three years. Of these five, two will be major hurricanes measuring a category 3 or higher (defined as having winds above 111 miles per hour) on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. These storms can end up costing our nation millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages.
During a hurricane, homes, businesses, public buildings, and infrastructure may be damaged or destroyed by many different storm hazards. Debris can break windows and doors, allowing high winds and rain inside the home. In extreme storms (such as Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew and Katrina), the force of the wind alone can cause tremendous devastation, as trees and power lines topple and weak elements of homes and buildings fail. Roads and bridges can be washed away and homes saturated by flooding. Destructive tornadoes can also be present well away from the storms center during landfall. Yet, storm surge alone poses the highest threat to life and destruction in many coastal areas throughout the United States and territories. And these threats are not limited to the coastline -- they can extend hundreds of miles inland, under the right conditions.
The intensity of a landfalling hurricane is expressed in terms of categories that relate wind speeds and potential damage. According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, a Category 1 hurricane has lighter winds compared to storms in higher categories. A Category 4 hurricane would have winds between 131 and 155 mph and, on the average, would usually be expected to cause 100 times the damage of the Category 1 storm. Depending on circumstances, less intense storms may still be strong enough to produce damage, particularly in areas that have not prepared in advance.
Tropical storm-force winds are dangerous to those caught in them. For this reason, emergency managers plan on having their evacuations complete and their personnel sheltered before the onset of tropical storm winds, not hurricane-force winds.
Hurricane-force winds can easily destroy poorly constructed buildings and mobile homes. Debris such as signs, roofing material, and small items left outside become flying missiles in hurricanes. Extensive damage to trees, towers, water and underground utility lines (from uprooted trees), and fallen poles cause considerable disruption.
High-rise buildings are also vulnerable to hurricane-force winds, particularly at the higher levels since wind speed tends to increase with height. Recent research suggests you should stay below the tenth floor, but still above any floors at risk for flooding. It is not uncommon for high-rise buildings to suffer a great deal of damage due to windows being blown out. Consequently, the areas around these buildings can be very dangerous.
The strongest winds usually occur in the right side of the eyewall of the hurricane. Wind speed usually decreases significantly within 12 hours after landfall. Nonetheless, winds can stay above hurricane strength well inland. Hurricane Hugo (1989), for example, battered Charlotte, North Carolina (which is 175 miles inland) with wind gusts to nearly 100 mph.
Learn your vulnerability to flooding by determining the elevation of your property.
Evaluate your insurance coverage; as construction grows around areas, floodplains change. If you are in a flood area, consider what mitigation measure you can do in advance. More from the National Flood Insurance Program.
In highly flood-prone areas, keep materials on hand like sandbags, plywood, plastic sheeting, plastic garbage bags, lumber, shovels, work boots and gloves. Call your local emergency management agency to learn how to construct proper protective measures around your home.
Be aware of streams, drainage channels and areas known to flood, so you or your evacuation routes are not cut off.
Avoid driving into water of unknown depth. Moving water can quickly sweep your vehicle away.
Restrict children from playing in flooded areas.
Test drinking water for potability; wells should be pumped out and the water tested before drinking.
Do not use fresh food that has come in contact with floodwaters. Wash canned goods that come in contact with floodwaters with soap and hot water.
Hurricanes are capable of producing copious amounts of rainfall. During landfall, a rainfall amounts of 10 to 15 inches or more is common. If the storm is large and moving slowly, less than 10 mph, the rainfall amounts from a well-organized storm are likely to be even more excessive. This heavy rain usually occurs slightly to the right of the hurricane's track. The amount of rain depends on the size, forward speed and whether the hurricane interacts with other weather systems.
To get a generic estimate of the rainfall amount (in inches) that can be expected, divide 100 by the storm's forward motion, for example, 100/5 mph = 20 inches of rain. For specific rainfall forecasts please monitor local forecasts from the National Weather Service. Rainfall and Flooding fact: Tropical Storm Claudette (1979) brought 45 inches of rain to an area near Alvin, Texas, contributing to more than $600 million in damage.
The greatest potential for loss of life related to a hurricane is from the storm surge!
Storm surge is simply water that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the storm. This advancing surge combines with the normal tides to create the hurricane storm tide, which can increase the mean water level to heights impacting roads, homes and other critical infrastructure. In addition, wind driven waves are superimposed on the storm tide. This rise in water level can cause severe flooding in coastal areas, particularly when the storm tide coincides with the normal high tides. Because much of the United States' densely populated Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastlines lie less than 10 feet above mean sea level, the danger from storm tides is tremendous.
The storm surge combined with wave action can cause extensive damage, severely erode beaches and coastal highways. With major storm like Katrina, Camille, and Hugo, complete devastation of coastal communities occurred. Many buildings withstand hurricane force winds until their foundations, undermined by erosion, are weakened and fail.
Hurricanes can also produce tornadoes that add to the storm's destructive power. Tornadoes are most likely to occur in the right-front quadrant of the hurricane. However, they are also often found elsewhere embedded in the rainbands, well away from the center of the hurricane.
Some hurricanes seem to produce no tornadoes, while others develop multiple ones. Studies have shown that more than half of the landfalling hurricanes produce at least one tornado; Hurricane Buelah (1967) spawned 141 according to one study. In general, tornadoes associated with hurricanes are less intense than those that occur in the Great Plains (see the Fujita Intensity Scale below). Nonetheless, the effects of tornadoes, added to the larger area of hurricane-force winds, can produce substantial damage.
The National Weather Service does not have an accurate way to predict exactly which storms will spawn tornadoes or where they will touch down. The new Doppler radar systems have greatly improved the forecaster's warning capability, but the technology usually provides lead times from only a few minutes up to about 30 minutes. Consequently, preparedness is critical.
Before a Hurricane
To prepare for a hurricane, you should take the following measures:
If a hurricane is likely in your area, you should:
You should evacuate under the following conditions:
If you are unable to evacuate, go to your safe room. If you do not have one, follow these guidelines: