Of all the disasters and perennial crises that you might prepare for, one of the most common and consistently most destructive are hurricanes. As consistent as the seasons, and having a season of their own, you can expect these colossal storms to wreak havoc, death and destruction along every coastal area in the United States and much of the world, and also reach farther inland than you might think.
A hurricane is extremely dangerous because it presents a multifaceted danger, and the effects are so widespread: even a modest hurricane will produce deadly winds, positively biblical amounts of rain and terrible storm surge.
They spawn tornadoes regularly, and leave behind areas that are flooded, wrecked, cut off from rescue and almost totally impassible.
The primary, secondary and tertiary effects are enormous, and all have long lasting implications. Considering how common they are, unless you live far away from the coasts you had better know what makes these storms tick, and what they can do. In this article, you’ll be provided the information and procedures that will help you learn what you need to know.
Understanding the Greatest of all Storms
A hurricane is a class of storm properly referred to as a tropical cyclone; a hurricane is a cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean, or northern Pacific. In the south Pacific or Indian Ocean, the same type of storm system is called a cyclone, and in the northwestern Pacific Ocean these are called typhoons. Don’t let the names distract you; all are exceedingly destructive and dangerous.
A hurricane forms in the ocean over warm water. These systems begin life as a lesser storm system, a vaguely round tropical depression that strengthens by drawing energy from the evaporation of water from the ocean’s surface.
This vapor will rise and rise until it recondenses into clouds, and with those clouds into rain. A tropical depression becomes a tropical storm, which will have a more coherent shape with distinctive bands of storms.
With time and the right conditions, this nascent tropical storm system will begin to rotate more rapidly, and the typical features of a hurricane will form: a low pressure calm center, its characteristic eye; the distinctive, sweeping, rotating bands of storms that produce immense quantities of rain, lightning and tornadoes; and strong to devastating winds. Hurricane season in the Atlantic and North Pacific is from June through November, with September being the most active month.
Note here that tropical refers not to the area where these storms strike, but where they form. Cyclones of all kinds, hurricanes included form as a rule over warm tropical seas.
One interesting bit of trivia is the rotational direction of the storm being determined by the hemisphere of the globe it forms in; northern hemisphere storms rotate counterclockwise, while southern hemisphere storms rotate clockwise.
Major storms are given names for easy identification. These names are drawn from a predetermined list created at the beginning of every season. Storms that cause a drastic amount of devastation or death have their names retired for posterity.
Whatever the minutiae of their formation and existence, they all have one thing in common: they all carry devastation within their swirling clouds, and leave ruin in their wake.
Classes of Hurricane
Tropical cyclones are categorized based on their wind speeds, but this classification is made tricky by the fact that each region of ocean where they form has its own benchmarks for different categories.
For our purposes, we are only concerned with the Northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, proper hurricanes. While the classifiers may be different elsewhere in the world, the rest of the info in this article applies equally to hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons.
The scale used to judge a hurricane’s strength is its sustained wind speeds. The higher the sustained wind speed the typically larger and more destructive the storm. Wind speeds up to 33 mph are a tropical depression, while 35 to 63 mph is a tropical storm. The rest of the categories for proper hurricanes are below. Note that winds are strongest near the eye of the hurricane and weaken more the further from the eye you are.
Category 1 Hurricane, 64-83mph
This is a serious storm, alright, one capable of producing serious flooding and localized damage where winds are highest. Even so, most coastal dwellers and hurricane veterans will barely get out of bed for this one while tourists flee for their lives.
Category 2 Hurricane, 84-96mph
Far worse and longer lasting than nearly any inland thunderstorm save the nastiest. Expect plenty of downed trees, power lines and roof damage, to accompany the blinding rain. Very nasty if the center impacts near you. Again, most coastal dwellers will not get too excited.
Category 3 Hurricane, 97-113mph
The screwing around has ended. A Cat 3 hurricane can and will produce enormous swaths of devastation from wind, rain and storm surge. Landfall at major population centers will be front page news for weeks. No one treats a storm of this nature lightly, long-timers or visitors.
Category 4 Hurricane, 114-137mph
Hurricanes of this magnitude can be extremely destructive. Enormous quantities of rain and sustained winds over 100 miles per hour a significant range from the eye can level entire counties.
Storms of this size and scope often have enough strength built up to persist well inland as a lesser category of storm, badly flooding rivers and other places that consider themselves “safe” from hurricanes.
Category 5 Hurricane, 140+mph
A storm of this intensity that makes landfall will be the stuff of legend. Cities will be scoured off the maps and their remains scattered and drowned. Smaller settlements will be annihilated, often never to be rebuilt or repopulated.
Downright catastrophes, they will create so much destruction and for so far that any help or aid will be very long in the coming. Any storm of this magnitude will put your survival skills to the test in the aftermath, assuming you survive the onslaught.
Destructive Effects of Hurricanes
Hurricanes are obviously devastating to huge swaths of coastline, but they also pose enormous risks to areas far inland, sometimes hundreds of miles inland. The range and reach of these titanic storms must not be underestimated.
No matter where you are, so long as a major hurricane or its remnant system can reach you, you are at risk. The degree of danger varies depending on your location, your proximity to the center of the storm when it makes landfall and the storm’s intensity.
Damage and flying debris from wind is one of the most prevalent hazards from a hurricane, and they can produce strong winds far inland as long as the storm maintains cohesion.
When dealing with a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane, the damage rendered just from the wind is comparable to a strong tornado. Entire forests can be stripped of branches, and houses blown off their foundations by the strongest storms.
On coastlines and islands, storm surge is the most destructive effect of a hurricane and historically the deadliest as well. In conjunction with the rain and wind, storm surge causes significant erosion, often reshaping landscapes and beaches entirely, and can reach over a mile in land when conditions are right.
The immense rainfall generated by a hurricane is legendary, and will cause or contribute to flooding, especially when storm surge is already such a huge threat. The amount of rain produced by even lesser hurricanes is enough to cause severe river flooding, mudslides and landslides far inland. Flooding from any source is extremely destructive and dangerous, and the same applies here.
The standing water left by a hurricane’s passage will be a major health risk, hiding dangerous debris, spreading disease from all kinds of chemical and biohazardous contamination, and propagating mold and insect life.
On the open sea, hurricanes cause large, dangerous waves, and in combination with their winds and rainfall are a serious threat to vessels of all sizes, and regularly disrupt shipping, or even result in shipwrecks. Aircraft must obviously avoid hurricanes as they would any powerful storm, save the most rugged of scientific research or storm chaser planes.
All in all, hurricanes represent a total threat, one that presents manifold dangers that, on their own, would put most people to the test, and when taken together are phenomenally destructive and potentially deadly. Before, during and after landfall you will need to take appropriate action in order to survive.
What Are We Dealing With?
The following historical storms, some as recent as a few weeks ago, are a few examples of the titanic power and boundless destruction that hurricanes can inflict across entire regions for days at a time
While only a few storms will ever reach their lofty intensity, and only a few of those will ever make landfall at that strength, they nonetheless serve as grim reminders of just how bad hurricanes can be.
Hurricane Michael, Cat. 4, October 2018
Only the second major hurricane of the 2018 season, Michael made a name for itself by being the third most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland, and the strongest in terms of maximum sustained winds; a scouring 155 miles per hour.
Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach on the Florida Panhandle, and carved a path of drenching destruction from there all the way through Georgia and the Carolinas. Michael was remarkable for its extraordinarily strong winds, which leveled entire counties of buildings and forests worth of timber.
Mexico Beach was rendered unrecognizable, and over a million people were left without power. Winds were still over 100mph as the storm entered Georgia, and there it inflicted terrible losses to agriculture, including livestock, nuts and vegetables.
Michael’s combined effects caused over $8 billion dollars in damages, and 54 deaths. As of this writing, hundreds of people in the U.S. are still unaccounted for.
Hurricane Katrina, Cat. 5, August 2005
The most powerful storm of the record-setting 2005 hurricane season, Katrina is infamous as the storm that utterly destroyed huge regions of the Gulf coast from Texas through central Florida, and is the third deadliest hurricane on record to have struck the U.S. with a staggering 1,836 deaths attributed to it. The storm surge and rain output from Katrina in conjunction with the catastrophic failure of levees and dikes around New Orleans caused most of the loss of life.
Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded for weeks in the aftermath of Katrina, and entire waterfront towns in Mississippi were leveled. Water from Katrina reached anywhere from six to a dozen miles inland, and damages were calculated to tally over $125 billion, a staggering figure only rivaled by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.
Katrina more than anything is a sobering reminder that you will be on your own in the wake of a truly monstrous event: government ineptitude from the local to federal level was on full display. Perhaps the magnitude of the carnage was simply beyond man’s ken, but the lesson remains.
Hurricane Camille, Cat. 5, August 1969
Camille was the second most powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland, and not fondly remembered for its immense damage and truly biblical storm surge.
Camille started out as a lowly Category 2 storm before picking up a massive head of steam in the balmy Gulf of Mexico, rapidly growing into an apocalyptic Cat. 5 and striking land near Pass Christian, Mississippi.
The official measure of the storm surge was a bewildering 24 feet, which flattened, very literally, everything along the coast of Old’ Miss. Camille was far from over, and aside from leaving 15 feet of water standing over the rubble behind her, she went on to cause cataclysmic flooding in the Appalachian mountains, floods that killed over a hundred people and resulted in a death toll of 259.
No meteorological sensors survived the passage of Camille, but her sustained winds have been estimated at 175mph. All told, she wrought over $9.5 billion dollars in damage (adjusted).
The Great Galveston Hurricane, Cat. 4, September 1900
Long before hurricane were dubbed with honorific names, this rumor-shadowed monstrosity claimed the crown as the single deadliest hurricane to ever touch U.S. soil, and the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The official toll is debated to this day.
In 1900, Galveston was the gem of the great state of Texas, boasting one of the highest per capita incomes in the U.S., and an ornate and bustling business center in the city.
This Wall Street of the Southwest also enjoyed one of the busiest ports in the nation. All of this splendor was, however, built on low, flat, sand. There was no seawall to protect what had been built. After all, the city had weathered lesser hurricanes before.
The butcher’s bill was called due in September of 1900. The Great Storm of 1900 came ashore with 145mph sustained winds and a 15 foot storm surge. Over 3,000 homes were destroyed. 80% of Galveston’s population was made homeless.
Local estimates attest to 8,000 people killed by the storm, a full 20% of the population. The screams and moans of the dying were heard everywhere by rescuers and in the quiet days ahead as they continued the search for survivors the stench of bodies could be smelled for miles.
The dead were so numerous, mass burials at sea and beachfront funeral pyres were conducted for weeks in the aftermath. All told, anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 people lost their lives, the city of Galveston was utterly annihilated and $738 million in damages. If there was ever a truly apocalyptic storm to rule them all, it was the Galveston Hurricane.
You should know that every single one of these massive storms tracked far across the U.S. mainland, leaving flooding in their wake, breaking buildings, power poles and trees with their winds and spawning tornadoes the whole way.
Most even popped back into the ocean and intensified once more into proper hurricanes. You need not think you are safe just because you live hundreds of mile from the beach, or high and snug in some mountaintop town.
Preparing for and Surviving a Hurricane
Surviving one of these gargantuan storms means you’ll need to take a few pages from various other playbooks: a few from the tornado handbook, to cope with dangerous winds.
A few from the flood book, to deal with rising, swirling water. And a few from the general prepper’s handbook to help you deal with a host of lesser hazards and problems in the aftermath.
Like all disaster plans, you will be best served by creating it in a before-during-after format. By preparing beforehand and following proper procedures during and after you will greatly increase your chances of survival and enduring a major hurricane with a minimum of fuss.
See the sections below for a list of steps to take and techniques to implement for each phase of hurricane preparation.
Understand your area’s risk of hurricanes. Some areas will be more prone than others, or will be more gravely affected than others. Consult your local emergency planning office for specifics.
Understand your locale’s risk of flooding from rain and storm surge. Especially flash flooding.
Learn your evac zones, evacuation routes and detours. This info will be critical in the event you are ordered to evacuate.
Sign up for early warning. The national Emergency Alert System and NOAA radio alerts are both good to sign up for, as well as any system or service specific to you locale.
Know where your shelters are. Locate and practice heading to your nearest FEMA approved safe room or ICC 500 rated storm shelter. If you do not have access to either, identify the smallest, most interior location in your home that will not be under water in case of a flood.
Assemble your Survival Kit. See the specifics in the section below. Keep in mind that 3 day supplies are the bare minimum. You may need to survive much longer than that on your kit in the aftermath or as a refugee away from home. Don’t forget the needs of babies, pets and elderly.
Prepare your Property. Install drains, gutters and additional things to help keep water away from the foundation. Install or service storm shutters, or pre-cut and store plywood for installation prior to landfall of a hurricane.
Hurricanes are major, grand-scale events. Even a fast moving storm moves slowly enough that they can be analyzed and timed down to the hour of their arrival. A storm may be a day or two out and you could still have time to implement important procedures.
Tackling the following items with the right priority is important, so the next action items are grouped into sets that should be processed based on how far the storm is from landfall.
The most important factor to ensure your survival during any hurricane is to obey evacuation orders! Too many people have erroneously bucked evac orders believing that the storm would swerve, weaken or otherwise miss them.
Way too late to run, they realize their mistake, roll the dice, and take their chances. If you are going to leave, leave as early as possible. It will be very easy to get stranded due to traffic, lack of fuel or encroaching weather.
Don’t be one of them! Scenes of enthusiastic surfers hitting the waves ahead of a hurricane and salty seen-it-all-before longtimers throwing hurricane parties can lull the unwary into complacency on their preparations.
Those same hurricane greenhorns have not spared a thought to the fact that perhaps those half-crazy revelers may not have ever lived through a direct hit or severe hurricane. Listen to authorities and weather experts when it comes to gambling with your life and the lives of your loved ones.
Note here that bigger, meaner storms will produce nastier weather much farther from true landfall, so only take the following timetables as a coarse guide. When in doubt, get it done sooner so you do not get overtaken by the worst effects of the storm.
Landfall 1 ½ – 2 Days Out
Tune in for weather updates. You’ll need all the info you can get on the storm’s behavior that you can get. The last minute corrections and changes may contain important info.
Notify all family members of comms plan. You must have plans A, B and C for how you will attempt to communicate with your loved ones during or after the storm hits, i.e. call, text, email, messenger apps, etc.
Certain modes of communication may work where others fail, or you may need to plan for a period of no communication, depending on how bad the forecast is. Remember that texting is often more reliable than calling in a disaster situation.
Complete all last-minute equipment checks. Keep your vehicle ready to go: fueled, tires aired, and all maintenance checks completed. Obtain any last minute replacements for home/car survival stash, if possible. Understand many stores and retailers will be stripped bare of every commodity. Make sure that your BOB is packed and ready to go.
Landfall 18hrs -1 Day Out
Secure potential debris hazards and trim trees. Bring inside any objects in your yard that could be turned into dangerous or destructive missiles. Do not bring in any hazardous objects like propane tanks, etc. Anchor them instead.
If you have opportunity, trim all trees on your property to reduce lost branches, or even consider felling them ahead of time if a major impact is predicted; they may topple onto your house if close by.
Secure all windows. Purpose made storm shutters are the best solution, but at this point you probably do not have time to install them. Opt for the old hurricane standby instead: plywood.
Use at least 5/8” thick exterior or marine grade plywood and screw it down tightly over your windows. DO NOT TAPE YOUR WINDOWS! This old wives’ tale will simply create larger, deadlier shards of glass should the windows shatter.
ProTip: take care of this measuring and cutting of your security panels outside of storm season, and label them for quick reference and installation to save time and grief when a storm is heading your way.
Save City/County Website Info. You will do this to allow quick access to an alternate source of information as the storm progresses. You do not want to be searching for official news and updates on your locale’s utility and emergency status in the middle of the hurricane.
Landfall 6-12hrs Out
Stay apprised. Keep emergency weather news going at all times to ensure you have the latest info on the storm and local problems.
Charge it. Charge your phone, backup batteries, power cells and all other devices while you can. Use them sparingly from here on out.
Set the refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings. Your food will keep longer if power is lost. Adding a thermometer to both is a good idea so that you can know for certain when perishable food has passed the point of no return. Be sure you only open either when absolutely necessary to preserve the cold temperature.
Close all shutters. And keep clear of the windows: chances are they can still break and flying glass is a major hazard during any high wind event. Lacerations are no fun, and you can ill afford them in a hurricane.
If not in a mandatory evac area, stay at home. Or wherever your family/group knows you are supposed to be. Should you leave or get stuck elsewhere and the storm trap you, your relatives will either arrive and find you missing should they come looking for you, or feed incorrect info to potential rescuers.
Get in position. If you are anywhere that is strongly impacted by the hurricane, get into your final protective position with your BOB and/or survival kit. This will be your FEMA safe room or ICC 500 shelter if not the most interior and sturdy room of your house. Remember: stay away from windows!
If flooding is an issue, and it most definitely can or will be, take shelter as prescribed above on the highest floor of the house that is not in the attic.
Attics look high, dry and inviting to many who have never dealt with rising water, but they too often turn into watery tombs: attics rarely have more than one easy route of egress, and if you get trapped in one by rising waters it can easily spell certain death.
Surviving the aftermath of a hurricane will likely combine the sodden ruination of a flood with the widespread devastation of a high wind event. You’ll be left trying to escape from or survive in drowned wreckage that used to be a town or city, and the hazards will be many and varied.
As with any flood, the murky waters will hide all many of things that can hurt you: sharp debris like metal or broken glass, spilled chemicals, fuel and other contaminants.
Things like sewage and decomposing bodies of fish, mammals and people that can result in severe infection and spread disease. Even worse, there is a non-zero chance that the water can be energized by underground or felled electrical lines.
The above hazards make moving through any flood waters very risky, and it should only be undertaken as a necessity and even then done with maximum care. A little poke from glass or a board with nails sticking out of it may not sound like a show stopper, but the infectious bug that incapacitates you and turns the wound septic surely will be.
All this is made worse by the fact that, compared to a more traditional flood event or even a major tornado, hurricanes can batter, destroy, and even annihilate huge swaths of land and civilization. This means that survivors in any given town need not expect rescue right away, or even for the intermediate future.
All those cops, EMTs and firemen in the next town over, even several towns beyond that, will have their own problems and be working overtime to help their people. You must plan on being totally on your own after any major hurricane, and prepare accordingly. Anything less could be setting you up for a rude awakening.
Once the waters start to recede, you aren’t home free yet: you can positively count on power being out, services of all kinds being scarce or nonexistent, and then mold blooming over absolutely every surface that will support it.
Certain mold species are significant health risks, and should not be underestimated. The aftermath of a hurricane will essentially see all the cogs and gears of society ground to a rusty, broken, waterlogged halt.
Consider the following action items when dealing with the aftermath:
Stay out of flood waters, and especially avoid moving water or storm surge. Six inches of moving water will easily bowl an adult over, and a foot of it will sweep away an automobile.
Standing flood waters are no less dangerous owing to all the reasons we discussed above. Do not trust any bridges over moving water, as they were likely seriously damaged by the hurricane.
Stay off the phone unless it is an emergency. Count on phone lines being degraded and overtaxed in the wake of a hurricane. Don’t place a phone call unless you must. Use text or email for other communications, as this has a higher chance of getting through but also saves the lines for genuine emergencies.
Be extra cautious around any known electrical boxes or lines. Again, there is a non-zero chance the lines or equipment could still be energized, and charging the water around it with dangerous or lethal effect!
Take precautions when moving or cleaning up. Wear protective clothing. Sturdy pants or waders, boots and gloves are mandatory. A helmet is not a bad idea and an airborne particulate mask can help you deal with mold in a long term survival situation.
Tune in to local emergency channels as soon as you can. Remember the county or city website we saved up in the earlier sections? Hit it up, now, and tune in on your radio for specific emergency information on the situation near you. Maybe there are gas leaks, sewage spills, or electrical problems you’ll need to know about.
Hurricane Survival Kit
The contents of this kit will be instantly familiar to any seasoned prepper. You’ll notice that some of the core elements are valuable no matter what kind of crisis you face. Many of you will already have a kit that covers all of this and more, while others will have a handful of these items already around the house.
Provisions and Rations
- Food – FEMA recommends a 3 day supply per person, but once again more is better. 1,600 calories for an adult is more than adequate as we all have a little fuel around our midsections already, but 2,000+ is better if you are anticipating strenuous activity during cleanup or evac.
- Foil packed or canned food – Easy to store and long lasting. If choosing anything not ready to eat make sure you have water and fuel for preparation.
- Snacks – for mood improvement and quick energy.
- Baby food/formula and Pet food – Don’t forget the smaller members of the family!
- Utensils/Plates/Mess Kit – If sheltering in place, disposable cutlery will help save on water and perhaps prevent infection. Trash it when the meal is over.
- Can Opener
- Water – 1 gallon per person per day is the minimum. FEMA recommends you keep a 3 day supply on hand, but having much more is prudent.
- Hygiene Items – Deodorant, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, baby wipes and any feminine products if needed
Equipment and Gear
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- Clothes, daily wear and protective– Seasonally appropriate plus rain gear. Protective gear like gloves, boots, and waterproof waders are also a good idea.
- Blankets and Sleeping Bags – You may not have access to your dry, comfy bed during the storm. The ability to be snug and warm wherever you are is priceless.
- NOAA Emergency Radio – Battery powered is fine but crank operated is a nice perk. Good models also have a built in flashlight and USB charger.
- Flashlights and spare batteries – Count on no power for days or even weeks. You’ll need lights more than ever.
- Large Tarps and Cordage – For making shelter, covering leaky roofs, catching drips or as a ground cover.
- Cell Phone – Includes a charged spare battery, backup power cell or solar array. Keep it charged and layoff the games! Save it for emergencies.
- First Aid Kit – Includes:
- Boo Boo Kit – Band-Aids, alcohol wipes, tape, vet wrap or compression wrap, variety pack meds for pain, allergy, nausea, etc.
- Trauma Kit – For serious wounds. You must know what you are doing! Help may not be coming in anything resembling a timely fashion. This includes tourniquets, gauze, clotting agents, chest seals, airways, etc.
- Prescription Meds – All necessary prescriptions, including glasses and contacts. Have at least a 2 week supply of meds, and a month’s is better. Talk to your doctor about long-term storage and getting the supply you need.
- Documents –Paper or digital copies of all important docs and IDs. Keep these in a totally waterproof enclosure or on a flashdrive in a waterproof container.
- Toolkit –Include things like a good hammer, nails, handsaw, crowbar, clamps, vise-grips, pliers, and so forth.
- Cash and Cards – Cash money is always good unless the U.S. as a nation is on the ropes. You’ll need cash no matter what, but you can probably forget cards until some semblance of normalcy returns. Cards will still work, though, in neighboring areas that still have power, so keep them handy.
- Books, games, playing cards – Assuming you are otherwise safe and snug, there will be plenty of down time while you wait for the hurricane to pass or weaken. Instead of listening to howling winds, creaking wood and pounding rain, you should have a few simple, reliable options for passing the time and relaxing with anyone with you. Keeping spirits up is an important part of maintaining morale.
It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and complacency by hurricanes. They happen year in, and year out, and most don’t result in anything worse than lost power or a little roof damage.
Some cause residents significant grief, and a rare few truly live up to their title of Lord of All Storms. Don’t be caught flat-footed when one of these monstrosities is plunging for your region. Know what you are going to do, and then do it, without delay or hesitation.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.