Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense. Here's how to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Make a Plan to Survive a Hurricane
If it seems to you like hurricanes are getting worse, you’re not imagining things.
Oceans are heating up, and that heat is affecting when and how storms form, as well as how they behave. In recent years, hurricanes affecting the Atlantic Basin have:
- Seen wind speed increases between two and 11 percent.
- Seen a 20 percent increase in rainfall.
- Slowed their forward movement by 17 percent, so that they’re more likely to stall.
In addition, while scientific models offer mixed predictions about how warming oceans are likely to affect the total number of hurricanes, they point to a 45 to 87 percent increase in the number of Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes – that is, those with the highest wind speeds, which tend to be most destructive.
Even casual weather watchers have probably noticed these changes: Hurricane Irma and Harvey caused serious damage in the Florida and Texas in 2017; Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico that same year; in 2019, Hurricane Dorian flattened much of the Bahamas.
Both Harvey and Dorian both made headlines for their slow movement, which led to disastrous flooding as the storms dumped more and more water in a concentrated area.
While hurricanes themselves are changing, the best ways to prepare are not. Here, we’ll outline how to prepare for a hurricane and what you can do afterward to minimize the damage to your home and make it as easy as possible to return to normal.
What to Do Before a Hurricane
Preparing for a hurricane isn’t something to do in the last week of May, right before the official start of Atlantic hurricane season. That’s because hurricane preparation involves more than stashing a few gallons of water in the pantry and hoping for the best.
Here, we outline six hurricane preparation projects to tackle between now and the start of next year’s season.
1: Make a Hurricane Evacuation Plan
One of the biggest questions you’ll have to answer as you prepare for a hurricane (and for hurricane season more generally) is when and under what conditions you’ll evacuate.
Most experts recommend making an evacuation plan before any actual hurricane is in the forecast. Acting early helps ensure that your plan is rational and well thought out, rather than an emotional response to the fear that a hurricane in the forecast can cause.
Start your evacuation plan with these two steps:
- Don’t opt out of weather alerts. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) are a service provided by the government to alert people of dangers in their area. They’re free and defaulted “on” on most mobile phones. While it’s possible to opt out of weather-related WEAs, it’s not smart to do so. Leave this setting untouched on your mobile device, and you’ll be alerted whenever you’re in an area that’s under some kind of threat.
- Know whether you live in an evacuation zone. Hurricane winds, rain, and storm surges can affect people even many miles inland, so don’t assume you’re safe because of where you live. Instead, check to see whether you’re in an evacuation zone so you know ahead of time what to expect in the event of a storm.
Once you’ve done some background research, prepare for a hurricane by planning your evacuation in more detail:
- Learn the evacuation route. Buy a relevant paper map in case digital communications are out when you have to evacuate.
- Make arrangements for where you’ll stay. This might mean making a primary plan to stay with friends or family who live out of the danger zone and a shelter fallback plan. If a storm is already looming and you can’t evacuate in time, have your county’s shelter information on hand. As you plan, don’t forget to accommodate your pets: remember that some shelters won’t take pets and that it’s best for yours to have all relevant paperwork with them (vaccination information, insurance documents, medical records, etc.).
- Decide when you’ll evacuate. While it’s fine to wait until official channels issue an evacuation order, certain groups may wish to evacuate sooner to ensure they have plenty of time to get where they’re going. If you or someone you’ll be traveling with is elderly, has special needs, is pregnant, or is sick, you may want to plan an early evacuation to keep everyone safe. Those who live in mobile homes or low-lying coastal areas should generally evacuate early, and those who will be towing large vehicles may have to, as high winds can make driving these vehicles dangerous.
When you’ve planned how and when you’ll evacuate, it’s time to decide what you’ll bring. You can pack many of these items ahead of time, and it’s wise to do so to make the evacuation process as seamless as possible.
Prepare yourself to bring the following if you evacuate for a hurricane:
- A photo ID
- Medical essentials (medicine, glasses, equipment, etc.)
- A flashlight and extra batteries
- A battery-operated portable radio
- Bottled water
- Non-perishable foods
- Spare clothing and shoes
- Important papers (homeowners insurance policy, will, deed to your house, etc.)
- Contact information for loved ones, your doctor, and your insurance agent
- Cash and credit cards
- Extra gas for your car
- A first-aid kit
- An inventory of your belongings
Finally, as you prepare your evacuation plan, take a few minutes to remember why it’s sometimes necessary to evacuate when a hurricane hits: in addition to saving your life and the lives of your family members, evacuating helps protect first responders who might otherwise have to be out in dangerous conditions to rescue people who hunker down.
Then there’s the post-storm considerations, which we’ll get to a bit later: even after the storm passes, your home may not be safe to inhabit for several days. Evacuating can ensure that you’re out of harm’s way during the storm and that you’re strong and healthy enough to tackle any rebuilding you’ll have to do when the waters recede.
2: Communicate Your Plan
Once you’ve prepared your evacuation plan, write it out and review it with your family so that everyone knows what to do in the event of an emergency. Create both paper and digital versions that you and your family members can access easily.
It’s also smart to send a copy to the friends and family you plan to stay with and any other loved ones who will want updates in the event of a hurricane.
3: Purchase Hurricane Supplies
Florida residents can prepare for a hurricane by purchasing without sales tax during the first week of hurricane season. (Learn about the Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday.) This includes items like:
- Reusable ice packs
- Portable generators
Most of the supplies you need will last at least a year, but it’s important to check on them to make sure you’re well equipped.
These are the most important things to have stocked to prepare for hurricane season:
- Enough water and canned food to last at least a week
- Flashlights or headlamps with a supply of extra batteries
- Candles and matches
- A generator
- Spare gasoline for your vehicles, generator, and any hand tools you might need for clearing fallen branches
- An ax in the attic in case there’s severe flooding
FEMA also offers some excellent recommendations for building an emergency kit.
4: Check Your Home Insurance Coverage
At the start of hurricane season, read over your insurance policy. You don’t want to encounter a disaster only to later discover you don’t have as much protection as you thought.
Do this ASAP – once a storm has been deemed a threat to anywhere in your state, you may not be able to make changes to your policy.
Specifically, you want to make sure your policy includes:
- Flood insurance. This is vital for protecting homes in hurricane-prone areas. Check the flood insurance coverage for your car, too. Note: typical homeowners policies do not include flood insurance; you’ll have to buy this coverage separately.
- A hurricane deductible. This means you’ll have protection for the damage caused by hurricane winds.
We mentioned above that you should have an inventory of your belongings when you evacuate. This is mostly for insurance purposes: in the event of a disaster, pictures of your home and belongings can be vital for making insurance claims so you can replace your stuff and repair your home.
5: Secure Your Home & Valuables
Homeowners are wise to proactively protect their home to mitigate damage from wind, floods, and power loss.
Wind speeds of Category 1 hurricanes range from 74 to 95 miles per hour, which can easily rip off poorly attached roof shingles. Category 5 hurricanes have wind speeds of 157 miles per hour or more, which can cause total roof loss.
States like Florida require insurance companies to provide discounts to homeowners for mitigating wind damage.
You can reduce your risk of wind damage by boarding up windows or getting hurricane shutters, and by regularly maintaining your roof. This means checking for loose shingles and making repairs.
You should also secure anything loose in your yard, as high winds could send it flying. This might include cleaning and reinforcing your gutters, trimming branches and trees that pose a hazard to your home or vehicle, and tying down patio furniture.
Electrical surges and power loss can also cause considerable damage to your home and belongings. Protect yourself by backing up your electronics to cloud storage and unplugging your devices before a storm starts.
To prepare for power outages and to protect your perishables, put your refrigerator on the coldest setting.
6: Prepare Your Property for Floodwaters
Flooding is the most costly and common type of storm damage, so it’s important to take measures to reduce the potential destruction to your home and belongings, including these:
- Store valuables and important documents above the ground floor, in a waterproof container.
- Before a storm, move electronics, furniture, and anything else that might be ruined by floodwaters to the second floor (or somewhere well above ground level).
- Make sure your sump pump is working properly and has a backup power source (usually either from a battery or pressure from the municipal water supply). If you don’t have a sump pump, have one installed.
- Block doors with sandbags and plastic or urethane foam. Neither method is perfect, but both can help block the main entryway water has to your house.
- Maintain your home well. Cracks that seem small in dry weather can be the source of lots of water and big problems during a hurricane.
- Consider keeping an ax in the attic in case of severe flooding, but understand that axing your way out of the attic is difficult and dangerous. In addition to an ax, consider storing a red or orange flag and a pole you can raise it on, should you need to alert rescuers that you’re in need of help.
Your insurance provider (hi!) is also a great resource for ideas on how to protect your home.
What to Do After a Hurricane
Even if you prepare for a hurricane perfectly, though, the storm might still cause damage. That’s just the nature of hurricanes.
Once the storm itself has passed, you’ll be faced with the job of recovering and getting your life back to normal. Here’s how to do that as safely and efficiently as possible.
- Don’t return until there’s an official all-clear. If you evacuated, wait until authorities say it’s safe to return. Coming back too soon could strain already shaky infrastructure and put you and your family in danger.
- Avoid flood waters. Whether you sheltered in place or evacuated, avoid wading and driving through floodwaters, which can contain debris and downed power lines.
- Eat and drink with caution. Avoid drinking tap water until you’ve confirmed that it’s safe. Don’t eat refrigerated foods that were warmer than 40ºF for more than two hours. Emergency resources are likely to be constrained, so do everything in your power to avoid putting yourself in danger.
- Wear protective gear when cleaning. After a flood, anything from falling branches to mold could cause health problems, so proceed with caution as you clean up.
- Contact your insurance provider. If your insurance provider hasn’t already reached out to you about coverage, reach out to communicate damage and start the process of filing claims. The sooner you do this, the sooner your home will be repaired.
For more tips, check out the EPA’s guide to recovering from a hurricane.
Hurricane Prep Should Be an Ongoing Project
Obviously, there are a lot of variables when it comes to preparing for bad weather. The important takeaway here is that there is no single right way to prepare for a hurricane, but you do have to prepare.
Maybe the easiest way to do this is to work hurricane preparation into your normal home maintenance tasks: whenever you test your smoke alarms, check the expiration dates on your hurricane food supplies and replace anything that’s gone bad.
Whenever you clean the gutters, ensure your spare gas supply is adequate.
And so on.
When hurricane preparation becomes part of your ordinary home maintenance, you’ll be better prepared to weather any storm that blows your way.