How to prepare for a hurricane

Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense. Here's how to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

palm trees blowing in the winds during Hurricane Irma

If it seems like hurricanes are getting worse, you’re not imagining it.

Oceans are heating up, and that heat is affecting when and how storms form, as well as how they behave. 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.

While hurricanes themselves are changing, the best ways to prepare are not. Here, we’ll outline how to prepare for a hurricane before hurricane season and right before a storm. You'll also find tips on what you can do after the storm to reduce damage and return to normal.

What to do before a hurricane: Seasonal prep

Hurricane preparation involves more than stashing a few gallons of water in the pantry and hoping for the best, so if you can, prepare well in advance of hurricane season.

1. Make a hurricane evacuation plan

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.

Before you begin, make sure your Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) provided by the government are turned on, and 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.

Make sure you evacuation plan outlines the following:

  1. Your evacuation route. Buy a relevant paper map in case digital communications are out when you have to evacuate.
  2. 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.).
  3. 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.

Once you have a plan in place, communicate it with your household and any folks you plan to stay with.

2. Gather evacuation essentials

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
  • Blankets
  • Toiletries
  • 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

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.) 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 whole-home 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.

If you have a generator and need to use it, don’t forget to:

  • Always operate the generator outdoors and away from open windows and doors to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning or death.
  • Always follow manufacturer's directions.
  • Never try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, which runs the risk of electrocution.
  • Turn the generator off and let it cool down before refueling to prevent ignition.
  • Plug appliances directly into the generator.

4. Review your home insurance

At the start of hurricane season, read over your insurance policy to know what it covers and what it doesn't. Keep in mind that once a storm has been deemed a threat to anywhere in your state, you may not be able to make changes to your policy.

Remember that homeowners insurance usually doesn't cover flood damage. You need to add on flood insurance for that protection.

Also bear in mind that your hurricane deductible will apply for damage from hurricane winds.

We mentioned above that you should have a home 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. Get your home ready

Brace your home for potential impact. You may want to:

  1. Secure soffits. Install stainless steel screws through fascia to the soffit. Apply sealant over the screws and let it set for 72 hours.
  2. Maintain your roof. Secure loose shingles, make sure they're properly sealed, and install flashing around your chimney and skylights. 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. Taking care of your roof now can help you qualify for wind mitigation discounts.
  3. Install hurricane shutters to protect your windows from impact. Plywood should only be used as a last-minute effort because it doesn't offer as much protection.
  4. Install a wind-rated garage door to withstand storm pressure. You can also temporarily reinforce your existing garage door with a brace.
  5. Seal cracks and gaps around windows, doors, and other openings. Gaps that seem small in dry weather can be the source of lots of water and big problems during a hurricane.
  6. Secure anything loose in your yard and store outdoor furniture, as high winds could send it flying. Ask your neighbors to do the same.
  7. Trim tree branches that hang over your house or dying trees to prevent them from falling.
  8. Back up your electronics to cloud storage and unplug your devices before a storm starts to prevent damage from electrical surges and power loss.
  9. Put your refrigerator on the coldest setting to prepare for power outages and to protect your perishables.

6. Prepare 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Last minute hurricane prep

If a storm's imminently approaching and you haven't prepared in advance, make sure you secure your home immediately. You can do that by:

  1. Closing all exterior and interior doors and windows, including the garage door. Doing so can reduce wind force on the roof by up to 30 percent.
  2. Making sure to charge your cell phone. SMS sometimes works after a storm when other methods of communication won't.
  3. Downloading the free FEMA app to receive real-time weather alerts from the National Weather Service targeted to your county. The app also has emergency tips for each type of event and emergency shelter listings.
  4. Tidying up outdoors by storing outdoor furniture, closing gates, securing fences, tying down any fixtures in the yard, and storing tools and equipment.
  5. Storing your insurance provider's contact information and family you might need to contact after the storm.
  6. Putting hurricane shutters in place. Plywood should only be used in place of shutters as a last-minute resort when tropical weather is imminent.
  7. Reinforcing your garage door with a brace if it's not wind-rated.
  8. Sealing gaps and cracks around windows, doors, pipes, electrical boxes, and vents.
  9. Clearing debris from your gutters and extending downspouts away from your house.
  10. Securing loose shingles on your roof with stainless steel screws and sealant.
  11. Move valuables, important documents, electronics, and furnitures to the second floor.

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.