Planning for Emergencies: Hurricanes (Fourth of a Series)

People are the most important part of any business. When preparing or reviewing your business plan regularly, make sure you have emergency plans also in place for you, your people and your business.
In the fourth part of our series, we will continue to give you information on protecting yourself and others for different situations. The topic of our fourth blog is associated with coastal areas more than the Midwest, but it can impact Midwest weather, as well – tropical cyclones or, as they’re better known, hurricanes.

Severe Weather Awareness: Hurricanes

In the early morning hours of 29 August 2005, the Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Katrina. Although it reached a Category 5 ranking on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, at the time it made landfall, the storm had only a Category 3 ranking, with sustained 120 mph winds. Katrina had a diameter of 400 miles, displacing people from their homes in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Its leading winds, which were strongest, demolished Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. Its storm surge most famously leveled levees in New Orleans, leading to massive flooding; over 80 percent of the city was inundated for weeks, as were surrounding parishes.

The storm killed an estimated 1,833 people and left thousands more homeless, causing more than $100 billion of the $159 billion in damage caused by all the hurricanes and tropical storms that formed that year.

How Are Hurricanes Named?

Tropical storms in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific are named from separate lists approved by the World Meteorological Organization and maintained by the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center. The lists were begun in 1953 and switched from all female names to alternating male and female names in 1978 for the Northeast Pacific and 1979 for the Atlantic. Lists are alphabetical, omitting the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z for Atlantic storms and Q and U for the Northeast Pacific (east of 140 degrees West longitude). Each set of names are re-used in six-year cycles; however, any storm that proves exceptionally deadly or destructive has its name retired and replaced with a new name.

If more named storms occur in any year than there are assigned names for, additional names are assigned from letters in the Greek alphabet. This happened in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina hit, when there were 27 Atlantic storms.

Typhoons and cyclones have different naming conventions than do tropical cyclones in waters which touch the United States. In addition, hurricanes in the North Central Pacific are given names from a rotating set of Hawaiian names.

How Do Hurricanes Form?

Like tornadoes, hurricanes are cyclonic winds that form around low pressure systems; the main differences are that hurricanes always form over water and that they are much wider than tornadoes.

Hurricanes form over warm ocean waters near the equator. The warm waters evaporate and heat the air above it, causing it to rise and lower the air pressure. As the warm, moist air rises, the surrounding air rushes in and it, too, heats up, absorbs moisture and rises. The air begins to swirl about as it rises.

As the air rises, it cools, forming clouds that also swirl about with the air and water beneath them. The air pressure continues to drop, forming an “eye” in the center that is calm and windless, while the surrounding air continues to spin faster. If the storm is north of the equator, the winds spin counterclockwise; if it is south of the equator, they spin clockwise.

As long as the winds stay below 39 mph (63 km/hr), the storm is classified as a tropical depression. Once the winds reach this speed, the tropical depression becomes a tropical storm; it is at this point that the storm is given a name. Once the winds reach a speed of 74 mph (119 km/hr), the storm is classified as a tropical cyclone, or hurricane.

Actually, the term “hurricane” is used only for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and the Northeast Pacific (east of the International Date Line). A tropical cyclone in the Northwest Pacific is called a typhoon, while a tropical cyclone in the Southwest Pacific or Indian Ocean is called a cyclone.

Hurricanes can form over a period of several days to a week, or in as fast as a day. Both Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Hurricane Patricia in 2015 formed in a day’s time; Patricia’s formation was especially remarkable because it formed in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

As long as the storm is over water, it can continue to grow in strength. Hurricane Katrina was able to grow to Category 5 strength because it was stalled from moving by a large high pressure system (anticyclone) over the Gulf of Mexico, which funneled more air into it.

Once a hurricane makes landfall, it loses the energy from the warm ocean waters that had previously fed it. The storm can still be quite dangerous, however, particularly if it was a Category 3 or stronger hurricane at the time it made landfall. The strongest hurricane to date to make landfall was Hurricane Patricia, which reached Category 5 status on 22 October 2015 before reaching the Mexican coast. Although it had weakened considerably at the time it reached the coast, it was still classified as the strongest Pacific storm to make landfall. (Prior to its weakening, there were concerns that it would sweep across land and reach the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be reinvigorated by the waters of the gulf.)

When Do Hurricanes Form?

According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricane season begins on 1 June 1 in the Atlantic Ocean and 15 May in the eastern half of the Pacific. Both seasons end 30 November. These dates were determined by the center’s forecasters in 1965. Typhoon season in the Northwest Pacific goes from April through December, while cyclone season in the Southwest Pacific goes from November to April. (Remember that seasons in the Southern Hemisphere run six months opposite those of the Northern Hemisphere.)

It is possible for hurricanes to form before or after these dates, however; the last tropical storm to form in 2005 formed on 30 December of that year and dissipated 6 January of the following year.

Over the last 30 years, there has been an average of 12 Atlantic named storms per year, six of which become hurricanes and three of those major hurricanes. The 2015 season sported only 11 storms, with Tropical Storm Kate closing out the season. Only two of those storms became hurricanes, matching the record set in 1982 and tied in 2013.

There is no correlation between the number of hurricanes in a given year and their severity. In 2014, there were only eight named storms, but six of them achieved hurricane strength. The Outer Banks were menaced by Hurricane Arthur, the strongest hurricane at landfall for the previous six years, and Bermuda was hit by two successive hurricanes, Fay and Gonzalo.

What Kinds of Damage Do Hurricanes Cause?

Although hurricanes can and do cause damage at sea to ships unfortunate enough to be engulfed in them, they are most noted for the damage they cause on making landfall. There are five ways hurricanes cause damage on land:

  • Strong winds. As noted, hurricanes are rated according to the strength of the winds they produce. These winds can uproot trees, flip cars, capsize boats, demolish buildings, and scoop up and fling debris at anything within range.
  • Storm surges. The combination of low pressure and high winds creates a bulge in the water level that is pushed to the shore by the winds blowing to the right of the storm’s path. The storm surge height can be anywhere from 3 to 25 feet (1 to 5 meters) and, depending on the lay of the land, can reach as far inland as a mile or two. Storm surges can push cars and boats inland or pull them out to sea and can flood low-lying areas for weeks.
  • Hurricanes are typically accompanied by heavy rainfall, which can lead to flooding. Flash floods of 3 feet (1 meter) of rain in a few days are possible, as is long-term flooding. Furthermore, increased rainfall is possible a considerable distance from where the hurricane makes landfall. Hurricane Opal, which made landfall in the Florida Panhandle in 1995, moved as far inland as central Alabama, dumping 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) of rain at various locations throughout the state, and 6.5 inches (16 cm) miles away in Atlanta, Georgia. Likewise, Hurricane Katrina was only downgraded to a tropical storm when it reached Meridian, Mississippi and, reduced to a remnant low pressure system, reached the Great Lakes before being absorbed by a frontal zone. (For more information on dealing with flooding, see our blog entry at
  • Tornadoes often form within the eye wall or spiral bands of a hurricane and can split off from the hurricane when it makes landfall. A number of tornadoes were spun off of or spawned by Hurricane Celia when it made landfall in Texas in 1970. (The hurricane also spawned a number of microbursts and downbursts, which caused the most damage near where Celia made landfall.) These twisters can be masked by the heavy rainfall that accompanies a hurricane, although they can be spotted by radar. (For more information on dealing with tornadoes, see our blog entry at
  • Rip tides. Rip tides can be caused in part by the strong winds and storm surges of a hurricane, or by the wind and wave action of a hurricane still some distance from shore. Incoming waves scoop up sediment from the sea floor and deposit it as underwater sandbars near the shore. The water continues to build up between the shore and the sandbar, until finally the pressure ruptures the sandbar, creating a rip tide where the water rushes out to sea. Rip tides are strong enough that trying to swim against them is taking your life in your hands, but narrow enough that you can swim perpendicular to the current until you no longer feel it and then swim to shore.

3What Is The Difference Between a Hurricane Watch and a Warning?

Severe weather alerts are divided into watches and warnings. A watch is issued when severe weather conditions are predicted to occur. A hurricane watch is issued when conditions for are favorable within the next 48 hours.

A warning is usually issued when severe weather is occurring or imminent. In the case of hurricanes, a hurricane warning is issued if a hurricane is expected in the next 36 hours.

If either a watch or warning is issued, keep abreast of developments through a NOAA weather radio or through commercial radio or television.

How Can I Prepare Beforehand?

When traveling

Register with the State Department if traveling outside the United States. If you are traveling to a hurricane-prone area outside the United States, registering with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate through the State Department’s travel registration website (https://step/ will allow the embassy or consulate to contact you if an emergency arises. However, in most cases local authorities will bear the responsibility for your welfare, and you should follow their instructions on safety, security, and evacuation.

At home

Before hurricane season begins

Keep your trees trimmed. Remove any branches that have the potential of falling onto your house if a storm hits, as these would most likely be broken by high winds.

Make sure gutters and downspouts are ready. Secure any loose gutters or downspouts, and clean the debris from your gutters.

Reinforce possible weak spots. This includes not just the roof, but windows, doors, and garage doors.

Designate a friend or family member who lives in another state or area as a point of contact in the event you should become displaced.

When a hurricane watch or warning is declared

Monitor weather conditions closely. As conditions worsen, listen to either your local news or to a NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent organization of the National Weather Service) weather radio for more information. You can also receive weather information from commercial radio and television broadcasts from stations that are part of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Review your options for keeping in touch if you lose power. Options include phoning, texting, emailing or using social media. Texting may be best, as phone lines are often overloaded after a storm.

Review your evacuation plan with your family.

Get your car ready in case you have to evacuate. Fill the gas tank and put in a set of emergency supplies and a change of clothes.

Assemble an emergency kit. This kit should be kept in your designated safe room or shelter or kept near it so precious time is not lost. FEMA (, the American Red Cross ( and others recommend different supplies to be put in your emergency kit, including:

  • One gallon of water per person per day for at least three days (for both drinking and washing)
  • Food (non-perishable) for three days
  • Can opener for food
  • Mess kits (plates, cups and eating utensils)
  • Radio with extra batteries (or a hand-crank       radio)
  • Flashlight with extra batteries (or a hand-crank flashlight)
  • First aid kit, including antiseptics, medicine and bandages
  • Prescription medicines
  • Whistle (to use if you are unable to call loud enough for help)
  • Matches, in a waterproof container
  • Blankets
  • Change of clothes
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Bags, or other items, for makeshift toilets
  • Cell phone with charger, inverter or solar charger
  • Phone apps useful for emergencies, including weather alerts and social media to call for help
  • Phone numbers of friends and family on paper, in case your cell phone has no power
  • Phone numbers of the utilities and emergency assistance
  • A dust mask of at least rating N95 for each person, in case the air is too hard to breathe from dust or fire. You can find these at hardware or home improvement stores, as well as through online vendors.
  • Plastic sheeting to keep dry and make shelter
  • Duct tape to help make shelter with the plastic sheeting, if needed
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities or bang pipes for help
  • Paper, pens, pencils
  • Trash bags
  • Wipes
  • Extra cash

If you have children, include:

  • Infant formula and water for mix, if needed
  • Diapers, ointment and baby cleaning supplies
  • Water and food for children for at least three days
  • Books, games, amusements and toys that do not require electricity

If you have pets, include:

  • Pet food and water for at least three days
  • Pet carriers
  • Collars and leashes
  • Favorite toy
  • Litter box or newspapers

Putting your emergency supplies in backpacks or duffel bags is a good idea to keep them safe, easy to carry and close at hand. Most of these supplies work for other emergencies as well.

Note: The three-day supply is recommended for short-term survival conditions, if an evacuation is planned within 72 hours. If you anticipate longer emergency conditions, the American Red Cross recommends having a two-week supply of non-perishable food and water.

18 to 36 hours from landfall

Bookmark your city or county website for ready access to storm updates and emergency instructions.

Remove any prospective projectiles. Bring in lightweight items like patio furniture and garbage cans and anchor items too heavy to bring inside, such as propane tanks. Trim or remove any trees that may be close enough to your house to fall on it.

Cover your windows. Permanent storm shutters are best, but you can also nail 5/8-inch marine grade plywood over your windows.

6 to 18 hours from landfall

Get updates on the storm every half hour. Keep doing this even when the storm is less than 6 hours away.

Charge your cell phone battery.

6 hours from landfall

Let friends and family know where you’ll be. If your area isn’t chosen to be evacuated, plan on staying where you are.

Close your storm shutters. Stay away from the windows, as flying glass can injure you.

Turn your refrigerator and freezer to their coldest setting and open only when necessary. This will keep your food colder longer if you should lose power. You should keep thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer to monitor the temperature inside them.

What Should I Do After the Hurricane is Over?

Get updates and instructions from local officials.

Check in with family and friends. Texting is best, followed by using social media.

Wait until the authorities tell you it’s safe to return home. The death toll for Hurricane Katrina was as large as it was, in part, because many people did not follow instructions from the authorities.

Look out for debris and downed power lines.

Avoid walking or driving through flood waters. The water may conceal downed power lines, and water deeper than 6 inches can knock you down. Fast-moving water can sweep your car away.

Document any damage for your insurer. Support any written statements with photographs where possible.

Make temporary repairs to prevent further damage, such as putting a tarp over your damaged roof.

Resources and References

Hurricane formation

Weather alerts

National Weather Service active weather alert map:

Weather Underground:

Levee safety

Levee safety:

Flood insurance resources

National Flood Insurance Program (

Understanding the cost of flooding:

The FEMA Flood Map Service Center:,

How to read flood maps:,

Government disaster programs (FEMA)

State Directory of CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) Programs:

Disaster Emergency Communications:

Preparing for the hurricane and after:

Equipment and training

The American Red Cross Store:

Finding Your Local American Red Cross Chapter:

Emergency communications

FEMA Family Communications Plan:

The American Red Cross Safe and Well Registry:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *