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Everybody, (Don’t) Panic: How to Prepare for a Hurricane the Right Way

Posted on Tuesday, August 6th, 2019 at 2:18 pm by Williams Hart   |  Updated: Friday, August 9th, 2019 at 8:04 am    

Texas: A History of Storms

About 100 storms and tropical disturbances develop in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico each year. Some of these turn into tropical storms, and on average, two each year become hurricanes that make landfall in the U.S.

Residents along the 367 miles of Texas coastline are no stranger to the life-threatening storms that often emerge from the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Beginning the 1st of June through the end of November, coastal homeowners are at risk of a barrage of hazards brought on by hurricanes, including high winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, and storm surges. 

While hurricanes and other major storms affect the entire country, Texas has stood witness to some of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters formed in the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1851 and 2016, 289 hurricanes affected the continental U.S. Of these, 63 made landfall in Texas.

Hurricane Facts

Hurricanes are giant, spiraling tropical storms that can strike land at wind speeds of over 160mph and unleash more than 2.4 trillion gallons of rain a day.

In the formative stages of a hurricane, heat is drawn from warm, moist ocean air and released through condensation of water vapor in thunderstorms. It is at that point that a tropical depression is established. If the sustained velocity of its winds exceed 39 mph, it becomes a tropical storm. At this stage it is given a name and is considered a threat. When the winds exceed 74 mph, the system becomes a hurricane.

Hurricanes are, essentially, colossal heat engines that generate energy on a staggering scale. 

Categories

Hurricanes are categorized from 1 to 5 by the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, a rating system based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed.

  • Category 1 – Winds 74 to 95mph (Minor damage)
    • Very dangerous winds will produce some damage. 
  • Category 2 – Winds 96 to 110mph (Extensive damage)
    • Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage.
  • Category 3 – Winds 111 to 129mph (Devastating damage)
    • Devastating damage will occur.
  • Category 4 – Winds 130 to 156mph (Catastrophic damage)
    • Catastrophic damage will occur.
  • Category 5 – Winds 157 mpg or higher (Absolute worst)
    • Catastrophic damage will occur.

Hurricane Watch and Warning Terms

Although not every tropical storm fully develops into a hurricane, it is important to recognize the difference between a hurricane watch and a hurricane warning.

A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within a specified area. Hurricane warnings are issued 36-hours in advance of the expected onset of high-speed winds in order to allow more time for important storm preparation activities. 

A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within a specified area. These are typically issued 48-hours in advance of the expected onset of high-speed winds. This is when you should prepare your home and review your evacuation plan in case a hurricane warning is issued.

Hurricane Safety Tips

Even if you’ve experienced a hurricane in the past, you may not be aware of how to fully prepare for one. Whether you’re a longtime resident or new to the area, it’s important to know what steps to take to ensure your and your family’s safety–from pre-landfall to post-landfall.  

Before a Hurricane

If a hurricane watch or warning is issued in your specific area, complete preparation is essential for minimizing damage to your property and securing the safety of your household. 

  • To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan (see section below).
  • Know your surroundings.
  • Learn the elevation level of your property and whether the land is flood-prone. This will help you know how your property will be affected when storm surge or tidal flooding are forecasted.
  • Identify levees and dams in your area and determine whether they pose a hazard to you.
  • Learn community hurricane evacuation routes (see section below) and how to find higher ground. Determine where you would go and how you would get there if you needed to evacuate.
  • Make plans to secure your property (see section below).
  • Determine how and where to secure your boat.
  • Install a generator for emergencies.
  • If in a high-rise building, be prepared to take shelter on or below the 10th floor.
  • Consider building a safe room.

During a Hurricane

  • If told to evacuate, do so immediately. Do not drive around barricades.
  • If sheltering during high winds, go to a FEMA safe room, ICC 500 storm shelter, or a small, interior, windowless room or hallway on the lowest floor that is not subject to flooding.
  • If trapped in a building by flooding, go to the highest level of the building. Do not climb into a closed attic. You may become trapped by rising flood water.
  • Listen for current emergency information and instructions.
  • Use a generator or other gasoline-powered machinery outdoors ONLY and away from windows.
  • Do not walk, swim, or drive through flood waters. Turn Around. Don’t Drown! Just six inches of fast-moving water can knock you down, and one foot of moving water can sweep your vehicle away.
  • Stay off of bridges over fast-moving water.

Winds, Storm Surges & Flooding

Storm surge is water from the ocean that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around a hurricane. Storm surge is historically the leading cause of hurricane-related deaths in the United States. It undermines roads and foundations when it erodes material out from underneath them.

Storm surge is fast and can produce extreme coastal and inland flooding. When hurricanes cause storm surge, over 20 feet of water can be produced and pushed towards the shore and several miles inland destroying property and endangering lives in its path.  

Water weighs about 1,700 pounds per cubic yard, so battering waves from surge can easily demolish buildings and cause massive destruction along the coast.

Just one inch of water can cause $25,000 of damage to your home. 

Flood Insurance Facts

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floods—including inland flooding, flash floods and flooding from seasonal storms—occur in every region of the United States. In fact, 90 percent of all natural disasters in the U.S. involve some type of flooding. 

Flood Insurance Basics

  • Homeowners and renters insurance does not typically cover flood damage.
  • More than 20 percent of flood claims come from properties outside high-risk flood zones.
  • Flood insurance can pay regardless of whether or not there is a Presidential Disaster Declaration.
  • Disaster assistance comes in two forms: a U.S. Small Business Administration loan, which must be paid back with interest, or a FEMA disaster grant, which is about $5,000 on average per household.  By comparison, the average flood insurance claim is nearly $30,000 and does not have to be repaid.

National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program was established by Congress in 1968 for two reasons: to share the risk of flood losses through insurance and to reduce flood damages by restricting floodplain development. The program enables property owners in participating communities to purchase insurance protection from the government against losses from flooding.

For more information on how to buy or renew flood insurance, understanding your risk, how to reduce your cost, or how to file a claim, visit https://www.floodsmart.gov/

Myths vs. Facts

MYTH: I receive flood insurance through my homeowner’s insurance.
FACT: Homeowner insurance policies do not normally cover flood damage. You can purchase flood insurance through an insurance agent or company.
MYTH: My homeowner’s insurance agent knows whether I need flood insurance.
FACT: Not necessarily. Not all insurance agents are familiar with communities that participate in NFIP or floodplain hazards. Better to check with an agent who is knowledgeable about NFIP and can explain the benefits so your home and property will be covered should a flood occur.
MYTH: Only those who live in a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) can buy flood insurance.
FACT: Anyone can buy flood insurance if you live in a participating community, which must enforce floodplain ordinances and building requirements that meet or exceed FEMA guidelines. If your community does not participate in the NFIP, you can make a request for it to do so through your mayor, city council or county commissioner’s office.
MYTH: It doesn’t make sense to pay for flood insurance if you are in a low-risk flood zone.
FACT: People outside of high-risk flood zones file more than 20 percent of all NFIP claims and receive one-third of federal disaster assistance for flooding. Flooding can occur anywhere. In fact, it is the number one natural disaster in the United States.
MYTH: You can’t buy flood insurance right before or during a flood.
FACT: You can purchase flood insurance at any time, however, there is usually a 30-day waiting period after the premium payment before the policy becomes effective.
MYTH: Flood insurance is only available for homeowners.
FACT: Most people who live in NFIP participating communities, including renters, condo owners and businesses, are eligible to purchase flood insurance.

Beware of Predatory Contractors

It happens after every disaster: Scammers swing into action to try to make a quick buck off storm victims when they’re the most vulnerable. 

It’s important to recognize predatory behavior after a natural disaster. Be wary of non-local contractors who practice high pressure sales tactics such as unannounced visits and pushing you to sign a contract before a damage inspection with a formal estimate. If someone does show up at your door uninvited after your home has sustained damage, be prepared to ask for an office number and address. Also, check to see if they belong to your local chamber of commerce. 

For a complete list of tips to help you carefully select a contractor, visit this article by the Better Business Bureau.

Preparedness Checklist

Below you will find a series of checklists that will help you better prepare for an oncoming hurricane. 

Create and Practice a Family Emergency Plan

Be sure to practice your plan on a regular basis so that you know what to do in an emergency. Practicing your plan also allows you to find problems with the plan in a safe environment. Then, be sure to update your plan so it’s as good as it can be if a disaster strikes.

  • Make sure everyone knows important phone numbers and that children know their parents’ full names.
  • Keep a list of contacts by the phone and in your emergency kit. Be sure to have a charger for your mobile phone.
  • Make sure you identify a safe room in your home to ride out a storm.
  • Determine the best escape routes from your home and find two ways out of each room.
  • Learn basic safety skills such as CPR, first aid, and use of the fire extinguishers.
  • Decide on a meeting place outside of your home, and one just outside of your neighborhood, in case you cannot return to your home.
  • Make a plan about what you will do if you need to evacuate with your pets.
  • Keep a copy of your family emergency plan in your supply kit or another safe, waterproof place where you can access it in the event of a disaster.
  • If you live in an evacuation Zip-Zone (see below), plan an evacuation route ahead of time.
  • Know where to go to get information on shelters and services following an emergency. Visit houstonemergency.org or call 3-1-1 to find the nearest shelter.
  • Keep some cash on hand in a safe place. Remember that ATMs require power, and may not be available after a disaster.

Prepare your Home

  • Install safety equipment such as smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers. Also test them regularly. Residents of the City of Houston can request a free smoke detector (including detectors for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing) by visiting houstonfire.org and click “Smoke Alarms”.
  • Cover all of your home’s windows with permanent storm shutters, for best protection, or custom cut plywood. Tape does not prevent windows from breaking. 
  • Install straps or additional clips to securely fasten your roof to the frame structure. This will reduce roof damage.
  • Be sure trees and shrubs around your home are well trimmed so they are more wind resistant.
  • Clear loose and clogged rain gutters and downspouts.
  • Reinforce your garage doors; if wind enters a garage it can cause dangerous and expensive structural damage.
  • Bring in all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down.
  • Know how and when to turn off water and electricity at the primary connections.
  • Post emergency phone numbers by all home telephones. Teach children how and when to dial 9-1-1 for fire, police, or an ambulance.
  • Keep a list of your possessions. Keep important papers in a safe deposit box or other safe and dry location.
  • Replace stored water every three months and food every six months.
  • Service and/or replace your fire extinguishers according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Build an Emergency Kit

Building a family emergency kit is crucial. During emergencies, you may need to be on your own for a period of time. You may want to consider three types of kits: A Go-Bag, a Shelter-in-Place Kit, and a Pet Disaster Supply Kit.

Go-bag 

A Go-Bag is one that you would take with you in case of an evacuation. Go-Bags should be easily portable like a backpack or suitcase on wheels. Store it somewhere you can easily get to it. 

  • Copies of your important papers in a waterproof bag.
  • Extra set of car and house keys.
  • External mobile phone battery pack or solar charger. Some hand-crank flashlights will also include a phone charger.
  • Bottled water and snacks such as energy or granola bars.
  • First-aid supplies, flashlight, and whistle.
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio (with extra batteries, if needed).
  • A list of the medications each member of your family needs and at least a 14-day supply of each medication.
  • Toothpaste, toothbrushes, wet cleansing wipes, and other items needed for personal sanitation.
  • Contact and meeting place information for your family and a map of your local area.
  • A stuffed animal or toy for your child and something to help occupy their time, like books or coloring books. If this includes a hand-held video game, make sure you have extra batteries.
  • Rain ponchos.
  • Escape Tool for your car.

Shelter-in-Place Kit

Keep a Shelter-in-Place Kit for when you need to shelter at home for an extended period. 

  • Water (one gallon per person per day, for drinking and sanitation—up to a 7-day supply).
  • Non-perishable food (up to a 7-day supply per person).
  • Battery-powered radio (with extra batteries) or hand-crank radio/NOAA radio.
  • Weather radio with tone alert and extra batteries.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • First-aid supplies.
  • Whistle to signal for help.
  • Filter mask or cotton t-shirt, to help filter the air.
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags, soap, disinfectant, and plastic ties for persona sanitation.
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities (water and electric).
  • Manual can opener if your kit contains canned food.
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place (see pages 35-36).
  • Plastic tarps for emergency roof repair.
  • Items for unique family needs, such as daily prescription medications, infant formula, or diapers.
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, and plastic utensils.
  • Cash and change. (ATMs may not be available after an emergency, especially if the power goes out.)
  • Paper towels.
  • Fire extinguisher.
  • Matches in a waterproof container.
  • Rain gear, sturdy shoes, long pants, and gloves.
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification, birth certificates, passports, and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container.
  • A stuffed animal or toy for your child and something to help occupy their time, like books or coloring books. If this includes a hand-held video game, make sure you have extra batteries.

Pet Disaster Supply Kit

If a family is going to evacuate, the family’s pet should be evacuated too. Ensure your pet has proper identification and consider having them micro-chipped. This will make it much easier to reunite them with you if you are separated during an emergency. Identify ahead of time a place you can evacuate with your pet. Consider boarding facilities, veterinarians or your designated evacuation location who shelter pets during emergencies. 

  • Pet medications
  • Important documents, including vaccination records
  • Pet-friendly soap
  • First-aid supplies
  • Strong leashes and collar/harness with ID tags
  • Carriers to transport pets safely
  • Current photos of pets (in case pets get lost)
  • Pet food
  • Drinking water (one gallon per pet per day, for up to seven days)
  • Bowls
  • Litter/pan
  • Muzzle
  • Manual can opener
  • Toys

Develop a Support System for People with Disabilities 

In addition to the preparedness steps that have already been mentioned, if you or a loved one have access or functional needs, you should develop a support system made up of individuals who can help during a disaster. 

Make a list of any accommodations, specialized equipment, or other necessities that may be required. This list might include: 

  • Adaptive equipment for dressing, showering, or eating
  • Equipment that runs on electricity
  • Special vehicle or transportation requirements 
  • Prescription and non-prescription medications 

Pre-Register for Assistance at TexasStear.org

People who may need extra assistance in a disaster should register with the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR) by visiting texasstear.org or dialing 2-1-1. STEAR may be used by those who require transportation assistance in an evacuation, as well as by individuals who may require other assistance during a disaster. In the event your area is subject to an evacuation order or other disaster, your local Office of Emergency Management may contact you to schedule transportation or other services. For additional information on hurricane preparedness for people with disabilities or those with access and functional needs, visit togetheragainsttheweather.org.

Stay Connected

Staying connected in an emergency situation is imperative to the crucial decision-making involved in remaining safe. Many metropolitan areas have emergency notification systems in place that deliver critical information to residents regarding current conditions, expected impacts, and protective actions to help you adjust your disaster plans as situations change.

Wireless emergency alerts

Authorized government agencies can send short text alerts directly to your phone based on your current location. These alerts happen automatically and do not require you to sign up. To manage these alerts, check your phone’s messenger settings. Learn more at ready.gov/alerts.

  • AlertHouston – Staying informed through emergency notifications helps make sure you know what to expect in an emergency, and what to do to stay safe. AlertHouston offers emergency alerts through email, text message, a mobile app, and social media. Sign up at houstonemergency.org.
  • CitizensNet – Want to know more about disaster preparedness and receive news and information from city departments that are of interest to you? Sign up for CitizensNet at houstontx.gov/citizensnet.

Apps

  • American Red Cross Shelter App – Contains emergency shelter information. Updated only when shelters are opened.
  • The Ready App – Emergency preparedness information for the Houston region.
  • Houston 3-1-1 App – Report non-emergency situations to Houston 3-1-1 from your phone.

You can find these apps and more at houstonemergency.org.

Get Involved

Communities that plan together, and work together before a disaster, are better prepared to help each other during a disaster. Get involved in your community throughout the year, meet your neighbors, and make connections. 

CERT (Community Emergency Response Team)

CERT classes are available in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools to train individuals in basic disaster response skills, such as fire suppression, search and rescue operations, and medical care. This awareness-level course helps residents take a more active role in emergency preparedness by providing skills that allow neighbors to come together and assist one another until local agencies can step in. 

For more information on the training program (a series of eight three-hour sessions) and scheduled classes, visit houstoncert.org.

Neighborhood Ready Houston Program

The Ready Houston program offers a 90-minute training class called “Neighborhood Ready,” which is facilitated by you or a member of your community. The course covers topics such as determining neighborhood readiness, understanding disaster impact, making a plan, and keeping yourself and your neighbors informed.

Meeting Kit

Ready Houston will send you a meeting kit free of charge that includes a facilitator guide providing tips and suggestions to help make the presentation unique to you and your group. The kit also includes a number of items to help you effectively conduct your training session including a DVD, discussion guides, notepads, pens and safety lights. 
To obtain your kit, please visit readyhoustontx.gov/neighborhood-ready/training-and-resources. 

National Night Out

Throughout Texas, the first Tuesday in October is when neighbors come together to introduce themselves to one another, get to know the local law enforcement officers and emergency responders who patrol their area, and help make their communities safer. To learn more about National Night Out in your community, visit houstonpolice.org, contact your local law enforcement agency, or check your neighborhood’s page on Nextdoor.com in late September

Evacuation Information

Hurricane evacuations are based on the damage expected from various storms, and may be local or regional. Evacuations are based on several factors, and are designed to get residents out of harm’s way quickly. 

Zip-zones

Several regions of the Texas Gulf Coast have been designated as Hurricane Evacuation Zip-Zones. Zip-zones are large-scale evacuation corridors that are implemented when disaster strikes. You can view an interactive map of Houston-area Zip-zones here.

Traffic management plans

In the event of high vehicle traffic during an evacuation, local government officials may decide to implement traffic management plans. 

Contraflow

Contraflow involves reversing the flow of traffic on highways so that all traffic flows out. During an evacuation, look for signs indicating whether or not the contraflow plans are in effect. Most evacuations will not require contraflow, and not all contraflow options may be used.

Additional lanes, called “Evaculanes”, are sometimes used during an evacuation and are marked with a white hurricane symbol on a blue circle.

After the Storm

If you were affected by a hurricane, it’s important to pay close attention to the information the city provides. One of the best ways to stay up-to-date is to visit the city’s Disaster Recovery website, houstonrecovers.org.

Returning home

If you evacuated, you should only return home once official instructions are given to do so. After a storm occurs, it’s important to assess the damage your home or business has sustained as quickly as possible. Do not enter areas that are potentially unsafe. This includes damaged buildings, areas with downed power lines or with heavy debris. Do not attempt to walk or swim through floodwaters.

Utilities

Utilities, such as power lines or natural gas service, may have been damaged during the disaster. If you see downed power lines or suspect a gas leak, leave the area. Once you are in a safe location, call 9-1-1 and your utility company to report the emergency

Generator safety

If you choose to use a generator during or after a disaster, make sure it’s always used outside. Do not use chains or locks to secure a generator or connect a generator directly to your home’s electrical system. Do not store gasoline inside your home or near water filters. Always have a carbon monoxide detector when using a generator.

Managing debris

Following a large-scale emergency, the city may implement a program to collect debris in neighborhoods. 
Safely Handling and Separating Debris
Remember that debris, especially after flooding incidents, can be hazardous to your health or safety.  You should always:

  • Wear gloves and eye protection when removing construction materials such as drywall, wood siding, and large furniture.
  • Wear long-pants and sturdy shoes in debris-riddled areas to prevent injury.
  • Separate debri into five categories: vegetative, construction/demolition, appliances, electronics, and household hazardous waste.

Documenting Damage
Before putting debris out for collection, you should do the following:

  • Contact your insurance company to file a claim
  • Document your property damage(s) by taking photographs
  • Contact 311 to notify the city of your damage(s). This will help the city identify areas that will need debris collection.
  • If a federal disaster declaration has been issued, call FEMA (800-621-3362), or apply online at disasterassistance.gov to a Disaster Assistance Claim.

Water

While most disasters don’t impact fresh water service, your drinking water can occasionally be impacted by a disaster. If fresh water service has or may have been impacted:

  • Stay informed and listen to local officials for information on your local water service.
  • If your water quality is impacted, listen to the directions given on what to do.
  • Some water issues can be addressed by purifying water as described below, or by using the seven-day supply of water you have in your Shelter-in-Place Kit.
  • Certain types of contamination make water unsafe even after purification. In this case, you MUST use your supply of bottled water.
  • Remember that water that is unsafe for drinking should not be used to brush teeth, wash dishes, or for mixing infant formula.

Public Health Threats

Mosquito-borne diseases

If your home or property has flooded in the event of a hurricane, it may be an ideal place for mosquitoes to live and spread dangerous diseases such as West Nile and Zika. As a result, you should drain areas of standing water in and around your home, dress in long sleeves and pants, and use mosquito spray that contains DEET. 

Hazardous materials incidents

Hazardous materials are substances, which because of their chemical, physical, or biological nature, pose a potential risk to life, health, and property if they are released. Houston has witnessed chemical plant fires in the past following the impact of a hurricane. If such an incident occurs, local officials may order a shelter-in-place

Hurricane Resources

For additional information on hurricane facts, preparation, and recovery, please visit the links below.

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