Hurricane Season: A Primer from a Southerner

Hurricane Season: A Primer from a Southerner

June 4

Most of my life has been spent in the South and fairly close to the Gulf Coast. Two of the most important seasons, (and I believe I am speaking for a significant number of Southerners) are college football and hurricane. Now that I am in Utah, I will truly miss being in the South during football season (Go, Dawgs, Go!), but I am not going to miss being there during hurricane season, which began on June 1.

I have seen my fair share of memorable Gulf Coast storms: Elena, Andrew, Rita, Allison and Ike. I will not miss living on edge as a storm enters or forms in the Gulf of Mexico. Nor will I miss hunkering down in the house for 10-12 hours as nature’s fury is at full force outside and the following days of cleanup and life without power during the summer heat and humidity of the South. I figure it is time to give blizzards and the constant threat of earthquakes a try.

In case you missed it, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is forecasting an active 2013 season. The forecast calls for 13-20 named tropical storms (winds greater than 39 mph) with seven to 11 of those storms expected to reach the 74-mph-mark to become hurricanes. Also, NOAA forecasts three to six storms to become major hurricanes (categories 3-5) with winds greater than 111 mph.

From my personal experiences as a resident of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and as a former aerographer’s (weather) mate in the U.S. Navy Reserves, I have learned five truths when it comes to hurricanes:

First: Expect the unexpected. While hurricane forecasting is getting better, storms can have unexpected changes in their tracks and sudden surges in strength. I learned this one the hard way while camping with friends. We pitched the tent late one afternoon with the forecast calling for Hurricane Elena to hit Florida, only to be woken up just before dawn by my parents who came to tell as that it was time pack up and head home because the storm had changed its mind and was headed to Mississippi.

Second: The damaging and deadly effects of a hurricane are not confined to the immediate coastal areas or near the eye. While the coastal storm surge is one of the most destructive parts of a hurricane, high winds, tornadoes and flooding rains can wreak havoc on locations hundreds of miles inland. For example, after laying waste to the southeast Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, Katrina maintained hurricane strength for 150 miles inland and did not lose tropical storm status until nearly crossing the Tennessee/Kentucky state line.

Another sobering example is Camille, the second most intense hurricane to hit the United States. Camille slammed into the Mississippi/Louisiana coast in 1969 with winds nearly reaching 200 mph. (Note: The top wind speed of this storm will never be known due to the destruction of the weather observation equipment.) Camille killed 256 people, with 113 of those deaths occurring in Virginia from flash flooding. In case you don’t have a map handy, Virginia is a long way from Biloxi Beach.

Third: Size (strength) does not matter. In 2001, Allison never made hurricane strength, but it etched a deadly and destructive passage in the history books. Tropical Storm Allison killed 41 people in the United States and caused more than $5 billion in damage with catastrophic flooding. The Port of Houston recorded more than 36 inches of rain. Twenty-three people were killed in Texas before the storm meandered through a large part of the eastern part of the country. Deaths occurred as far north as Pennsylvania.

On a personal level, I experienced Allison’s rage as I spent the night in my car on I-45 because the heavy rains had flooded the feeder roads and exits from downtown Houston to the bridge leading to Galveston Island. I will never forget the eerie sight of hundreds of cars flooded on the side roads as I drove down a nearly empty interstate.

Fourth: Early preparation is a key element in protecting your family and property during and after a hurricane. Waiting until a day or two before a storm strikes is not a smart move because much of your desired supplies (food, plywood, flashlights/batteries, gas, etc.) will disappear quickly as other procrastinators rush the stores.

Also, for those of you who live in evacuation-prone areas, early preparation will allow you to secure your property quickly and hit the road before the routes are too congested and hotels/shelters become full. I never evacuated prior to a storm, but I have been told by those who have that driving only 15 miles during a 10-hour period or driving more than 500 miles to find an available hotel room is not much fun. I believe them.

FEMA Associate Administrator for Response and Recovery Joe Nimmich provides some words of wisdom. “The start of hurricane season is a reminder that our families, businesses and communities need to be ready for the next big storm,” Joe Nimmich said. “Preparedness today can make a big difference down the line, so update your family emergency plan and make sure your emergency kit is stocked. Learn more about how you can prepare for hurricane season at www.ready.gov/hurricanes.

Last, but definitely not least, the number of forecasted storms does not really matter: It only takes one hurricane to make it a bad season.

Are you ready?

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Compfight cc