What is a Hurricane and How to Make a Preparedness Checklist

A hurricane starts as a tropical storm, and a tropical storm reaches hurricane status when it develops and sustains winds moving at least 74 miles per hour. The storm itself is a cyclone with winds spiraling (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) in a counterclockwise direction. These cyclones, or rotating storms, develop over any ocean but are called hurricanes when they arise over the Atlantic or Northern Pacific. In other areas, they’re called typhoons or tropical cyclones.

How does a hurricane form, and when is hurricane season?

How a hurricane comes together isn’t precisely known, but it requires warm water (at least 79 degrees Fahrenheit) and winds that rise without much change in direction. Those factors combine to create winds that move in a spiral. As a storm grows, it may cover a diameter of more than 600 miles and gust at more than 200 miles per hour — nearly the top speed of a Formula One racecar.

The faster the wind, the higher the storm rating and the greater the threat to everyone and everything in its path. Hurricanes are rated by intensity on a scale of 1 to 5, with a Category 1 storm showing the lowest intensity and winds of no more than 95 mph. Those in Category 5 top 156 mph. Hurricanes Maria (Dominica and Puerto Rico) and Irma (Florida) were Category 5 storms that made landfall in 2017. Windows and doors may get smashed from winds at the Category 2 level and above. Hurricane season runs from late May through November.

What is the center of a hurricane, and other storm anatomy questions

A hurricane is made up of several parts. If you could look closely at a cross-section of a hurricane, here’s what you’d see, starting from the center of the hurricane:

  • Eye: An oasis of calm surrounded by hurtling winds and rain, the eye of a hurricane is about 20 to 40 miles of low winds, light rain, and even clear skies where the air is sinking rather than rising.
  • Eye wall: Swirling around the eye, the eye wall is a band of thunderstorms where the rain and wind are strongest. Air is moving rapidly here in the direction of the eye of the storm, rising before it sinks again at the storm’s center.
  • Feeder bands: Stretching sometimes hundreds of miles from the center of the storm, feeder bands of a hurricane are bands of heavy rain and wind sometimes include tornadoes.
  • Outflow: Hurricanes stretch up much farther than out. Way up at a plane’s cruising altitude, the outflow of a hurricane is a huge swath of clouds swirling in the opposite direction of a hurricane.

Hurricane prone areas

If you live in Montana, you’re in the clear. Because hurricanes develop over warm ocean waters and lose strength as they travel over land, they do their worst near the country’s coasts. Here are the counties and areas that are prone and have been most often hit from 1960 to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce:

  1. Monroe County, Florida
  2. Lafourche Parish, Louisiana
  3. Carteret County, North Carolina
  4. Dare County, North Carolina
  5. Hyde County, North Carolina
  6. Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
  7. Palm Beach County, Florida
  8. Miami-Dade County, Florida
  9. Bernard Parish, Louisiana
  10. Cameron Parish, Louisiana

What is hurricane storm surge?

Hurricanes form over warm oceans, and when they reach land they push huge amounts of ocean water onto the shore with them. This is usually described as a “wall of water” but more specifically is an extremely fast rise in water above sea level. It technically is known as the storm surge.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the storm surge topped 25 feet and was a major factor in that storm’s high death toll. (At least 1,500 people died during Katrina.) A storm surge unleashes the incredible power of wind and water, sweeping up trees, cars, and buildings as it moves. Even standing in just six inches of these powerful waters would be difficult.

A storm surge may reach land ahead of the storm, and when it does it may flood the roads you’d have used to evacuate. If you live near the shore, get out well in advance of the storm’s landfall. The storm surge may hit a day earlier, and it’s the deadliest element of a hurricane. The elements of a storm surge, like strength and angle of the storm, the shape of the land where it hits, and the shape of the continental shelf at the coastline, combine in unpredictable ways. In other words, no one can predict the intensity of a storm surge. Erring on the side of caution is warranted, especially when you consider that a cubic yard of water weighs almost a ton.

The risk of damage from a storm surge is highest in the following states:

  1. Florida
  2. Louisiana
  3. Texas
  4. New Jersey
  5. New York

You don’t have to live on a coast to get hit by the rains and winds a hurricane creates, and if you are in a high-risk area, you need to take steps — before hurricane season hits — to prepare yourself, your family, and your home for the potentially deadly damage.

A hurricane is nature at its most destructive. These tropical cyclones don’t sneak up: When a hurricane is on its way, you’ll have several days’ warning before it lands, so keep an eye on the news or sign up for hurricane alerts. But sometimes several days isn’t enough. If you act much earlier, you won’t be fighting your neighbors for the last jugs of water on the store shelves.

Create a hurricane preparedness checklist

You want to prepare for a hurricane before hurricane season even starts, and a hurricane preparedness checklist can help you make sure you’ve got everything in order. Avoid the mad dash for supplies by prepping a hurricane disaster supply kit before you’re likely to need it. You want a large plastic tub or duffle bag so that everything in your kit is in one place and is ready to move. Pack it with the following:

  • Water jugs: Traditional wisdom says bring a gallon per person per day for a minimum of three days. If you have room to carry it, err on the side of too much water.
  • Food: Pack up enough nonperishable food for a few days — and a can opener. Think canned tuna and fruit, dry cereal, peanut butter, or granola bars, and focus on high-energy foods rather than salty snacks that will lead you to use too much of your water. Pack foods you like and some comfort foods because you’re going into a high-stress situation. No need to add to your angst.
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Portable radio (you may not have Internet service) and extra batteries
  • Cellphone charger
  • Toilet paper
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Glasses or contacts and contact solution
  • A change of clothes for each family member
  • Distractions like games, toys, and books
  • Pet food
  • Insect repellent
  • Whistle (to signal for help) or flares
  • Waterproof containers or plastic bags

Other ways to prepare for a hurricane

Preparation isn’t just what you do when a storm is imminent. Many of the moves that best protect you are the ones you make far ahead of time, like building a hurricane kit. You also want to take these steps:

  • Have a plan. And make sure everyone in your household knows it. Choose a point person for everyone to contact and a meeting place if you get separated.
  • Stay current on weather conditions. Keep a close eye on weather updates and emergency guidelines for your area.
  • Minimize tree-related damage. Remove any dead wood from your trees; keep them trimmed so that they’re healthy and branches don’t reach your home.
  • Maintain your car. Keep your car in good working order; gas up your tank when a storm nears.
  • Protect your windows. Plan how you’ll protect your windows with permanent storm shutters or plywood. Long before a storm hits, make sure you have the right number and sizes of 5/8-inch-thick plywood sheets ready to be nailed in.
  • Reinforce your exterior doors. They’re more likely to stay put against a hurricane if they’re secured by three hinges per door and a one-inch deadbolt.
  • Prepare for rain run-off. Regularly clean gutters and drains so that they’re in the best shape to handle heavy rain.
  • Get and maintain the right insurance. Purchase adequate homeowner’s insurance and become well-acquainted with its terms.

Arm yourself with information

Several organizations specialize in weather and emergency information. Check out these resources for further details about staying safe in a hurricane:

  • The American Red Cross offers several guides for hurricane preparedness and safety and can tell you how to donate to relief efforts.
  • FEMA keeps you alerted to storm progress, evacuation orders, and shelter locations during a hurricane.
  • The Department of Homeland Security’s gov gives you hour-by-hour checklists of preparation and safety guidelines for hurricanes.
  • You can track a storm through the National Hurricane Center
  • Weather Underground tracks tropical storm and hurricane activity in tremendous detail and offers historical data as well as general preparedness information.

For official communications related to hurricanes, please visit the websites of FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Hurricane Center for the latest information. Please note that this is general preparedness information, not specific to a particular storm.