What to Do Before a Hurricane Reaches You

Hurricanes are scary, and few people think clearly under that stress. Additionally, a lot of what you need to do to best weather a storm starts well ahead of hurricane season — which runs from late May through November. Start your hurricane safety plan ahead of a storm, while things are calm. The following steps put you and your family in the best position to protect your home and yourselves when a hurricane is on its way.

  • Have an evacuation plan ready .
  • Determine whether you’re in an evacuation zone and watch for updates; the course of a storm may change.
  • Scout your yard and remove any furniture or other items that may get picked up by the wind and fly through windows or otherwise cause destruction.
  • Put any important documents in a watertight container, along with medications and insurance cards.
  • Charge your phone and any other devices you plan to use or carry with you.
  • Turn your fridge to the coldest setting and put a thermometer in there. You’re likely to lose electricity, and a colder starting temp will keep your food cold longer. The thermometer will let you know whether your milk is a lost cause when the electricity’s back.

Look into hurricane insurance

If you live in an area commonly hit by hurricanes, standard homeowner’s insurance isn’t going to provide everything you need. Such a policy addresses structural damage and typically includes a higher deductible whenever that damage arises from a hurricane. And it may be inadequate to cover your costs for rebuilding and the living expenses you pay while you rebuild. Be sure to look closely at coverage for additional living expenses (ALE), which are essential after extensive storm damage that requires you to rent living space while damage is repaired.

Find out what your policy covers and what it excludes. For example, a standard homeowner’s policy probably doesn’t cover damage from sewer backups, which are common after major storms. You actually can buy a specific policy for this instance.

Much of the damage from a hurricane comes from flooding, which also requires a separate policy.

To get the full value from the policies you do buy, make sure you have a complete inventory of what you own and how much it’s worth. Doing so will make filing claims later on much smoother. Keep this documentation and your policies in a water-safe container that you can easily move with you when you evacuate.

If you rent or own an apartment in a co-op, you need your own insurance policies, but you also want to be aware of the coverage your building has in place.

Hurricane “watch” or “warning?”

What makes a watch different from a warning? These terms actually have very specific meanings.

  • A hurricane watch tells you that hurricane-force winds may appear within 48 hours.
  • If you hear a hurricane warning, know that you’re likely to encounter hurricane-force winds within 36 hours. Warnings usually are issued for about 300 miles of coastline at a time. Although satellite technology makes predicting a storm’s approach easy, determining exactly where it will make landfall is still difficult.

Address kids, pets, and special needs during a storm

Maybe one family member needs to keep insulin at a just-right temperature, or you have a dog who requires eye drops every four hours. Situations like these require more detailed planning.

Be sure to think through a week’s worth of needs for each family member. That may mean finding a physician and forwarding medical records to a medical center in the city where you’ll wait out the storm at your cousin’s house, or it may require even more careful planning.

Just make sure that as soon as you know a storm is possible, you carefully consider each family member’s needs for several days. Include the pets, the kids, and the grandma you’ll pick up on the way out of town.

For pets and kids, concerns aren’t all that different: Be ready to feed and distract, at a minimum. You need to prepare whatever food, drinks, and toys or special objects will keep the kids and pets as content as possible during the storm.

Make sure that your pets have been microchipped or that they’re wearing ID tags. It’s all too easy to become separated during the chaos of a storm.

If your kids attend school or daycare, make sure that you know the schools’ evacuation plans. Laminate an “in case of emergency” card for each child that includes your contact information and that of a friend or relative who lives elsewhere and may be able to provide a safe place to stay if a storm arises.

As much as possible, keep up your routines, which will reassure members of your family who rely on you. Your kids especially look to you for cues about how to act, so do your best to keep calm.

Prepare a storm evacuation plan

Uprooting your life in response to an incoming storm presents a host of challenges, like where you’ll end up and who’s in charge of the pet-food supply. Make the transition as smooth as possible by having an evacuation plan in place. It should cover the following:

  • Where you’ll meet if you become separated: Pick a place close to home and one farther away where you can meet up, and choose a family member to serve as point person. This person is who everyone checks in with if you can’t stay in one place.
  • Where you’ll stay: Identify a couple of options ahead of time. Shelters will arise nearby (use FEMA.gov to find them), or maybe a hospitable friend or family member lives outside the evacuation zone. If you have pets, this part of the planning is trickier; most shelters accept only service dogs.
  • How you’ll get there: If you have a car, make sure it’s in good working order and your gas tank is full. If not, plan farther ahead for public transportation (which will shut down as the storm nears) or for someone to drive you.
  • Supplies: Get your disaster supplies kit ready well ahead of time. Grab a phone charger for the car, and if you’re traveling far, have snacks and distractions ready — especially if you’re traveling with kids.
  • Maps: Downed trees or flooding may require you to change your route at the last moment, so be ready with low-tech navigation that cannot let you down no matter the circumstances.
  • IDs and cash: Appoint a family member to make sure everyone has an ID and a little bit of cash. Don’t let this be the time you’re caught with your wallet in your gym bag.
  • Updates: If you don’t want to keep tuned to the weather on the car radio, ask one person to track the storm until you’re safely out of range. Emergency instructions sometimes change as the storm progresses, and you need to have the latest information as you evacuate.
  • Notice: Identify a close friend or family member to check in with when you leave and when you have arrived at shelter outside the evacuation zone.
  • Resolve: Staying in your home is tempting, even when you’ve been ordered to evacuate. Resolve, as a household, to follow those orders and accept no alternatives. Hurricanes are deadly. Agreeing ahead of time that you’ll evacuate can save valuable time debating the issue later.

If you’re on the coast, get out well in advance of the storm surge

When a hurricane pushes ocean water ashore, that push is called a storm surge and is responsible for more deaths and damage than any other part of the storm. Depending on how and where the storm hits, a storm surge — measured in how far above sea level the water rises — can bring almost 30 feet of water to land. This water moves at high speed, bringing tremendous destructive power to everything in its path.

These surges are unpredictable, and they often arrive before the storms themselves. When they hit, water levels can rise ten feet in just minutes. Help cannot make it to you under these circumstances, and you are unlikely to be able to drive away from a storm surge.

If you’re near a coast and anywhere close to a hurricane’s path, you must evacuate. If you see it coming, it’s too late. The surge can easily go from an inch to several feet before you even make it out of your driveway.

Keep an axe in your attic so that if for some reason you are trapped in your home during a surge, you have an escape route through the roof.

Travel to hurricane prone areas

Because hurricanes happen near coastlines, a lot of popular vacation spots are susceptible. When you’re thinking about planning a vacation, take a look at the storm season before you book tickets and hotel rooms.

Travel insurance that covers natural disasters can help, and you should check with hotels and airlines about policies regarding refunds or rescheduling in the event of a storm.

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.