If you live in an area that experiences tropical cyclones you should prepare for them well in advance. A little trouble taken in the winter and early spring could greatly improve your chances of escaping injury when the storm arrives. How do you know if your area is at risk? Ask people who have lived there for many years or check with the local newspaper or public library. If you live near a low-lying coast in a low latitude on the western side of the Atlantic or North Pacific or western side of the South Pacific, you can assume a hurricane or typhoon will visit you sooner or later. If you are new to the area, do not make the mistake of underestimating the power of a full-scale tropical cyclone.
Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones occur throughout the tropics. The precautions you can take apply anywhere. Wherever you live, the authorities will broadcast warnings and instructions before, during, and after the storm, but the warning system varies in detail from country to country.
Start by studying your local geography. Find out how high your home is above sea level, the height of the ground between you and the coast, and how storm surges have affected the district in the past. This will tell you what to expect from the sea. Torrential rains will probably make rivers overflow. Where is your nearest river and is your home high above it?
You may have to leave home in a hurry, so work out the best route to high ground inland. Remember that if your only escape route crosses low-lying land or bridges, these may be impassable once the storm arrives, so you should plan to leave ahead of the bad weather. Try to arrange in advance to stay during an emergency with friends or relatives who live on high ground inland. The authorities will have allocated places in your area for use as emergency shelters. Find out where they are.
You will need to board up windows and secure external doors. Lay in adequate stocks of lumber, plywood sheeting, polyethylene sheeting, nails, and rope. Have high-quality flashlights and a reliable battery-powered radio, and make sure they are in working order and that you have spare batteries. Have a camping stove for cooking and plenty of fuel for it. A camping cooler box, with gel packs, will be useful for keeping fresh foods cool.
Prepare a first-aid box (any manual on first aid will tell you what it should contain). The box should be clearly marked and easily seen (ideally, paint it white with a large red cross).
You will need to store water. Keep enough clean, airtight containers to hold at least 14 gallons of water for each member of the household. Lay in supplies of dry or canned food. You will need enough to feed all of you for at least two weeks (including household pets). You will also need other household items, such as soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, and kitchen towels. If you are evacuated you will need blankets or sleeping bags.
Keep up with the house maintenance and gardening. Make sure there are no loose or missing roof tiles or slates. Keep gutters and drainpipes clear of obstructions. If there are any old or weak trees or shrubs near the house, remove them. Remove all weak branches from trees, trying to open up the trees so air can move freely through them.
When you learn that a storm is approaching, listen to broadcasts from your local radio or television station. Check the broadcasts frequently, if possible using house current to save the batteries. In the United States, the first alert will be a “tropical storm watch” or “hurricane watch” announcement. A storm means winds of up to 74 MPH, a hurricane means winds stronger than that. The warning will tell you when the storm or hurricane is expected to arrive. Usually it will give you about 36 hours to complete your preparations. You may also receive a “flash flood watch,” warning of possible flooding.
See whether your car has a full fuel tank. If not, fill it. If you are taking medication, obtain an extra supply sufficient to last two weeks. Take out the materials you have stored for securing windows and doors and have them ready. If you have a mobile home, tie it down securely. Clear away any loose objects outdoors, such as garden furniture. Check your emergency supplies. Freeze the gel packs for your cooler box. Have a supply of cash.
A “tropical storm warning” or “hurricane warning” will be issued when the storm is expected within 24 hours or less. Board up windows. Leave the radio or television turned on so you will hear any instructions. Obey these at once.
If you receive a “flash flood warning” it means rapid flooding has either started or is imminent. You must move away from low-lying land immediately, and if your home is liable to be flooded, move upstairs. If possible try to travel in daylight, but in any case leave as soon as you can, because the roads may be crowded and some may be closed.
The warning may advise you to evacuate your home. If it does, do so immediately. You are likely to have to leave if you live within a few hundred yards of the coast, on an island, on the floodplain of a river, or if the land around your home has been flooded in the past by a storm surge. You should also leave if you live in a high rise because the hurricane may weaken the structure. Do not remain in a mobile home. No matter how securely you tied it down, the hurricane may be able to wreck it.
Before you leave, turn off the gas, electricity, and water supply. Unplug all electrical appliances.
Take personal identification with you, as well as important private documents and cash. If you are not moving to friends or relatives, try to book accommodation at a motel or hotel. Do not delay because many people will be seeking rooms in safe buildings. Let a friend or relative who lives far away from the affected area know where you are going.
Leave family pets behind. Make sure they are indoors and that you have left them ample supplies of food and water.
Do not go to an emergency shelter until you hear from the radio or television that the nearest one to you is open. If you do go to a shelter, take with you blankets or sleeping bags, toilet articles, your first aid box, a flashlight, and a radio. You will also need identification. Some cash may be useful, and you should take any important personal documents. You may be in the shelter for some time, so take things to pass the time, such as books, games, or cards. Do not expect the shelter to be comfortable or to find much privacy there. The authorities will do their best, but it is likely to be crowded and there may be no electricity.
Stay at home only if you have not been told to leave. If you are staying at home, unplug small electrical appliances and turn off the gas supply. Place fresh food in the refrigerator, turn it to full power, and open the door only when you must. Fill your containers with drinking water and fill the bathtub with water for washing. Close all doors and brace exterior doors so they cannot blow open. Keep listening to the radio and obey any instructions. You may be asked to turn off the electricity or water supply. Food in the refrigerator will remain safe to eat for a few days.
Move to the safest part of the building, taking your flashlight and radio with you. Keep as far as you can from windows. If possible, move into a room with no outside wall or, in a multistory building, close to (or beneath) the stairs. When the strong winds arrive, lie on the floor, if possible beneath some protection such as a strong table.
After a time, the wind may drop and the sky clear. Do not be tempted to go outdoors. This could be the eye of the storm. If so, the winds will return (from the opposite direction), possibly within a few minutes. Take no chances with the wind. Even if it seems safe, remember that hurricanes often trigger tornadoes and these could appear anywhere without warning.
When the storm has passed, a radio announcement will tell you it is safe to go outdoors. Until then, stay inside. If you are away from home do not try to return until you are told you may do so. You may have to produce identification before being allowed into your home. If your home has been damaged, do not enter until someone in authority tells you it is safe.
Outdoors, watch out for power lines that have been brought down in the wind. They may still carry live current. Be especially careful of pools of water with power cables lying in them. Look out for snakes — floods may have driven them into the open. Keep clear of loose, overhanging objects and branches of trees.
When you are allowed back into your home, do not use open flames, such as candles. Use the telephone only if it is essential to do so. The emergency services need all the telephone lines. If you use fresh food bought before the storm started, be sure it is still edible. Dried or canned food is safer. Do not drink or cook food in tap water until you are told it is safe. When power is restored and the risk of fire has passed, you may be advised to boil water before use.
All tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones are dangerous. Their destructive power is immense and their threat to life considerable, but with adequate preparation, a good warning system, and suitable precautions it is possible to survive them unharmed. Safety depends on knowing what to do, when to do it, and acting promptly.
This is the second article of a five-part series on hurricanes. The others can be found at the links below.