By Becky DePodwin
Hurricane season is just around the corner and while the seasonal outlook from Colorado State University outlines slightly below-average activity in the Atlantic basin, individuals and business should still take time now to evaluate their hurricane preparedness and response plan.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale estimates potential property damage of a tropical cyclone based on the storm’s maximum sustained wind speed. However, wind is just a single hazard out of many that pose a risk to lives and property when storms approach and impact land. During hurricane season, there are often headlines and news chyrons that say a storm has “strengthened” or “weakened” based on a change in category, but that change is only accounting for the wind and not the threat of rain, storm surge, or severe weather.
When putting together a plan, whether an individual/family hurricane preparedness plan, or a business continuity plan, it’s important to account for every hazard that may impact a location, as well as the large area over which those hazards can occur.
High winds? Storm surge? Inland flooding? Tornadoes? Power outage? Trees falling? While coastal locations have the highest likelihood of severe impacts, inland locations can still be significantly impacted by all potential hazards.
Flooding, storm surge
The deadliest hazard produced by a tropical cyclone is water. Past storms such as Harvey, Florence, and Joaquin have produced catastrophic and deadly flooding due to extremely heavy rainfall, with storms like Irene and Ida producing heavy rainfall that led to disastrous flooding well away from coastal locations. Inland flooding can pose a unique risk that may catch people living away from the coast off guard.
Hurricane Ian, in September 2022, produced a storm surge that was up to 15 feet above the normal water level. Flood waters can cause significant damage to infrastructure, with roadways washing out and structures becoming unstable. The rapid rise of fast-moving water as a storm is nearing landfall is what makes storm surge such a deadly hazard and why it’s imperative to comply with all evacuation orders.
Tornadoes are another dangerous hazard that tropical storms and hurricanes can produce, presenting a complicating factor in a preparedness and sheltering plan. Oftentimes, the threat for tornadoes in the outer bands of a storm can last for an extended period and given the transient nature of these spin-up tornado events, warning lead time can be reduced. With the possibility of flooding and tornadoes occurring in parallel, it’s crucial to have evaluated on-location sheltering options for both hazards and considered the opposing safety actions for each (below ground/interior room for tornado vs higher ground for flood).
Last, is the threat of long-duration and damaging winds. Hurricane-force winds, which range from 74mph at the low end of a Category 1 storm to 157mph or higher in a Category 5 storm, can cause immense destruction to property. Manufactured buildings, tilt-up construction, and other mobile structures are at a very high risk of being damaged or destroyed and are not safe places to be during a storm.
Strong winds can bring down trees and powerlines, causing power outages as well as downed electrical wires that present a significant hazard to first responders and residents trying to navigate the immediate aftermath of a storm.
Additionally, rapid intensification (RI), an increase in maximum sustained winds of 30 knots in 24 hours, is a variable that needs to be considered when putting together a preparedness or continuity plan. All plans should assume and plan for hurricane intensification up to two additional categories. This will ensure individuals and businesses are not caught off guard by a storm like Hurricane Michael, which strengthened from a tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane at landfall in just 72 hours. Equally important is timing. All preparations and/or evacuations should be brought to completion by the onset of tropical storm force winds.
A key part of putting a plan together is reviewing past weather events that have adversely impacted a location. Two resources that can assist with this are an insurance agent and a local emergency management agency.
Proper insurance is the best line of defense in ensuring an individual or business can minimize debt incurred during the preparation and recovery process, and insurance agents want to help policyholders mitigate their overall risk. Most homeowners’ insurance policies do not include flood insurance, so knowing a location’s flood zone information is key.
A local emergency management agency can provide information about flood zones, evacuation routes, how to receive localized emergency management alerts, past disaster data, and any other necessary information to guide the development of a hurricane preparedness plan.
Once the hazards are known, it’s time to ask the right questions to family members, a site safety specialist, or company management to ensure all possible scenarios have been considered and incorporated into a hurricane preparedness and response plan.
Last, to ensure a detailed plan can be properly executed in a high-stress situation, it should be vetted through an exercise that helps familiarize participants with the hazards, scenarios, and appropriate response actions.
With an all-hazards approach, individuals and businesses can head into hurricane season knowing they are prepared for whatever the atmosphere may throw their way.