The tropical storms known as hurricanes can achieve incredibly high wind speeds and produce over 2 trillion gallons of water in the form of rain. According to the National Hurricane Center, the traditional hurricane season for the Atlantic Ocean peaks in the middle of August and lasts through late October. On average, up to six hurricanes form each year. Preparing for a hurricane prior to the event, by stockpiling emergency hurricane supplies and securing your personal property, can make a difference between surviving and thriving in the aftermath.
The word ‘hurricane’ stems from the Spanish word, huracán, used to describe the weather gods and evil spirits. The storms were named as such because of their power to sink large ships. The term ‘hurricane’ is used to describe storms which develop in the Atlantic Ocean or in the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean. In other areas of the world, these same storms are referred to as cyclones in the northern Indian Ocean and as typhoons in the western Pacific Ocean.
How does a storm become a hurricane?
To reach hurricane status, a tropical storm’s wind gusts must reach over 74 miles per hour. These storms are formed when tropical disturbances hover over warm ocean waters, with temperatures of at least 80-degrees Fahrenheit. The energy from the water feeds the system, drawing the moist ocean air upwards and producing condensation through severe thunderstorms. With wind speeds reaching at least 38 miles per hour, a tropical depression is formed. When the speed of the winds increases to the necessary 74 mph, the storm is upgraded to a hurricane.
Hurricanes are categorized by the speed of their sustained winds. There are five hurricane category classifications, as measured by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. These categories include:
- Category One – wind speeds of 74-95 miles per hour, capable of producing dangerous winds causing damage to a building’s exterior, trees, and power lines.
- Category Two – wind speeds of 96-110 miles per hour, capable of causing extensive damage to a building’s structure, uprooting trees, and damaging vehicles and other items exposed to the weather.
- Category Three – wind speeds of 111-129 miles per hour capable of causing devastating damage to buildings, trees, roads, and power lines.
- Category Four – wind speeds of 130-156 miles per hour, capable of causing catastrophic damage to buildings, bridges, roadways, trees, and power, with great potential for long-term power and utility loss in affected areas.
- Category Five – wind speeds upwards of 157 miles per hour, capable of causing catastrophic damage to the affected area, with potential for total building collapse, severe damage to property, and devastation to entire communities, leaving them uninhabitable for months or years.
The most deadly aspects of a hurricane
There are several elements of a hurricane which cause destruction, chaos, injury, and even death. The hurricane category often provides insight into what will occur. Lower category storms should not be taken lightly and those affected should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. With regards to higher-classed hurricane categories, evacuations are often declared mandatory to prevent unnecessary injuries and deaths.
The Storm Surge
Hurricanes can affect an area even before making landfall. The severe storms produce significant amounts of rain and the high winds kick up the ocean, producing a storm surge, which can often reach 20 feet high and 100 miles across. Storm surges affect a large number of people living along the coast and are typically the number one cause of death during a hurricane. The ocean waters rise due to the rain and winds, forcing the water over their traditional banks. The high winds continue to push the water inland, causing fast-moving floods and inescapable rip currents.
The quick-moving flood waters trap people in their homes and often lead to drowning. Floods destroy entire communities, causing catastrophic damage to buildings, vehicles, and property in a short period of time. Flood waters are contaminated by sewage and other pollutants, posing health risks to human life and pets.
Hurricanes produce severe thunderstorms, capable of producing deadly lightning strikes and even spawning tornadoes. Lightning strikes to buildings and other objects can result in fires. Tornadoes cause their own path of destruction, demolishing anything standing in their way. Severe rain leads to inland flooding, landslides, and very costly region-wide damage.
The High Winds
Tornadic or hurricane-force winds can pick up and move very heavy objects (cars, building materials, trees) and project them into the air, causing the potential for severe human injuries and death. Winds will destroy power lines, fuel supplies, and other vital necessities, making recovery that much harder.
In the aftermath
The dangers after a hurricane has passed are just as significant, if not more-deadly, than during the actual storm. Recovering from a hurricane is no easy task. Months and years may be needed to restore life to functional in the hardest hit areas. In the aftermath of a hurricane, personal safety must be a number one priority.
- Contamination – flood waters are often contaminated with all kinds of pollutants (gas, oils, sewage), which can cause severe health risks. Personal protective gear should be worn during clean up to protect breathing and skin.
- Structural damage – hurricane-force winds can demolish parts of buildings, leaving unreliable structures and debris everywhere. During cleanup, injuries and death occur when buildings collapse or people fall over debris. Roadways and bridges are damaged by flood waters and can lead to automobile accidents.
- Lack of necessities – while people do stock up on supplies before a storm, they often lack the foresight to plan for after the storm. Lack of clean water, food, and habitable shelter are often issues that lead to illness and stress-related diseases.
- Loss of utilities – damage to power lines and other utilities can lead to life without power for weeks or even months in the most heavily damaged areas. Without access to phones, gas, and electricity, people feel isolated and are often unable to receive outside help for long periods of time. Without refrigeration or an effective way to heat meals, people may suffer from malnutrition, lack of energy, and illness due to lack of edible food and proper nutrition. People may also suffer food-borne diseases after eating spoiled foods or drinking dirty water.
- Continued flooding – even after the storm has passed, streams and rivers continue to rise and flood their banks. Downed power lines electrify the waters and can lead to electrocution deaths. The contaminated waters halt restoration and recovery efforts and make travel difficult, if not impossible.
- Shelter illnesses – for the groups of people living in shelters in the aftermath of a hurricane, the CDC warns about the spread of infectious diseases. After hurricanes, there can be outbreaks of contagious diseases especially for those with already compromised immune systems (children, pregnant women, and the elderly).
- Home repair issues – rebuilding your home after a hurricane poses health risks from bacteria and mold resulting from flood waters. Damaged electrical wires also pose fire risks.
Reducing your health risks before and after a hurricane
While the power of a hurricane can be unpredictable, history can show us how long-lasting the aftereffects of a hurricane can be. It took the Gulf Coast years to recover from Hurricane Katrina, with rebuilding efforts still ongoing over a decade after landfall. Preparation before a hurricane is the most important part of the process. Ultimately, evacuation is the preferred method of avoiding personal risk during a hurricane. Replacing a home and personal property is much more plausible than replacing a life.
Prepare your home
If you are not able to evacuate, it is vital to prepare your home to withstand total destruction. Shutters on exterior windows and doorways can help protect the structure during high winds. Keep everyone in the center-most part of the building in the event the windows do not hold out. Use mattresses to protect your family from flying debris and roof collapse. There are several options for reinforcing your home prior to a hurricane, some of which may be out of the range of a typical household budget.
Plan for the long-term
Food is a vital part of surviving the devastating effects of a hurricane. If you live in a hurricane-prone location, start stocking up on emergency food supplies and prepare an emergency survival kit over several months. By purchasing emergency hurricane essentials, a little at a time, you can build up a cache of survival items to sustain you for the next big hurricane. If you have pets, make sure to add canned and dry food for each pet to last 5-7 days, if not longer.
Invest in MREs (meals ready to eat), iodine water tablets, dried and powdered foods and drinks, and other non-perishable supplies. Continue stockpiling batteries, flashlights, medications, dust masks, garbage bags, anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitizers, and a first aid kit.
Methods for de-stressing
In addition to the many physical hazards affecting health and safety during and after the storm, the emotional and mental toll these storms can cause cannot be ignored. It is vital to ensure you get enough sleep, eat a proper diet, and find moments in your day to decompress from the cleanup efforts. Constant stress, depression, and anxiety can lead to additional physical health problems and has the potential to result in suicide. Stay connected to family and friends. For those continuing to struggle in the aftermath, there are many resources to reach out to for help. Resources provided by MentalHealth.gov are available for immediate help regarding mental health issues caused by the devastating effects of a hurricane.