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Tourists & Tropical Storms

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So, you're a tourist in hurricane country. First, don’t assume that you’ll be safe because you’re not in the tropics or near the coast. Did you know that there are more drowning fatalities from flooding in inland areas than along the coasts? Also, most tornadoes caused by hurricanes actually occur in rain bands that are hundreds of miles from the eye of the storm.

The relative strength of a storm doesn’t necessarily guarantee its relative deadliness. One of the worst killer hurricanes in U.S. history was Hurricane Agnes, which struck from the Gulf Coast all the way up the Eastern Seaboard in 1972, killing 122 people. Over 210,000 people fled their homes in the face of the storm, thousands were left homeless and the entire state of Pennsylvania was declared a disaster area. Yet Agnes was classified as a Category 1 hurricane (the lowest category on the Saffir-Simpson storm scale), and only for a few hours.

Eight of the ten most costly natural disasters in the U.S. have been hurricanes or tropical storms. By being prepared before you depart, you may not only be able to salvage your trip, but your life.

Tips for Travelers

  • Hurricane Watch = Hurricane conditions are possible within 24 to 36 hours.

  • Hurricane Warning = Hurricane conditions are expected within 24 hours.

If You Have to Evacuate

  • If you are staying in a storm surge zone or flood zone, leave as soon as a hurricane watch is issued.
  • Low-lying escape routes may already be impassable hours before landfall, so don’t count on making a last-minute getaway.
  • Besides the problems of traffic congestion and even gridlock, flooding creates a deadly trap. A vehicle can be swept off the road by only a foot of water, and six inches of moving water can knock you off your feet.

A simple tenet of hurricane survival is “Run from water, hide from wind.” If storm surge is predicted, stay away from coastal and low-lying areas. If you are not ordered to evacuate, and winds are going to be more of a problem, the safest place to ride out the storm is in the most interior room of the place where you’re staying.

  • The best way to prepare for a possible evacuation during your hurricane season travel is to plan well ahead.
  • If you have friends or family who live outside the evacuation zone for the area to which you’re traveling, arrange with them in advance to take you in if needed.
  • Check with the local and regional emergency management agencies for the locations of shelters, so that you’ll know where to go if no friends or family are available.
  • If you are traveling with a pet, be aware that shelters will not accept pets.

Storm surge - the wave swell that can range from four feet to over twenty feet - is the biggest potential threat to human life and property from a hurricane that makes landfall.

  • Stay away from the shore and low-lying areas, including inland waterways that can be swept by storm surges.
  • Make room in your suitcase for a small radio and at least one flashlight – and extra, fresh batteries. You’ll probably be glad to have these whether you evacuate or stay put.
  • Keep the gas tank filled in your vehicle. You won’t have to worry about having enough gas to leave the area in case you need to evacuate.
  • Be sure to have a road map with the evacuation routes clearly marked, so that you won’t spend valuable time and fuel in searching for the right way to go.
  • Buy bottled water and ice as soon as you arrive. Even if you evacuate, you’ll have these available for the road.
  • Get out of the area as early as you can, in daylight. Give yourself enough time to leave so that you can drive calmly and allow for traffic congestion – avoid putting yourself in a panic situation.
  • Be sure that you’ve sealed up the rooms or house where you’ve been staying and have brought any outdoor furniture and grills inside (see below) – and help protect the property of others!

If You Don't Have to Evacuate

Even those who have lived through many hurricanes and tropical storms are unaware of the safest ways to ride out the storm and to avoid excessive property damage. The National Hurricane Survival Initiative and other informed sources offer the following tips:

  • Avoid garage doors because they are the most likely structural component to fail during hurricane-force winds.
  • Do NOT cover windows with masking tape or open a window on the sheltered side of the house. Both of these “tips” are myths that will not keep windows from shattering in a storm, and may actually harm more than help.
  • Keeping all of the windows sealed and locked shut (and preferably nailed and covered with plywood), and bolting and wedging the doors shut with large pieces of furniture, will help to keep the wind out of the house. It will find any crack or opening to get in, so deny it as many of those spaces as you can!
  • Bring in any portable items from outside, such as grills, patio furniture and toys. These can become deadly missiles in hurricane-force winds.
  • Stay well indoors in an interior room, away from windows and doors, to avoid being hit by glass or wood if the wind forces its way inside.
  • Fill the bathtubs with water ahead of time and set the refrigerator and freezer to maximum cold. Don’t open the doors to the fridge or freezer unless necessary.
  • If you’re able to shut off the electricity, do so before the storm hits, and use your flashlights. Candles are not recommended due to the chance of fire.
  • Put your personal documents or wallet in a plastic Ziploc bag or plastic container and keep it with you at all times.
  • During the storm, gather your group in the most interior room of the dwelling and have everyone sit on the floor. Each person should tuck their head between their knees and cover their heads and knees with their arms to shield themselves from flying objects.
  • Remember that a deceptive calm may fall as the eye passes overhead. Don’t go outdoors until the entire storm has passed.
  • Keep the radio tuned to local news stations for important announcements before, during and after the storm.

What Happens Afterwards?

The clean-up and rescue process can take an emotional toll even on those who aren’t directly affected by a storm’s destruction. If you’re planning to stay on in, or return to, an area affected by a storm, keep the following in mind:

  • You may not have immediate access to your lodgings. Flooding, downed trees, power lines, abandoned vehicles or emergency crews may be blocking the roads.
  • Power and water service may not be restored right away.
  • You may need current personal identification to be allowed into the area. Don’t go sightseeing by car or on foot – you could be mistaken for a looter.
  • Avoid downed power lines, metal fences and other metal objects, and the use of matches or lighters. The power lines may be live, or there could be a gas leak in the area.
  • If you do make it back to your lodgings, be sure that the electric and gas lines have been checked for safety before you turn them back on.
  • Flooding can contribute to pest infestations in certain areas. Check carefully for mice, rats, snakes and insects that may have come with the storm.
  • Assume that water from the tap is not safe to drink. Here’s where that bottled water that you bought before the storm will come in handy. If you have to use tap water for cooking or drinking, be sure to thoroughly boil it first.

The best tip of all: unless you’re going to stay to help others with the recovery and clean-up efforts, end your trip and go home!