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  • Writer's pictureBryan Norcross

Hurricane season on hold & where will you ride out the hurricane?

The Atlantic remains quiet. The atmosphere over the tropics has yet to flip into a full summertime configuration. Large non-tropical, winter-like low-pressure systems are still parading across the Atlantic waters, dragging cold fronts with them. People from South Florida to Bermuda have been experiencing lower-than-normal humidity and slightly cooler temperatures.

The sun is near its annual peak, which comes on June 20 this year. So direct sunshine is about as intense as it gets. But in the shade, it's much more comfortable than normal across much of the Florida peninsula for this time of year.

There is no reason to think that this June pattern tells us anything about the peak months of hurricane season. The tropical waters are still extraordinarily warm, and the atmospheric pattern over the Atlantic is forecast to become conducive for storms to develop. So, enjoy the lowish humidity while we have it if you're in the good-weather zone. As soon as the wind flow comes from the south, like it was in May over the Florida peninsula, it will be extra warm and humid since the air will have traveled across overheated waters.

Long-range computer models indicate that a sharp dip in the jet stream moving across the Gulf of Mexico next week will pull moisture out of the Caribbean. We'll watch to see if anything develops from that. Jet-stream dips interacting with broad low-pressure areas over Central America are one mechanism we watch for early-season tropical development. There's currently no definitive forecast for development.

Earlier this week, I listed five questions everybody in the hurricane zone should be asking themselves right now. I'll list numbers 2 through 5 at the bottom of this post so you don't have to go back and look, but I wanted to expand on question #1 since it's the most important.

1. Where will you and your family ride out the storm?

 You want to think through this issue before storms start forming because it deals with your personal safety and the safety of those you love. Making decisions under the stress of an impending hurricane can be overwhelming. For many people, the question of whether they should plan to evacuate their home is fraught, laden with myriad contradictory considerations.

Nobody wants to leave home. No government official wants to order an evacuation. But sometimes both are necessary. You will be immensely grateful that you thought it out ahead of time if the moment comes when you have to take action.

Here are some things to think about:

a. Should you get out of town? Living through the aftermath of a hurricane is miserable, at best. After a strong storm, you and your family could be safe but stuck wherever you are with no power, city water, or communications. But getting on the road with the rest of the world can be dangerous, too. People can die in mass evacuations. Imagine running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. In the boiling heat. Then what?

If you're going to leave, whether by car or plane, you have to do it early - way early - before you're sure the storm is going to hit. Think of it as an instant vacation. Otherwise, you could be stuck with bad options.

Many people can't leave early, of course. They have responsibilities or lack the means. In that case, it comes down to staying in town successfully.

b. Is it safe to stay home? If you live in a modern home built to Miami-Dade County standards outside the evacuation zone, the answer is likely yes. If you have had the home inspected to save on your insurance, and everything is up to snuff, the odds of you being injured in an interior part of your home in any strength storm are low. They're never zero, of course. In a Hurricane Andrew-type storm, crazy things happen. But homes built to the Miami-Dade code are designed to keep people safe.

If you live in an evacuation zone, that's a different story. Every storm that comes ashore produces storm surge - the ocean, gulf, bay, river, or canal water pushed over the land by the storm's strong winds. The National Hurricane Center has done extensive work to determine the vulnerability of every spot on the hurricane coast.

To understand the potential threat where you live, go to Select the storm intensity at the top of the page, then zoom in to your neighborhood. This will give you an idea of how deep the water could be over normally dry land all along the coast.

Note that the data disappears when you zoom close up. To use it, find your location then zoom out until the colors show. You'll have a good idea how high the water could get in the category of storm you chose.

As an example, here's the map showing potential storm surge heights in Miami and Miami Beach from a Category 4 hurricane. The orange indicates that the water could be deeper than 6 feet in those areas. The yellow means more than 3 feet, the blue 1-3 feet, and the red over 9 feet.

This is NOT a forecast for any one storm. The storm surge that actually occurs when a hurricane makes landfall depends on the storm's strength, forward speed, size, angle of approach, and other factors. But this map can give you an idea of your vulnerability.

Evacuation zones are based on these maps and other considerations. Might you be stranded by a flooded access road, for example? Everybody near the coast should know their evacuation-zone status. Most often, you get that information from your county emergency management office.

If you live in a high-rise built to the Miami-Dade code, you'll likely be safe in the building - though you'd want to move to an interior hallway on the second or third floor - or the lowest practical residential floor where you can put as many walls as possible between you and the storm. Stairwells are a fallback safe spot, but obviously you can't make yourself as comfortable there.

Nobody should stay in an apartment on a high floor, even with impact glass in the windows. The forces on the building are tremendous. While the window panes will keep the storm outside, if you stay, you are betting that the frames were properly installed in the building. If not, the entire window and frame can pop out. Get to an interior hallway to ride out the worst of the storm.

Most high-rises, outside of new buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in Florida, weren't built to the most robust building code. Setting yourself up in an interior hallway is even more essential in these structures.

If your building is in an evacuation zone, the structure will likely stand. But you run the risk of being stranded with no power, no water, no communications, and no ability to leave after the storm due to flooding, sand, and debris covering the streets. You could be stuck for days.

In addition, many high-rises turn off the air conditioning and water before the storm to protect the building's systems. Check with the management.

The bottom line is that evacuations are more likely to be required for people who live in high-rises than residents of single-family homes.

If you live in any other type of building, you'll have to evaluate the strength of the structure and where you are. If you are in an evacuation zone, the time might come when you are required to leave. Don't take a chance. Follow that advice.

Now is the time to plan for that possibility. If the structure doesn't meet modern hurricane-protection standards, you should consider finding a stronger home or building nearby to ride out the storm.

If you're out of the evacuation zone and you elect to stay home, plan to make an interior hallway, bathroom, or closet your home base during the worst of the storm. You never know when flying debris might smash through a window or door.

Many homes in the hurricane zone are not built to withstand a major storm. Despite a long history of Category 4 hurricanes, Texas, as just one example, has historically been lax in requiring the storm-ready construction that the Miami area adopted after Hurricane Andrew.

It's critical that everybody understands their vulnerability by having their home inspected and learning their storm-surge risk.

c. Where will I park my car(s)? An under-appreciated hurricane issue related to where you ride out the storm is how to protect your car. After significant hurricane strikes, thousands of vehicles end up flooded, damaged, or destroyed. Imagine surviving the storm but then having no transportation.

The safest place for your car is inside a parking garage. Normally, the second floor is better to be sure you're above potential flooding. The closer to the center of the garage you can put the car, the better. Even though parking garages are usually open on all sides, the strongest winds normally go around the building. However, the winds can be dangerously strong at the edges of the structure.

In fact, parking garages are a good last-resort location to ride out a hurricane.

Most people don't have a practical parking garage option, of course. Assuming you don't have a garage, your next best choice is to pull the car as close to your house or a strong building as possible on the downwind side. This requires you to figure out which side of the house is going to be impacted by the full force of the wind and which side will be sheltered. If the eye of the storm is going to come close to you, you could get winds from both directions, so this idea won't work. But for many people, finding the right place to park can mean having a functioning vehicle after the storm.

The third option, which isn't great, is to find an open area on high ground where the car is less likely to be hit by flying debris. Park your car facing into the wind, if possible. As we've all seen in videos, powerful winds can flip cars when they're hit from the side.

The worst place for your car is under a tree or on a street or parking area that could flood.

The issues vary from place to place, of course. But the goals remain the same. You need a safe place to ride out the storm outside the evacuation zone, and a safe place to park your car. For many people, the well-built home of a friend or relative in a nearby neighborhood away from the water is the best option. It puts you in the storm zone, but it removes the risk of evacuation trauma. It also provides the ability to get back home as soon as possible. Returning from a distant city can be difficult.

Here are the other issues you should be thinking about that I listed the other day. I'll expand on them in the days ahead.

2. How are you going to protect your property? Windows and doors need protection unless they are Miami-Dade County certified to stand up to flying debris.

3. Where will you get water to drink after the storm? You don't need bottles of water from the store. Buy inflatable containers and fill them with tap water. Do it before the storm and save a lot of aggravation and schlepping.

4. How will you communicate with family and friends if the mobile phones are out after the storm? Choose a responsible contact person out of town whom all your friends and relatives can check in with by text.

5. Do you have any special medical needs or conditions to consider? Pharmacies might not be open for an extended period after the storm. Electricity-dependent people are a special concern.

Successfully living with hurricanes is not easy, but it's doable. You will love yourself for taking mental and physical steps now if you have to implement your plan this hurricane season.


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