Hurricane Preparation Guide: How To Plan for Disaster

Hurricanes batter the Gulf Coast and East Coast of the United States every year. They destroy homes, ripping off roofs, blowing in windows, and soaking everything inside. The damage they cause is personal, robbing families of keepsakes and forcing them to spend money they don't have on repairs and rebuilding.

Hurricanes kill and injure many people through the associated hazards of flooding, storm surge, objects blown by strong winds, electrocution, and more.

Preparation makes a difference in the outcome. Storm shutters protect windows; evacuation plans and disaster supply kits protect lives. Begin taking steps now to protect your family and your property. This guide provides lists and instructions and resources to help you minimize the damage from a hurricane. Read below to find out how you can prepare for a hurricane.


Basic Hurricane Information

What is a hurricane?

A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, the generic term for a low pressure system that forms in the tropics. A typical cyclone is accompanied by thunderstorms, and in the Northern Hemisphere, a counterclockwise circulation of winds near the earth’s surface.

All Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal areas are subject to hurricanes or tropical storms. Parts of the Southwest United States and the Pacific Coast experience heavy rains and floods each year from hurricanes spawned off Mexico. The Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June to November, with the peak season from mid-August to late October.

Hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage to coastlines and several hundred miles inland. Winds can exceed 155 miles per hour. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also spawn tornadoes and microbursts, create storm surges along the coast, and cause extensive damage from heavy rainfall.

Hurricanes are classified into five categories based on their wind speed, central pressure, and damage potential (see chart below). Category Three and higher hurricanes are considered major hurricanes, though Categories One and Two are still extremely dangerous and warrant your full attention.

How are the hurricane categories determined?

Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
Scale Number
Sustained Winds
1 74-95 Minimal: Unanchored mobile homes,vegetation and signs.
2 96-110 Moderate: All mobile homes, roofs, small crafts, flooding.
3 111-129 Extensive: Small buildings, low-lying roads cut off.
4 130-156 Extreme: Roofs destroyed, trees down, roads cut off, mobile homes destroyed. Beach homes flooded.
5 More than 157 Catastrophic: Most buildings destroyed. Vegetation destroyed. Major roads cut off. Homes flooded.

What is the most dangerous feature of a hurricane?

Storm Surge

The greatest potential for loss of life related to a hurricane is from the storm surge!

Storm surge is water that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the storm. This advancing surge combines with the normal tides to create the hurricane storm tide, which can increase the mean water level to heights impacting roads, homes and other critical infrastructure. In addition, wind driven waves are superimposed on the storm tide. This rise in water level can cause severe flooding in coastal areas, particularly when the storm tide coincides with the normal high tides. Much of the United States' densely populated Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastlines lie less than ten feet above mean sea level, so the danger from storm tides is tremendous.

Storm surge combined with wave action can cause extensive damage, severely eroding beaches and coastal highways. Major storms Katrina, Camille, and Hugo completely devastated the coastal communities where they made landfall. Many buildings withstand hurricane force winds until their foundations, undermined by erosion, are weakened and fail.

Hurricanes can also produce widespread torrential rains. Floods are the deadly and destructive result. Slow moving storms and tropical storms moving into mountainous regions tend to produce especially heavy rain. Excessive rain can trigger landslides or mud slides, especially in mountainous regions. Flash flooding can occur due to intense rainfall. Flooding on rivers and streams may persist for several days or more after the storm.

Between 1970 and 1999, more people lost their lives from freshwater inland flooding associated with land falling tropical cyclones than from any other weather hazard related to tropical cyclones.

How are hurricanes named?

Since 1953, Atlantic tropical storms have been named from lists originated by the National Hurricane Center and now maintained and updated by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization. The lists featured only women’s names until 1979. After that, men’s and women’s names were alternated. Six lists are used in rotation. Thus, the 2001 lists will be used again in 2007.

The only time there is a change in the list is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the continued use of the name would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity. When this occurs, the name is stricken from the list and another name is selected to replace it.

Sometimes names are changed. Lorenzo replaced Luis and Michelle replaced Marilyn.

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Top Ten Hurricane Disasters Ranked By FEMA Relief

Event Year FEMA Funding
Hurricane Katrina
(AL, LA, MS)
2005 $7.2 billon
Hurricane Georges
(AL, FL, LA, MS, PR, VI)
1998 $2.251 billion
Hurricane Ivan
2004 $1.947 billon
Hurricane Andrew
(FL, LA)
1992 $1.813 billion
Hurricane Charley
(FL, SC)
2004 $1.559 billon
Hurricane Frances
(FL, GA, NY, NC, OH, PA, SC)
2004 $1.425 billion
Hurricane Jeanne
(DE, FL, PR, VI, VA)
2004 $1.407 billon
Hurricane Hugo
(NC, SC, PR, VI)
1989 $1.307 billion
Hurricane Floyd
1999 $1.050 billon
Hurricane Fran
1996 $617.8 million

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How to Prepare for a Hurricane: What to do Before, During and After

Hurricanes can be dangerous killers. Learning the hurricane warning messages and planning ahead can reduce the chances of injury or major property damage.


Mitigation includes any activities that prevent an emergency, reduce the chance of an emergency happening, or lessen the damaging effects of unavoidable emergencies. Investing in preventive mitigation steps now such as strengthening unreinforced masonry to withstand wind and flooding and installing shutters on every window will help reduce the impact of hurricanes in the future. Continue reading for a more comprehensive list of tasks to complete before a hurricane threat.

Before a Hurricane


  • Contact the local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter, and ask for the community hurricane preparedness plan. This plan should include information on the safest evacuation routes and nearby shelters.
  • Plan your evacuation route.
  • Learn safe routes inland.
  • Be ready to drive 20 to 50 miles inland to locate a safe place.
Disaster Supply Kit


  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Portable, battery-operated radio and extra batteries
  • First aid kit and manual
  • Emergency food and water
  • Nonelectric can opener
  • Essential medicines
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Sturdy shoes


  • Make arrangements for pets.
  • Pets may not be allowed into emergency shelters for health and space reasons. Contact your local humane society for information on local animal shelters.
  • Make sure that all family members know how to respond after a hurricane.
  • Teach family members how and when to turn off gas, electricity, and water.
  • Teach children how and when to call 9-1-1, police, or fire department and which radio station to tune to for emergency information.
  • Protect your windows.
  • Permanent shutters are the best protection. A lower-cost approach is to put up plywood panels. Use half-inch plywood--marine plywood is best--cut to fit each window. Remember to mark which board fits which window. Pre-drill holes every eighteen inches for screws. Do this long before the storm.
  • Trim back dead or weak branches from trees.
  • Check into flood insurance. You can find out about the National Flood Insurance Program through your local insurance agent or emergency management office.
  • There is normally a thirty-day waiting period before a new policy becomes effective. Homeowners polices do not cover damage from the flooding that accompanies a hurricane.
  • Develop an emergency communication plan.
  • In case family members are separated from one another during a disaster (a real possibility during the day when adults are at work and children are at school), have a plan for getting back together.
  • Ask an out-of-state relative or friend to serve as the "family contact." After a disaster, it's often easier to call long distance. Make sure everyone in the family knows the name, address, and phone number of the contact person.

Hurricane Watches and Warnings

A hurricane watch is issued when there is a threat of hurricane conditions within twenty-four to thirty-six hours. A hurricane warning is issued when hurricane conditions (winds of seventy-four miles per hour or greater, or dangerously high water and rough seas) are expected in twenty-four hours or less.

During a Hurricane Watch

  • Listen to a battery-operated radio or television for hurricane progress reports.Palm Trees in Hurricane
  • Check emergency supplies.
  • Fill your car with fuel.
  • Bring in outdoor objects such as lawn furniture, toys, and garden tools and anchor objects that cannot be brought inside.
  • Secure buildings by closing and boarding up windows. Remove outside antennas.
  • Turn refrigerator and freezer to coldest settings. Open only when absolutely necessary and close quickly.
  • Store drinking water in clean bathtubs, jugs, bottles, and cooking utensils.
  • Review your evacuation plan.
  • Moor boat securely or move it to a designated safe place. Use rope or chain to secure boat to trailer. Use tiedowns to anchor trailer to the ground or house.

During a Hurricane Warning

  • Listen constantly to a battery-operated radio or television for official instructions.
  • If in a mobile home, check tiedowns and evacuate immediately.
  • Store valuables and personal papers in a waterproof container on the highest level of your home.
  • Avoid elevators.


  • Stay inside, away from windows, skylights, and glass doors.
  • Keep a supply of flashlights and extra batteries handy. Avoid open flames, such as candles and kerosene lamps, as a source of light.
  • If power is lost, turn off major appliances to reduce power "surge" when electricity is restored.


  • Leave as soon as possible. Avoid flooded roads and watch for washed-out bridges.
  • Secure your home by unplugging appliances and turning off electricity and the main water valve.
  • Tell someone outside of the storm area where you are going.
  • If time permits, and you live in an identified surge zone, elevate furniture to protect it from flooding or better yet, move it to a higher floor.
  • Bring pre-assembled emergency supplies and warm protective clothing.
  • Take blankets and sleeping bags to shelter.
  • Lock up your home and leave.

After a Hurricane

  • Stay tuned to local radio for information.
  • Help injured or trapped persons.
  • Give first aid where appropriate.
  • Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Call for help.


    After the Hurricane
  • Return only after authorities advise that it is safe to do so.
  • Avoid loose or dangling power lines and report them immediately to the power company, police, or fire department.
  • Enter your home with caution.
  • Beware of snakes, insects, and animals driven to higher ground by flood water.
  • Open windows and doors to ventilate and dry your home.
  • Check refrigerated foods for spoilage.
  • Take pictures of the damage, both to the house and its contents and for insurance claims.
  • Drive only if absolutely necessary and avoid flooded roads and washed-out bridges.
  • Use telephone only for emergency calls.


  • Check for gas leaks--If you smell gas or hear blowing or hissing noise, open a window and quickly leave the building. Turn off the gas at the outside main valve if you can and call the gas company from a neighbor's home. If you turn off the gas for any reason, it must be turned back on by a professional.
  • Look for electrical system damage--If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If you have to step in water to get to the fuse box or circuit breaker, call an electrician first for advice.
  • Check for sewage and water lines damage--If you suspect sewage lines are damaged avoid using the toilets and call a plumber. If water pipes are damaged, contact the water company and avoid the water from the tap. You can obtain safe water by melting ice cubes.

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