Hurricane Hazard: Get Ready

Camille, Fredrick, Erin, Opal, Danny, Georges, Ivan, Dennis, Katrina.

That’s a bunch of storms and we all remember them. And the problem is there were a lot of others in between. There were many smaller storms that maybe didn’t have the same impact. To prepare for the future, you have to remember the past. And that’s what this program is all about. Preparing for the future, but before we go forward, let’s go way back.

The hurricane of September 27, 1906 was the strongest in Mobile’s recorded history, to that point. In a historical account from the Monthly Weather Review, nearly all buildings were damaged. 20 were demolished. Windows were blown in, chimneys felled, tin roofs rolled up, slates and shingles ript off. A record tide damaged goods in the wholesale district. Electric services were totally crippled. Telegraph wires were down. Roads were made impassable by prostrated trees. On the southern coast of Mobile County about one hundred persons lost their lives, mostly by drowning.

It was the most terrific storm in the history of Pensacola. A large number of ocean going vessels, tug boats, fishing smacks, launches, and craft of all kinds were wrecked upon the beach. The people of the city were panic stricken. The entire waterfront property was inundated, the water reaching many houses; some were carried away completely or irreparably damaged. On Palafox Street from the wharf north to Wright Street, hardly a building escaped damage. Fort Pickens suffered severely, and Fort McRae was completely razed.

July 5, 1916 brought another powerful storm. Hurricane winds over 100 mph were recorded in Mobile and Pensacola. A hurricane warning was issued only about 6 hours before landfall. This hurricane was even more destructive in Mobile than the one 10 years earlier. The entire wholesale business district was inundated, and on St. Francis Street the water extended inland about four blocks. Storm tide was nearly 12 feet above average. The high tides were responsible for the major portion of the damage. After the storm, flooding continued across the region.

Just 3 months later, on October 18th, 1916, an even stronger hurricane hit the Mobile-Pensacola area, with winds over 110mph. People were more-prepared for this rapidly moving storm, so the damage was not as extreme.

old hurricane map
Historic Hurricane on the Gulf Coast.

September 20th, 1926, another powerful hurricane reached our coast after earlier striking Miami. It stalled south of Pensacola and buffeted the central Gulf Coast with 24 hours of heavy rain, hurricane force winds, and storm surge. Nearly every pier, warehouse, and vessel on Pensacola Bay was destroyed. Pensacola’s peak wind was 116 mph. The storm surge exceeded 9 feet but many survivors asserted that the water was even higher. Mobile had a peak wind of 94 mph. With northerly winds, the Mobile River had decreasing tides until an unprecedented low stage occurred.

What’s really interesting is when you look at our hurricane history, so many things have changed, yet so many things have stayed the same. …wait a minute. We’re getting a phone call from a hurricane, on a wired phone. This is a good, old fashioned phone…which is better than your phones, I think. No, mine has texting. And mine has social media and that’s kind of where things are going. All of the emergency managers, even the National Weather Service, the best way to get information and going forward will be social media. But does yours work when there’s no electricity? Mine has a copper wire that goes to the wall.

But you can get a backup battery. So basically we need all this different technology as we prepare for hurricane season and any other weather situation.

hurricane sayings
The First Alert Storm Team with old hurricane sayings.

You’ve heard these expressions…The first 72 are on you. What does that mean? It means for 72 hours, you’re on your own after a hurricane.
Turn around, don’t drown…Well, that means that you want to turn around whenever you see water on the road.
And it’s a cliché but it works…It only takes one storm to make it a bad season for you.
Run from the water, hide from the wind. If you’re in a flood prone area, get away! But if you’re on high ground and sturdy shelter, you’re probably better staying put.
Put tape on windowsI don’t think this works! You must cover your windows.
No and then, crack open the windowThat’s not going to work for you. It’s a waste of time.
Alright, the northeast quadrant is the worst…. not exactly.
When a hurricane approaches our part of the Gulf Coast is the worst because the strongest winds are coming onshore. It’s called the right-front quadrant. The left-front has winds going offshore. But if you’re in Florida for example, then the right front quadrant is going to be something other than the northeast. It’s going to be, in this case, in the south.
So, whatever quadrant you are in, Makeda Nichols says need to look at your insurance before a tropical system arrives.

Now is the time to make sure your policy covers tropical wind damage, and get flood insurance if you’re in a flood zone. These things are not covered under a regular homeowner’s policy. This is also a good time to take a pre-storm video inventory of your home and all your belongings—outside and inside.
Makeda Nichols, State Farm Insurance: After the storm, take pictures. If you do have damage, you have to do preventive maintenance to further prevent the house from being damaged. I tell everybody please be patient for at least three days, because usually—if it’s a bad one—it’s chaotic…even for us.
Damage from tropical storms and hurricanes may prompt different deductibles than a regular thunderstorm. Repairing or rebuilding an older home may be more expensive, since the building codes have likely changed and the repairs will have to meet the modern codes—hurricane straps on rafters would be one example.
If you’re building or remodeling, you can save money on insurance with storm windows, fortified doors, and a stronger roof.
Don’t wait for a tropical threat to talk with your insurance agent…that’s too late.
Nichols: Once there’s a hurricane in the Gulf we’re not allowed to write any new policies.

It’s important for individuals and families to prepare before a tropical threat. But one thing you might not have given much thought is if your home is prepared. Wind can wreak havoc on a house by finding weak spots which will lead to damage from the rain water getting in or worse.

Randy Shackelford, Simpson Strong Tie: What happens is that as the winds blows over your house, it’s going to lift up the top of it. You’ve got that uplift force and you’ve got to transfer that force through the joints of your house. Starting from your roof framing, top of the wall and everywhere there is a joint on the wood framing you need to have some kind of connection on there so that uplift force ends up in the ground. Your first line of defense is fastening the decking to your roof and last line is the bolting down to the foundation so it’s got to go all the way down. So it could start out something like this hurricane tie, this will work in some places. Other places might be a strap or other places might be a bolt. Lots of different ways but the important thing is to make sure you have it.

And wind is only half the equation when it comes to a hurricane. You have wind, you have rain, and then you have water as in storm surge and storm surge can do a number on you.

Katrina Aftermath
Dauphin Island after Hurricane Katrina.

To best show the power of moving water and storm surge, I went to the University of South Alabama where they have a wave pool in the Civil Engineering Department. The high water would be storm surge under a model of a portion of a bridge. A giant piston pushes the water on a rhythm to create waves. Notice that it doesn’t reach the bridge. The waves would be the battering waves on top of the surge. As the waves move forward, the water hits the side of the bridge. There’s also an upward force from waves moving underneath the bridge. Regardless of the weight of the bridge span, the power and persistence of moving water pushes it off the pilings inch by inch. At some point the bridge spans fail.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your home, or bridge, any facility, there could be some major damage from a hurricane. After a storm, whether it’s a hurricane, flood, or tornado, you’ll want to get your life and home back to normal as quickly as possible. But you need to make sure you get it done right. Your house needs to meet all the proper codes for the area you live in. The best way to do this is to find a local, licensed contractor.

Carl Hamilton, Carl Hamilton Builder LLC.: “They need to produce a copy of their state issued license or give the consumer the number off their license. Any person can check the validity of a license over the internet.”

The other important part is making sure they have insurance.

“Somebody could make a mistake and set it on fire! Something’s going to have to give at that point. So I would urge the consumer to verify that the contractor actually is insured. An insurance certificate is readily available if they actually have it.

And remember when you are trying to get your home back to normal. “Slow down and be careful!” You can check for licenses and registrations on websites.

Tree canopy
Trees need care to handle hurricanes well.

Don’t forget about tree care. Gardening expert and tree expert Bill Finch says some trees are worse than others when it comes to tropical weather.
Finch: John, water oaks and laurel oaks—just bad trees. 25 years growing and 25 years dying, that’s what makes a Water Oak. I’ll tell ya, when it gets to looking like that, with stubby limbs, that tree has gotta come out.
Finch: Pecans don’t get disease like these trees, but boy do they have brittle limbs and they fall apart very easily. They have a terrible shape. Be very careful if you have one of these over your house.
And Bill, live oaks: they’re hardier and they’re beautiful.
They’re beautiful, they don’t have disease problems, they’re very wind resistant, but I want you to look at this limb. Look how long it is! It’s like a huge lever. It will tear itself away from the trunk if it keeps growing out. You’ve got to take the weight off the tips of these live oak limbs or they will shear off.
All right. So how do I know where to cut?
You don’t, John. You’re going to have to get a certified arborist to do that for you.

Don’t take down all your trees since they can act as a wind break. Trees in a group tend to be sturdier than one tree by itself. In past storms we’ve seen a lot of trees down after the storm, but that ultimately leads to a lot of injuries from chainsaws, and injuries from improper use of generators when the power is out. Follow the instructions on your generator.

Make sure you use your generator properly.

We recommend that it’s outside somewhere, maybe under a shed because of carbon monoxide.
Hook a generator up straight to the appliances.
Jay Springsteen, Baldwin EMC: we recommend the week before. You already know it’s preparation time, so go ahead and get your gas all set up, check the oil in it. The first thing I would do is make sure the fuel is on. This is your choke. You may need to choke it a little bit. Make sure your switch is on…and then, crank it.
Remember to buy gas early and make sure you have enough to get you through the storm. Make sure the gas you are using is fresh.

For any potential storm you’ll see many different forecasts online out there but you don’t want to put all your stock into just one forecast. Stick with your trusted source.

The “cone of uncertainty” that you often see gives you a quick idea where the center of the storm could go. Sometimes it goes out of that cone… sometimes it stays in, but what the cone doesn’t tell you is what will happen where you live.

storm cleanup
Storm cleanup can be stressful and dangerous.

Jeff Medlin, National Weather Service: We realize that by design, the path of any one storm is only in the cone about 66% of the time. The other thing we like to emphasize is don’t focus on the skinny black line that goes up the center of the cone because the center can be anywhere in the cone. Sometimes, more importantly, large wide-reaching that are large diameter sometimes the effects can be felt well outside the cone even though the center is in the cone, which makes it a perfect forecast.

Dr. Rick Knabb. Director, National Hurricane Center: And so don’t focus on the skinny black line. Don’t focus on the big white cone. Focus on the hazards.

Something that’s even harder to predict than where a storm will go is how the season will shape up. Seasonal forecasts each year have gotten better, but they don’t tell the whole story.
The hashtag it only takes one if you follow social media it’s a cliché, but it works. It really only takes on regardless how busy it is. We have had some above average years like 2010 where no hurricanes hit the US. Then 1992 below average, but Andrew category 5 hit the Florida Gulf Coast. I prepare the same way every year. So what I hope people don’t do is hear the seasonal forecast and think about how long it’s been since the last hurricane and conclude I hope a hurricane doesn’t hit this year and don’t prepare in advance. That lets the hurricane dictate things. But we want to be hurricane strong and prepare in advance. Survive the storm recover in the aftermath.

In your hurricane plan, don’t forget your pets. We talked to Dr. Mandy Moss of Springhill Animal Clinic to some tips. She says that right now, before any storm, it’s time to: Get up-to-date on vaccines; Have proof of all vaccines and rabies tag; and microchip and register your pet.
If your dog gets lost—whether it’s evacuations or just gets out in the storm and gets spooked and runs off—every shelter and every vet clinic has a microchip scanner and they can scan your pet. Now your pet has to be registered in the system, and that is how they would eventually contact the owner and get them back together.
Have a crate if you think you may have to evacuate—and be sure the place you’re going accepts animals. If you stay put, keep all pets inside. And be sure that you have at least two weeks of any needed medications on hand, in case you can’t easily get more. Tight-fitting Thundershirts can make some pets feel less anxious during a storm, or your vet can provide a mild sedative.

As you put your personal plan in place for hurricane season, know that many government and volunteer agencies are doing the same.

Jeff Medlin, National Weather Service: Training of the individuals, forecasters and drills. That takes us into April. Then in May it’s all on with tropical outreach and preparedness with local officials. Going to conferences, not only making sure we are ready, as an office, but making sure our partners are as ready as they can be (the local decision makers).

John Kilcullen, Mobile County EMA: half of the year we are in the season or we are getting ready. Reviewing plans, preparedness plans, participating in outreach activities so we can keep our public informed about the risks that hurricanes pose to us. Explain fundamental plans they can do well ahead of time.

Raven James, Director, Stone Co. EMA: We are always planning getting ready for hurricane season. Making sure we are informing the public of the risks with hurricanes when the storm approaches or gets in the Gulf of Mexico.

Steve Huffman, Public Information Officer, Mobile Fire-Rescue: We participate in exercises with Mobile county EMA. They are the lead and that is where we will have people staged at the EOC, key personal to make decisions. If all the key players they can look to each other and say we got this issue what do we need to do, what resources do we need then we can go from there.

Our local agencies aren’t the only ones preparing. The Red Cross’s local chapter in Mobile also spends majority of their time gathering resources and prepping for future disasters.

Mike Brown, Red Cross: We have an agreement with the city of Mobile. They mayor and his administrative staff will be here at our building and when the storm is on the way as well as the county joint information center will also be there. So that’ll help with communications. This building will be used as a headquarters so that when the leadership volunteers come in they will be running it from here at our emergency operations center. We have a team of volunteers that are trained and ready and we do our best to predict where it will come ashore, but when it does we will be ready.

evacuation route
Know your evacuation route in case of a hurricane or other emergency.

Follow this advice from Melissa Constanzer- I decided to do my own practice run of evacuating for a storm. After grabbing food and clothes, I found a few other things that were good to grab before leaving home. Water…an essential…something to sleep in…and my favorite pillow…my prescriptions…all those important papers, taxes, insurance…valuables in my safe…and some of the memories I don’t want to forget. But now, the hard part begins…where do I go and how do I get there? The best answer is to have a plan before a storm forms. Along the gulf coast there are many roads to use but the road won’t be the challenging part. It’s really going to be the people.

Dr. Rick Knabb. Director, National Hurricane Center: “The main thing that is happening throughout the country, and it’s no exception here on the northern Gulf Coast, is that more people, and more structures are in harm’s way, both near the coast and inland.”

In fact, some of our coastal counties are the fastest growing. Since 2005, Baldwin County has increased by about forty-thousand people and Santa Rosa County increased by about thirty-thousand.
And, you guessed it…much of that population settles near the sand. But when a storm comes, many of those people are told to evacuate. This can cause a traffic headache. The Alabama department of transportation can do some things to help.

Don Powell, ALDOT Operations Engineer : “We send folks out and we ride, not just the interstates, but some of our larger, state maintained roads. They report back, you know, ‘We’re seeing heavier traffic getting to the Interstate or here or there,’ and we use that information in determining when we reverse the lane.”

Reversing lanes, or contraflow, as it’s called, helps ease traffic problems to a point. For example, interstate-65 southbound may be reversed up to exit 31 in Stockton as it was for hurricanes Ivan and Dennis. But interstates like i-1o can only move so many people. Many evacuation routes through Baldwin county and Florida are four lanes from the coast to i-10, before narrowing back down to just two. So the best advice… “try and get out early because the latter you wait, along with everyone else, you have the potential to get stuck in that traffic.” Also, emergency management agencies say you need to know your destination before the storm.

Don’t forget your pet’s needs during a hurricane.

Daniel Hahn, Santa Rosa County Emergency Management: “We want people to go to a friend or neighbor’s house or a relative’s house in the area where they feel safe before they consider a shelter. In a shelter, there’s no privacy. You have to bring all your own stuff. It can be noisy. The bathrooms are shared. It’s not a motel or hotel.”

Keep in mind, only a few shelters allow pets. But the biggest thing to know, before the wind blows, is where you’ll go. And before you leave, don’t forget, to pack your patience.

You must get a disaster kit together. Find long lists of what you need here on our website. Get ready!

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