“It’ll Never Happen to Me”: Getting Past Barriers to Determining Your Hurricane Risk
Dr. Rick Knabb
Former Director, National Hurricane Center
“I’ve lived here for decades, and we’ve never had a hurricane. I figure I’m good.”
“We got hit last year, so this year it’ll be someone else’s turn.”
“I don’t want to evacuate and do all of those other things unless I know for sure it’s going to hit here.”
“I’m staying for a cat 1 or 2, and maybe a 3, but a 4 or 5? I’m outta here!”
“I just hope we don’t get hit this year.”
“It’ll never happen to me.”
These are actual statements people have made to me during my travels around the country over the years. Many of you have probably heard similar things. These are the “before” statements. What do people often say after they’ve actually been hit hard by a hurricane or other weather disaster? You know how it goes…
“In all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen it like this.”
“No one told me it could be this bad.”
And this one really hurts to hear:
“I don’t have enough insurance. I’ve lost nearly everything.”
So many of us seem to be willing to take the gamble, do little or nothing, and hope that a hurricane doesn’t affect us where we live – even though we generally understand that we could lose a lot if a hurricane does come our way. Simply hoping that a hurricane doesn’t strike this year puts us in a weak position, even though we all want our families, homes, businesses and communities to be strong.
The first step for all of us to get past these initial mental barriers is to fully realize all of the hurricane risks we face. Your specific risks depend a lot on exactly where you live, but let’s get a few basics out of the way. Hurricanes are not just coastal events. Damaging and deadly winds, tornadoes, and rain-induced flooding can occur hundreds of miles from the coast and days after landfall. Even storm surges that affect coastal regions can go a lot farther inland – several miles in many locations – than many people realize. Too many unwary swimmers, surfers, and boaters have lost their lives from rip currents and waves near the coast from tropical cyclones that remain well offshore. In the United States over the past half century, nearly 90% of the direct deaths – those attributable to the forces of the storms –have been caused by water, with storm surge taking about half of these lives. Although winds can certainly be damaging and deadly, we must not underestimate how heavy, powerful, damaging, and deadly water can be when determining our hurricane risk.
Some topics get a lot of attention but can actually distract us from properly assessing our hurricane risk, and from taking the right steps to confront it. We hear a lot about what the various seasonal hurricane forecasts say, what El Nino is doing, or how long it’s been since the last hurricane hit our town, or our state, or our country. But none of these things tell you anything helpful about whether you’re going to get up close and personal with a hurricane this year. No one can tell you that months in advance; the five-day forecasts are challenging enough (remember Erika and Joaquin from just last year?). We make it a point to remind folks how little relationship there is between local impacts and seasonal activity; 1992 is the classic example, a “quiet” season with only one major hurricane. Yet that one was Andrew, which struck South Florida at category five intensity. The bottom line is that it only takes one hurricane or tropical storm to make it a bad year for you, and we need to prepare the same way every year for hurricane season, regardless of whatever expectations might be floating about for the season overall.
That’s the logical way to look at preparedness, but it can be even more motivating to consider the emotional aspects of getting ready for a hurricane. How my family and I contend with our risk from hurricanes (or other perils) is a very personal and emotional topic, and I suspect that if you think about it for any length of time, it would be for you as well. The emotional response from envisioning my family and home experiencing a hurricane is a great incentive for me to take steps now to get us ready in advance – long before an actual hurricane is on our doorstep.
I don’t just think about going through the storm itself – I also plan for the potentially nasty, dangerous, and lengthy aftermath. How would I feel if, for example, my home was severely damaged by wind, water, or both – and I didn’t have enough insurance to rebuild the home and replace its contents? How much longer would it take for our lives together to get back to “normal”? What would it do to our family’s financial future to try to recover without enough insurance? This is why we are visiting our insurance agent this month for an annual checkup. Whether you rent or own, live coastal or inland, visit your insurance agent and ask lots of questions to make sure you’re adequately covered. Don’t forget flood insurance, which must be obtained separately because it is not included in standard insurance policies. Along with promising yourself to never drive your car on a water-covered road (Turn Around Don’t Drown!), getting flood insurance is one of the best ways to deal in advance with your risk of inland flooding. Inland flood risk varies by location, but a good starting point is to know that for nearly all of us, if it can rain where you live it can flood where you live. Those who live close enough to the coast to be vulnerable to storm surge have that additional reason to get flood insurance. Update your insurance now, because waiting periods make it difficult or impossible to put new coverage in place when a hurricane is actually out there and you suddenly feel the urge to visit your agent.
The reason I go shopping for disaster supplies before every hurricane season is because the alternatives are extremely unpleasant at best and dangerous or catastrophic at worst. How would I feel if a hurricane was approaching and I decided to go shopping for those supplies at the very same time it dawned on everyone else who hadn’t stocked up in advance? I’d wait in horribly long lines for things my family desperately needs, but in many cases I’d find that stores were out of those items by the time I got there. The possibility of being isolated from emergency responders for days after the storm, with power out, stores closed, and no supplies is pretty frightening. I’ll be posting another blog entry later this week about what’s in my disaster supply kit.
My neighbors might think I’m strange, but they’ll soon see me testing my window shutters to make sure I can properly put them in place. It’s been a while since we’ve had to put them up for a real hurricane threat. But far better to make sure all is in order now, than risk having to tell my wife when a hurricane warning goes up that I can’t protect our home from the debris that might soon be flying around our neighborhood in hurricane-force winds.
There are so many ways that each one of us might identify things – some of them relatively simple and inexpensive – that we can do to make our home stronger before the next hurricane strikes. In addition, when you talk to your insurance agent, ask about what discounts you could get on your premium for making some improvements to your home that might not be as expensive as you expected and that might pay for themselves over time.
Those are just some of the actions I’m taking before hurricane season starts, and these are good topics for a national conversation. Today is the first day of National Hurricane Preparedness Week here in the United States, and for the first time the week coincides with the Hurricane Awareness Tour that this year visits Gulf Coast states. The week truly promises to be bigger, better, and more effective than ever before at helping us all get ready for hurricane season. This will be the second year in a row that we bring to each stop two different types of aircraft that are critical components of our hurricane monitoring and forecasting arsenal – a U. S. Air Force WC-130J from Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the NOAA G-IV jet stationed at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida. In addition, several organizations that have already indicated their partnership with NOAA and the National Weather Service by becoming Weather-Ready Nation Ambassadors will now spring into action in the tour stop cities or in many other locations to promote hurricane preparedness and resilience.
We hope that this tour and other preparedness week activities leave you with a greater confidence in your government at all levels, knowing that federal, state, and local officials are devoting extensive resources to plan together in advance for the next hurricane. On display this week are some of the most advanced technologies and communications tools available to help us issue the most effective hurricane forecasts and warnings, in support of evacuation and other decisions by emergency managers and to promote communication of a consistent message by our media partners.
This post is the first in a series of daily Inside the Eye blog entries that will focus on a chosen theme of the day. Some of the articles have been written by prominent experts from the emergency management community and from our nonprofit partners, and we thank them for their contributions. Later this week we will focus individual days and blog posts more thoroughly on the topics of getting an insurance check-up, stocking up on disaster supplies, and strengthening your home. We will also close out the week by talking about identifying trusted sources of information and then putting it all together in a written hurricane plan for yourself, your family, and, if applicable, your business.
We will first focus tomorrow on planning for evacuation, which is how we can most easily determine and respond to our risk of storm surge. That’s the place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything involved in hurricane preparedness. The topics of insurance, supplies, and stronger homes have a lot to do with not only safety but also recovering more quickly and fully after the storm. But it’s hard to be resilient if you’re dead, and evacuations are called beforehand by emergency managers to save lives in large numbers, primarily from storm surge that has historically caused more fatalities than any other hurricane hazard. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is the author of our guest blog post on this topic, so I invite you back into this space tomorrow to hear it straight from the top of the emergency management community.
I’ll just hit the high points for the moment about evacuation planning. Find out today if you live in a hurricane evacuation zone, by contacting your local emergency management agency. Don’t assume that this is only a problem for people with beachfront property. In many coastal states, the risk of storm surge extends several miles inland in some locations. If you do live in one of these zones, decide today where you’d go and how you’d get there in a real hurricane event if told to evacuate by local emergency managers. Then, when that hurricane actually threatens and those officials instruct you to evacuate, you go! And here is my plea if you live far enough inland that you find out you don’t live in a hurricane evacuation zone: identify today someone you care about that does live in an evacuation zone, and you work it out to be their inland evacuation destination. Those of you who live in a mobile home (or any other structure that is not safe from strong winds) should not plan to host evacuees, as there is a very good chance that emergency managers will also tell you to evacuate to safer shelter.
So let’s go! Let’s go dedicate ourselves to being #HurricaneStrong as our friends from the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) are encouraging us to do. You’ll see and hear a lot about that initiative this week, as it focuses on the same themes we’re talking about during National Hurricane Preparedness Week. It’s about realizing that we help decide our own outcome from the next hurricane, and then helping one another to flex our collective muscles and take action now, well in advance. We can’t just let that hurricane decide what happens to us while we sit on the sidelines. Our businesses, homes, families, and friends are worth the effort, and we simply owe it to ourselves. It’s just as personal for you as it is for me.
The staff at the National Hurricane Center is often asked about what they do during the “off-season.” The off-season (December 1st thru May 15th) is a very busy time for employees of the Center. Meteorologists in the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch continue their year-round forecast responsibilities, and staff in the Technology and Science Branch develop new forecast tools, upgrade user interfaces, and maintain NHC’s computers. During the off-season, the Hurricane Specialist Unit’s around-the-clock forecasting role ceases; however, the staff take on other important functions that help improve forecasts and better prepare the public for the next hurricane event. The Hurricane Specialist Unit’s off-season activities fall generally within the following areas:
- Complete Tropical Cyclone Reports, seasonal review articles, and forecast verification of the previous season’s tropical cyclone forecasts
- Work on tools to make the forecast process more efficient
- Incorporate new scientific techniques and modeling to improve forecast accuracy
- Develop enhancements to NHC tropical cyclone products and services
- Provide outreach and education to key partners and customers
Each area of off-season focus is an important aspect in NHC’s ability to improve its services. The outreach and educational component increases emergency manager and media understanding of NHC products, and public awareness of hurricane hazards and risk.
Training for Emergency Managers and Decision Makers
NHC staff facilitated nearly 10 weeks of training for emergency managers and fellow meteorologists throughout the United States and Caribbean during this past off-season. Each year, the outreach and education period begins in earnest in January, when three one-week FEMA Hurricane Preparedness for Decision Maker courses are conducted at NHC. Local and state emergency managers from the gulf, southeastern, and northeastern U.S. coastal areas learn about the NHC forecast process, products, and forecast uncertainty. One day of the course is devoted to the storm surge hazard. Partners from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provide information on the tools available that assist emergency managers in evacuation decision making. Since the course is held at the NHC, it also allows an opportunity for the NHC staff to meet and interact with emergency managers that help protect local communities during tropical cyclone threats. The course began in 1992 and continues to be refined today. A one-day version of the course is taught at some state and/or national hurricane conferences, and a three-day version of the course is offered to one state each year. This past off-season the three-day course was taught at the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management in West Trenton.
Training for International Meteorologists
In March, the NHC hosts a two-week World Meteorological Organization RA-IV Workshop on Hurricane Forecasting and Warning. Forecasters from national meteorological agencies from 15 to 20 countries in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Asia participate. The course is conducted in both English and Spanish and the visiting forecasters learn details about tropical analysis, satellite observing tools, and how NHC constructs tropical cyclone forecasts.
Training for National Weather Service Meteorologists
This past outreach and education season also featured two National Weather Service (NWS) Effective Hurricane Messaging Courses. These workshops provided local NWS forecasters the opportunity to more thoroughly understand how NHC forecasts are made and how best to communicate potential tropical cyclone hazards to emergency managers, the media, and the public. The workshop also allowed NHC staff and NWS forecasters to become more familiar with each other’s responsibilities during hurricane events. The workshop will help strengthen the NWS tropical cyclone warning coordination process and ensure a consistent message is communicated throughout the agency.
Discussions during these gatherings often focus on how best to communicate the tropical cyclone threat and potential hazards. These discussions sometimes result in ideas for new products or enhancements to existing NHC products and services.
NHC’s mission to save lives and mitigate property loss begins with a better public understanding of the hazards posed by tropical cyclones. Next time you think of the NHC “off-season”, remember it as the “Outreach and Education” season. As former NHC Director Max Mayfield said, “the battle against hurricanes is won outside the hurricane season.” Take the time to educate yourself before the next tropical cyclone threat by learning about hurricane and storm surge risk in your community. If you live in an evacuation zone, have a plan and a designated place to go to ride out the storm. Become hurricane prepared! For more information on hurricane preparedness see http://www.hurricanes.gov/prepare or http://www.ready.gov/hurricanes.