As Hurricane Dorian bears down on the southeastern coast of the United States, videos of trees whipping in the wind, tossing surf, and home wreckage are harsh reminders that Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with.
Anyone who has lived in a coastal area visited by annual tropical force storms and hurricanes knows how frightening these blows can be. Residents in parts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina may soon be facing a category 3 hurricane with wind speeds above 110 miles per hour (mph).
Hurricanes create “powerful winds, heavy rainfall, storm surges, coastal and inland flooding, rip currents, tornadoes, and landslides. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The Pacific hurricane season runs May 15 to November 30,” according to the U.S. emergency preparedness website Ready.gov.
All hurricanes are rated for destructive strength on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale by Category, sustained wind speeds, and type of damage due to high winds and tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Understanding how powerful wind force can be, as Cat (Category) force increases, is very sobering. Take a look for yourself:
Cat 1 winds: 74-95 mph
Very dangerous winds will produce some damage to well-constructed frame building roof, shingles, vinyl siding, and gutters. Shallowly-rooted trees may fall down and large tree branches will snap. Power lines and poles may go down with outages
lasting from a few hours to several days.
Cat 2 winds: 96-110 mph
Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage to building roof, and siding. Many shallow-rooted trees will snap or be uprooted and block roads. Most power lines and poles will go down with near-total outages lasting from several days to several weeks.
Cat 3 (major) winds: 111-129 mph
Devastating damage will occur to building roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will snap or be uprooted, blocking roads. Power and water utilities will be out for several days to several weeks after the storm moves on.
Cat 4 (major) winds: 130-156 mph
Catastrophic damage will occur to buildings, destroying roof structure and/or exterior walls. Most trees and power poles will fall and fail. Residential areas will be isolated with power outages lasting weeks to months, making them uninhabitable.
Cat 5 (major) winds: 157 mph or higher
Catastrophic damage will occur to buildings, destroying a high percentage by causing complete roof failure and wall collapse. Residential areas will be isolated by fallen trees and power poles with outages lasting up to months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
Equally dangerous to residents of coastal regions are storm surges produced by high hurricane-force winds. According to the official U.S. website for emergency preparedness, few people survive storm surge.
Seawater floods inland rapidly and engulfs everything in its path, swirling around heavier objects (such as buildings) until enough force from the powerful flooding washes away parts of all of weaker standing structures.
One storm surge survivor, Tom, from Mexico Beach, Florida, survived Hurricane Michael and managed to record his harrowing experience:
“You can’t realize what it’s like when your house is floating. Everything floats. You can’t get down the hallway – you’ve got to fight to get where you’re going.”
Tom said the double doors to the outside of his home began to flex as the water, halfway to the doorknob, sought to gain entry:
“We can’t hold it.”
But the occupants of the house did push against the door from the inside to keep them from bursting open:
“I don’t know how long we held it.”
Unsure of how high the water would rise, Tom was afraid of being “trapped like rats in here.”
The idea that ocean-driven water would overtake them, Tom choked up a bit as he remembered:
“I saw death outside that door.
As a survivor of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, I know how difficult it is to decide whether or evacuate or hunker down to weather out the storm. On October 5, 2016, I booked a hotel room on the west coast of Florida for me and a friend, living near West Palm Beach on the southeastern coast, to escape Matthew’s wrath. My roommate decided to stay put and ride out the storm.
Hurricane Matthew topped out at Cat 5 before reaching the U.S. but had weakened to Cat 3 as it cruised along the southeastern coast of Florida.
The next day, on October 6, as my friend and I drove west some 175 miles across the state, Florida Governor Rick Scott said at a press briefing:
“We have not seen a hurricane this strong in almost a decade…If instructed to evacuate, don’t wait. You can always repair and rebuild – and we’ll be here to help you do that. The most important thing you can do is keep you and your family safe.”
Ironically, Matthew was a cyclonic storm system that swirled the winds around the state and pushed them along the western coast, too. Weather conditions in our sheltering hotel were almost identical to those on the other coast where we had hurriedly left most of our belongings.
My roommate who had stayed home helped neighbors put up their storm shutters before the hurricane’s winds kept people inside. A veteran outdoorsman, he said the storm “wasn’t all that.”
But, to be fair, Matthew didn’t whip up the storm surge many forecasters had predicted. And that was a real blessing.
While in Florida, I observed that long-time Sunshine State residents store household generators and storm shutters for the annual ritual of getting their properties ready to withstand the windy, watery onslaught. They stocked up on drinking water and peanut butter. Their radio and flashlight batteries were charged.
If you plan to stay in your home when a hurricane threatens, be prepared. It could save your life.