From June 1 to November 30, 183 days in total, U.S. cities along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts - from Brownsville, Texas to Key West, Florida up to Portland, Maine - ready themselves for hurricane season.
Major hurricanes in Sarasota, however, are infrequent. Insulated from the brunt of storms approaching from the Atlantic Ocean, the region tends to experience blunted winds and steady rains from west-approaching storms.
That said, Sarasota's location along Florida's Gulf Coast leaves it vulnerable to disturbances that fire up in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. And, regardless of where a hurricane may approach, the entire Sarasota and Manatee region is susceptible to storm surge and flooding due to its low-lying coastal geography.
Past storms such as 2007's Hurricane Charley, 2012's Tropical Storm Debby, and the one-two punch of 2017's Tropical Storm Emily and Hurricane Irma serve as stark reminders that residents here should always be on alert when summer sets in and warm oceans start churning out low-pressure weather systems.
As we head into the most active part of the season, let's take our basic hurricane preparedness guide a step further and look at how to prepare for a storm in Florida. Perhaps more importantly, we also examine how to know when to leave in the face of an oncoming tropical storm or hurricane.
Ready Yourself, Long Before the First Storm Ever Materializes
When living on the gulf coast, it's always a good idea to prepare yourself and your home for the unexpected. Even no-name rain events that drift inland off the gulf or cross Florida westward from the Atlantic can create havoc.
To adequately prepare prior to the June to November hurricane season:
◾ Know your neighborhood's elevation and understand its propensity to flood and the potential risk of storm surge
◾ Learn evacuation routes and know the location of official shelters
◾ In addition to the routes and shelters, create a plan for evacuation - where will you go, what will you bring, how much gas you'll need to get there and back
◾ If you own a boat, determine how and where you will store it
◾ Verify that your insurance coverage is adequate against different types of storm damage
◾ Keep your home's exterior well-maintained - regularly clean gutters and downspouts and trim bushes and trees, and be able to secure any loose outdoor furniture quickly
◾ Maintain a ready supply of key essentials - batteries, flashlights, power banks, plastic and plywood to secure your home, one or two cans of gasoline, a fresh tank of propane, and even a portable grill
◾ Acquire non-perishable food and water (including for your pets) ahead of the storm season, keeping anywhere from three days to two weeks' supply on hand
Maintain emergency supplies and general preparedness well before storm season. Make it an annual ritual to stock up or replenish your supplies. Wait until the last minute to ready yourself and your property for an approaching weather event, and you could face empty shelves at grocery and hardware stores.
In addition, gather your most critical documents, including:
◾ Birth certificates
◾ Social security cards
◾ Insurance documentation
◾ Mortgage information
◾ Vehicle information
◾ Marriage license
◾ Critical financial or medical records
◾ Extra house or car keys
◾ Any other vital piece of information or documentation you may need to save or access should your home flood or you evacuate for an extended period of time
Store them together in a Ziplock or other airtight, waterproof bag inside a safe in your home. You only need to grab the bag should you evacuate. Should you forget to take the bag or end up staying, they are relatively well protected - and, more importantly, remain together in one place - in the event of wind or water intrusion.
Keep much of your information electronically. Back everything up to the cloud or ensure your laptop comes with you wherever you go. If you use an external storage device, consider keeping it in the same plastic bag as your documents.
Taking Action - The Difference Between a Watch and a Warning
When a storm approaches your location, how you react is just as important as how you prepare. The most critical indicators for when to take action are in the form of watches and warnings.
Hurricane watches indicate that conditions are favorable for hurricane-force winds - sustained winds greater than 74 mph. A watch doesn't necessarily translate to a hurricane impacting the watch area, just that it's possible.
When a hurricane watch is issued, it's a good time to accelerate your storm preparedness, including:
◾ Regularly monitor TV and online weather reports and note how and where the storm is and where it may be heading.
◾ Gas up (and service, if necessary) the family vehicles. If you can store it safely, it doesn't hurt to fill up an extra 5-gallon gas can, as well.
◾ Start prepping your home, including covering windows and doors, securing any outdoor furniture, or partially draining your pool
◾ Verify your food supplies and any prescription medicine; for the latter, you should secure at least a two weeks supply
◾ Ensure you have plenty of flashlights, batteries, and a battery-powered radio handy
◾ Secure extra cash
While a hurricane watch may not materialize into a full-blown storm in your area, you still may experience effects from its proximity to your location.
A hurricane warning means that conditions are more than just favorable for sustained winds greater than 74 mph, they're expected. You have 36 hours before tropical storm-force winds start impacting your area when a warning is issued. It’s also an indication that you should begin wrapping up any storm prep, including:
◾ Stay in tune with weather forecasts and updates as much as possible
◾ Be prepared to leave immediately should local authorities issue evacuation orders - take them seriously
◾ Finish any last-minute preparations, most specifically those on your home's exterior
◾ If you do choose to evacuate, be sure a friend or family member beyond the storm's reach is made aware of your plans
Also, when evacuating amidst a warning, attempt to do so as early as possible to avoid traffic and fast deteriorating conditions.
Additional Storm Alerts
In both scenarios, pay attention to other alerts as well, including flood watches and warnings - and mainly if the alert involves flash flooding. Tropical storms are often massive. Their impact can prove widespread and affect different areas in different ways.
For example, a flash flood warning may accompany a hurricane watch. You may not have to deal with wind, but heavy rain with the storm is a certainty.
Knowing When to Evacuate
Regardless of how far from landfall a tropical storm or hurricane is, whether it's two weeks or two days, the central question that always arises is: should you stay or should you go?
Unfortunately, there is no standard, one-size-fits-all answer. No two storms are alike. A tropical depression with little wind can stall over a location, dumping a large volume of rain and submerging an unsuspecting region.
Conversely, a powerful category three or category four hurricane will come ashore and blow in and out of a handful of counties in a relatively short amount of time. Though it might leave very little rain accumulation, the wind damage could be catastrophic.
Riding out either storm is not advisable. And it's not just the danger of facing Mother Nature head-on as she comes ashore.
If you're unsure of when to leave before an oncoming storm, plan to evacuate under the following scenarios:
◾ Local authorities announce a mandatory evacuation (in certain areas, though they not may be able to force you to leave, emergency services will be unavailable to you during and in the immediate aftermath of the storm), so if you're instructed to leave, you should do so as soon as possible
◾ You live directly on the coastline, near a river or other interior waterway, or within a storm's predicted storm surge
◾ You live in a high-rise building, as winds are considerably stronger at higher levels
While most homeowners' initial reaction is to stay, ride out a hurricane or tropical storm, and protect their property, many underestimate that the primary hardships of not evacuating come after the fact.
The tropical rainmaker can leave you stranded in a flooded neighborhood. The Cat 3 or Cat 4 is capable of downing power lines leaving you (and gas stations and grocery stores) without electricity for days or weeks.
Even in the aftermath of a modest storm, there's the real possibility of being on your own, in the midst of the summer heat, potentially in a damaged or unsafe home, without food, water, gas, air conditioning, or direct access to emergency services.
That's in addition to the potential harm that could come your way during the storm itself.
Always Be Alert, Especially During the 183 Days of Hurricane Season
Although Sarasota's western Florida location is less prone to significant storms than the state's more exposed Atlantic and North Gulf Coast shorelines, it doesn't mean the area is entirely immune.
Heavy rains, flooding, and catastrophic winds are all possible in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. To keep you, your loved ones, and your property safe requires diligence, awareness, and preparedness. It also demands knowing when the time is right to evacuate. Even the most extraordinary, luxury-laden house is replaceable. The lives that occupy that home are not.
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