Residents along the 367 miles of Texas coastline are no stranger to the life-threatening storms that often emerge from the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Beginning the 1st of June through the end of November, coastal residents are at risk of a barrage of hazards brought on by hurricanes, including high winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, and storm surges.
While hurricanes and other major storms affect the entire country, Texas has stood witness to some of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters formed in the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1851 and 2016, 289 hurricanes affected the continental U.S. Of these, 63 made landfall in Texas.
Hurricanes are giant, spiraling tropical storms that can strike land at wind speeds of over 160mph and unleash more than 2.4 trillion gallons of rain a day. In the formative stages of a hurricane, heat is drawn from warm, moist ocean air and released through condensation of water vapor in thunderstorms. It is at that point that a tropical depression is established. If the sustained velocity of its winds exceed 39 mph, it becomes a tropical storm. At this stage it is given a name and is considered a threat. When the winds exceed 74 mph, the system becomes a hurricane.
Hurricanes are, essentially, colossal heat engines that generate energy on a staggering scale.
Hurricanes are categorized from 1 to 5 by the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, a rating system based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed.
- Category 1 – Winds 74 to 95mph (Minor damage). Very dangerous winds will produce some damage.
- Category 2 – Winds 96 to 110mph (Extensive damage). Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage.
- Category 3 – Winds 111 to 129mph (Devastating damage)?. Devastating damage will occur.
- Category 4 – Winds 130 to 156mph (Catastrophic damage)?. Catastrophic damage will occur.
- Category 5 – Winds 157 mpg or higher (Absolute worst). Catastrophic damage will occur.
Hurricane Watch and Warning Terms
Although not every tropical storm fully develops into a hurricane, it is important to recognize the difference between a hurricane watch and a hurricane warning.
A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within a specified area. Hurricane warnings are issued 36-hours in advance of the expected onset of high-speed winds in order to allow more time for important storm preparation activities.
A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within a specified area. These are typically issued 48-hours in advance of the expected onset of high-speed winds. This is when you should prepare your home and review your evacuation plan in case a hurricane warning is issued.
Hurricane Safety Tips
Even if you’ve experienced a hurricane in the past, you may not be aware of how to fully prepare for one. Whether you’re a longtime resident or new to the area, it’s important to know what steps to take to ensure your and your family’s safety–from pre-landfall to post-landfall.
Before a Hurricane
If a hurricane watch or warning is issued in your specific area, complete preparation is essential for minimizing damage to your property and securing the safety of your household.
- To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.
- Know your surroundings.
- Learn the elevation level of your property and whether the land is flood-prone. This will help you know how your property will be affected when storm surge or tidal flooding are forecasted.
- Identify levees and dams in your area and determine whether they pose a hazard to you.
- Learn community hurricane evacuation routes and how to find higher ground. Determine where you would go and how you would get there if you needed to evacuate.
- Make plans to secure your property.
- Determine how and where to secure your boat.
- Install a generator for emergencies.
- If in a high-rise building, be prepared to take shelter on or below the 10th floor.
- Consider building a safe room.
During a Hurricane
- If told to evacuate, do so immediately. Do not drive around barricades.
- If sheltering during high winds, go to a FEMA safe room, ICC 500 storm shelter, or a small, interior, windowless room or hallway on the lowest floor that is not subject to flooding.
- If trapped in a building by flooding, go to the highest level of the building. Do not climb into a closed attic. You may become trapped by rising flood water.
- Listen for current emergency information and instructions.
- Use a generator or other gasoline-powered machinery outdoors ONLY and away from windows.
- Do not walk, swim, or drive through flood waters. Turn Around. Don’t Drown! Just six inches of fast-moving water can knock you down, and one foot of moving water can sweep your vehicle away.
- Stay off of bridges over fast-moving water.
Winds, Storm Surges & Flooding
Storm surge is water from the ocean that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around a hurricane. Storm surge is historically the leading cause of hurricane-related deaths in the United States. It undermines roads and foundations when it erodes material out from underneath them.
Storm surge is fast and can produce extreme coastal and inland flooding. When hurricanes cause storm surge, over 20 feet of water can be produced and pushed towards the shore and several miles inland destroying property and endangering lives in its path.
Water weighs about 1,700 pounds per cubic yard, so battering waves from surges can easily demolish buildings and cause massive destruction along the coast.
Just one inch of water can cause $25,000 of damage to your home.
Hurricane evacuations are based on the damage expected from various storms, and may be local or regional. Evacuations are based on several factors, and are designed to get residents out of harm’s way quickly.
Several regions of the Texas Gulf Coast have been designated as Hurricane Evacuation Zip-Zones. Zip-zones are large-scale evacuation corridors that are implemented when disaster strikes. You can view an interactive map of Houston-area Zip-zones here.
Traffic management plans
In the event of high vehicle traffic during an evacuation, local government officials may decide to implement traffic management plans.
Contraflow involves reversing the flow of traffic on highways so that all traffic flows out. During an evacuation, look for signs indicating whether or not the contraflow plans are in effect. Most evacuations will not require contraflow, and not all contraflow options may be used.
Additional lanes, called Evaculanes, are sometimes used during an evacuation and are marked with a white hurricane symbol on a blue circle.
Hurricane Preparedness Resources
ReadyHoustonTx.gov is an online resource of emergency preparedness information for the city of Houston and its surrounding areas and jurisdictions. When disaster strikes home, it’s important for residents to have access to information that could save their lives and their property.
Outlining an emergency response plan and keeping a checklist of tasks and details can help protect you and your family from the devastation of an impending hurricane. Staying in touch with neighbors, setting up emergency alerts, and having a NOAA Tone-Alert Radio on hand are other ways to keep yourself prepared and up-to-date.
Click here to view a full-length disaster preparedness guide provided by ReadyHouston.
For additional information on hurricane facts, preparation, and recovery, please visit the links below.
National Hurricane Center
National Weather Service Weather Safety
Be a Force of Nature with NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation
NWS Storm-Ready Sites & Communities
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
American Red Cross
Insurance Information Institute?