The main hazards associated with tropical cyclones and especially hurricanes are storm surge, high winds, heavy rain, and flooding, as well as tornadoes. The intensity of a hurricane is an indicator of damage potential. However, impacts are a function of where and when the storm strikes. Hurricane Diane (1955) hit the northeastern U.S. and caused 184 deaths. It was only a Category 1 hurricane but the thirteenth deadliest since 1900. Hurricane Agnes (1972), also a Category 1 hurricane, ranks fifth with damages estimated at 6.9 billion when adjusted for inflation. A storm surge is a large dome of water, 50 to 100 miles wide, that sweeps across the coastline near where a hurricane makes landfall. It can be more than 15 feet deep at its peak. The surge of high water topped by waves is devastating. Along the coast, storm surge is the greatest threat to life and property.
Hurricane winds not only damage structures, but the barrage of debris they carry is quite dangerous to anyone unfortunate enough (or unwise enough!) to be caught out in them. Damaging winds begin well before the hurricane eye makes landfall.
Tropical cyclones frequently produce huge amounts of rain, and flooding can be a significant problem, particularly for inland communities. A typical hurricane brings at least 6 to 12 inches of rainfall to the area it crosses. The resulting floods cause considerable damage and loss of life, especially in mountainous areas where heavy rains mean flash floods and can also result in devastating mudslides.
Tornadoes spawned by landfalling hurricanes can cause enormous destruction. As a hurricane moves shoreward, tornadoes often develop on the fringes of the storm.
These hazards can bring other consequences not directly related to the storm. For example, hurricane-related deaths and injuries are often the result of fires started by candles used when the electricity fails. Heart attacks and accidents frequently occur during the clean-up phase. And depending on the industrial facilities in your area, hurricane damage might cause chemical spills that could make the disaster even worse.
• Storm surge is the greatest potential threat to life and property associated with hurricanes.
• A storm surge is a large dome of water, 50 to 100 miles wide, that sweeps across the coastline near where a hurricane makes landfall. It can be more than 15 feet deep at its peak.
• The level of surge in a particular area is primarily related to the intensity of the hurricane and slope of the continental shelf.
• The Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model is used by communities to evaluate storm surge threat from different categories of hurricanes striking from various directions.
• Because storm surge has the greatest potential to kill more people than any of the other hurricane hazards, it is wise to err on the conservative side by planning for a storm that is one category more intense than is forecast.
• Typically, the more intense the storm (in terms of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale), the more wind damage a community will sustain, particularly if it does not have an effective mitigation program and has not prepared in advance for the storm.
• Tropical storm-force winds (39-73 mph) can also be dangerous, and it is wise to have evacuations completed before they reach your area.
• Hurricanes (and some tropical storms) typically produce widespread rainfall of 6 to 12 inches or more, often resulting in severe flooding.
• Inland flooding has been the primary cause of tropical cyclone-related fatalities over the past 30 years.
• Rains are generally heaviest with slower moving storms (less than 10 mph).
• The heaviest rain usually occurs to the right of the cyclone track in the period 6 hours before and 6 hours after landfall. However, storms can last for days, depending on what inland weather features they interact with.
• Large amounts of rain can occur more than 100 miles inland where flash floods and mudslides are typically the major threats.
• Tornadoes are most likely to occur in the right-front quadrant of the hurricane. However, they are also often found elsewhere in the rainbands.
• Typically, the more intense a hurricane is, the greater the tornado threat.
• Tornado production can occur for days after landfall.
• Most tornadoes occur within 150 miles of the coast.
• The National Weather Service’s Doppler radar systems can provide indications of tornados from a few minutes to about 30 minutes in advance. Consequently, preparedness is critical.
Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale*
Category Definition—Likely Effects
• ONE: Winds 74-95 mph: Very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.
• TWO: Winds 96-110 mph: Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.
• THREE: Winds 111-130 mph: Devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.
• FOUR: Winds 131-155 mph: Catastrophic damage will occur: Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
• FIVE: Winds greater than 155 mph Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
*In operational use, the scale corresponds to the 1-minute average sustained wind speed as opposed to gusts which could be 20 percent higher or more.