For those of you aware of Hurricane Frances, it might be interesting to have some insight into what it is like to live in the direct path of a tropical cyclone. As a longtime resident of South Florida, and a current resident of Palm Beach County, I've seen quite a few. The impressions you get from the major news outlets aren't entirely accurate, as you might imagine.
To begin with, no one knows where a hurricane will make landfall until about twelve hours ahead of time, including all the experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. All those charts and guestimates you see on TV are just that...guestimates.
More than once, I've gone to sleep expecting to have a hurricane hit my city dead on...only to wake up in the morning and find that it made landfall two hundred miles away. When it comes to hurricanes, plus or minus two hundred miles makes a big difference. It's the difference between potential devastation and a rainy day.
The media makes its money via advertising and therefore via how many people are tuned in. Putting out a message that says, "Hey, there's really not much to worry about" isn't nearly as effective in attracting viewers as putting out a message that says, "Beware of the impending doom!"
All the same, these are the basic preparations that any sane person would take if a hurricane appears to be somewhat on-track for a nearby landfall.
Several gallons of bottled water
A good book for when the power goes out
And that's pretty much it. There's not much else one can do, aside from leaving the state. Now, don't get me wrong: hurricanes are not to be trifled with. They are among nature's most powerfully destructive incarnations. They can wash entire coastal islands out to sea. They can create new inlets where none existed before. They can flatten square miles of real estate.
A Category Five hurricane (as measured by the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale, which runs from 1 to 5) is likely to leave no sign, no tree and no unreinforced structure standing. A Category 5 storm has sustained winds in excess of 155 miles per hour. To put that in perspective, a human would probably have trouble standing erect in winds much higher than 60 miles an hour.
But the truth is, in modern Western countries, chances are good that the concrete-reinforced home you live in will survive and protect you quite well, assuming the roof doesn't get ripped off.
And as long as you don't live in a mobile home, the best thing you can do is stay put and hunker down.
The only caveat is if you live within a quarter-mile or so of the coast. In that case, you are probably in a mandatory evacuation zone...and you should probably relocate inland a few miles. That's because the vast majority of deaths in modern hurricanes occur from something called storm surge.
A storm surge is a large body of water that is pushed onshore by the force of the hurricane. In this part of the country, high tide is usually around 6-12 feet above low tide. But during a hurricane, the "high tide" can be 20-30 feet higher than low tide. That's the storm surge. And if you live on the beach itself, or within several miles of it, you might wake up with six feet of water on your doorstep.
The shallower and less-sloping the continental shelf is offshore, the larger the storm surge is likely to be. It's just like sloshing water around in a shallow bowl. Florida, being largely flat and having a shallow coastal plane, is at far higher risk for devastating storm surge than is, say, Hawaii, where the slope of the plane is much steeper.
In 1926, the last time a major hurricane hit Palm Beach County, the storm surge washed several miles inland and killed more than 20,000 people via flooding.