Top 10 Hurricane FAQs – What you Need to Know

It’s that time again…in less than a week, we will be in hurricane season once again! Today’s blog concludes our series of hurricane related content, but you can always find any of our previous posts on hurricanes here! We’ve covered topics such as how to prepare for power outages, what a “typical” hurricane season looks like, what hazards arise from tropical storms, the effect of hurricanes on mental health, and more! Today we want to focus on some questions that meteorologists are frequently asked about hurricanes and hurricane season.

1. What’s this season going to be like for (insert location here)?

Seasonal outlooks, such as the ones from Colorado State University and the National Hurricane Center below, are calling for another above average hurricane season (last year’s hurricane season was record-breaking!).

However, no one can accurately predict what the season will look like for a specific location. It only takes one hurricane making landfall where you live for it to be an active hurricane season for you, and we encourage all coastal residents to prepare the same for each season, regardless of how much activity is predicted.

2. I’m outside of the hurricane’s forecast cone, so that means I’m safe right?

No! The forecast cone for tropical storms represents the most likely track of the center of the storm. The cone contains no information about how the tropical system will impact you, and is formed based on the track error of past forecasts in the prior five years. For example, if a certain season was harder to forecast, the cone will be bigger the next year due to the higher amount of errors made the previous year. The flipside, is that if a hurricane season was easier to forecast for, the cone will get smaller. The cone has gotten smaller over the last few decades.

Example Graphic of 5-Day Track Forecast Cone:

Although the center of the cone is typically a safe bet for where the center of the storm will go, small “wobbles” can drastically change the forecast, so it is important to always remember not to focus on the center of the cone. Hazardous conditions also can and do occur outside the cone.

3. What do different categories mean and what are the criteria?

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale utilizes a 1-5 ranking system (listed below) that estimates property damage based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed and has provided an excellent tool for alerting the public about the possible impacts from hurricanes. However, the scale only tells part of the story, as it does not address the potential for other hurricane-related impacts, such as storm surge, rainfall-induced floods, and tornadoes. Thus, meteorologists are required to convey these risks to the general public independent of the Saffir Simpson scale.

Category 1: 74-95 miles per hour
Category 2: 96-110 miles per hour
Category 3: 111-129 miles per hour
Category 4: 130-156 miles per hour
Category 5: 157+ miles per hour

Note that a tropical cyclone is known as Tropical Depression when the storm has maximum sustained surface winds of 38 miles per hour or less. The cyclone becomes designated as a Tropical Storm when the maximum sustained surface winds ranges from 39-73 miles per hour.

4. Which hurricane has been the worst on record?

“Worst” is somewhat relative and can be categorized in multiple ways – by how much damage (in dollars) a storm created and/or by how many lives were lost. Hurricane Katrina (2005) first impacted the US as a Category 1 near Miami, Florida, and then as a strong Category 3 along the eastern Louisiana and western Mississippi coastlines. The impacts of the storm included severe storm surge (with a maximum storm surge estimate exceeding 30 feet!), wind damage, and flooding. Wind damage and flooding were felt far inland, as far as Indiana and Ohio. The failure of the levee system in New Orleans exacerbated the situation, leading to a CPI-adjusted cost of $172.5 billion.

Life cycle of Hurricane Katrina

The deadliest hurricane of all time was the Great Galveston Hurricane in 1900, when approximately 8,000 people died (Alicia wrote a great book review on Isaac’s Storm, which is given from the perspective of the chief meteorologist in Galveston at the time). Fortunately, hurricane deaths have generally decreased since 1900 due to more advanced warnings, better preparedness campaigns and better communication. However, Hurricane Maria (2017) made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in Puerto Rico and the storm’s high winds caused widespread devastation to Puerto Rico’s transportation, agriculture, communication and energy infrastructure. Extreme rainfall up to 37 inches caused widespread flooding and mudslides across the island. Though the initial death count was estimated at 64, NOAA now estimates that there were 2,981 deaths due to Hurricane Maria.

5. Why does a hurricane’s “right side” always seem worse?

The “right side” refers to the storm’s direction of movement. If a hurricane is moving to the west, the right side would be to the north of the storm, if it is heading north, then the right side would be to the east of the storm. In addition to forward movement a tropical cyclone’s winds spiral around its center – counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. As the storm moves forward, the side of the storm with winds moving in the same direction will be faster because the storm motion (velocity) and the winds within the storm are added together . The opposite side would have slower wind speeds.

For example, a hurricane with 90mph winds moving at 10mph would have a 100mph wind speed on the right (forward-moving) side and 80 mph on the side with the backward motion. Weather forecast advisories already take this asymmetry into account and, in this case, would state that the highest winds were 100 mph.

Northern Hemisphere

6. What is the origin of the name “hurricane”?

“Hurricane” was derived from the name of the Mayan god ‘Hurakan’, one of their creator gods, who blew his breath across the chaotic water and brought forth dry land.  Later he destroyed the men of wood with a great storm and flood.  Through trade Mayan religious beliefs spread throughout the Caribbean.  When Columbus met the Taino tribe on Hispañola, they told him about ‘Hurican’, an evil god of storms.  Spanish sailors began to refer to these tropical storms by the name of the Taino storm god.

7. What is the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon?

The only “difference” is where they form! Both hurricanes and typhoons refer to the same weather phenomenon: tropical cyclones. A tropical cyclone is generic term that refers to a rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that originates over tropical or subtropical waters. Tropical cyclones are called different names, however, based on their location. In the North Atlantic Ocean and Northeast Pacific, they are called hurricanes. But if the same type of disturbance takes place in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, it is known as a typhoon. In the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, cyclone is the correct term.

8. Which countries are most impacted by tropical cyclones?

The United States ranks number one in the number of tropical cyclone “strikes,” followed closely by China. These numbers are approximated from the IBTrACS database and include only those storm tracks that intersected the coastline at hurricane intensity (≥ 65 kt) and does NOT include storms that remained just offshore but may have affected the country.

However, it should be noted that some basins have longer histories of such activity and this might bias these counts. So the following is the ranking if we only look at storms since 1970, when world-wide satellite coverage became available.

9. Can I get a seat on a Hurricane Hunter flight?

We wish! However, for the safety of everyone involved, only people who are a part of the mission are allowed on the aircraft. This may include accredited members of the press, provided they are working on a current story involving the storm (though seats are not available on every flight ).

NOAA’s G-IV Jet in the forefront and P-3 Aircraft in the back. Image Credit: NOAA

10. How can I prepare for a hurricane?

The best time to prepare is before hurricane season begins. Creating a hazardous weather preparedness plan is imperative for everyone, and including hurricane prep is especially important for those in coastal communities. Put together a preparedness kit (check this list to get you started), ensure your home is up to code, and check for any “potential problem areas” (such as overhanging branches or missing roof tiles). Check your shutters and other window and door coverings. Once the season begins, stay informed. For hurricane preparation tips, check out FEMA’s comprehensive downloadable guidebook and visit www.ready.gov/hurricanes for the best information available on hurricane preparedness.

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