For state and local government leaders in charge of hurricane response,
compiled best practices and lessons learned from recent storms to help you get ready for
Experts estimate that the 2023 hurricane season will bring a total of 18 named storms, nine hurricanes, and four major hurricanes. We all know that it’s critical to start preparing early to improve your community’s recovery from tropical threats. But to prepare effectively, it’s important to look back at the patterns, successes, and failures related to hurricanes in previous years.
Our team has been on the ground for some of the most significant hurricanes in U.S. history, including Katrina, Sandy, Maria, and Harvey. Based on this experience, we put together a list of key considerations and lessons learned from storms in recent years.
Keep reading to find out what we’ve learned and discover new ways to improve your hurricane preparation efforts.
Prepare for all storm-related hazards
While the point of landfall gets most of the attention during a hurricane, hazards don’t stop at the coast when the storm hits. Other hazards include:
- Storm surge
The deadliest threat associated with hurricanes in the U.S. is storm surge, which occurs when water levels rise due to strong winds pushing water ashore. The National Hurricane Center helps communicate the threat from storm surge by preparing potential storm-surge inundation maps during a hurricane. It’s important to keep an eye on these projections and notify the public as early as possible if there is a need to evacuate.
- Flooding rain
Even areas hundreds of miles inland can be susceptible to the impacts of flooding rains. This was the case for many residents of Central Florida who were shocked to experience flooding after Hurricane Ian struck in 2022. Rivers carried floodwater from the Category 5 hurricane into Central Florida, inundating roadways, flooding homes, and blocking critical access points.
Strong winds and tornadoes
Just like flooding rain, strong winds can hit areas far from the coastline, long after the storm has come ashore. A clear example of this was during Hurricane Isaias in 2020, when the storm initiated a large tropical cyclone outbreak that caused destruction across the eastern United States.
The key message to take away is that hurricane impacts can go far beyond the coastlines and it’s important to have statewide plans in place to anticipate dangerous conditions. Communicate early and often to all citizens—even those that live inland—that they should keep a hurricane kit with food, clean drinking water, and other essentials ready. They should also be prepared to evacuate if needed, so be sure to clearly communicate information regarding evacuation routes.
Pre-disaster documentation is key
Adequate pre-disaster documentation can speed up reimbursement after the hurricane and help your community get enough funding to make repairs. Without proper documentation of pre-disaster conditions, FEMA may deny funding that your community critically needs for full recovery.
Some key components of pre-disaster documentation include:
- Conducting routine site inspections.
- Documenting via site photos and videos.
- Retaining up-to-date maintenance records.
- Keeping inspection routes, assignments, and documents organized.
Check out these 8 best practices for pre-disaster documentation for additional insight into this topic.
Build local capacity
Ensure you have adequate staff in place to respond to a storm and help your community recover swiftly from any damage. Conduct TA and training early to get the right folks in place to respond and build capacity. If needed, consult with disaster recovery experts in advance to lead training that will help speed recovery after a storm hits.
In some cases, employees that don’t traditionally see themselves as responders may be needed. It’s best to be over-prepared by training staff in several areas, including the following FEMA PA processes for managing cost recovery:
- Pre-disaster planning–FEMA documentation.
- FEMA Public Assistance Program.
- Categories of work.
- FEMA funding.
- Special considerations.
- Damage analysis.
- Damage documentation.
- Insurance and risk management.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
It’s important to be ready for the changing nature of communications during both the short-term response phase and longer-term recovery phases of a disaster.
Advances in technology including cell phones, the internet, and social media have provided new ways to engage with the community and alert citizens of threats and safety protocols. However, these tools may not be available during the initial response phase of a hurricane. It’s critical to have a sustainable communication network in place in case internet and cell phone towers are damaged during a storm.
Nearly all communications systems in Puerto Rico collapsed during Hurricane Maria when the island’s power system shut down. Most residents were dependent on cell phones for communications and were left without any service. This is a clear example of the need for alternative communication systems to be in place for future emergencies.
If internet and cellular communications are available during the response and recovery phase, use them to your advantage! In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, FEMA implemented tools including Facebook Live and the FEMA mobile application to share important information and real-time feedback.
That said, it’s important to be mindful of inclusivity for citizens with special communication needs, including the deaf community and those who don’t speak English. Make sure to share information through a variety of methods and in several languages to ensure equitable access to information for all.
Establish and finalize as many agreements with vendors ahead of time as you can
The faster you can move after a storm, the better. Nothing delays recovery quite like contract discussions and approvals, so it’s beneficial to establish agreements with contractors well in advance so you’re not stuck behind red tape when in need of a contractor during or after an emergency.
Build a culture of preparedness
Many communities are working to better educate the public about how to prepare for storm season. Nonetheless, there are still too many people without flood insurance. Flood insurance is often a low-cost protective measure that helps those affected by floods to recover as much as possible. Many people realize too late that FEMA’s Stafford Act and Individual Assistance programs are not sufficient for their recovery.
Hurricane Harvey showed us the importance of flood insurance with the average payout being over $80,000, versus average Individual Assistance grants being under $7,000. It’s clear that communities must do more to educate the public about what assistance is available after a disaster and how important it is to secure a flood insurance policy before disasters strike.