Hurricane Preparedness: A Newcomer’s Guide to Staying Safe in a Storm

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A few years ago, I read about a woman who moved from the Southwest to New York City, and a hurricane hit two days later. She had no idea what to do.

Why would she?

She was used to droughts and brush fires, not preparing for a hurricane with its devastating winds and massive levels of rainfall.

All disasters have several things in common: emergency service disruption, empty grocery stores, the potential for panic, loss of phone service and electricity, etc.

But all disasters also have their own nasty little unique signature, and newcomers shouldn’t have to find out the hard way what they are. So I started thinking about what newbies can do to make very basic hurricane preparations in just a couple of days.

What can newcomers to hurricane territory do to make very basic hurricane preparations in just a couple of days? Click To Tweet

I have two aims here.

First, I want to provide you with a few Very Basic Shopping Lists for urgent, minimalist prepping — if that’s all the time and money you can spare.

Next, I’ll provide tips for hurricane-specific prepping.

black truck driving through hurricane surge waters, preparing for hurricane

About Hurricanes

If you’re a newcomer to hurricane territory, you need some basic information to help you better prepare for storms.

When is hurricane season?

The 2022 Atlantic hurricane season officially extends from June 1 to November 30. However, outliers are always possible.

What do the category numbers mean?

The Saffir-Simpson Scale rates hurricanes based on sustained wind speeds and also estimates damage. Category Five is the most severe, indicating the highest wind speeds and worst predicted damage.

image: Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale Infographic

What’s the difference between a hurricane watch and a hurricane warning?

A hurricane watch is issued 48 hours before when hurricane conditions are expected to allow time for people to prepare more safely. A warning is issued 36 hours ahead of the sustained winds to signal preparations should be being completed.

image: hurricane warning vs watch infographic

What are the possible impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms?

There are five significant impacts:

  1. Storm surge
  2. Flooding
  3. Strong wind
  4. Tornadoes
  5. Rip currents

Preparing for a Hurricane

If you are new to hurricane country, and you are if you live within 100 miles or so of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, then this information is for you.

However, even if you’ve weathered a hurricane or two in your time,  you still might find something new to help you better prepare for the next one.

And there WILL be a next one.

Regardless of which camp you fall in, remember that the best time to prep for a hurricane is before a storm threatens.

1. Safety 

Hurricane-force winds are over 70 miles per hour. They can snap trees, utility poles, and even church steeples. They can rip off siding, roofing, and gutters.

Now, add the likelihood of pounding rain to the mix, and you quickly realize that your house needs prepping as much as your family does.

Outdoor furniture, grills, the doghouse, etc., all need to be stowed indoors. Garages and basements are preferable to sheds, which could get flattened.

Do any shutters (close them if they actually move), gutters, roofing, or trim seem iffy? Strap, nail, bungee, or duct tape them down now before they become windblown projectiles.

This doesn’t just protect your home; it also helps prevent damage to other homes and the lawsuits that can follow.

The worst place to be the day before a hurricane is a grocery store, Walmart, or a home improvement store.

Most of the good stuff is gone in a flash, the lines are an hour long, the credit swipers fail, tempers flare in the parking lot, and there are often teams of pickpockets working the place.

preparing for a hurricane
The local stores will not have much.

Instead, try smaller hardware stores and places like Big Lots and dollar stores.

Wherever you go in your pre-hurricane prepping,  go in the morning, bring at least two people (for heavy stuff and to divide and conquer) and bring well-guarded cash. But, of course, all of that goes double for hunting/camping stores.

TIP: Also, check online for an Evacuation Zone map and locations of shelters for your area.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Safety Items

hurricane damage... Don't touch
Low hanging power lines after a storm.
  • Duct tape
  • Plywood to cover damaged windows/roofs
  • Hammer and nails (You wouldn’t believe how many people have no way to attach plywood once they get it.)
  • Tarps and bungee cords/rope
  • Empty buckets to collect broken glass (see other uses below)
  • Chain saw for removing fallen trees. However, buy this only if you already know how to use one and have the cash. Never, never, never attempt to remove a pole, tree, or anything else that’s touching power lines! My Dad and brothers, all either firefighters or police officers, had a highly technical term for people who do this. The term was “the deceased.”

2. Power

There’s an excellent chance of a power outage in a hurricane. It usually lasts just a couple of days, but during Hurricane Sandy, it was an entire week! And we didn’t even live in the boondocks. So definitely consider power sources in your hurricane prepping.

If you choose to buy and use a generator, ensure you have enough fuel and outdoor extension cords. Generators have come a long way and are now very simple to use, provided you follow all safety protocols, especially proper ventilation!

TIP: This Generator Self-Assessment will help you determine the best unit for your needs.

If you use a generator, it needs to be kept outside. Be sure to have a way to secure it to a wall or something else solid and stationary. During one hurricane, homeowners reported waking in the morning to find a running lawnmower sitting where their generator had been the night before.

Yes, generators become a hot commodity for thieves who know they can easily sell them to desperate people.

Read more: Survival Diary From 3 Hurricanes & Lessons Learned

There’s also your car to consider. You might still be required to show up at work, even in the aftermath of the big storm.

On the fifth powerless day after Sandy, I had a terrible time finding gas. All the stations were out or couldn’t pump because they had no power. When I finally found a station, it was 8 miles from my house, accepted cash only, had a 20-gallon limit, and had real police officers directing traffic and enforcing the rules.

(And yes, I got actual  goosebumps when I began to wonder, “What if this were permanent?”)

A Very Basic Fuel Shopping List for Fuel

  • Generator, if you know how to use one and have the cash. Don’t assume that a neighbor will be able to help you figure out how to use one. They’ll have their own problems to deal with.
  • Gas or diesel in regulation cans
  • Propane tanks for grilling (in case you have an electric stove)
  • Charcoal for grill or campfire
  • Vehicle fuel in gas cans

3. Light

In addition to illuminating any tasks you want to do, light can be a huge morale boost.

Candles are good, but battery-powered LED lanterns are better. Solar lanterns are another great option. Be sure any solar options are charged and ready to go.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Lighting

  • Lots of extra batteries in various sizes. Honestly, you can never have too many batteries. Keep them in their packages until you need them.
  • Solar phone chargers
  • Lanterns and flashlights
  • Candles and matches

4. Water

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

There’s a decent chance of flooding in a hurricane due to heavy rain and storm surge. Flooding means contaminated water. Don’t drink floodwaters.

And because, generally speaking, you can only survive three days without water, preparing for a hurricane MUST include storing this critical item.

Bottled water is the first thing to disappear at the stores.

You should always have at least 2 or 3 cases of bottled water anyway, but even if you have stored water, there are some additional exigent steps you can take.

For instance, scrub and bleach the bathtub to sanitize it (don’t forget a new stopper to prevent leaking!), and fill it with water.

Bathtub volumes vary widely, but 30 gallons is a reasonable minimum. Remove anything that might fall in and contaminate the water. You can wash with a cloth or bucket elsewhere.

Keep the door locked if there are toddlers, elderly, or handicapped children in the house! This will prevent both drowning and contamination. There are also food-grade buckets and washed-out soda bottles for water storage.

TIP: If you don’t have time to scrub, bleach, and sanitize a tub, consider buying a low-cost WaterBob. I own 2 of them — one for each tub.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Water

  • Bottled water and/or containers that you can fill with water
  • Bleach (for sanitizing water and containers)

5. Sanitation

Whenever critical infrastructure, like sewer and water, are not functioning, illness will follow if we aren’t diligent about hygiene.

For sanitation, biodegradable moistened towelettes are a lifesaver, and they’re a reasonable price and widely available.

Or there’s witch hazel. Witch hazel is to the bathroom cabinet what duct tape is to the garage. For bathing, dampen a couple of inches of a washcloth with the stuff, and just wipe down the skin in one direction; repeat until clean. To “shampoo,” just wipe down hair starting at a part and re-part every few inches as though you were touching up roots.

READ MORE: Off-Grid Living: Take Care of Personal Hygiene

Plumbing can become an issue following a hurricane, and that’s why we store water. So what about the toilet?

A few empty buckets (with lids) double-lined with garbage bags and sawdust, dirt, or cat litter will suffice in a pinch. Pour a cup or two over poo, but no need to bother for pee.

For long-term toileting, use two buckets, one for poo and one for pee. Since pee is sterile, it can be dumped in a suitable location. You can also purchase an emergency toilet with a lid.

The Survival Mom discusses this in her book, or here’s a post with an excerpt about emergency toileting.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Sanitation

  • Empty buckets with lids to use as toilets if plumbing fails
  • A supply of kitty litter, sawdust, or dirt

6. Food

As for food, a few canned convenience foods for now never killed anybody, especially ones that are acceptable when eaten cold.

If the grocery store is already in chaos, bypass the canned meats and soup (which are probably gone anyway) and head to the baking aisle. There you’ll find nuts, seeds, dried fruit, coconut, canned/powdered milk, and yes, Virginia…chocolate chips.

TIP: Print out this list of foods that don’t need to be refrigerated. Great in any emergency.

The ethnic food aisles are next: ready-made polenta, instant couscous, pepitas, boneless sardines, etc.

Before you brave the grocery store, or if it’s already picked clean, try the Dollar Stores, small ethnic groceries, and odd lot stores. If you’re in a “mart,” the camping/fishing department gets picked over pretty fast, but there may be freeze-dried foods left.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Food

  • Bottled water, if there is any left
  • Bleach (for sanitizing water and containers)
  • Witch Hazel
  • Empty buckets with lids to use as toilets if plumbing fails
  • Canned stew, chili, soup, etc.
  • Canned tuna and other meats
  • Take-out condiment packets in case the fridge dies
  • Crackers and cookies
  • Pet food (because that’s who really ate the last ketchup packet next door!)
  • Peanut butter/Nutella
  • If you have grilling ability, fresh veggies that grill well
    And…(sigh)
  • Canned, powdered, or shelf-stable milk
  • Bread (If you own a Coleman Camp Oven, you could stock up on ingredients to make baked goods, like this no-knead bread.)
the store shelves will be empty
This is why we prepared ahead.

7. Communications

You must stay informed in a hurricane or other weather-related events as conditions can change rapidly. Especially if the power is out and your usual avenues for finding things out aren’t available.

First, you need tools to alert you to what is going on in your area. For example, are waters rising in your neighborhood, and you need to evacuate?

Download emergency and news apps to your cell phone, including any specialty app for your local area. The Red Cross Hurricane App is one such option. Even better, have an emergency radio with a NOAA weather band on it.

Next, you need a method to communicate with family members. Landline and cellular systems can be swamped and effectively unusable. Texting and social media may still work.

It’s also prudent to keep a written list of phone numbers in case anything happens to your phone. I mean, who remembers people’s phone numbers anymore, really? So decide in advance what you’ll do and make sure everyone knows.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Communications

8. Sanity (Or, Never Underestimate the Value of Entertainment When Preparing for Hurricanes)

On the fourth day of the Sandy blackout, I heard the neighbors having a 15-round, multi-combatant screaming match over who used the last ketchup packet.

Clearly, Cabin Fever and Electronic Withdrawal had claimed another family.

Don’t let this be you. When you get ready for hurricanes, remember your mental health, too.

Even if you have a generator for your TV, the cable may be out. Many Americans no longer keep DVDs,  preferring to pay for one of the many streaming options, which may also be down. The video games will keep kids occupied until the generator gives out.

It’s folly to be electronically addicted anyway, but let’s leave that for another day.

In hurricane country, it’s common to lose power in an area that hardly suffered any damage or to be still blacked out several days after everything appears cleaned up. That’s because the storm may have taken out a major transformer further away, or many poles may be down in a small area.

Also, there are only so many repair crews, and restoration efforts have to be prioritized to stuff like hospitals, fire stations, major roads, Senators’ houses — that sort of thing.

Do you own any board games or sports equipment? Do you know the rules of baseball or any other games? Those non-electric forms of entertainment will get you through very long days and nights.

If you don’t have a generator or don’t want to squander fuel on entertainment, just redefine “home theater.” Acting out Shakespeare (complete with cheesy costumes made from curtains) or other famous works is a riot and might even reveal a talented actor in the family.

Or why not re-enact/re-imagine scenes from classic movies? Especially ones with costumes, accents, and the opportunity to over-act. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is particularly fun and can occupy a whole day!

Then there’s simply reading to family out loud. This was a typical evening activity before TV. Careful about content, though; you don’t want to read books about violent crime or vampires and then realize there’s no nightlight!

And since you’re “roughing it” anyway, why not go camping in your own yard? Or right in the living room? Your “tent” can be a real tent or couch cushions. Make it a game.

Goodwill and Salvation Army are good places for all these entertainments and may also be a good source for things like flashlights, tarps, camping gear, etc.

A Very Basic Shopping List for Saving Your Sanity

  • Books, fiction, biographies, and non-fiction. If they’re good read-alouds, that’s a huge bonus. Here are some good fiction choices for adults.
  • Marshmallows (proper roasting really is an art)
  • Deck of playing cards or Uno
  • Board games
  • Books about the olden days (Little House Series, etc.)
  • A few DVDs, if you have a generator
  • A baseball and bat, soccer ball, frisbee, etc
  • And, hey, did I mention books? Keep them positive and uplifting, nothing dark!
  • …then there’s homemade “play-doh”!

Here are a few more last-minute hurricane prepping tips.

A Brief Commentary on the Relationship Between French Toast People, Duncan Donuts, Rhode Islanders, and Hurricane Prep

When a storm is coming, half of New England runs out and buys milk and bread.

I don’t know why.

I could understand if they bought really healthy bread or peanut butter or canned meats to go on the bread, but they mostly don’t.

And what’s with the milk?

At least they typically buy cereal, too. But there’s a decent chance you’re gonna lose your fridge.

We call these people “French toast people” because they don’t even have the ingredients for French toast. Think about it…

preparing for a hurricane
True story. The French toast people strike again!

Many people have tried to explain this tendency. I’m sure there’s a Cultural Anthropology student somewhere who’s written their Master’s Thesis on this. I can see the title now :

“An Examination of Northeast Corridor Impending-Inclement-Weather-Psychosis and the Maltose/Lactose Acquisition Phenomenon.”

Now, lest anybody get their Yankee dander up, I’m not just from New England. I’m from Rhode Island.

That’s chowder-eating, Del’s Lemonade-drinking, quahog-stuffing, Johnny Cake flipping, Rhode Freakin’ Island.

Rhode Island invented the bread and milk thing. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s all for coffee milk? I beg newcomers to just take a moment and accept it.

Does the South do something like this? Tell the truth, now.

Oh, and don’t forget the universal solvent of Western Civilization. That weight-in-gold substance without which Michael Bay-level destruction, abject despair, and possibly cannibalism will surely ensue: COFFEE!

Coffee doesn’t matter to me, but at some point during the Sandy blackout, I went to the store to see if there was any half-price meat.

Alas, no, but I beheld something odd.

There were about ten customers roaming the nearly ravaged aisles, and two teenage cashiers were standing at their registers with nothing to do but text. But there was a line of people 52 deep at the service desk.

I know because I counted.

As I walked along the line to see what the problem was, I noticed that most of them wouldn’t make eye contact and were awfully sheepish and well-behaved for people in a line so very long and slow. Then I saw that the service desk was not their goal.

And I doubled over laughing.

Dunkin’ Donuts had its own generator! There were no donuts in sight, but two exhausted staff were cranking out coffee as fast as possible. And not the non-fat-half-caff-mocha-latte-chino either. Co-ffee.

If you’re worried that you, too, might be in a 52-deep line, perhaps you should be acquiring a French press or Bialetti so you can brew without power. Also include some sugar and some non-dairy creamer or those little creamer capsules…

…’cause a bunch of Rhode Islanders grabbed all the milk.

How else would you suggest a newcomer prepare for hurricanes?

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Beth Johnson

Beth Johnson is a lifelong gardener and Certified Master Gardener in the Northeast. She is a former Pastry Chef and restaurant cook.

7 thoughts on “Hurricane Preparedness: A Newcomer’s Guide to Staying Safe in a Storm”

  1. I always love this author because I learn AND laugh. I have to admit I got all the answers wrong on how to prep specifically for a hurricane. Thanks for setting me straight. If one ever hits Salt Lake, I’ll be ready.

    1. Thanks Sheri! I lived in SLC for several years. One day it rained like normal Back East rain and freaked people out like it was the Apocalypse!

  2. One more thing to do. Register for Reverse 911 alerts and updates on your cell from the local first responders. Available in most communities, these provide location specific authoritative information like when to evacuate your area, what routes to take, status of critical recovery efforts, etc. Delivered via voice, text and email, but text is the most reliable after a storm. Also the use of mobile cell towers now make restoration of services much faster. Register from your community’s web site or try ours, http://www.safetyinformed.org to find local services. All free.

  3. Lol, yes, people in the south wipe out the milk and bread at the talk of hurricanes and the mere mention of snow flurries!! But most people have charcoal or gas for grilling when the “electric” goes out.
    Good points on the hygiene, thanks!

  4. One of the first 6 items on a Hurricane List should be: Toilet Paper
    Also, wet wipes can be a God Send!
    Floridian From Infancy, P

  5. In South Jersey it’s milk, bread, and EGGS. Always had to have those three growing up whenever any sort of storm was coming and it seems people still do that. (And yes, I know eggs can be made shelf stable, but I don’t know anyone else here that knows that besides farmers.)

  6. Having been through several hurricanes – the best thing to have is a reservation out of harms way. Always – if local leaders tell you to leave then leave. No reason to stay is worth your life or the lives of loved ones.

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