Travel Tips: How to Plan for a Trip to Hurricane Country

Hurricane Charley as it approached Florida's west coast.
Hurricane Charley as it approached Florida's west coast. | Source

Some of the most-visited travel spots in the United States have one major fault: they are located in areas that are affected by giant tropical storm systems known as hurricanes. While what is known as "hurricane season" (the time when hurricanes are most likely to form) only lasts part of the year, it also happens to be the part of the year that many people like to take their vacations. While the June first through November thirtieth season is simply an inconvenient part of life for those who live on the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard, it can be the cause of many a headache for visitors. Some simple planning before you ever leave your home can make an enormous difference as to whether a hurricane causes you some minor inconveniences or major problems. As someone who has lived through the occurrence of a few tropical systems, please permit me to share with you some items to consider as you plan your dream seaside or theme-park vacation.

What Is a Hurricane?

A hurricane is a well-organized tropical system with sustained winds that are seventy-four miles per hour or higher. The bands of clouds and thunderstorms that make up the system move in a counterclockwise fashion. Along with the wind comes torrential rains, the possibility of tornadoes, high waves, and a storm surge (a storm surge is essentially a wall of water driven towards land by the hurricane's winds). The rain and storm surge typically cause flooding in coastal and low-lying areas; this is why local authorities normally order the evacuation of these regions. Hurricanes are categorized from one to five based on their maximum sustained winds at a given time, and a hurricane can change categories from one day to the next as it moves along. How much damage a storm does depends on its size, wind speeds, amount of rainfall, and how fast the system as a whole is moving.

There are also two lesser types of tropical systems that can cause issues for a vacationer. They are called "tropical storms" and "tropical depressions". Tropical storms have maximum sustained wind speeds from 39 to 73 miles per hour. While they do not typically generate the damage a hurricane can, they are able to ground flights and cause severe flooding on roads. Thus, a traveler needs to keep an eye on these types of storm systems as well. Tropical depressions are the weakest type of organized tropical system. The winds in a tropical depression are 23 to 38 miles per hour, and a depression can also bring very heavy rains. A tropical depression is not a major concern unless it causes flooding that keeps you from leaving your vacation spot. Be aware, however, that these two lesser storms can gain strength and become hurricanes if conditions for them to do so are favorable.

For more details on the different types of tropical storm systems that affect the southern and eastern U.S., visit http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hurricane/index.shtml.

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 | Source

Important Things to Tend to at Home

Some of the most important plans you can make regarding your response to a hurricane interrupting your vacation happen long before you ever leave your home. All of us have certain things at home that need tending to while we are away: our houses, a pet, children (if they are not coming along), etc. When it comes to these things, you need to consider beforehand what you will do in the event you cannot get home on the day you planned to be back.

Children

Sometimes Mom and Dad need time alone with one another. If you plan on taking your beach vacation without your kids, then most definitely make arrangements for their care beyond your planned date of return. While most family members or friends would gladly help you out in the event of a storm, sometimes they have prior plans that prohibit them from doing so. Find alternate caretakers before leaving home, and make sure the primary person watching your kids knows whom you have chosen to pick up the children. The same goes if you are hiring a babysitter. If the person cannot stay past the agreed-upon date, have a second person in place and let the sitter know whom that person is. Most importantly, take the phone numbers of all these people with you.

House

Are you having a house-sitter stay in your home while you are away? If so, discuss with the person whether they can stay an extra day or two if you are temporarily stranded by a storm. If they cannot, try to arrange with a friend or neighbor to stop by and check on the house if necessary. Have their phone number with you when you travel, along with a secondary one for an alternate person if the first person ends up not being able to help.

Pets

Whether you are hiring a pet-sitter to watch them, boarding them at a kennel, having a friend look in in them, or leaving them with a family member, your furry friends definitely need due consideration made for their needs. Always talk to whoever is taking care of your pet to know whether they can care for them for extra time in case of an emergency, Pet-sitters and kennels in particular may not be able to watch your pet beyond the contracted time. Find someone before you leave who can go pick up your animal from the kennel, or take care of your pet at your home after the sitter leaves. That way you will not be scrambling to find someone via the phone from hundreds of miles away if a hurricane delays your return. Once again, take all necessary contact numbers with you. Your furry (or feathered, or scaly) friend will thank you!

Workplace

While you may not want to tell your boss where you are going on vacation, I believe it is wise to notify your superior if you are going to a place that is hurricane-prone. It might save you an unpleasant exchange if you have to call your workplace from Miami to tell them you are going to be stranded for three days.

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Making Travel Plans with Potential Disruptions in Mind

Hurricanes not only can potentially spoil a vacation, they can also cost you extra money. There are a few points to consider when booking your vacation to a coastal area during hurricane season:

Purchase "flexible" airline tickets. While some airlines might re-arrange your flights in the event of a hurricane without charging you an extra fee, others may charge you a penalty for making the adjustment unless you have paid extra money up-front for that privilege. That "get-away" special suddenly is not so special when you have to pay a large sum just to leave before a storm hits. Of course, if the airline cancels your original flight and cannot move your flight date up due to a flood of last-minute ticket changes, it is reasonable to expect that you will not be penalized. The above is also true of train and bus tickets; railroads and bus lines normally expect you to pay a fee for changing tickets that were not purchased under "flexible" terms. In summary, always read the fine print for the ticket you are purchasing.

Book a hotel, but do not pre-pay for the room(s). Pre-paid reservations are tempting, because they often save a traveler a decent amount of money per night on a hotel room. The only catch is many pre-paid room reservations are non-refundable should you have to leave part-way through your trip. While some places may charge you a fee for leaving early when you have a regular reservation, it is rarely more than the cost of one night. Imagine prepaying for a ten-day hotel stay, only to have to leave four days into that stay. That is six nights out of your pocket and into the hotel's pocket, often with little recourse for you. It is possible that some places will negotiate with you and give you at least a partial refund, but I would not count on it unless you have gotten written confirmation of such a refund policy from the place you will be staying. However you may decide to pay for your hotel room, ask in advance what the hotel's policy and procedures are regarding tropical storm systems. This is also true of a vacation home or condo; it is better to know before you go on vacation how a rental property owner or agency handles emergency situations such as hurricanes.

Consider not pre-paying for anything in general unless you know for certain you can receive a refund or use whatever it is at a later date. This includes things such as theme park tickets, a day at a spa, or dinner show tickets. Unless you are getting these sorts of tickets and services at a discount so deep by pre-paying that it makes more sense to run the risk of losing the money rather than pay the full price once you are at your destination, I would advise not taking the chance. Tropical storm systems are very unpredictable and can form or change course within a short period of time.

Hurricane Checklist

  1. Make sure everything at home is covered in the event you are delayed in getting home (childcare, pet care, home care, workplace notification).
  2. Bring all contact numbers related to the above items along with you.
  3. Also have a list of phone numbers for your airline, car rental agency, and the local help and information line for the area in which you are staying.
  4. Map the hurricane evacuation routes leading away from your hotel if you are driving.
  5. Know where local hurricane shelters are near your hotel in case you have to evacuate to one.
  6. Print a list of the emergency items you will need in the event you have to ride out the storm. Obtain those needed items as soon as possible if you are remaining in your vacation spot until after the storm passes.

Dealing with a Storm While on Vacation

First of all, do not panic if a hurricane is headed towards your vacation spot. The local authorities (and the people who run your hotel, I hope) know what to do when one of these storms appear, and as long as you pay attention to what they and the weatherman are telling you, you will be just fine.

Making Adjustments to Travel Plans

When a storm is coming, the best thing to do is try to adjust your plans so that you will be able to leave ahead of the storm. The sooner you make the adjustments, the better, especially if you took a flight to the area where you are staying.

For travel by plane: Call your airline immediately and verify whether it is possible for your flight to be moved to an earlier date. Do this not only if the hurricane is predicted to make landfall in the vicinity of the airport from which you are leaving, but also if it is supposed to come ashore somewhere between you and your hometown. Remember, even if the storm does not make a direct hit on the place where you are staying, it can still ground your flight. The airlines are not going to fly into the path of the storm.

For travel by vehicle: Make sure you move your departure date up enough to permit yourself time to get well out of the path of the storm before it arrives. Give yourself "padding" in your time estimate since major evacuation routes can be crowded and slow-moving. Pay attention to the projected path of the storm when routing your trip, and make adjustments as necessary as better weather information becomes available. You do not want to drive into a hurricane; road conditions are very hazardous in such circumstances due to the high winds, heavy rain, and flooding. If a storm changes its path and you cannot safely circumvent it, stop and find a place to stay as soon as possible until it passes.

Other modes of travel: If you go to your vacation spot by bus or train, realize that you may definitely be stuck until the storm passes unless you move swiftly to get a place on a departing train or bus. The railroad and bus companies may not risk setting out within so many hours before a storm makes landfall, so to ensure you are able to leave make plans to evacuate as soon as possible. Train tracks and roads can be adversely affected by a storm (flooded roads, damaged bridges). This could leave you temporarily stranded if you do not make it out of the area beforehand.

Safety Tips for Staying

If you cannot leave before the storm arrives, there are some basic, common-sense things you should do to stay safe:

  • Do not go out anywhere—especially to the beach or a waterfront walkway. Do not do what you may see some local people do. It is not wise. Sometimes deaths occur during a hurricane simply because someone was being foolish. Besides the dangers of storm surge in these spots, there is the added hazard of lightning strikes. A cool photo of the boardwalk flooding or a video of someone trying to stand up in the wind is not worth the danger.
  • Stay out of the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean. This is not just on the day the storm hits, but at least a day or two before as well. Hurricanes and other tropical systems can create powerful currents in the ocean known as rip currents. These currents can sweep a person out to sea within minutes, and many people drown attempting to get out of the flow of the current. Rip currents can start affecting coastal waters well before the actual storm reaches your area. Always pay attention to all warnings posted by lifeguards at the beach whenever a storm is anywhere near the area where you are staying.
  • Do not go out on the water. If you have rented or borrowed a boat (of any size), jet-ski, or board for windsurfing, do not go out on it once the local weather station advises that conditions are unsafe due to high winds and rough seas.
  • If you are riding out the storm in a hotel, stay away from the windows. Move as far away from exterior openings as possible. Depending on your room or suite's layout, a bathroom with no windows or a closet is the safest place to be. Listen to any directives given to you by hotel staff. Make sure you acquire necessary items such as bottled water and non-perishable food items from either the hotel or a local store. Charge your cellphone before electricity is lost so you will be able to use it after the storm passes to communicate with family or friends back home. Also make sure you have some cash on hand, as ATM's will be down if there is no power.
  • If you are staying in a vacation condo or home, also find a "safe spot" (no windows, and on the ground floor in houses) in which you can ride out the storm. Of course, some property owners may request that you go to a shelter (this is why it is good to know the property owner or rental agency's hurricane policy in advance). Some may have storm shutters that a maintenance person will come out and hang before the storm comes in order to secure the property. As in the case with staying in a hotel, make sure you have emergency supplies such as food and water. Also consider obtaining a small battery-operated radio in order to keep track of what is going on during and after the storm in the case of the electricity being lost. Please note that if you do end up at a shelter, you will need to bring your own emergency supplies.
  • Stay inside until the storm passes completely. Hurricanes have what is called an "eye" in the center of the storm. The eye is a calm spot around which the storm rotates, and can fool you into thinking the storm is over when it really is not. The winds will die down, and the sun can even come out when the eye passes over an area. Yet it is not safe to go out at that point. The second half of the storm can start up at any moment. The wind will pick up again with a vengeance, and know that if you are outside, debris that the wind picks up can severely injure or kill you.

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Come Visit!

Now that I have just made a trip to the Gulf Coast or Atlantic seaboard sound like a daunting proposition, please rest assured it is worth the effort just the same! It is actually rather rare to have one's vacation interrupted by a hurricane, so I encourage you to still go ahead and make that trip you have been considering. The southern and eastern coastal states have a great deal of beauty and fun to offer, enough to more than make up for the hurricanes. Just come prepared, and I guarantee you will not regret that you chose to travel to this lovely part of the country!

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