Last year was an abnormally active year for Atlantic hurricanes, but New Orleanians may not remember that because nothing wicked this way came. Last year saw 19 named storms, 12 of which became hurricanes. Yet no major hurricanes hit the U.S. Many were "fish storms" (hurricanes that don't affect land).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts another active year for 2011: between 12 and 18 named storms, as many as 10 hurricanes, and three to six major hurricanes. A normal hurricane season brings 11 named storms and six hurricanes. "The United States was fortunate last year," says NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. "We can't count on luck to get us through this season." As local meteorologists often note, the exact number of hurricanes in any given year doesn't matter; all it takes is one.
Last week was National Hurricane Preparedness Week, but New Orleanians who moved here after Hurricane Katrina may not know what hurricane preparedness involves. It means having two action plans: one for staying here during a lesser storm; another for evacuating in the face of a serious threat.
Every household in the area should have an emergency supplies kit in case of extended electrical outage. Buy some canned food that doesn't need heating (don't forget a manual can opener). Stock up on bottled water for drinking as well as washing — the guideline is at least one gallon per person per day, with a three-day minimum. Some people fill their bathtubs. Other essentials include flashlights (don't forget batteries), a tool kit, necessary medicines, a fire extinguisher, large garbage bags, a battery-powered radio and a change of clothes and shoes. Keep some cash on hand. For people with small children, a supply of diapers and toys is a must. If you want official updates from emergency officials sent to your cellphone, sign up at www.nolaready.info.
If evacuations are ordered — or even suggested — don't wait. Keep your car gassed up from June through November. Make sure pets are up to date on their shots and licenses. Keep multi-state maps in the car. All important papers (including insurance information) should go with you, as well as family photos — many of us learned that one the hard way during Katrina. Well before the storm, check with elderly or infirm neighbors to see what their plans are for leaving town if an evacuation is ordered. If an evacuation is mandatory, freeways will go to "contraflow," meaning all roads will lead away from the coast. Whether you're going to a motel, staying with family or at a shelter, you'll need plenty of patience.
For a complete overview of this year's hurricane season, we recommend watching WWL-TV's annual Eye On Hurricanes special, which will have its first airing Monday, June 6, at 7 p.m. (Disclosure: The station partners with Gambit on some projects.) Besides the latest analysis of the 2011 forecast, Eye On Hurricanes will look at where storm protection currently stands regarding the levee system, as well as information on storm surge modeling. WWL-TV also issues a free hurricane tracking map, which can be picked up at local SpeeDee Oil Change locations or downloaded from the station's website (www.wwltv.com/weather/hurricane).
Finally, don't relax because of the current position of a storm on a map. Damaging winds and rain spread out hundreds of miles from a storm's eye, or center. And be aware that a slow-moving, "wet" tropical storm can be as devastating as a hurricane. In 2001, according to NOAA statistics, Tropical Storm Allison dropped 38 inches of rain on Houston in six days before moving into Louisiana and causing widespread flooding in New Orleans. Allison was ultimately responsible for 41 deaths — making it more deadly than 1992's fearsome Hurricane Hugo, which hit Florida as a Category 4 storm.
With luck, Arlene, Bret, Cindy, Don and the rest of this year's named storms will pass us by. But it's imperative to be prepared. As the meteorologists warn us every year, a quiet storm season is meaningless if your community is the one that gets hit.
For more information about preparing for hurricanes, visit the hurricane preparedness section of the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center website at www.nhc.noaa.gov.