Last week was National Hurricane Preparedness Week, marking the start of hurricane season June 1. No one told Mother Nature, though. Before the official start of the season, there already were two named storms in the Atlantic — Tropical Storms Alberto and Beryl. Fortunately, although Beryl came ashore on the southeast coast of Florida over Memorial Day weekend, the storm never achieved hurricane status. It did, however, drop 10 inches of rain in parts of Florida and claim one life.
Hurricanes loom large on the list of New Orleanians' fears, but tropical storms can cause tremendous damage as well. It was the first week of June 2001 that Tropical Storm Allison formed in the Gulf of Mexico and meandered a while before parking itself over Houston and dumping nearly 3 feet of rain on that city, flooding tens of thousands of homes and killing more than three dozen people. In 2005, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina, a tropical storm named Cindy pounded New Orleans overnight after making landfall near Grand Isle. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power, some for several days, and the storm was upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane after the fact.
The forecast for this season, according to WWL-TV meteorologist Jonathan Myers, is for a "near-average-to-average" hurricane season. Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University is predicting 10 named storms (we've already had two), four hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
"Over the last couple of years, we've seen a couple of pretty active seasons," Myers says. "But we've got to take a look at multiple factors, even if it's an average or below-average season. A storm like [1992's Hurricane] Andrew hit in a more docile season — so they wouldn't say that was a weak season in Florida."
All this is to say New Orleans should take any weather disturbance seriously, even those storms that don't rise to the level of hurricanes. This is the time for locals to check on supplies stockpiled last year, replenishing and replacing as necessary. Get fresh packs of batteries for flashlights and battery-powered radios or TVs; eat the canned goods you've stocked and replace them with new ones. (Don't forget the 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 a tool kit, medicines, a fire extinguisher, large garbage bags, a change of clothes and shoes. Keep some cash on hand. Put a spare cellphone charger in the car now.
For people with small children, a supply of diapers and toys is a must (a DVD player with headphones can be a sanity saver). Pet owners need a supply of food, a carrier and proof of up-to-date vaccinations. Find out if your shelter of choice takes pets — but under no circumstances stay put during an evacuation because you're not sure what to do with your pets. Get out and bring them with you.
Keep your car gassed up from June through November. It doesn't hurt to get your car inspected in early June and change the wiper blades. Keep multi-state maps in the car. A container of wet wipes in the car is a good idea, along with a trash bag; evacuations are long and it's not always possible to leave your vehicle. Take important papers (including insurance information) with you, as well as family photos — many of us learned that one the hard way during Hurricane Katrina.
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, practice patience. You can get more tips and sign up for text alerts at the city's new hurricane preparedness website, ready.nola.gov.
Most important, pay attention to the city's meteorologists so you can plan early — and remember that a hurricane's intensity on the Saffir-Simpson scale is a relative thing. A strong tropical storm requires as much attention and preparation as a major storm.
— WWL-TV will present its annual "Eye on Hurricanes" special June 4 at 7 p.m. The broadcast will repeat during the week and will appear at www.wwltv.com. You also can pick up a copy of the station's evacuation and contraflow maps at Spee-Dee Oil Change locations across the metro area, or download the free WWL-TV weather app for mobile devices including iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.