United States Search and Rescue Task Force

Picture of Hurricane From Space – Note The “Eye” In The Center

What is a Hurricane?

Hurricanes are high speed windstorms accompanied by torrential rains.  They begin over the ocean where air rising from warm seas creates a severe low pressure zone.  This zone draws air to it with such force the winds rotate around the core (the ‘eye') at up to 185 mph.  The ‘eye' averages about 20 miles in diameter while the hurricane may be up to a few hundred miles in diameter.  After the onset of a hurricane at sea, the storm moves slowly toward one of the poles and loses force as it moves into cooler areas or over land.  Hurricanes are usually predicted by meteorologists well in advance of their occurrence.

A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, the general term for all circulating weather systems over tropical waters (counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere).  Tropical cyclones are classified as follows:

  • Tropical Depression: An organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph (33 knots) or less.
  • Tropical Storm: An organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph (34-63 knots).
  • Hurricane: An intense tropical weather system with a well defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph (64 knots) or higher. In the western Pacific, hurricanes are called “typhoons,” and similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called “cyclones.”

Hurricanes are products of a tropical ocean and atmosphere.  Powered by heat from the sea, they are steered by the easterly trade winds and the temperate westerlies as well as by their own ferocious energy.  Around their core, winds grow with great velocity, generating violent seas. Moving ashore, they sweep the ocean inward while spawning tornadoes and producing torrential rains and floods. 

Each year, on average, 10 tropical storms, of which six become hurricanes, develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, or Gulf of Mexico from June to November. Many of these remain over the ocean; however, about five hurricanes strike the United States coastline every three years.  Of these five, two will be major hurricanes, category 3 or greater on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

Scale Number

Winds (MPH)


(States Affected)




Florence 1988 (LA)
Charley 1986 (NC)




Kate 1985 (FL Panhandle)
Bob 1991 (RI)




Alicia 1983 (N TX)
Emily 1993 (NC Outer Banks)




Andrew 1992 (S FL)
Hugo 1989 (SC)


> 155


Camille 1969 (LA/MS)
Labor Day Hurricane 1935 (FL Keys)


Breeding Grounds

In the eastern Pacific, hurricanes start forming by mid-May. In the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes season starts  in June.  For the United States, peak hurricane threat exists from mid-August to late October although the official hurricane season extends through November.  Over other parts of the world, such as the western Pacific, hurricanes can occur year-round.

Developing hurricanes gather heat and energy through contact with warm ocean waters. The addition of moisture by evaporation from the sea surface powers them like giant heat engines.

Storm Structure

The process by which a disturbance forms and subsequently strengthens into a hurricane depends on at least three conditions.   Warm waters and moisture are mentioned above. The third condition is a wind pattern near the ocean surface that spirals air inward. Bands of thunderstorms form, allowing the air to warm further and rise higher into the atmosphere. If the winds at these higher levels are relatively light, this structure can remain intact and allow for additional strengthening.

The center, or eye, of a hurricane is relatively calm.  The most violent activity takes place in the area immediately around the eye, called the eyewall.  At the top of the eyewall (about 50,000 feet), most of the air is propelled outward, increasing the air's upward motion. Some of the air, however, moves inward and sinks into the eye, creating a cloud-free area.

Storm Fury

Storm Surge

Storm surge is a large dome of water often 50 to 100 miles wide that sweeps across the coastline near where a hurricane makes landfall.  The surge of high water topped by waves is devastating. The stronger the hurricane and the shallower the offshore water, the higher the surge will be.  Along the immediate coast, storm surge is the greatest threat to life and property.

Storm Tide

If the storm surge arrives at the same time as the high tide, the water height will be even greater.  The storm tide is the combination of the storm surge and the normal astronomical tide. For example as hurricane moves ashore, a 15-foot surge added to the normal 2-foot tide creates a storm tide of 17 feet. This mound of water, topped by battering waves, moves ashore along an area of the coastline as much as 100 miles wide. The combination of the storm surge, battering waves, and high winds is deadly.

Storm Tide Facts

  • Over 6,000 people were killed in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 most by the storm tide.
  • Hurricane Camille in 1969 produced a 25-foot storm tide in Mississippi.
  • Hurricane Hugo in 1989 generated a 20-foot storm tide in South Carolina.


Hurricane-force winds, 74 mph or more, can destroy poorly constructed buildings and mobile homes.  Debris, such as signs, roofing material, siding, and small items left outside, become flying missiles in hurricanes.  Winds often stay above hurricane strength well inland. Hurricane Hugo (1989) battered Charlotte, North Carolina (which is about 175 miles inland), with gusts to near 100 mph, downing trees and power lines and causing massive disruption.

Heavy Rains/Floods

Widespread torrential rains often in excess of 6 inches can produce deadly and destructive floods.  This is the major threat to areas well inland.

  • Tropical Storm Claudette (1979) brought 45 inches of rain to an area near Alvin, Texas, contributing to more than $600 million* in damage.
  • Long after the winds of Hurricane Diane (1955) subsided, the storm brought floods to Pennsylvania, New York, and New England that contributed to nearly 200 deaths and $4.2 billion* in damage.
  • Hurricane Agnes (1972) fused with another storm system, producing floods in the Northeast United States which contributed to 122 deaths and $6.4 billion* in damage.* Adjusted to 1990 dollars.


Hurricanes also produce tornadoes, which add to the hurricane's destructive power. These tornadoes most often occur in thunderstorms embedded in rain bands well away from the center of the hurricane.   However, they can also occur near the eyewall.

Who Is at Risk?

Coastal Areas and Barrier Islands

All Atlantic and Gulf coastal areas are subject to hurricanes or tropical storms. Although rarely struck by hurricanes, parts of the Southwest United States and Pacific Coast suffer heavy rains and floods each year from the remnants of hurricanes spawned off Mexico. Islands, such as Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico, are also subject to hurricanes. During 1993, Guam was battered by five typhoons. Hurricane Iniki struck the island of Kauai, Hawaii, on September 11, 1992, resulting in $1.8 billion damage.

Due to the limited number of evacuation routes, barrier islands are especially vulnerable to hurricanes.  People on barrier islands and in vulnerable coastal areas may be asked by local officials to evacuate well in advance of a hurricane landfall.  If you are asked to evacuate, do so IMMEDIATELY!

Inland Areas

Hurricanes affect inland areas with high winds, floods, and tornadoes.  Listen carefully to local authorities to determine what threats you can expect and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself, your family, and your property.

Camille – August 14-22, 1969: 27 inches of rain in Virginia caused severe flash flooding.

Agnes – June 14-22, 1972: Devastating floods from North Carolina to New York produced many record-breaking river crests. The storm generated 15 tornadoes in Florida and 2 in Georgia.

Hugo- September 10-22, 1989: Wind gusts reached nearly 100 mph as far inland as Charlotte, North Carolina. Hugo sustained hurricane-strength winds until shortly after it passed west of Charlotte.

Andrew- August 16-28, 1992: Damage in the United States is estimated at $25 billion, making Andrew the most expensive hurricane in United States history.  Wind gusts in south Florida were estimated to be at least 175 mph.

The U.S. Hurricane Problem

Population Growth

The United States has a significant hurricane problem.  Our shorelines attract large numbers of people. From Maine to Texas, our coastline is filled with new homes, condominium towers, and cities built on sand waiting for the next storm to threaten its residents and their dreams.

There are now some 45 million permanent residents along the hurricane-prone coastline, and the population is still growing.  The most rapid growth has been in the sunbelt from Texas through the Carolinas.  Florida, where hurricanes are most frequent, leads the nation in new residents.  In addition to the permanent residents, the holiday, weekend, and vacation populations swell in some coastal areas 10- to 100-fold.

A large portion of the coastal areas with high population densities are subject to the inundation from the hurricane's storm surge that historically has caused the greatest loss of life and extreme property damage.

Perception of Risk

Over the past several years, the warning system has provided adequate time for people on the barrier islands and the immediate coastline to move inland when hurricanes have threatened. However, it is becoming more difficult to evacuate people from the barrier islands and other coastal areas because roads have not kept pace with the rapid population growth. 

The problem is further compounded by the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the population now living in hurricane-prone areas have never experienced the core of a “major” hurricane. Many of these people have been through weaker storms. The result is a false impression of a hurricane's damage potential. This often leads to complacency and delayed actions which could result in the loss of many lives.

Frequency of Hurricanes

During the 70's and 80's, major hurricanes striking the United States were less frequent than the previous three decades. With the tremendous increase in population along the high-risk areas of our shorelines, we may not fare as well in the future.  This will be especially true when hurricane activity inevitably returns to the frequencies experienced during the 40's through the 60's.

In the final analysis, the only real defense against hurricanes is the informed readiness of your community, your family, and YOU.

Surveillance and Forecasting


Geostationary satellites orbiting the earth at an altitude of about 22,000 miles above the equator provide imagery both day and night.  The satellite imagery helps provide estimates of the location, size, and intensity of a storm and its surrounding environment.

Reconnaissance Aircraft

The US Air Force Reserve provides most of the operational reconnaissance.  Pilots fly aircraft into the core of a hurricane to measure wind, pressure, temperature, and humidity as well as to provide an accurate location of the center of the hurricane.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also flies aircraft into hurricanes to aid scientists in better understanding these storms and to improve forecast capabilities.  The NOAA flights also provide operational support as required.


When a hurricane gets close to the coast, it is monitored by land-based weather radars.  The National Weather Service is currently installing Doppler weather radars across the country which will add new dimensions to hurricane warning capabilities.  They will provide detailed information on hurricane wind fields and their changes.  Local NWS offices will be able to provide more accurate short-term warnings for floods, tornadoes, and inland high winds.

National Hurricane Center Models

The National Hurricane Center uses several different numerical computer models to aid in forecasting the path, speed, and strength of hurricanes.  Data from weather satellite sensors, reconnaissance aircraft, and other sources are fed into these computer models.  The National Hurricane Center also has a computer storm surge model.  This model provides guidance on storm surge height and the extent of flooding it will cause.

What To Listen For….

NOAA Weather Radio is the best means to receive warnings from the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service continuously broadcasts updated hurricane advisories that can be received by NOAA Weather Radios sold in many stores.  The average range is 40 miles, depending on topography.   Your National Weather Service recommends purchasing a radio that has both a battery backup and a tone-alert feature which automatically alerts you when a watch or warning is issued.

  • TROPICAL STORM WATCH: Tropical Storm conditions are possible in the specified area of the Watch, usually within 36 hours.
  • TROPICAL STORM WARNING: Tropical Storm conditions are expected in the specified area of the Warning, usually within 24 hours.
  • HURRICANE WATCH: Hurricane conditions are possible in the specified area of the Watch, usually within 36 hours. During a Hurricane Watch, prepare to take immediate action to protect your family and property in case a Hurricane Warning is issued.
  • HURRICANE WARNING: Hurricane conditions are expected in the specified area of the Warning, usually within 24 hours. Complete all storm preparations and evacuate if directed by local officials.
  • SHORT TERM WATCHES AND WARNINGS: These provide detailed information on specific hurricane threats, such as tornadoes, floods, and high winds.

Personal and Community Preparedness

Before the Hurricane Season

  • Know the hurricane risks in your area.
  • Learn safe routes inland.
  • Learn location of official shelters.
  • Ensure that enough non-perishable food and water supplies are on hand.
  • Obtain and store materials, such as plywood, necessary to properly secure your home.
  • Clear loose and clogged rain gutters and downspouts.
  • Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed.
  • Review your insurance policy.

During the Storm

When in a Watch Area…

  • Frequently listen to radio, TV, or NOAA Weather Radio for official bulletins of the storm's progress.
  • Fuel and service family vehicles.
  • Inspect and secure mobile home tie downs.
  • Prepare to cover all window and door openings with shutters or other shielding materials.
  • Check batteries and stock up on canned food, first aid supplies, drinking water, and medications.
  • Prepare to bring inside lawn furniture and other loose, light-weight objects, such as garbage cans, garden tools, etc.
  • Have on hand an extra supply of cash.

Plan to evacuate if you…

  • Live in a mobile home. They are unsafe in high winds, no matter how well fastened to the ground.
  • Live on the coastline, an offshore island, or near a river or a flood plain.
  • Live in a high-rise. Hurricane winds are stronger at higher elevations.

When in a Warning Area…

  • Closely monitor radio, TV, or NOAA Weather Radio for official bulletins.
  • Complete preparation activities, such as putting up storm shutters, storing loose objects, etc.
  • Follow instructions issued by local officials. Leave immediately if told to do so!
  • If evacuating, leave early (if possible, in daylight). Stay with friends or relatives, at a low-rise inland hotel/motel, or go to a predesignated public shelter outside a flood zone.
  • Leave mobile homes in any case.
  • Notify neighbors and a family member outside of the warned area of your evacuation plans.
  • Put food and water out for a pet if you cannot take it with you. Public health regulations do not allow pets in public shelters, nor do most hotels/motels allow them.

If you are told to leave, do so immediately!

If Staying in a Home…

Only stay in a home if you have NOT been ordered to leave.  Stay inside a well constructed building.  In structures, such as a home, examine the building and plan in advance what you will do if winds become strong.  Strong winds can produce deadly missiles and structural failure.

  • Turn refrigerator to maximum cold and open only when necessary.
  • Turn off utilities if told to do so by authorities.
  • Turn off propane tanks.
  • Unplug small appliances.
  • Fill bathtub and large containers with water for sanitary purposes.

If winds become strong…

  • Stay away from windows and doors even if they are covered. Take refuge in a small interior room, closet, or hallway.
  • Close all interior doors.   Secure and brace external doors.
  • If you are in a two-story house, go to an interior first-floor room, such as a bathroom or closet.
  • If you are in a multiple-story building and away from the water, go to the first or second floors and take refuge in the halls or other interior rooms away from windows.
  • Lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object.

Be Alert For:

  • TORNADOES which often are spawned by hurricanes.
  • The calm “EYE” of the storm.  After the eye passes, the winds will change direction and quickly return to hurricane force.

After the Storm

  • Keep listening to radio, TV, or NOAA Weather Radio.
  • Wait until an area is declared safe before entering.
  • Roads may be closed for your protection. If you come upon a barricade or a flooded road, turn around and go another way!
  • Avoid weakened bridges and washed out roads. Do not drive into flooded areas.
  • Stay on firm ground. Moving water only 6 inches deep can sweep you off your feet. Standing water may be electrically charged from under-ground or downed power lines.
  • Check gas, water, and electrical lines and appliances for damage.
  • Do not drink or prepare food with tap water until you are certain it is not contaminated.
  • Avoid using candles and other open flames indoors.  Use a flashlight to inspect for damage.
  • Use the telephone to report life-threatening emergencies only.
  • Be especially cautious if using a chainsaw to cut fallen trees.

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

In-Depth 19 Page Hurricane Information (Adobe Acrobat file which does take time to load)

Devastation Caused by Hurricane

Total Destruction of Trailer Park by Hurricane Andrew

Devastation Caused by Hurricane


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