Southerly’s disaster preparedness and recovery reporter Amal Ahmed interviewed Janae Elkins at the National Weather Service in Jackson, Miss. about the upcoming hurricane season, which officially starts on June 1.
This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 2022 forecast and predicts that we’ll see an above average season. That means anywhere from six to 10 hurricanes could hit the Gulf and Atlantic coasts this year. It’s impossible to predict when or where these storms will hit, but being prepared early could save your life.
Elkins and Ahmed discussed the basics of what you need to know to prepare for the hurricane season and where to get the best information. For more, check out our disaster glossary.
Southerly: One thing that I’ve been paying attention to, especially here in Texas, is that there was a lot of chatter online about the potential for a named storm to happen before the start of the official hurricane season. There were some disturbances in the oceans, and so it seemed like one of those classic cases of misinformation where that was taken out of context, and there was a little bit of panic around it on the internet.
Where should folks be looking for the most up to date and accurate information about the potential first storm? And what are some of the biggest misinformation challenges that you’re facing at the National Weather Service?
Janae Elkins: So for one, the National Hurricane Center, they’re the ones that produce the official hurricane forecast. So go to the source. If you have social media, I would follow the National Hurricane Center on Twitter, Facebook, and or Instagram. Or if you don’t, I would say to contact your local National Weather Service. Because typically during hurricane season, and especially if you’re in the city, you are an area that is to be affected by a hurricane or a tropical system, more than likely that National Weather Service office has been collaborating with the National Hurricane Center so that NWS station will get the most accurate information. I would definitely stick to your local National Weather Service offices, but also the National Hurricane Center.
In regards to misinformation, there’s a lot of weather enthusiasts out there. So again, I would just make sure if you are on social media to just follow the right pages, your local National Weather Service. And also follow your local broadcasts. You can call your local TV news stations, they also have the most accurate weather. But in the event like where those models were showing some potential in the Gulf, you have to take that with a grain of salt, especially if they’re 10 to 12 days out.
When we enter into hurricane season, or pre-hurricane season, a lot of times those global models like to show different things like that. But most of the time, like I said, you have to take that with a grain of salt. So listen and trust your local National Weather Service and the Hurricane Center.
Southerly: Are there other resources for folks who don’t have social media or aren’t really familiar or comfortable with those sites?
JE: Absolutely. So one of the things that we like to tell people is to get a NOAA Weather Radio, and those can be purchased via Amazon now. I’ve seen them in Walgreens, I’ve seen them in CVS. We have hourly updates, but whenever a watch or warning is issued, that automatically goes out on the NOAA Weather Radio. Even your local radio stations—I know here in the the Jackson area, if there is a threatening tropical system, then certain radio stations will broadcast different updates throughout the day. So I would definitely check into that. But a NOAA Weather Radio is a great tool to have. Also just by word of mouth: talking with people, discussing what is happening. That’s also a great way to know what’s happening in your area.
Southerly: What’s the typical timeline, before we can know that okay, serious storms are coming or this is actually going to be a threat? How much time do you typically have for folks to get that information and get prepared?
JE: I would say that’s a bit conditional. If your local weather service or your local emergency manager sends out a mandatory evacuation, evacuate when they tell you to do so. Because if you wait 24 hours, it’s too late. We often like to say the first 72 hours are on you. So typically, if there’s a system that looks like it’s going to impact your area, the National Hurricane Center or your local National Weather Service office, they’ll be pushing out information and there’ll be constant updates along with your local TV broadcast station. But sometimes, when we have storms that intensify rapidly—sometimes it only takes 24 hours for that to happen. So you may only get 36 hours or 24 hour notice, right? And we understand that not everybody may be financially sound or may not even want to evacuate. But we encourage people the moment that you get an evacuation order to evacuate as soon as possible.
Southerly: What advice do you have for the people who are left to make that decision? Are there certain safety factors or threats that they need to be aware of as they’re making that decision?
JE: Yeah, so in the event that you aren’t able to evacuate, we would just say make sure that you bunker down, make sure that you have your hurricane kits put together. So water, batteries, if you have any medical papers or pills or anything like that—oftentimes we like to tell people to put that in a Ziploc bag so that it doesn’t get wet. So make sure that you have a radio. Oftentimes, we tell people to have a whistle, or walkie talkie, that’s in the event if they were to get trapped. The whistle, somebody will be able to hear that, right. But make sure that you board up your home and your windows. And also stay in the most interior part of your home, stay away from windows. If in the event, floodwaters starting to enter to your home, get to the top level of your home .
If you have an attic, do not go into the attic. Because then you won’t be able to come down or somebody has to come up there and get you so just get to the most top part level of your home but not an attic. And again, stay in the most interior part of your home. Just stay away from windows.
Southerly: It’s a lot easier to sort of keep track of this as you’re waiting in anticipation of something, but what sort of communication does the National Weather Service typically issue during a storm as things are getting really intense? And where should people be looking for that information?
JE: Typically a tropical storm watch, or even a hurricane watch, it’d be issue 48 hours ahead of anticipated onset, including a storm surge watch. So basically, a watch means that conditions are possible for a tropical cyclone or hurricane to happen. A warning is typically issued 36 hours ahead of the event. So this means that within 36 hours, they’re expecting for the system to make landfall. So again, you just have to make sure that you’re listening and watching for these different warnings. And that goes back to, again, following your local National Weather Service office. If you don’t have social media, you can call up your local National Weather Service office and ask them what’s going on because again, they will be collaborating with the National Hurricane Center, so they will have the most up to date and the most accurate information.
Southerly: We talked about what to do if you’re sheltering in place and to bunker down, and I’m curious what other threats or dangers that people should be aware of. One that I’ve heard a lot is Turn Around, Don’t Drown—don’t drive through floodwaters. What are other risks that you think people should know about that are not typically talked about or well known?
JE: A lot of people think that hurricanes are just associated with a lot of wind and flooding. But most people don’t know that hurricanes, oftentimes, within those outer bands, they can produce weak tornadoes. So tropical inland cyclones, those are also a threat. Typically, they’re weaker tornadoes, but it’s still a tornado. So you would just want to make sure that again, if you get a tornado warning to be in the most inner part of your home. Put as many walls between you and the outside as possible, stay away from any windows, make sure that you have something hard on your feet, have something hard on your head to protect you and your family. If you have little babies or infants, strap them in their car seat to give them some type of stability. Your typical severe thunderstorms are also associated with hurricanes.
Southerly: A lot of Gulf Coast towns are like big tourism towns—think of summer on the beach. Do you have any advice for folks who may find themselves in a place they’re not familiar with on vacation and there’s whispers of a hurricane coming?
JE: Well, I’m gonna keep saying this: Follow your local National Weather Service office,. There’s 122 offices across the United States. So each state at least has one, right. If you’re in an area that you’re unfamiliar with, and a disaster is threatening to approach, then I would monitor your local broadcast. Again, if there’s some type of evacuation orders, I would make sure that I evacuate as soon as possible. Follow whatever guidelines that hotel has—most coastal hotels will, or at least they should have, some type of hurricane protocol. So I would follow whatever protocols they have. And again, just make sure that you have the most up to date information.
Southerly: It sounds like just keeping afloat of all those updates is like the best thing that we can do. And the last thing: Today NOAA released its prediction for the upcoming season. I’m curious what have you been seeing in the last couple of years during this work, with these forecasts. How do you think that climate change is changing the way that we need to prepare for hurricane season?
JE: Well, so this season, NOAA predicts another above normal Atlantic hurricane season. So basically, what that means is that the waters have already started to warm—if they are not already really warm. Right here in Mississippi, we’ve been warm over the past couple of weeks. This will continue to happen. There’s a distinctive pattern over the last couple of years, it seems like every year, when NOAA issues the hurricane forecasts and says it will be above normal, right? So I believe that will probably continue to happen. But at the end of the day, you just always make sure that you are prepared. That is what we like to tell people. So make sure that you’re prepared for any and all things right. Don’t wait until June 1, when hurricane season starts, to start prepping your hurricane kit. Start doing that in January, make sure that you have everything that you need. Because if something happens, the first thing to go at the grocery store—that’s water and canned food. But if you would have gotten that, maybe three or four months ago, you have everything that you need. So again, start prepping as early as you can, especially if you live on the coast, especially if you live near bodies of water. Make sure that you always have your plan in place. That is how you will be able to prepare for this season, and the next seasons to come. Always make sure that you’re ahead of the game.
Southerly: Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to, or anything that you wanted to add that folks should know?
JE: Well, just to piggyback off of what I just said, you know our job is to issue timely warnings and to issue timely watches. And we also like to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to help educate the public so they can be prepared. So again, start getting those hurricane kids prepared now. Get your water, get your canned food, get your extra batteries, your flashlights, get everything that you need. Make sure that you have all of your affairs in order, make sure you know your evacuation routes, make sure that you have different contacts. And if you have pets, make sure that if you are trying to go into a designated shelter that they even allow pets. So start getting all of those things in order. Don’t wait until the last minute. It’s best to do those things way beforehand. So that way, when and if the time comes, you and your family will be prepared.