Hurricane Delta in 2020 (Image by NOAA)

A hurricane is a type of tropical storm, but with wind speeds over 74 miles per hour. Based on wind speeds, the National Weather Service rates storms on a scale of Category 1 through 5. Each category can be deadly for people, causing flooding, and damage to homes. Stronger storms are more likely to uproot trees, knock over power lines, and damage other infrastructure. Category 5 storms are the strongest, with wind speeds over 157 miles per hour. (Source: National Hurricane Center)

Hurricane season is June 1 through Nov. 30

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association designates June 1 to November 30 as hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Statistically, most hurricanes that make landfall occur between August and October; the weather conditions that cause hurricanes, like warm waters and high winds, are most likely during these months. 

Storms are given names when they reach a certain strength and may make landfall, impacting coastal communities. Naming the storms helps streamline emergency communications, especially when more than one storm is headed towards the vast stretch of Atlantic and Gulf coastlines. (Source: NOAA)

Hurricanes are measured on a scale of 1 to 5 

The strength of a hurricane is measured on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. Based on wind speeds, a storm is given a rating between 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest wind speeds.  Storms can strengthen or weaken along the scale while they move across the Atlantic Ocean and make landfall.

Since hurricane categories are based on wind speed, they do not take into account other events like rainfall, storm surge, and flooding that might occur along with the hurricane. In some cases, storm surge and flooding may cause more damage and threaten more lives than high winds. One foot of storm surge can sweep a car off the road. 

Source: NOAA

Storms with wind speeds below 74 miles per hour are considered tropical depressions. They may also bring heavy rain and storm surge to coastal regions. 

All categories of hurricanes– as well as tropical storms– are dangerous and pose immediate threats to people living in their paths, as well as potential damage to buildings and infrastructure. (Sources: NOAA, NWS and NWS)

How to stay informed and prepared

Sign up for emergency alerts

Ahead of a storm, conditions may change rapidly. Having the most accurate information could save your life and help you prepare for whatever is on the horizon. Here are some emergency alert services:

  • Wireless Emergency Alerts: These emergency alerts will appear as a text notification on your phone, with a unique sound and vibration pattern. The alerts are sent by National Weather Service stations or state and local public safety agencies, based on your location. You do not have to subscribe to these alerts, and almost every cell service providers allows these messages to be sent to your phone for free. (If you are not receiving alerts, you may need to enable them through the settings on your smartphone.) Some older phones can’t receive wireless emergency alerts. 
  • State, county or city emergency alert services: This service will vary by your location, so you should visit your county or city website to find that information. Some local agencies provide texts or email notifications that you must subscribe to. For example, to sign up for New Orleans’ local emergency alerts, you can text NOLAREADY to 77295 or sign up for the city’s newsletters through a portal. These services are free. 
    • Social media posts from local agencies are also a trusted source of information. However, depending on your agency’s capacity, they may not be able to provide real-time alerts. 
  • NOAA Weather Radio: If you do not have cell or internet service during a disaster, you may not be able to get other types of emergency alerts on your phone or computer. NOAA Weather Radios can connect to the frequency where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broadcasts emergency alerts 24/7 over the radio. You will only receive these alerts if your radio is specifically compatible, so be sure to check product reviews before purchasing a radio. (Source: NOAA, Popular Mechanics)

Know your evacuation route

Some parts of the coast are more vulnerable to storm surges than other during a hurricane. Many states have designated zones, indicating which regions may face the most risk. Evacuations may be planned or mandated based on these zones. 

Knowing what zone you live in may help you understand your risk better, and prepare accordingly. If you live in a higher risk zone—typically closer to the coast—you may have a greater need to evacuate during a storm. Evacuation zones also determine the order in which regions need to be evacuated to avoid traffic jams and congestion too close to the storm’s landfall. 

The Houston area’s costal evacuation zones, by zip code. Find more details below. Image via Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Make a plan ahead of time: Have emergency supplies with you, know where important documents and items are, and know who you’re taking with you. 

Mandatory Evacuation: If an approaching storm is predicted to be severe, state or local governments may issue a mandatory evacuation order for specific regions to avoid loss of life. You should always follow local orders. 

Different states have different procedures for issuing mandatory evacuation orders. Make sure you are following updates from state agencies as well as local officials for the most up to date information. 

  • Texas: Only local officials can order evacuations
  • Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina: Governor and local officials can order evacuations
  • Alabama: Governor and state emergency management agency can order evacuations Florida, Georgia, South Carolina: Only the governor can order evacuations

(Sources: CDC)

What to do if you don’t have transportation: County or city governments may arrange pick up points for residents who do not have cars, or cannot drive, or may arrange congregate shelters for people who can’t leave. In many cases, you may be responsible for your own arrangements. Making a plan in advance with friends, family or neighbors who can drive could be your best option during a crisis. 

To find more information about the options available, check your county or city emergency management office’s websites and social media. In some cities or counties, you may be able to pre-register for emergency assistance help. For a state-by-state breakdown of the availability of emergency assistance registration, check our guide here. 

Rules of the road

Contraflow: During a mass evacuation, government officials may decide to reverse in-bound traffic lanes so that all roadways head away from coastal zones. This process helps increase the number of people who can safely evacuate out of a hurricane zone, with fewer traffic jams or bottlenecks. 

For city leaders to allow contraflow lanes, an evacuation typically needs to be called far enough in advance to clear existing inbound traffic off of the roadways, and to provide temporary signage, barricades and additional traffic control. 

(Source: Federal Highway Administration)

Evacuation lanes: In some regions, highways are built with an extra wide shoulder lane that can be used as a full lane during evacuations to reduce traffic congestion.  Typically, these lanes will be marked and a flashing light will notify drivers when they are allowed to use these lanes. 

Evacuation zones and routes by state


(Sources: TxDOT, Harris County, Texas A&M)





Know Your Zone (Chart)

Disaster Preparedness Maps (Interactive, county specific) 


North Carolina 

South Carolina