Depending on where you live, you might face different natural disaster risks during different seasons. The South is impacted by a variety of weather events, from tornadoes to flooding and wildfires. This guide will define different types of risks to be aware of, both during and after disaster strikes.
The National Weather Service (NWS) provides the most comprehensive and up to date alert about severe weather. It is a government agency that issues watches and warnings based on its forecasts and models. You can find your local NWS office here, and subscribe to their alerts.
A watch indicates that the conditions–such as temperature, humidity, rainfall– may be likely for the event to occur within the next 48 hours. You should begin preparing for an emergency by gathering supplies, checking in on neighbors and relatives, and making a plan in case the situation gets worse.
A warning indicates that the severe weather event is imminent, although the precise time and location may still be uncertain. (For example, the exact cross streets where a tornado may form within a particular area covered by the warning.)
Common severe weather events in the South
Tropical Storm: A storm that forms over warm waters, like the Gulf of Mexico, and has circular winds at speeds between 39 to 73 miles per hour. The winds can cause dangerous waves and flooding along coasts and rivers, and can cause property damage and injury to people. (Source: National Hurricane Center)
Hurricane: 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)
Storm surge: Dangerous high water levels caused by a tropical storm or hurricane winds. A normal high tide of 2 feet could swell to 17 feet high, for example. This is dangerous for almost every community living near the Gulf Coast and the East Coast of the United States. Storm surge can cause flooding more than 30 miles away from the coast. (Source: National Hurricane Center)
Flash flooding: Heavy rainfall from a thunderstorm can cause dangerous flooding in just a few hours– and not just in floodplains. In urban and suburban areas, roads, highway underpasses and low-lying areas may flood quickly and storm drains will become overwhelmed. Rural areas may experience mud slides, debris and creeks or streams can quickly rise above banks. Because flash floods can occur quickly, they can be even more dangerous if drivers are still on roads. (Source: National Weather Service)
Tornado: These storms are considered one of the most violent and dangerous that can occur. A tornado occurs when warm and cool air inside a thunderstorm starts rotating and forms a column that reaches the ground. Wind speeds can get up to 300 miles an hour. The storm’s path can be a mile wide and more than 50 miles long. Tornadoes can develop rapidly and most last less than 15 minutes. Every state has a tornado risk. (Source: NOAA)
Myth: Tornadoes never hit big cities. A common myth is that large buildings can break up the winds that cause tornadoes. According to the National Storm Prediction Center, “Even the largest skyscrapers pale in size and volume when compared to the total circulation of a big tornado from ground through thunderhead.” These storms can occur almost anywhere, but statistically, they are more likely to form over rural areas simply because the area of cities is much smaller compared to the area of rural areas in the U.S. (Source: Storm Prediction Center)
Landslide/Mudslide: Rocks, debris, soil and earth moving down a slope. Landslides can occur due to rainfall, erosion due to loss of trees and vegetation, earthquakes and human activities that disturb the stability of a slope. Rapidly moving debris and water can be dangerous to anyone caught in its path; landslides can also damage electrical, water, sewer and gas lines which can result in danger and injury to people nearby. Debris can also block major roadways, preventing help from reaching anyone trapped. (Source: United States Geological Survey)
Wildfire: These fires are not always caused by weather, but weather conditions can create higher risk for fires. Anything from a spark of lightning or an open flame left by campers can cause major fires. Drought and high winds can cause fires in forests and grasslands to burn intensely. Always check with local authorities about burn bans during hot, dry seasons. (Source: National Weather Service)
Heat Waves: NOAA defines a heat wave as a period of above average heat for two or more days. They may occur when high pressure air forms a dome that traps heat over a certain area for several days. The risk of dehydration and heat stroke are high for those who remain outside for extended periods of time, and it is dangerous to do outdoor labor in these conditions. In Southern climate zones, the combination of heat and humidity can be dangerous because your body has a harder time cooling off in humidity–even without exertion. It is crucial to stay indoors with access to air conditioning during these weather events. (Source: NOAA)
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas produced by burning certain fuels and gasoline, such as from a car or a generator. Inhaling the gas can cause death: If you or a person in your household have symptoms such as weakness, dizziness, head aches, nausea, and confusion, seek emergency medical help. Carbon monoxide can be emitted by ruptured gas lines, as well as portable generators and car exhaust fumes. During a power outage, never use a generator inside your house, and do not run your generator or car in a closed garage. Additionally, do not leave gas ovens or stoves running. Check your home for a working carbon monoxide detector every year. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
In February 2021, Texas and Louisiana residents faced blackouts during a severe winter storm. Read our reporting on how public health risks like carbon monoxide could have been avoided.
Hypothermia: In extreme cold weather, your body temperature can drop dangerously low, below 95 degrees. Being in freezing or below-freezing weather for extended periods of time, without warm, insulating clothing, can lead to hypothermia. During power outages, the risk may be present indoors as well. Symptoms include exhaustion, drowsiness, shivering, and cold skin. To prevent hypothermia, wear several layers of warm, loose fitting clothing. Hats, socks and gloves will help your body retain heat. (Source: CDC)
Heatstroke, Hyperthermia: In extreme hot weather, your body temperature may rise to dangerous levels, above 104 degrees. This can be caused by exposure to extreme heat, as well as physical exertion in hot weather. Symptoms may include nausea, confusion and slurred speech, rapid breathing and racing heart beat, and headaches. Dehydration can also begin to occur. These symptoms should be treated as soon as possible: Try to get out of the heat, whether that’s indoors or in shade. Remove excess clothing and cool down body temperatures with cold water, ice packs or wet towels on the head and neck. High humidity can make hot temperatures even more dangerous for your body, as you lose the natural ability to cool off as you sweat. The heat index chart below shows how extreme heat and humidity combined can feel much hotter and become more dangerous. (Source: Mayo Clinic, NWS)
Electrocution: The risk of electrocution can be higher during a flood, indoors and outdoors. Power lines with live wires may have been knocked over into pools of water: It’s best to assume all wires are live wires, and avoid walking nearby. Water inside a home can damage electrical systems and appliances. Try to turn the power off to your house via a breaker until a professional electrician can inspect the damage. (Source: National Fire Prevention Association)
Turn around, Don’t Drown: Driving during flooding can be extremely dangerous. Over half of all flood-related deaths happen when people attempt to drive through flood waters, and the next major cause is attempting to walk through flood waters. Cars and people can be swept away unexpectedly. If you see floodwaters, do not attempt to drive or walk through them. Stay on dry ground. (Source: National Weather Service)