Hurricane Education 101

BY CAM RENAUD

Hurricanes are a powerful weather phenomenon and arguably the most frequent devastating natural event that mother nature musters up. With the recent news of Hurricane Dorian in the Atlantic we are once again reminded of seasonal catastrophic occurrences in our world.

It’s been 5 years since Hurricane Odile’s course change surprised Cabo. With the last direct hit in 1967, no one expected Odile to jump from a Category 3 storm to Category 5 and change track to the east within 24 hours. Our house by the East Cape had a twister (with winds estimated at 240 MPH/400 KPH) go straight through, blowing out windows and doors, trashing a big palapa, destroying the solar system and bending and twisting iron rail security gates as it exited through the garage doors trashing them in the process. Luckily, I was not there given that I found shards of ¼” plate glass embedded in concrete walls.  Even a storm shy of hurricane status can cause havoc as did Tropical Storm Lydia in September 2017, which purportedly dropped 27” of rain in 27 hours on San Lucas and 18” in San Jose turning the roads into rivers.

Climate change is humanity’s largest challenge (it’s not only Trump), so it’s good to understand severe storms and prepare for their effects, especially when it impacts you directly.

I have a lot of experience with hurricanes as I lived in Bermuda for 12 years and experienced over 15 hurricanes and roughly 30 near misses. I can tell you first hand: the biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate the outcome.

Hurricanes, unlike tornadoes, don’t sneak up on you; nowadays with the help of the internet you can see them coming for days so there is no reason not to be ready. Check out www.nhc.noaa.gov and www.windy.com. The US National Hurricane Center NOAA site tab for the Eastern North Pacific shows you what’s moving close to Baja.

The Windy site is especially helpful because you can set it for anywhere in the world, hit the PLAY arrow at the bottom left of the screen, and see virtual weather patterns for the next 9 days. It’s amazingly accurate and updated constantly; you can even save your home location on it to do your own forecasting.

Being prepared is the key. Expecting the worst case and knowing what to do are big factors in survival as mistakes can literally be fatal. In Cabo, like Bermuda, building houses using concrete and rebar for constructing walls and roofs accommodates the winds in heavy weather. The biggest risk is with windows and flying debris. 

Storm shutters or other window covers are essential, especially for windows facing south and east - the direction from which the initial and strongest sustained winds will come. A big mistake a lot of people make is closing all the windows and doors. Hurricanes are massive low-pressure systems and as the eye gets closer the pressure drops dramatically. In Bermuda when riding out storms our ears would pop and needed to be equalized (hold your nose and breath and blow to clear your ears like on an airplane). You must allow the pressure inside your home to equalize with the pressure outside by keeping some windows open a crack, otherwise your roof may get pulled off and your windows will be sucked out.

Storm surge, which is akin to a tsunami, also deserves a lot of attention. Risks due to storm surge depends on how big the storm is and how close the eye will come to your location. Coastal areas may take more damage from surge than wind. Tides and moon cycles factor into surge as well: a full moon high tide is a larger tide than average even without a storm. A Cat 3 storm can have 10-12 ft of surge in the eye which will be exacerbated if you’re adding another 4 feet of full moon high tide. A mitigating factor is that surge can move around you, like at the tip of the Baja, versus half way up the peninsula where the surge can only go up onto land. If you aren’t beachfront before the storm you may be beachfront after. 

It’s very important to understand hurricane jargon as well, to make informed decisions whether to stay or go. Hurricane winds are rated on a 5 point system known as the Saffir-Simpson scale. For a visual description of what each level of rating means, log into YouTube and search for “watch?v=VCYmoSyrT54.” The bottom line is: the bigger the number, the more you need to think about your decision. The smartest choice may be to board up the place, get away and pick up the pieces afterwards. At least you will be safe and alive to deal with the aftermath.

If you feel you want to stand your ground, there are important preparations to take. The first thing is put away anything that the wind can grab, and I mean anything. If you don’t have shutters, cover windows with plywood or hard material to fend off flying debris. If you don’t have room for stuff indoors then either throw the patio furniture in the pool and fish it out later or rope it all together and tie it to a tree. The power will go out so start making ice blocks and get your coolers lined up. Fill the bathtub and 5 gallon pails with fresh water for drinking, washing and flushing the toilet. Don’t buy perishable food and cook what you have on hand for readymade food to eat. Remember food for any pets. Having a propane stove or BBQ is a big help for cooking without electricity and heating water for washing. If you have a propane BBQ make sure the tank is full; fill up your vehicle with gas while you’re at it. Buy batteries for flashlights and keep your cell phone battery fully charged while you have electricity. A 12V charger to charge your phone in your car is excellent when the power goes out. If the cell phone tower is still standing you can call people after the fact and let them know you’re ok. Have candles or oil hurricane lamps for when it gets dark. Consider and prepare a safe room location, typically a bathroom, in case the windows don’t hold up to the wind. 

A friend of ours stayed during Odile and their front sliding doors blew in and immediately took out the back windows. They were hunkered down in the bathroom for 6 hours with their backs against the pulsing door as 185 MPH (300KPH) winds ripped down the hallway on the other side of the door. Now that’s scary.

And finally, don’t even think about going outside during the storm to snap really cool selfie for your Facebook page, stay inside and read the latest issue of the Gringo Gazette instead, it’s a lot safer.