It's here, and hurricane season is underway! Here in St. Petersburg, we are lucky to have dodged the bullet especially since the close call we had with Hurricane Charley in 2004. Besides, it's amazing how nine years have gone by and it's just a matter of time before St. Petersburg's - and the rest of the Tampa Bay region's - luck runs out with a major hurricane strike. The recent brush with Tropical Storm Andrea should be the Tampa Bay region's wake up call.
The question is this: Have you made your hurricane action plan yet?
Preparing for a hurricane need not be elaborate, and it depends on your personal circumstances. Perhaps the first item of planning is this: Do you live in an evacuation zone or do you live in a safe zone? The best way to find out is to go to your county's emergency management website and take a look at a hurricane evacuation map; some counties also have a lookup tool in which you can find out if you are in a hurricane evacuation zone based on your street address.
Here are the links to hurricane evacuation street address lookup tools for Pinellas County as well as Hillsborough County.
It is believed that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to hurricane preparedness. Now that you know if your home is in an evacuation zone, you can answer the next question: Do I stay or do I go?
If it's determined that you can stay - whether it may be a non-evacuation zone such as in Lealman (the unincorporated Pinellas County community sandwiched between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park) or in an evacuation zone which is not under mandatory evacuation orders - the time to prepare your home is now, not when a hurricane watch is issued for our area.
In fact, Pinellas County Emergency Management has prepared a concise two-page kit for those of you that can shelter in place during a hurricane. Among the items listed is food that you do not have to cook, as electric power will more than likely be out for an extended period. You will want to add first aid supplies to your hurricane kit as well.
On the other hand, if it's determined that you live in an evacuation zone and under mandatory evacuation orders, you need a plan as to where you will relocate temporarily during the storm. Ask yourself:
1. Will I go to a friend's house?
2. Will I go to a motel or hotel outside the evacuation area?
3. Will I go to a public shelter?
Option 1 is the best if you have the means of getting there before it gets worse. Just make sure that you do not have to cross major evacuation routes to get there, as certain evacuation routes - such as routes leading out of the Pinellas beaches - will in most likelihood be a one way route making crossing difficult, if not impossible.
Option 2 is the best, tied with Option 1, if a hotel or motel located outside the evacuation zone is better for you to reach. Here's a great tip I would like to share with you when I had to evacuate for Hurricane Charley in 2004: As soon as the weather maps determine that a hurricane will more than likely head our way, and prior to a hurricane watch being issued, go to the websites of the major hotel chains and check for room availability. Once you find the room you want, at hopefully the price you can afford, book the room and use a major credit card as the guarantee. That way, if the storm does take a turn and your area comes under an evacuation order, at least you will have a place to go to.
Now if in the event that things change and the hurricane goes somewhere else, you can always cancel the hotel reservation. Be sure to get a cancellation number when you cancel so that you can have something as a reference in the event of an issue with your credit card issuer.
Option 3 is the very least, and should be considered only as a last resort. Public hurricane shelters are, for the most part, located in public schools and you will more than likely be sleeping on a cot or on a hard floor. Besides, you do not have the privacy like what you would get in Options 1 or 2. For that reason, you want to consider either a friend's house or a hotel/motel as your first option.
The same thing goes for those of you that live in a mobile home, even though your mobile home park is in a non-evacuation area. You do not want to be in a mobile home, especially during the most severe part of the hurricane. For that reason, evacuation orders when issued include residents of all mobile homes which must evacuate at all evacuation levels.
For those of you that live in a condominium unit, if your complex comes under a mandatory evacuation order you must evacuate. If you live in a high rise condominium it is unsafe to take shelter on a higher level, as wind speeds get higher the more higher you go in the building. The same thing goes for if you live in a two-story townhome - again, the wind speeds get higher even on the second floor of your townhome!
Now that we have the question of stay or go covered and what you should do, there is another task that you need to perform: Check your insurance coverage. In fact, now is a great time to review your homeowners' or condominium unit owners' policy with your insurance agent.
Another item we need to cover is your important documentation, both for you and your home as well as your vehicle. According to Pinellas County Emergency Management here is a list of documents that you should take with you:
Driver’s license or ID card (a United States Passport or Passport Card will also work as identification if you do not carry a Florida ID card or driver's license)
Important numbers and emergency contacts
Credit cards and list of creditors
Medical records and blood type
Prescription information (list of medications, dosage, prescription numbers, etc.)
Doctor’s contact information
Cash and bank account numbers
List of savings and investments, including CDs, stocks, bonds and mutual funds
Household inventory: paper copy, photos, video tape or computer disk
List of insurance policies with name of company, type of policy and policy number
Copy of wills, trust documents and living wills
Titles for your house, car and other property
Birth, marriage, divorce, death and adoption certificates, and passports
List of family advisors, such as accountant, attorney and religious leader
Educational and military records
Other special papers that would be difficult or impossible to replace if lost
Which brings us to the next item: Do you have a scanner or a multi-function printer and scanner for your computer? Believe me, you will want to scan those important documents, especially documents that are difficult or impossible to replace if lost, and save them on your computer as PDF files. As for the documents themselves, these should be kept in a safe deposit box. Besides, multi-function printer and scanner units don't cost much and it is the best investment you will ever make.
Speaking of computers, you will also want to invest in an external hard drive and back up the data on a regular interval. That way, in the event of a hurricane evacuation you can easily disconnect and carry the hard drive with you.
Be sure that you back up your data from your computers on regular intervals, not to mention downloading and installing the latest Windows updates. You do not want to be rushed in any way when you are watching something on 10 News (WTSP-TV) only to have your program interrupted by a tersely speaking voiceover announcer: This is a 10 News special weather bulletin. Or if you are watching something on Bay News 9 and - all of a sudden - the breaking news music and graphics come up followed by the voice of a Bay News 9 anchor.
Now that hurricane season is underway, and the recent wake up call we experienced from Tropical Storm Andrea, now is not the time for our region to become complacent as far as hurricane preparedness is concerned. We hope for the best all the way through the end of hurricane season on 30 November, but we need to be prepared for the worst especially if the worst comes.