Winds of up to 125 mph howl through the trees ripping off branches and smashing debris into buildings. Waves crash on shores that rarely see surf while on the hillside above, roofs rip off houses with screeching resistance.
What if a hurricane were bearing down on St. John; would you know what to do to stay safe?
June 1 marked the beginning of the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season which runs until November 30. This year there has been one hurricane that occurred before the official beginning of the hurricane season, Alex which was the first Atlantic hurricane in January since 1955.
Looking forward, however, both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Philip J.
Klotzbach of the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project predict an average hurricane season for the remainder of 2016 while the Weather Channel predicts a slightly more active year.
Though the season is predicted to be average, it may feel more active to residents in comparison to the past few seasons.
“A near-normal prediction for this season suggests we could see more hurricane activity than we’ve seen in the last three years, which were below normal,” according to Gerry Bell at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Regardless of the predictions Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) Director
Mona Barnes urged everyone to take precautions.
“Whether the season is forecasted to be below average, average or above average — it only takes one major storm hitting land to make it a bad year,” said Barnes in a recent statement. “We should prepare the same way every season.”
On St. John, preparation starts with being knowledgeable about what to do before, during and after a major storm. The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA), NOAA, and the American Red Cross all have hurricane preparedness guidelines on their websites expanding on proper precautions and protocol during large storms.
Step One: Prepare Your Home
Begin by making sure your home is prepared for a hurricane. Trim trees and bushes around the structure, secure any gutters or outdoor fixtures that may be loose and check to make sure all hurricane shutters and storm doors are in good condition. If a storm is imminent bring all unattached outdoor items like patio furniture inside.
Each home should also have a hurricane supply kit that includes minimally a flashlight (with extra batteries), first aid kit, whistle to signal for help, and a battery-powered radio. For fancier kits solar cellular chargers and battery operated fans can make life much more comfortable in the long haul.
Food and water should be stockpiled. The American Red Cross recommends stocking enough for three days; so for water plan on one gallon of water per day per person minimally and, if available, bathtubs can also be filled with a reserve of water. For food, stock non-perishable food with a manual can opener as well as moist towelettes and trash bags.
Also plan for the scenario where evacuation becomes necessary by learning where the closest hurricane shelter is as well as the safest evacuation route. On St. John possible storm shelters include Guy Benjamin School, Bethany Moravian Church, Julius E. Sprauve School, Gifft Hill School, Clarice Thomas Annex and St. John Methodist Church.
Keep an emergency kit in your car for this scenario with clothes, bedding, medication, bottled water, radio, first aid kit, flashlight, map, cash and important documents like proof of residence, insurance policies and SSN card.
To keep current on weather information before a storm download the American Red Cross Hurricane app or the NOAA Weather Radar & Alerts app; both of which track hurricanes in the Atlantic and provide evolving information and alerts as storms develop. American Red Cross of the Virgin Islands also maintains a Facebook page with local information, and in an emergency local branches of the American Red Cross and VITEMA will have more current information.
Step Two: Bunker Down
Once the storm hits, you want to bunker down and conserve resources. Turn off electrical appliances and unplug sensitive equipment if power fails to protect it from long term outages and unexpected power surges. During the storm seek shelter in the basement or inner-most room of the house away from windows; under extreme conditions get under large furniture or a mattress to protect against roof collapse and flying debris.
Do not open the refrigerator/freezer often during a storm to preserve perishable food; a full fridge can maintain safe temperatures for up to four hours and a full freezer two days. To increase this timeframe turn your refrigerator’s settings to max coolness if you know a storm is imminent and power loss likely, or freeze quart size Ziploc bags of water and then pack around perishable food. Adding a thermometer to your hurricane prep kit is another good idea to check food temperatures after prolonged outages.
Step Three: Reemerge with Caution
Once the hurricane has passed and it’s safe to come out, emerge with caution. Downed power lines are a real threat so assume every power line is energized and always steer clear.
When power comes back WAPA advises that electrical appliances should be turned back on slowly as “sudden heavy consumption can damage the electrical system and extend the outage.”
Lastly, photograph any damage to your property then make any necessary repairs to prevent further damage (like putting a tarp over a damaged roof).
Preparing for the future naturally brings up memories of the past for St. John where cyclones are a yearly threat; two of the most damaging hurricanes in the last 30 years being Hugo in 1989 and Marilyn in 1995.
Hurricane Hugo was a Category 5 storm that raged from September 10 through 25 in 1989. It resulted in 86 fatalities and an estimated $10 billion in damages of which $1.5 billion were in the Virgin Islands. At its height Hugo had sustained winds of 160 mph, and on St. Croix, which was the hardest hit of the Virgin Islands, an estimated 90 percent of the buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Six years later, from September 12 through 30, 1995, Hurricane Marilyn passed over the Caribbean. Though it failed to obtain the wind speeds of Hugo, achieving at its peak a Category 3 classification, it caused significant damage to St. Thomas and on St. John it toppled the Christ of the Caribbean statue that once stood on Peace Hill.
Though it’s yet to be seen if the 2016 hurricane season will be a quiet year for St. John or if a major cyclone
will again batter the island, preparedness and preparations should go on regardless as safety is no accident.