One of my favorite layovers was in Miami. It was December 2010 and I had to wait 21 hours for my flight connection to South America. I was coming from Washington, DC, where the winter weather was wearing on me. I decided that I had to take advantage of the twenty-one hours I had in Miami.
I walked out of the airport and was surprised to be met by sunny skies and 70° F weather. It’s no wonder that the Sunshine State is a prime vacation spot! I would have stayed there longer if I could.
It’s a tragedy that the climate that lures so many tourists year-round is the same climate that makes it a place susceptible to major natural disasters.
What natural disasters does Florida have?
Florida’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, tropical storms and hurricanes, severe storms, floods, coastal storms, tornadoes, and power outages. Between 1953 and 2019, Florida declared 135 major disasters, of which fires and hurricanes happened the most according to FEMA.
Florida averages more than one thousand wildfires each year— and some years, more than two thousand!
Wildfire season in Florida begins around the beginning of Spring and lasts through the Summer— these are the months when dry lightning and hot weather are especially common in the state.
The reasons for why wildfires start can be attributed to natural causes as well as man-made ones. Seasons of drought cause the vegetation to dry up and become perfect tinder for when lightning strikes it. If wind speeds are high, you can expect a fire to spread rapidly. Man-made causes include the irresponsible burning of debris, campfires that are not monitored, throwing cigarette butts out the window, and arson. Debris burning and arson are the most common reasons that fire occurs in the Sunshine state.
Florida experienced one of its most significant wildfire seasons in the late spring and early summer of 1998. Due to El Nino, drought, dry lightning, strong winds, and some cases of arson, the state battled an estimated 2,200 separate fires in less than two months. Overall, 40 other states provided assistance, 10,000 firefighters fought the frontlines, half a million acres were burned, and 370 structures destroyed. This event became known as the Firestorm of 1998.
Preparing for a wildfire begins by understanding your role as a means of prevention. What I mean by this is that many wildfires are started by humans, and a good chunk of the time, it’s not intentional. When you’re burning debris or enjoying a camp bonfire, be vigilant and keep a fire extinguisher or a source of water nearby. If a fire gets out of control because of you, be prepared to douse the flames before it has a chance to spread.
Of course, you won’t be the reason a wildfire occurs year after year — it would be alarming and extremely careless for the same person to repeatedly start a wildfire unintentionally. Let’s assume you’re not that person. So, as for the rest of the time when you’re the one being threatened by a wildfire, you should be ready to grab a backpack and flee to safety. Sometimes fires creep up so quickly that you don’t have a lot of time to evacuate. Work on your emergency action plan and determine the step-by-step procedure that you should take with your family in the event that you need to evacuate within 5 minutes, 1 hour, 1 day, etc. In this guide, you can learn more tips for wildfire preparedness.
2. Tropical Storms and Hurricanes
Tropical storms and hurricanes are practically synonymous with Florida. I’m sure you’re well aware of the threat if you pay any attention to the news.
Hurricane season begins on June 1st and lasts until November 30th. September is a peak month for hurricanes due to the atmospheric climate. Each year, one or two hurricanes are predicted to hit the East coast. Statistically, Florida gets hit by 40% of them— the state is strategically located in a place where it takes in a decent amount of hits.
Two of the worst hurricanes to make hit Florida directly are Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Michael in 2018, both of which were Category 5 hurricanes at the time of landfall.
The areas that are affected the most by hurricanes are Southeast Florida and the Florida Keys, particularly Key West. On the opposite end, Central Florida is considered the safest from hurricanes. Some of the cities that are at a lower risk of being impacted include Leesburg, Orlando, Ocala, Gainesville, Sanford, Kissimmee, and Palatka.
If you’re new to Florida or are considering to move there, then make sure you learn how to prepare for a hurricane. Here you can find a complete guide about hurricane preparedness to help you get started! If you’re a long-time resident of Florida, you’re probably used to the drill. You can take a look at the guide too, of course, but if you’ve already learned to apply the mitigation and safety recommendations, share the knowledge with neighbors and friends who are newcomers to your state. It’s always best to learn alongside the locals, in my opinion.
3. Severe Storms
Florida is considered the lightning capital of the United States. Lightning can strike a location up to 10 miles away, and each bolt is extremely hot— hence why a fire can be started with a single strike! Some cities have thunderstorms up to 100 days per year— that’s nearly 1 thunderstorm every 4 days! Thunderstorms oftentimes roll in with heavy precipitation, which increases the risk of floods and flash flooding. Hail storms are also known to occur in Florida, but they’re less common and typically not as severe. Severe storms are known to cause widespread power outages as well as fallen trees and debris all over the place.
Planning to survive a severe storm can be similar to preparing for a tropical storm, with one of the main differences being the presence of lightning (during a severe storm, not a hurricane). I used to be one of the people that would hang around outside looking at lightning because it fascinated me. Then I learned what a single strike can do to you. At best, you can survive and experience residual side-effects, sometimes those are life-long and debilitating. At worst, you can be killed. Lightning is no joke so memorize the saying and take it seriously— “When thunder roars, go indoors!” Wait the storm out in an interior room of a sound structure or building. Lightning is powerful enough to strike a person through a window or shock them if they’re touching anything connected to the ground (like a desktop computer, landline phone, or faucet). Steer clear from those until the storm passes— usually that’s within 30 minutes or so! For more thunderstorm safety tips, check out this guide.
Florida has a high risk of flooding because the state mostly lies at sea level and it’s surrounded by large bodies of water on each side. Storm surges, tropical storms, hurricanes, and thunderstorms pose an increased risk of flooding because most of these storms bring in massive amounts of water in short periods of time. Floods cause widespread contamination to the water supply, as well as cause permanent damage to homes, buildings, and roads.
Tropical Storm Debby in 2012 brought caused some of the most devastating floods in Florida. Since it was a slow-moving storm, a lot of rain fell over the same areas. Most of the affected cities recorded 10 inches of rain accumulation, while there were a couple of places that recorded up to 20 inches— all of this happened in a matter of only 36 to 48 hours.
Preparing for a flood begins with knowing what your property’s risk level is. Even low-risk zones have a chance of getting flooded so you should prepare for that possibility. For high-risk areas, however, preparedness is not just recommended, it’s vital in my opinion. Flash flooding can occur just moments after periods of heavy rain, so plan a way to evacuate your home if a lot of rainfall is forecasted. You don’t want to become stranded in your home or have to get on your roof to wait for someone to rescue you. That’s happened time and time again, and it’s a major hazard for you and rescue teams alike. When you evacuate, take a backpack with you that has all the essential items for you to live off of for the next three days (minimum). Always have food, water, a first aid kit, a way to keep warm, a change of clothes, and any items that you or your loved ones need such as prescription medications. For more tips on flood preparedness, check out this article.
Florida averages 49 tornadoes a year. It’s the third-highest state nationally with the highest number of tornadoes annually. Luckily, the majority of the twisters that pass through are low on the Enhanced Fujita Scale— rarely are they higher than an EF1. Similar to tornadoes are waterspouts. These storms are basically tornadoes that form over ocean waters. They’re seen more often in the southeastern part of Florida and around the Keys. Tornadoes can happen any time of the year if the atmospheric climate and pressure is just right, but you can expect most of them to occur between the spring and summer months. June is a peak month for tornado activity in Florida.
Florida’s worst tornado outbreak to date occurred on the late evening of February 22nd and lasted through the early morning hours of February 23rd. During a matter of three and a half hours, seven tornadoes (three of which were rated F3 on the Fujita scale) ripped through central Florida, leaving over 260 people injured and 42 others dead.
If you receive a tornado warning on your phone, make sure to take cover immediately. If you don’t have a storm shelter at home, find an interior room of a sturdy building. If you’re outside, find a sturdy building to take cover in until the threat passes. If you’re at home, go inside a bathroom or bedroom closet on the lowest level of the property. If you have a basement, go there. If you would like to learn about tornado preparedness, I’ve made a guide that you can read here.
6. Power Outages
Every natural disaster, and even some manmade ones, put the entire state at risk for power outages. According to the Miami New Times, Florida is the leading state in the US when it comes to the most statewide power outages. Surely, this has a lot to do with the constant storms and harsh weather.
Short-term power outages are typically manageable, but long-term outages are extremely inconvenient and dangerous, especially if you have young children or are dependent on electricity for health reasons. Your hygiene and basic needs are of utmost importance during a power outage. Since much of the plumbing system will stop working after a short while, you’ll want to get a toilet kit and other sanitary supplies beforehand to ensure that you can safely dispose of waste. Also, make sure you have enough food and water to last you through the outage and keep a cooking hit that doesn’t require electricity. I recommend getting a generator that will be strong enough to keep your refrigerator running as well as provide enough electricity to power up your mobile devices. If you want to learn more safety tips and power outage kit must-haves, be sure to click here!
Tsunamis are not a major threat to the Floridian coast (yet) but scientists believe that they are possible in the future. Coastal storms and storm surges are a threat to the coastal communities, so if you’re near the coast, be sure to become informed about those risks.
Learn what the signs of a tsunami are, such as rapidly receding waters along the coastline and large waves forming in the distance. When you go to the beach, observe where the tsunami escape route signs are pointing to and just be aware of your general surroundings. Tsunamis can take people by surprise, so being observant can help you get to safety quickly. If there’s a threat of a tsunami, always run towards higher ground as fast as you can! For more information on tsunami preparedness, look here.
Natural disaster resources for Florida
I wouldn’t want to end this article on a discouraging note of course. The fact that the Sunshine State is prone to many disasters does not mean that it’s a bad place to live in. Quite the contrary! Florida is a wonderful place to live, but being prepared for the possible calamities is a must. These are a few tips to help you become ready.
- One of the best ways to receive up-to-date news is by downloading the NOAA Weather App. The National Weather Service sends watch and warning alerts as they are identified, so I highly recommend you download the free app and set the notifications to alert you during the night. Some disasters can happen during the night, so you’ll want to hear if a warning is in effect.
- If you know which natural disaster you’re preparing for, I invite you to take a look at our disaster guides. These guides are designed to simplify the preparedness process because I know how overwhelming it can get to start. Find all our guides here!
- Emergency preparedness supplies without the knowledge or skills of how to survive under difficult circumstances is not wise. Learning skills is just as important, if not more important, than the kits you have stored up. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is an organization you should look into. It’s a government organization that offers free classes and simulations to the public so that they may become ready to respond to emergencies. Find your local CERT here!
- One of the ways to give back to the community during times of crisis is by getting in touch with the Florida VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This organization is made up of volunteers that determine the immediate needs of the community after a disaster. Then, they connect the available resources with the public to meet the needs as soon as possible.
- Florida's Disaster website has a lot of resources to help you in every step of a disaster- the preparedness, mitigation, and recovery phase.
I hope you have found value in this article. It’s my hope that as you become prepared, you will have more peace of mind and develop a resilient mindset. Disasters are out of our control, but overcoming them is completely up to us.
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