The ancient inhabitants of the Caribbean and Central America blamed hurricanes on a variety of violent gods and goddesses. The modern inhabitants of Florida cling to their own hurricane myths, misconceptions that may be less colorful but are often more dangerous.
With hurricane season officially starting Friday, here’s some common beliefs about hurricanes that are widespread, deeply held and completely untrue. This list comes courtesy of Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center; Bill Johnson, emergency management director for Palm Beach County; and Phil Klotzbach, research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.
You should open a window on the downwind side of the storm: A great idea if you want to get water and debris blown into your house. Otherwise, it doesn’t accomplish anything. Many people think they need to open a window to allow pressure to equalize. But that’s a solution in search of a problem. No house is airtight, no matter how hard we try to eliminate every air gap, so you don’t have to worry about equalizing pressure.
Taping windows will help protect your house: A waste of time (and tape). If the window breaks in the storm, the tape will help produce large, dangerous shards flying into your house, which is not desirable. Use plywood or hurricane shutters.
The most dangerous element of the storm is wind: For all the focus on wind speeds and hurricane categories, the real killer is water. Storm surge, the temporary rise in sea level caused by the storm’s winds, causes more fatalities than any other part of the storm. A study of tropical storms and hurricanes from 1963 to 2012 by Edward Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, found that 49 percent of deaths were caused by storm surge, 27 percent by rain and 6 percent by surf. Wind accounted for 8 percent of deaths and tornadoes for 3 percent.
The focus on wind speeds has led to a phenomenon in which people “overevacuate,” fleeing areas that are not in evacuation zones, which are located near water, said Johnson, Palm Beach County’s emergency management director. This puts a strain on roads, shelters and other resources.
Once a hurricane has passed, the danger is over: A very dangerous misconception, as shown by the deaths of 12 people in a Hollywood nursing home after Hurricane Irma knocked out power. After a storm, people die from downed power lines, heat from loss of power, flooding and falls off ladders as they make repairs.
Disaster brings out the worst in people: Many people believe a loss of electric power, regular access to grocery stores and other basic elements of modern life will lead to a war of all against all, in which life is nasty, brutish and sweaty. Johnson says this misconception becomes dangerous when people decide not to leave evacuation zones when ordered or take risks by returning home too soon, for fear of leaving their homes vulnerable to looting, which is rarer than people think.
Setting up a family disaster kit is a time-consuming pain, requiring multiple shopping trips (so why bother?): Most people could scrounge up three days’ of non-perishable food, such as peanut butter and canned goods, around the house. The same with other necessities, such as garbage bags, flashlights, batteries and blankets. It’s just a question of gathering it all up.
The only area at risk is the coast: Damaging wind, heavy rain and flooding can occur hundreds of miles inland, says Feltgen. Even last week’s early storm Alberto caused flooding in Lauderhill, Sunrise and Wellington, all miles from the coast. In 2017, for example, Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding far inland in Texas.
A below-average season means I won't get hit: Two words: Hurricane Andrew. Andrew brought historic devastation to South Florida during what was otherwise a pretty quiet hurricane season. Other catastrophic storms that struck in low-activity seasons, according to Feltgen, include Hurricane Donna, a 1960 storm that struck the Keys with 140 mph winds, and Hurricane Betsy, a 1965 storm that brought disastrous flooding to New Orleans.
I got hit last year, so I won't get hit this year: The cards have no memory, and neither do hurricane seasons.