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Don't trust the hurricane myths about what keeps you safe

Sandbags? Check. Duct tape? Check. Special powers protecting the Tampa Bay area? Sweet. One of the more frustrating jobs local emergency management officers have every hurricane season is dispelling the many myths and urban legends out there. Pinellas County emergency management's Tom Iovino holds a public seminar every season aimed just at disproving the top dozen myths he's heard. And he hears new ones every year, enough that he's thinking about holding a "Myths, Part Two," he said. Here are the top five that people widely believe, and some facts that could save your life.

MYTH: If you're in a pinch, and don't have time to board up your windows, covering them in strips of duct tape is the next-best alternative.

FACT: Nope. Waste of time. If hurricane-force winds are strong enough to blow through your windows, they're surely strong enough to destroy tape. A lot of people believe the duct tape will, at the very least, hold together shards of glass so they don't blow all over the house. This sounds good, but in reality, what you'll end up with is shards of glass and duct tape all over your house. Instead, go buy some plywood and nails and cover those windows completely.

MYTH: The Tampa Bay area is less prone to hurricanes because it's a peninsula on a peninsula/there are iron deposits at the bottom of the bay that create a negative ionic flux that breaks up hurricanes/we're protected by an ancient American Indian blessing/fill in your own theory here.

FACT: We're blessed, no doubt. The Tampa Bay area is one of the least-hit spots in Florida besides Jacksonville. We haven't had a direct hurricane hit since 1921. There's actually a scientific theory behind our lucky streak, according to Jeff Masters of weatherunderground.com. As the Earth rotates, there are three major bands of wind that blow in alternating directions. In the tropics, the band moves east; and in the mid-latitudes area, the band moves west. The Tampa Bay area falls right in between those bands, said Masters, and that could affect a storm's recurvature, possibly shifting it away from the area under the right circumstances. However, Masters warned, the circumstances aren't always right. Several factors — including direction and timing of cool fronts, the Bermuda High, radius of the storm — can point a hurricane right at us. More likely than the wind band theory, Masters said, is that we've just been lucky.

MYTH: A wall of sandbags will keep flooding out of your home.

FACT: No, it won't. While sandbags might slow down a low, creeping flood, they are not watertight. And if we get any kind of storm surge, those sand bags are going to topple, creating an even bigger mess than just water. If you're worried about flooding, start making major home improvement preparations now. The best protection is to build a berm or raise your house — or move to a higher elevation.

MYTH: If you live in Pinellas County, there's no safe place to be if a hurricane comes.

FACT: While much of Pinellas will have to evacuate to safer or higher ground, there are a surprising number of places considered safe within the county. You can find those places by looking at an evacuation or flood zone map. Storm surge, not wind, is the real killer in a hurricane. If you can find a home or building to go to that's not in a flood zone — most of Seminole, for example, and a lot of the area around downtown St. Petersburg — you should be okay. Whether in Tampa or Pasco or St. Petersburg, if you're not in a flood zone, staying home will be a better option than evacuating with thousands of other people and then getting stuck in another area that might get hit too.

MYTH: If you live in a condominium near the coast, the best alternative to a real evacuation is a "vertical evacuation" — moving from the first or second floors to the sixth or seventh floors, above storm surge levels.

FACT: In the aftermath of a hurricane, the last place you want to be is stuck in a beach condo, even on the 10th floor. Chances are, phone and power lines will be out, and emergency personnel will have no way of getting to you for quite some time. If you live in a condominium or apartment that's in an evacuation zone, don't assume you'll be okay if you're above water. You'll likely stay dry — assuming the wind doesn't destroy your building — but the real problems will happen in the hours you're stuck without food, communication or help.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Don't trust the hurricane myths about what keeps you safe 07/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 6:07pm]

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