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What’s a hurricane watch? A tropical storm warning? Here’s what to know to prepare

Here’s a guide to help you master the language of storms so you can prepare for the worst.
Senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart monitors the progress of Tropical Storm Dorian at the National Hurricane Center, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart monitors the progress of Tropical Storm Dorian at the National Hurricane Center, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Aug. 29, 2019

Don’t know your watches from your warnings every time a storm comes our way? Confused by all the weather terms you hear on TV and see right here on this news site?

Here’s a guide to help you master the language of storms so you can prepare for the worst.

What’s the difference between a hurricane watch an a hurricane warning?

A hurricane watch is when hurricane conditions (winds of 74 mph or greater) have a chance of developing around your area. If you weren’t already doing so, this is when you should start securing your home, filling your car with gas and stocking up on food and water.

These watches are generally issued by the National Hurricane center 48 hours before tropical-storm force winds are expected.

A hurricane warning is when hurricane conditions (winds of 74 mph or greater) are expected in your area. This warning is issued 36 hours in advance so you can finalize your preparations. This will be your last chance to safely secure your home before the hurricane arrives. If you live in an evacuation zone and are ordered to evacuate, do so immediately.

Can you have a hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning simultaneously?

Yes, you can.

This means a tropical storm with sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph will likely hit your area within 48 hours. However, it also means the weather system is close to turning into a hurricane. The National Hurricane Center classifies severe weather systems as hurricanes the moment it sustains winds of 74 mph or greater.

You should not wait for the hurricane watch to become a warning to start your hurricane preparations.

I keep hearing “Cone of Uncertainty.” What is that?

The cone indicates the area where the eye of a storm could be up to five days out and is a way for forecasters to visually show what the storm’s expected track is. It does not represent the uncertainty associated with a storm forecast, nor the size or intensity of a storm.

Historically, the entire five-day path of the storm’s eye will remain within the cone about 60 to 70 percent of the time, according to the National Hurricane Center. The size of the cone is determined at the beginning of each hurricane season and stays the same for every storm, regardless of size or intensity, so it will not change even if forecasters are very certain of their predictions.

Just because you’re outside a cone does not mean you won’t see impacts. Most storms will have rain and wind impacts outside the projected cones. The letter inside the cone is the best marker for how strong the storm will be. D stands for tropical depression, S for tropical storm, H for hurricane and M for major hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center’s white “cone” is universally accepted as the format for projecting a storm’s path, according to, but some media outlets use a different color. The Weather Channel and, for example, use a dark red cone.

The cones on a National Hurricane Center graphic will be solid white with some stippled white areas. The solid white area shows the track for days one to three of the forecast, while the stippled white area will depict days four to five.

Any other terms I should know?

Yes, besides heavy rainfall, strong winds, and the possibility for tornadoes, a hurricane can bring a lot of baggage including:

Storm Surge and Storm Tide

A storm surge is when strong winds forces water from the ocean or a large body of water to rise and enter several hundred miles of coastline, according to the National Hurricane Center, and is considered to be one of the “greatest threats to life” a hurricane can bring.

Florida is particularly susceptible to it. Storm surge from Hurricane Irma alone affected 133,000 homes across Florida. 45,000 were affected in Miami-Dade.

Inland flooding

Those in low-lying areas are familiar with how bad the streets get with Florida’s typical summer rainy season. During a hurricane or tropical storm, it’s much worse.

Alerts may be issued for flash flooding, which is when water levels rapidly rises because of heavy rainfall. Slower or larger moving storms can also lead to longer term flooding for several days.

Rip Currents

Dangerous rip currents can pull even the strongest swimmers away from the shore. While no one should be outside during a hurricane, mariners, swimmers and those who live along the coast should try to stay out of the water even if a storm is miles away.

In 2017, forecasters warned of higher rip current risks in South Florida while Hurricane Maria was well to the east. In 2008, despite Hurricane Bertha being more than a 1,000 miles offshore, rip currents killed three people along New Jersey’s coast and required 1,500 lifeguard rescues in Ocean City, Maryland, over a one week period, according to the National Hurricane Center.

2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

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‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

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