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Tape your windows before a hurricane.
That advice echoes across Florida every storm season. And every year, it’s wrong.
“That does not help nothing,” said Pasco County Emergency Management Director Andrew Fossa. “The only thing that is going to do is hold bigger pieces of glass together as it flies through the air.”
Taping up windows may be the most common misconception about getting ready for a hurricane in Florida. It’s hardly the only one.
Such myths have long clouded the judgement of Floridians in the face of the Sunshine State’s greatest danger: hurricane season. Those myths may have even foretold this era of conspiracy theories and misinformation that has infected the public’s understanding of the pandemic, vaccines and elections.
To help bay area residents get ready for the 2021 hurricane season, the Tampa Bay Times asked the state and region’s top emergency management officials to list the hurricane myths and misconceptions they wish Floridians would forget about already.
Myth 1: We’re (probably) covered
The most important protection every Florida homeowner needs before hurricane season isn’t storm shutters or a portable generator or an evacuation plan.
It’s making sure they have the right insurance.
“I think that’s the first step,” said Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie.
Too many Floridians, he said, enter storm season with inadequate homeowner insurance that doesn’t cover the true value of their home.
They may also not realize that their home policy doesn’t cover water or flood damage caused by a hurricane, tropical storm or even a severe rain storm. That is only covered by flood insurance. And it’s not just those who live in a flood zone that are at risk of water damage.
“If you live in Florida and it rains,” Guthrie said, “it could flood on your property.”
Guthrie said it’s important for every property owner to review their coverage every year with their agent and adjust accordingly, especially as property values soar.
“Right now is a good time to call your insurance agent and make sure you have the right insurance for the value of your home,” he said. “God forbid something happens to your home and you’re not able to rebuild it.”
The National Flood Insurance Program typically covers a maximum of $250,000 for the home and $100,000 for personal property. Private policies offer more coverage.
It also takes 30 days for a flood insurance policy to take effect, Guthrie said, so getting coverage is not like running out to Walmart to buy a flashlight before a storm.
A homeowner without flood insurance will be in serious trouble, left dependent on savings, charity and a meager payout from federal relief funds. Guthrie said the average payout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to state homeowners over the last 10 years is about $4,000 and the maximum payout is about $35,000.
“No one can rebuild their life on $4,000,” he said. “No one can rebuild their life on $35,000.”
Myth 2: Can’t afford to prepare
Getting ready for a storm can be expensive, and low-income or unemployed Floridians may lack the resources to stock up on food and plywood. Those who own their homes may not be able to get them fixed before storm season. Renters may not be able to hunker down at home.
But that shouldn’t keep anyone from getting ready for a hurricane, Guthrie said.
“(The notion) that I don’t have any money so I can’t prepare is 100 percent a myth,” he said. “There are things you can do that are zero dollar in preparations.”
Start gathering most important documents, records and photos so they’re ready to go in case of an evacuation. Same goes for personal mementos.
“Keepsakes, pictures, photographs, heirlooms, it takes no money to know where those things are, to make a checklist, to make sure you get this and this and this before you leave the house,” he said.
Everyone who has a smartphone can access free cloud storage services, such as iCloud and Google Drive. There are free apps that allow you to photograph important documents and convert them to PDFs without using a scanner.
It also doesn’t cost money to check evacuation zones, find the nearest shelter, or look for family or friends to stay with. Renters who have doubts about whether they can ride out the storm at home definitely need an evacuation plan.
Guthrie recommends that those on a limited income or relying on food banks should pick up a few non-perishable food items or a case of bottled water here and there during storm season and set them aside. Build a storm pantry before the storm gets here.
“There are good preparation techniques that do not cost any money,” he said.
Myth 3: The cone of uncertainty
Every storm season, Floridians become fixated on the projected path of the latest storm threatening Florida. The National Hurricane Center uses that shaded cone and black line to show the possible path of the center of a storm three and five days out.
But many read far more into the cone than they should.
They often believe that the center line is the actual path of the storm, or that the cone itself represents the size of the storm, or if they’re on the outskirts of the cone they’re in the clear.
None of that is true.
“I would love to see some additional awareness and education behind the concept of what comprises the cone of uncertainty,” said Hernando County Emergency Management Director Erin Thomas.
Everyone living in the cone of uncertainty is at risk of the center of a tropical cyclone rolling overhead.
The cone doesn’t indicate how severe the wind, rain, storm surge or flooding may be, so residents shouldn’t assume they understand the potential impacts. Those who live outside the cone aren’t in the clear, either — they could still experience severe hazards.
The cone basically means those living in the shaded area should pay attention and get ready.
“The cone of uncertainty is intended for everyone to understand that the hazards exist outside that skinny black line of that forecast,” Thomas said. “Just a few miles in either direction can mean a world of difference in terms of the significance of impact.”
Myth 4: Meet the new storm, same as the old storm
It’s a myth that Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins hears every year: “People think the next storm will be just like the last one.”
Many tend to believe that if they’ve already experienced a Category 1 or Category 3 hurricane, she said, then they’ve experienced them all.
“You hear people say ‘I’ve been here all my life,” Perkins said. “If they didn’t evacuate for the last storm then they’re not going to evacuate for this one.”
But every storm is different, and so are its impacts. The severity of a tropical cyclone, storm surge and flooding are determined by factors such as direction, tides, wind speed, time of day, rainfall, ground saturation, river and lake levels and where it makes landfall.
The last major storm to come close to Tampa Bay was 2017′s Hurricane Irma. It was a record-breaking Category 5 monster that spurred the largest evacuation in Florida history. It struck the Keys as a Category 4 storm and moved up Florida’s spine.
It was the deadliest hurricane in Florida in three decades and is blamed directly and indirectly for hundreds of Florida nursing home deaths.
But Tampa Bay was spared a direct hit. Irma weakened to a Category 1 storm as it passed east of the region, over land. In the bay area, that storm is most remembered for causing blackouts that lasted for days.
Now imagine the devastation Irma could have inflicted had it come through the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall on Clearwater Beach or Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard as a Category 1 storm — during high tide.
“No two storms will be the same,” Perkins said.
Myth 5: Masks won’t be needed in shelters
Given the conspiracy theories, misinformation and bad-to-misleading advice surrounding the coronavirus, masks and vaccines during the pandemic, it’s not hard to imagine that bleeding over into hurricane preparations.
Masks and social distancing will still be needed to prevent the virus from spreading in evacuation shelters, said Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist and the director of the University of Florida’s master of public health program.
It will still be risky for the vaccinated and unvaccinated to crowd into shelters together without those measures. Much of the population still hasn’t been vaccinated, she said, including children.
“Some of those folks may get vaccinated when we hit the heart of hurricane season, and some may not,” Prins said. “So it creates a situation where you don’t know who’s vaccinated and who isn’t.”
Ideally, shelter managers should encourage, if not require, mask-wearing, she said, and establish distanced spaces for families to sit and sleep together. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that shelter staff and most residents wear masks.
That’s the plan in Tampa Bay: Mask-wearing will be encouraged and social distancing implemented in hurricane shelters in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. The state is also ready to distribute masks and pandemic supplies to shelters if needed, and will reopen vaccination and testing sites in storm-impacted areas as soon as possible.
Unvaccinated shelter residents should wear masks to protect themselves, Prins said, and vaccinated residents should consider it as an extra safety measure, especially in common areas such as bathrooms or dining areas.
“I think I would probably be wearing one personally if I were going there,” said the epidemiologist, who is fully vaccinated. “I would just keep that mask handy.”
Myth 6: Sandbags stop flooding
It’s not that sandbags are useless during a storm, said Pasco County Emergency Management Director Andrew Fossa. It’s that they’re best used under limited circumstances. But too many people don’t understand that.
“Stacking them on top of each other is not going to keep the water from going into your house,” he said. “The water will eventually get in there.”
No amount of sandbags is going to save property from storm surge or flooding, especially if it lies in a low-lying flood zone where it could end up several feet underwater.
Filling hundreds of sandbags would be a waste of time and energy that is better spent preparing what’s inside for water intrusion — unplugging and elevating electronics, furniture and other valuables — and getting ready to evacuate.
What sandbagging can do is keep minor flooding away from garage doors and doorways and prevent water from entering a structure. That’s a big help after a storm, especially when inconsiderate drivers plow through flooded streets and send water rippling into nearby homes or businesses.
Said Fossa: “Sandbagging has a purpose if it’s done for that purpose.”
Myth 7: It’s never too late to get ready
Too many Floridians think they can wait until the last second to get ready for a hurricane, said Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley Jr.
But it doesn’t work like that.
“The biggest thing is that you can’t wait until you see it on the news and then you’ll say ‘Now I’ll get ready,’” he said. “We want people to have a plan, to know where you’re going, know where your family is going.”
Procrastination is the enemy of preparedness. A quick trip to the store might secure food and water for your family.
But all of the advice in the Times 2021 hurricane preparedness guide — assembling and backing-up important documents and photos; assembling a two-week supply of medications and seven days of food and water per person; creating go bags; preparing your home, business and yard for a storm; getting the pets ready; mapping out your exit routes, locating shelters or finding someone to stay with — will take weeks, not hours.
In short, all of the advice in this hurricane preparation guide can’t be heeded overnight. But it’ll be worth it if Floridians are well-prepared before the storm, so they aren’t dependent on help reaching them after one.
Dudley noted that preparing for a hurricane also prepares Floridians for other natural, or unnatural disasters, that could befall them.
“You should be prepared all-year long,” he said. “You shouldn’t just wait until hurricane season.”
Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.
• • •
2021 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE: Seven hurricane myths that need to go away
BACK-UP YOUR DATA: Protect your data, documents and photos
BUILD YOUR HURRICANE KIT: Gear up — and mask up — before the storm hits
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Here’s how to keep your pets as safe as you
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter