Paul has lived in Florida for over ten years and has experienced a number of tropical storms and hurricanes during that time.
I lived in England, a country with no hurricanes, for many years. So when I came to Florida, where there's an extended hurricane season every year, I found myself on the bottom of a steep learning curve.
However, I've acquired a great deal of experience and knowledge during the more than ten years that I've lived in the Sunshine State, and I thought it would be useful, fun, and informative to put together a beginner's guide to hurricanes in Florida for visitors and new residents.
I would like to make it clear that this is intended only to be a basic guide to the practicalities of hurricanes. It's not an in-depth look at the science; I have no meteorological qualifications or specialist knowledge of tropical storms. I do, however, hope to answer some of the most common questions that are asked about hurricanes in Florida and give some tips on how to prepare for them.
As I mentioned above, I'm not a meteorologist, but I do think that it's important to at least grasp the raw essentials of what hurricanes are and have some sense of why they behave like they do, so below are the beginner's essentials. I've also included some links to my sources at the bottom of the page for those who are interested in finding out about the science of hurricanes in more depth.
What Are Hurricanes and How Do They Form?
Hurricanes are a type of storm also known as a tropical cyclone. They operate as huge heat engines that throw out energy at an awesome rate. According to National Geographic, hurricanes start out as tropical disturbances in warm ocean waters with a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.5 degrees Celsius) or more. They pull heat from the warm, damp ocean air and release it through condensation of water vapor in thunderstorms.
A storm with wind speeds of 38 miles (61 km) per hour or less is classified as a tropical depression. It becomes a tropical storm and is given a name by the World Meteorological Organization if the sustained wind speeds are over 39 miles (63 km) per hour. It is only if and when the sustained wind speeds reach 74 mph that it is classified as a hurricane.
Where Do Hurricanes Form?
The hurricanes that affect Florida form in the Atlantic. The water that hurricanes draw their power from has been warmed when passing Africa’s equatorial west coast before heading west to the Caribbean.
Why Do Hurricanes Eventually Die Down?
The energy that gives hurricanes their power is drawn from warm oceans and moist air. This energy begins to dissipate as soon they encounter dry land or colder water, which eventually causes them to die out.
When Is Hurricane Season in Florida?
The hurricane season for the Florida area is a distinct period that lasts from June 1st through November 30th. It's certainly not unheard of for the state to experience hurricanes outside of that period, though, with the month of May being particularly prone to serious, non-seasonal tropical storms.
The peak of the hurricane season runs from mid-August to late October. September is the month when you are most likely to experience a hurricane in Florida.
Which Areas in Florida Are Most Affected by Hurricanes?
Generally speaking, as hurricanes take their power from warm water, it makes sense that the places that suffer the most serious damage are on the coasts. Places farther inland are generally spared the worst, as hurricanes lose their destructive power relatively quickly once they start moving over dry land.
Statistics show that it is the northwestern area of Florida known as "the panhandle" that suffers the largest number of hurricane hits. This might surprise some people, as one might expect the area closest to the Caribbean to be the most often affected, but the warm waters of the Gulf and geographic location both contribute to the higher number.
Despite the large numbers of hurricanes in the northwest, they do tend to be less severe than those in southern Florida. Most are category three or below. Hurricane Michael, which was a category five, was a notable exception.
Southern Florida is the area next most likely to be hit by hurricanes, with the southeastern side (including cities such as Fort Myers and Naples) suffering slightly more due to the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite the southeast and southwest suffering slightly fewer hurricanes numerically than the northwest, the severity of the hurricanes tends to be higher in the south of the state.
Southwestern Florida (including cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach) has suffered two devastating hurricanes since the Saffir/Simpson scale was introduced in 1851: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Andrew of 1992. Both of these hurricanes were classified as category five.
The other place to mention is the Florida Keys. These islands have hurricanes blowing past them regularly. They don't take direct hits often due to their relatively small size, but when they do get pummeled, it can often be serious.
5 Florida Cities Hit Most Often by Hurricanes
This list is based on statistical analysis by Hurricane City, which calculated the average number of hits per decade during the period between 1871 and 2019.
- Cape Canaveral
- Fernandina Beach
- Saint Augustine
- Palm Beach
Which Places in Florida Are Safest From Hurricanes?
The northern inland areas that border with Georgia are particularly safe, as are the north-central inland cities such as Orlando, Ocala, Gainesville, and Lake City.
The northeast area of the state is relatively safe, too. Due to cooler waters and climate, hurricanes often pass by and don't come ashore until they reach the Carolinas. They can still hit coastal cities like St. Augustine, but the frequency for the northeast area generally tends to be lower.
5 Florida Cities Hit Least Often by Hurricanes
According to rankings compiled by Homeinsurance.com, the five cities least likely to be hit by a hurricane in Florida are:
What Types of Damage Do Hurricanes Cause?
The damage caused generally comes from high winds and flooding. The severity depends on a variety of factors, such as the strength of the hurricane and where it comes ashore. Below are the types of destruction that are commonly caused by hurricanes.
- In coastal areas, there can often be storm surges during which sea levels rise dramatically, and water is pushed ashore along with beach sand and even boulders. Surges can cause properties, docks, and roads to become damaged and beaches to become eroded.
- Hurricanes can also cause general flooding due to the heavy rain that accompanies them. Low-lying areas and locations close to rivers and creeks can be particularly vulnerable.
- Properties and other man-made structures can suffer damage directly from high winds: rooves blown off, windows blown out, etc.
- Felled trees brought down by the winds can cause secondary damage, bringing down power and communications lines and resulting in the loss of electricity and internet access. Trees can also fall onto buildings or cars or block roads.
- Smaller objects can be whipped up by the wind and become projectiles, causing damage when they strike against buildings, vehicles, and people.
- Hurricanes can also cause a number of smaller tornado paths to form within the storm area, creating further mayhem and damage.
- Power supplies and internet services are often disrupted both during and in the hours and days after a hurricane.
How Should I Prepare for a Hurricane?
Hurricanes can be devastating and dangerous. You should always do your best to prepare for them well in advance. Below are some important things to consider.
- Make sure that you have plenty of emergency supplies like food, water, and medicine in the house. Bear in mind that you may have your electricity knocked out by the hurricane, so cooling, freezing, and cooking options might be limited.
- You should also put together an emergency kit. This might include items like flashlights, bottled water, blankets, extra clothing, toiletries, non-perishable food, and a portable radio with spare batteries.
- Collect a list of useful emergency telephone numbers. Have them both written down/printed out and stored on your phone.
- Make a plan for you and your family. In the event of you having to leave quickly, you will need to shut off the utilities and have an agreed meeting place for your household. Don't forget to also make specific provisions for older and more vulnerable relatives. Any pets/domestic animals will also have to be included in your scheme.
- Secure the outside of your property. Bring inside or make secure any patio furniture, children's toys, bikes, sculptures, art, ornaments, and potted plants. Trim back any large trees, bushes, and shrubs if your timescale allows.
- Windows, skylights, and doors can be particularly vulnerable during hurricanes. Storm shutters and impact-resistant glass are the best things for protection, but you can improvise by nailing sheets of plywood to window frames.
- Move any appliances and fixtures away from window areas.
- Move any vehicles to higher ground or a secure place of shelter. Don't put them under power lines or trees or in low-lying areas where they could be vulnerable to impacts or flooding.
- Make sure that your phone is fully charged and your vehicle's gas tank is full. Additional fully charged batteries and gas are also useful.
- If you have a generator, test it to make sure that it works okay and make sure that you have enough fuel for it.
- If ordered to evacuate, follow all instructions.
- If you are going to be inside the property when the hurricane hits, agree on a shelter room in advance. Ideally, it should be a centrally positioned enclosed area on the first floor without windows. If you have to leave the shelter room while the storm is in progress, be particularly wary of unprotected windows and doors. If possible, avoid them until after the storm has passed.
- For more information on preparing for a hurricane, check out the CDC website.
Sources and Further Reading
- Here’s How Hurricanes Form and Why They’re so Destructive| National Geographic, May 3, 2019
- Hurricane Damage | UCAR Center for Science Education
- National Hurricane Preparedness | National Weather Service
- 5 Most and Least Hurricane-Prone Areas in Florida| Universal Property
- Preparing for a Hurricane or Tropical Storm | National Center for Environmental Health
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Paul Goodman