TIPS: How to prepare for a big storm

Understanding the weather, preparing in advance and taking action at the right time can save lives and reduce damage from a surging hurricane.

Advanced planning helps deflect potential storm damage

Pike Harrington of Nags Head, N.C., boards up his beach house on Aug. 25, 2011, in preparation for Hurricane Irene. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Ocean-bred hurricanes and tropical storms, while more common in the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, do pose a threat to Canadians living near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and sometimes even quite far inland.

Unlike tornadoes, which are spontaneous and unpredictable, hurricanes can be tracked effectively by meteorologists, who can give early warning to people living in at-risk areas in Canada's eastern-most provinces.

The best way to keep safe during a hurricane or tropical storm is to make sure you understand the risk attached to these disasters well before the May to November hurricane season.

Environment Canada has identified three aspects of hurricane safety, which broadly break down this way:

1. Infrastructure and construction

Before a hurricane watch or warning has been issued, it's a good idea to prepare your home, in case the warning comes with shorter notice than usual. This is especially important for seaside houses and cottages. Long-term steps could include:

  • Building artificial reefs to keep high waves from hitting shore.
  • Building levees in coastal areas to protect from high water surges.
  • Strengthening windows, doors, roofs and outlying buildings against high winds and water swells.
  • Having adequate insurance in case of extensive damage.

Notable hurricanes in Canada

An aerial view shows flood damage in Toronto after Hurricane Hazel struck in 1954. (Canadian Press Photo)

Newfoundland hurricane of 1775: The earliest hurricane recorded in Canada and by far the deadliest, this devastating storm killed over 4,000 Newfoundland residents.

Hurricane Hazel: On Oct. 15, 1954, the Greater Toronto Area was hit by a massive hurricane. Eighty-one people were killed in flash flooding, and 2,000 people were left homeless. Thirty-five people were killed in one incident alone — when the Humber River flooded Raymore Drive in the west end of Toronto.

Escuminac, N.B., hurricane: An unnamed hurricane hit the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 19, 1959, sinking 22 fishing boats in the New Brunswick port of Escuminac, near Miramichi Bay. Thirty-five people were drowned in its wake.

Hurricane Juan: With recorded peak wind gusts of 229 km/h, this storm caused significant damage when it hit Atlantic Canada on Sept. 29, 2003. Eight people were killed, and 300,000 people were without power for two weeks in parts of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. A general election scheduled in PEI for the next day went ahead as planned, despite closed roads and downed power lines.

Hurricane Igor: This Category 1 hurricane hit Cape Race, N.L., on Sept. 21, 2010, causing severe flooding and extensive damage. Communities were completely evacuated in advance of the storm, widely believed to be the worst to hit Newfoundland in a century.

2. Family preparedness

Preparing and understanding a family storm protection plan will go a long way to ensuring you know how to react during the storm:

  • Draft a family plan: It's a good idea to make sure your family knows what to do in a hurricane. Write down specific steps you will need to take, based on your vulnerability to a hurricane, such as where to go and who to call in an emergency. Make sure everyone is familiar with the potential for disaster.
  • Assemble an emergency supply kit: Put together a kit stocked with batteries, flashlights, canned food, bottled water and any other items you may need in case your power is cut off or roads are washed out for an extended period of time. It is important to keep the kit freshly stocked and to ensure everyone knows where it's stored.
  • Identify information sources: Be sure to take note of where to get the latest information regarding the storm, especially since internet and television might be out of service during a hurricane.

3. Response

When a hurricane or tropical storm warning is issued and a storm is about to hit, it is time to put your plans into action. Measures you'll need to take include:

  • Locating and checking your emergency kit.
  • Securing loose items in your home, such as valuables on shelves or near windows.
  • Boarding up windows.
  • Filling your vehicles with gas.
  • Monitoring various media outlets for information.

It is important to understand that no amount of preparedness can fully protect you from the potential devastating effects of a hurricane. Every hurricane is different, and it is impossible to fully and accurately predict the potential for damage. However, every hurricane provides a learning opportunity to prepare for the next one.

For example, when Hurricane Hazel struck the Greater Toronto Area in 1954, huge sections of road were completely washed out after the Humber River jumped its banks. Following the storm, in which 81 people died, authorities passed bylaws barring people from living in certain areas near the river, designating many of those areas parkland.

A parks vehicle is seen near the ruins of Halifax's Point Pleasant Park, which lost about 70 per cent of its trees in Hurricane Juan in 2003. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In 2003, most Nova Scotians were not prepared for a storm when Hurricane Juan hit the province. As a result, emergency personnel found it difficult to properly get the public mobilized to respond to the storm. When Hurricane Kyle, a weaker storm by comparison, hit in 2008, residents were ready, and the emergency response was far more effective.