Hurricane FAQs

What is a hurricane?

The term “hurricane” is a regionally specific name for a strong tropical cyclone. The regions where the name “hurricane” is used are the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline, or the South Pacific Ocean east of 160E. A tropical cyclone is a non-frontal synoptic scale low-pressure system over tropical or sub-tropical waters with organized convection (i.e. thunderstorm activity) and definite cyclonic surface wind circulation. When winds reach 74 mph, then a storm becomes a hurricane. Hurricanes are further designated by categories on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

What are the other stages that storms progress through prior to becoming hurricanes?

The terms used to describe the progressive levels of organized disturbed weather in the tropics that are of less than hurricane status are:

  • Tropical Disturbance: A discrete tropical weather system of apparently organized convection, 200 to 600 km (100 to 300 nmi) in diameter, originating in the tropics or subtropics, having a nonfrontal migratory character, and maintaining its identity for 24 hours or more.
  • Tropical Depression: A tropical cyclone with a closed circulation in which the maximum sustained wind speed 38 mph.
  • Tropical Storm: A tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind speed from 39 to 73 mph. The convection in tropical storms is usually more concentrated near the center with outer rainfall organizing into distinct bands.

The wind speeds mentioned above are for those measured or estimated as the top speed sustained for one minute at 10 meters above the surface. Peak gusts would be 10-25% higher.

How are hurricanes categorized with the Saffir-Simpson scale?

The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale is a 1-5 rating based on the hurricane’s present intensity. This is used to give an estimate of the potential property damage and flooding expected along the coast from a hurricane landfall. Wind speed is the determining factor in the scale, as storm surge values are highly dependent on the slope of the continental shelf and the shape of the coastline, in the landfall region.

  • Category 1 Hurricane: Winds from 74 to 95 mph. No significant damage to building structures. Damage primarily to unanchored mobile homes, shrubbery, and trees. Some damage to poorly constructed signs. Also, some coastal road flooding and minor pier damage.
  • Category 2 Hurricane: Winds from 96 to 110 mph. Some roofing material, door, and window damage of buildings. Considerable damage to shrubbery and trees with some trees blown down. Considerable damage to mobile homes, poorly constructed signs, and piers. Coastal and low-lying escape routes flood 2 to 4 hours before arrival of the hurricane center. Small craft in unprotected anchorages break moorings.
  • Category 3 Hurricane: Winds from 111 to 130 mph. Some structural damage to small residences and utility buildings with a minor amount of curtain wall failures. Damage to shrubbery and trees with foliage blown off trees and large trees blown down. Mobile homes and poorly constructed signs are destroyed. Low-lying escape routes are cut by rising water 3 to 5 hours before arrival of the center of the hurricane. Flooding near the coast destroys smaller structures with larger structures damaged by battering from floating debris. Terrain continuously lower than 5 ft above mean sea level may be flooded inland 8 miles or more. Evacuation of low-lying residences with several blocks of the shoreline may be required.
  • Category 4 Hurricane: Winds from 131 to 155 mph. More extensive curtain wall failures with some complete roof structure failures on small residences. Shrubs, trees, and all signs are blown down. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Extensive damage to doors and windows. Low-lying escape routes may be cut by rising water 3 to 5 hours before arrival of the center of the hurricane. Major damage to lower floors of structures near the shore. Terrain lower than 10 ft above sea level may be flooded requiring massive evacuation of residential areas as far inland as 6 miles.
  • Category 5 Hurricane: Winds greater than 155 mph. Complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings. Some complete building failures with small utility buildings blown over or away. All shrubs, trees, and signs blown down. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Severe and extensive window and door damage. Low-lying escape routes are cut by rising water 3 to 5 hours before arrival of the center of the hurricane. Major damage to lower floors of all structures located less than 15 ft above sea level and within 500 yards of the shoreline. Massive evacuation of residential areas on low ground within 5 to 10 miles of the shoreline may be required.

What is a major hurricane? What is an intense hurricane?

"Major hurricane" is a term utilized by the National Hurricane Center for hurricanes that reach maximum sustained 1-minute surface winds of at least 111 mph. This is the equivalent of category 3, 4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. "Intense hurricane" is an unofficial term, but is often used in scientific literature. It is the same as "major hurricane".

Are big hurricanes also intense hurricanes?

There is very little association between intensity (either measured by maximum sustained winds or by central pressure) and size (either measured by radius of gale force winds or the radius of the outer closed isobar) of hurricanes. Hurricane Andrew is a good example of a very intense tropical cyclone (922 mb central pressure and 145 mph sustained winds at landfall in Florida) that was also relatively small. Studies also show that changes of both intensity and size are essentially independent of one another.

What is the “eye”? How is it formed and maintained?

The “eye” is a roughly circular area of comparatively light winds and fair weather found at the center of a severe hurricane. Although the winds are calm at the axis of rotation, strong winds may extend well into the eye. There is little or no precipitation and sometimes blue sky or stars can be seen. The eye is the region of lowest surface pressure and warmest temperatures. The eye temperature may be 18° warmer or more at an altitude of 8 miles than the surrounding environment, but only 0-3°F warmer at the surface in the hurricane. Eyes range in size from 8 miles to over 120 miles across, but most are approximately 20-40 miles in diameter.

The eye is surrounded by the eye wall, the roughly circular ring of deep convection which is the area of highest surface winds in the hurricane. The eye is composed of air that is slowly sinking and the eye wall has a net upward flow as a result of many updrafts and downdrafts. The eye’s warm temperatures are due to compressional warming of the subsiding air. Most soundings taken within the eye show a low-level layer which is relatively moist, with an inversion above, suggesting that the sinking in the eye typically does not reach the ocean surface.

The exact mechanism by which the eye forms remains somewhat controversial. One idea suggests that the eye forms as a result of the downward directed pressure gradient associated with the weakening and radial spreading of the tangential wind field with height. Another hypothesis suggests that the eye is formed when latent heat release in the eye wall occurs, forcing subsidence in the storm’s center. It is possible that these hypotheses are not inconsistent with one another. In either case, as the air subsides, it is compressed and warms relative to air at the same level outside the eye and thereby becomes locally buoyant. This upward buoyancy approximately balances the downward directed pressure gradient so that the actual subsidence is produced by a small residual force.

What is storm surge?

Storm surge is the onshore rush of sea or lake water caused by the high winds associated with a land falling hurricane and secondarily by the low pressure of the storm. Storm surge is independent of the usual tidal ebb and flow.

Does the low pressure in the hurricane center cause the storm surge?

No. Many people assume that the partial vacuum at the center of a hurricane allows the ocean to rise up in response, causing the destructive storm surges as the hurricane makes landfall. However, this effect would be, for example, with a 900 mb central pressure tropical cyclone, only 3 ft. The total storm surge for a tropical cyclone of this intensity can be from 19 to 33 ft or more. Over 85% of the storm surge is caused by winds pushing the ocean surface ahead of the storm on the right side of the track. Since the surface pressure gradient determines the wind strength, the central pressure indirectly does indicate the height of the storm surge, but not directly. Individual storm surges are also dependent upon the coastal topography, angle of incidence of landfall, speed of tropical cyclone motion, as well as the wind strength.

What does “maximum sustained wind” mean? How does it relate to gusts in hurricanes?

The maximum sustained wind mentioned in the advisories that the NHC issues for tropical storms and hurricanes are the highest 1 minute surface winds occurring within the circulation of the system. These surface winds are those observed or estimated to occur at the 33 ft in an unobstructed exposure.

Gusts are wind peaks for 3 to 5 seconds. Typically in a hurricane environment, the value of the maximum 3 second gust over a 1 minute period is 30% higher than than the 1 minute sustained wind.

How does the damage that hurricanes cause increase as a function of wind speed?

The amount of damage does not increase linearly with the wind speed. Instead, the damage produced increases exponentially with the winds. A category 4 hurricane may produce up to 250 times the damage of a minimal category 1 hurricane.

Why are the strongest winds in a hurricane typically on the right side of the storm?

The “right side of the storm” is defined with respect to the storm’s motion. If the hurricane is moving to the west, the right side would be to the north of the storm; if the hurricane is moving to the north, the right side would be to the east of the storm, etc.

In general, the strongest winds in a hurricane are found on the right side of the storm because the motion of the hurricane also contributes to its swirling winds. A hurricane with 90 mph winds while stationary would have winds up to 100 mph on the right side and only 80 mph on the left side if it began moving any direction at 10 mph.

Why do hurricanes spawn tornadoes?

Hurricanes spawn tornadoes when certain instability and vertical shear criteria are met, in a manner similar to other tornado-producing systems. However, with hurricanes, the vertical structure of the atmosphere differs somewhat from that most often seen in mid-latitude systems. In particular, most of the thermal instability is found near or below 10,000 feet altitude, in contrast to mid-latitude systems, where the instability maximizes typically above 20,000 feet. Because the instability is focused at low altitudes, the storm cells tend to be smaller and shallower than those usually found in most severe mid-latitude systems. But because the vertical shear is also very strong at low altitudes, the combination of instability and shear can become favorable for the production of small super cell storms, which have an enhanced likelihood of spawning tornadoes compared to ordinary thunderstorm cells.

How are hurricanes named?

Hurricanes are named to provide ease of communication between forecasters and the general public regarding forecasts, watches, and warnings. Since the storms can often last a week or longer and more than one can be occurring in the same basin at the same time, names can reduce the confusion about what storm is being described. The first use of a proper name for a tropical cyclone was by an Australian forecaster early in the 20th century. He gave tropical cyclone names after political figures that he disliked. By properly naming a hurricane, the weatherman could publicly describe a politician (who perhaps was not too generous with weather-bureau appropriations) as ‘causing great distress’ or ‘wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.’.

During World War II, tropical cyclones were informally given women’s names by US Army Air Corp and Navy meteorologists (after their girlfriends or wives) who were monitoring and forecasting tropical cyclones over the Pacific. From 1950 to 1952, tropical cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean were identified by the phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie-etc.), but in 1953 the US Weather Bureau switched to women’s names. In 1979, the WMO and the US National Weather Service (NWS) switched to a list of names that also included men’s names.

How likely is each state to be hit by a hurricane?

This table shows the number of hurricanes affecting the United States and individual states by direct hits. The table shows that, on the average, close to seven hurricanes every four years (~1.75 per year) strike the United States, while about three major hurricanes cross the U.S. coast every five years (0.60 per year). Other noteworthy facts are:

  • 40% of all U.S. hurricanes hit Florida
  • 83% of Category 4 or higher hurricanes strikes have hit either Florida or Texas
  • Pennsylvania’s only hurricane strike was in 1898

When are the major hurricanes likely to strike different states?

This table shows the incidence of major hurricanes by months for the U.S. mainland and individual states. September has as many major hurricane landfalls as October and August combined. Texas and Louisiana are the prime targets for pre-August major hurricanes. The threat of major hurricanes increases from west to east during August with major hurricanes favoring the U.S. East Coast by late September. Most major October hurricanes occur in southern Florida.

How often does a hurricane make landfall as a Category 5?

Only 3 Category 5 Hurricanes have made landfall in the United States since records began: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Hurricane Andrew in August, 1992. The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane struck the Florida Keys with a minimum pressure of 892 mb, the lowest pressure ever observed in the United States. Hurricane Camille struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast causing a 25-foot storm surge, which inundated Pass Christian. Hurricane Katrina, by far the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States, was a Category 5 storm over the Gulf of Mexico, but struck the U.S. Gulf Coast as a category 3.

How much damage do hurricanes cause each year?

Mean annual damage in mainland US is $4.9 billion dollars.  Each year, the United States has at least a 1 in 6 chance of experiencing losses related to hurricanes of at least $10 billion dollars on average.

The worst U.S. hurricane damage (after normalizing to today’s population, wealth and dollars) is the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane. If this storm hit in the mid-1990s, it is estimated that it would cause over $70 billion dollars in damage in South Florida and then an additional $10 billion dollars in the Florida panhandle and Alabama.

Even though the major hurricanes (the Category 3, 4 and 5 storms) comprise only 21% of all US land falling hurricanes, they account for 83% of all of the damage.


How has the official U.S. Government seasonal hurricane outlook done in previous years?

The NOAA Seasonal Outlook for Atlantic basin hurricane activity does not predict numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes directly. Rather, the scheme is set up to forecast a range of expected values for the ACE index (Accumulated Cyclone Energy), a measure of overall activity. The ranges predicted for numbers of systems are obtained by looking at the years in the historical record which had observed values for ACE in the predicted range for the current year. Note that although the range for ACE might verify correctly for a given year (as it has so far for every year since the forecast began in 1998 — see below), it is rare that the ranges for all three numbers (tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes) will be correct. However, if ACE is correct, then usually at least two of the predicted ranges for numbers are correct as well.


What is the official U.S. Government seasonal hurricane outlook for the Atlantic basin for this year and what are the predictive factors?

Click here to go to the NOAA outlook and a listing of the predictive factors used.


How accurate are the forecasts from the National Hurricane Center?

The National Hurricane Center issues an official forecast, every six hours, of the center position, maximum one-minute surface (33 ft elevation) wind speed, and radii of the 34 knot (39 mph), 50 knot (58 mph), and 64 knot (74 mph) wind speeds in four quadrants (northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest) surrounding the cyclone. The NHC has been issuing predictions for the forecast periods of 12, 24, 36, 48, and 72 hours since 1964.  In 2003, the forecasts were extended and now include 96 and 120 hours. All official forecast are verified by comparison with the “best track”, a set of six-hour center positions and maximum wind speed values, that represents the official NHC estimate of the location and intensity of a hurricane.

NHC’s official track errors have averaged in the last few years about 100 miles at 24 hours, 160 miles at 48 hours and 230 miles at 72 hours.  Forecasts are now also issued at 4 and 5 days lead time and these are likely to have an average error of about 290 miles and 350 miles, respectively. These are average errors so individual predictions may be substantially better or worse. It is to the National Hurricane Center’s credit that these predictions have gotten so much better in the last few decades, due to a combination of more accurate numerical models, more observations over the open ocean, and a better understanding of the physics of hurricane movement. Today a 3 day forecast is as accurate as those issued for a 2 day prediction in the late 1980s.

How is storm surge forecast?

Storm surge, the abnormal rise of ocean water on land due primarily to strong onshore winds, is primarily forecast with the SLOSH computer model. SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) is run by the National Hurricane Center to estimate storm surge heights and winds resulting from historical, hypothetical, or predicted hurricanes by taking into account five factors: the winds, the central pressure, the size, the forward speed, and the track direction of the hurricane.


The calculations are applied to a specific locale’s shoreline, incorporating the unique bay and river configurations, water depths, bridges, roads and other physical features. If the model is being used to estimate storm surge from a predicted hurricane (as opposed to a hypothetical one), forecast data must be put in the model every 6 hours over a 72-hour period and updated as new forecasts become available.

The SLOSH model is generally accurate within plus or minus 20 percent. For example, if the model calculates a peak 10 foot storm surge for the event, you can expect the observed peak to range from 8 to 12 feet. The model accounts for astronomical tides by specifying an initial tide level (but does not include rainfall amounts) river flow, or wind-driven waves. However, this information is combined with the model results in the final analysis of at-risk-areas.

The point of a hurricane’s landfall is crucial to determining which areas will be inundated by the storm surge. Where the hurricane forecast track is inaccurate, SLOSH model results will be inaccurate. The SLOSH model, therefore, is best used for defining the potential maximum surge for a location.


Does an active June and July mean the rest of the season will be busy too?

The vast majority of Atlantic activity takes place during August, September, and October, the climatological peak months of the hurricane season. The overall number of named storms occurring in June and July correlates insignificantly versus the whole season activity. In fact, there is a slight negative relationship between early season storms (hurricanes) versus late season storms in August through November.  Thus, the overall early season activity, be it very active or quite calm, has little bearing on the season as a whole.

However, if one looks only at the June-July Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes occurring south of 22°N and east of 77°W (the eastern portion of the Main Development Region for Atlantic hurricanes), there is a strong association with activity for the remainder of the year. According to the data from 1944-1999, total overall Atlantic activity for years that had a tropical storm or hurricane form in this region during June and July have been at least average and often times above average. So it could be said that a June or July storm in this region is pretty much a “sufficient” condition for a year to produce at least average activity.

How can I get ready for a hurricane?

There are many preparedness strategies common to all disasters. Getting informed and having a plan are crucial to surviving. General preparedness planning information is located on the FEMA site at http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/index.shtm.


Should I tape my windows when a hurricane threatens?

No, it is a waste of effort, time, and tape. It offers little strength to the glass and no protection against flying debris. After the storm passes you will spend many a hot summer afternoon trying to scrape the old, baked-on tape off your windows (assuming they weren’t shattered). Once a Hurricane Warning has been issued you would be better off spending your time putting up shutters over doors and windows.

What steps should I take when a hurricane watch/warning is posted?

Look at these websites for safety information:


What can I do to make my home/business more disaster resistant?

Look at these websites for home and business safety information:


What kinds of hurricane shutters are available?

Visit the NHC/HRD shutter site for hurricane shutter information and tips on how and what type of hurricane shutters to install.

During a hurricane are you supposed to have the windows and doors on the storm side closed and the windows and doors on the lee side open?

No!  All of the doors and windows should be closed and shuttered throughout the duration of the hurricane. The pressure differences between inside your house and outside in the storm do not build up enough to cause any damaging explosions.  No house is built airtight.  The winds in a hurricane are highly turbulent and an open window or door, even if in the lee side of the house, can be an open target to flying debris. All exterior windows should be boarded up with either wooden or metal shutters.


What’s it like to go through a hurricane on the ground?

Just as every person is an individual, every hurricane is different. So every experience with such a storm will be unique. The summary below is of a general sequence of events one might expect from a Category 2 hurricane approaching a coastal area. What you might experience could be vastly different.

  • 96 hours before landfall- At first there aren’t any apparent signs of a storm. The barometer is steady; winds are light and variable, and fair weather cumulus clouds dot the sky. But the perceptive observer will note a swell on the ocean surface of about 3 feet in height with a wave coming ashore every ten seconds.
  • 72 hours before landfall- Little has changed, except that the swell has increase to about 6 feet in height and the waves now come in every nine seconds. This means that the storm, still far over the horizon, is approaching.
  • 48 hours before landfall- If anything, conditions have improved. The sky is now clear of clouds, the barometer is steady, and the wind is almost calm. The swell is now about 9 feet and coming in every 8 seconds. A hurricane watch is issued, and areas with long evacuation times are given the order to begin.
  • 36 hours before landfall- The first signs of the storm appear. The barometer is falling slightly, the wind is around 11 mph, and the ocean swell is about 13 feet in height and coming in 7 seconds apart. On the horizon a large mass of white cirrus clouds appear. As the veil of clouds approaches it covers more of the horizon.
  • 30 hours before landfall- The sky is now covered by a high overcast. The barometer is falling, and the winds pick up to about 23 mph. The ocean swell, coming in only 5 seconds apart, is beginning to be obscured by wind driven waves, and small whitecaps begin to appear on the ocean surface. A hurricane warning is issued and low lying areas and people living in mobile homes are ordered to evacuate.
  • 24 hours before landfall- In addition to the overcast, small low clouds streak by overhead. The barometer is falling; the wind picks up to 34 mph. The wind driven waves are covered in whitecaps and streaks of foam begin to ride over the surface. Evacuations should be completed and final preparations made by this time.
  • 18 hours before landfall- The low clouds are thicker and bring driving rain squalls with gusty winds. The barometer is steadily falling, and the winds are whistling by at 46 mph. It is hard to stand against the wind.
  • 12 hours before landfall- The rain squalls are more frequent and the winds don’t diminish after they depart. The cloud ceiling is getting lower, and the barometer is falling. The wind is howling at hurricane force at 74 mph, and small, loose objects are flying through the air and branches are stripped from trees. The sea advances with every storm wave that crashes ashore and the surface is covered with white streaks and foam patches.
  • 6 hours before landfall- The rain is constant now and the 92 mph wind drives it horizontally. The barometer is falling, and the storm surge has advanced above the high tide mark. It is impossible to stand upright outside without bracing yourself, and heavy objects like coconuts and plywood sheets become airborne missiles. The wave tops are cut off and make the sea surface a whitish mass of spray.
  • 1 hour before landfall- It didn’t seem possible, but the rain has become heavier, a torrential downpour. Low areas inland become flooded from the rain. The winds are roaring at 104 mph, and the barometer is free-falling. The sea is white with foam and streaks. The storm surge has covered coastal roads and 16 foot waves crash into buildings near the shore.
  • The eye- Just as the storm reaches its peak, the winds begin to slacken, and the sky starts to brighten. The rain ends abruptly and the clouds break and blue sky is seen. However the barometer continues falling and the storm surge reaches the furthest inland. Wild waves crash into anything in the grasp of the surge. Soon the winds fall to near calm, but the air is uncomfortably warm and humid. Looking up you can see huge walls of cloud on every side, brilliant white in the sunlight.  At this point, the barometer stops falling and in a moment begins to rise, soon as fast as it fell. The winds begin to pick up slightly and the clouds on the far side of the eye wall loom overhead.
  • 1 hour after landfall- The sky darkens and the winds and rain return just as heavy as they were before the eye. The storm surge begins a slow retreat, but the monstrous waves continue to crash ashore. The barometer is now rising. The winds top out at 104 mph, and heavy items torn loose by the front side of the storm are thrown about and into sides of buildings that had been in the lee before the eye passed.
  • 6 hours after landfall- The flooding rains continue, but the winds have diminished to a ‘mere’ 92 mph. The storm surge is retreating and pulling debris out to sea or stranding sea borne objects well inland. It is still impossible to go outside.
  • 12 hours after landfall- The rain now comes in squalls and the winds begin to diminish after each squall passes. The cloud ceiling is rising, as is the barometer. The wind is still howling at near hurricane force at 69 mph, and the ocean is covered with streaks and foam patches. The sea level returns to the high tide mark.
  • 24 hours after landfall- The low clouds break into smaller fragments and the high overcast is seen again. The barometer is rising, the wind falls to 34 mph. The surge has fully retreated from land, but the ocean surface is still covered by small whitecaps and large waves.
  • 36 hours after landfall- The overcast has broken and the large mass of white cirrus clouds disappears over the horizon. The sky is clear and the sun seems brilliant. The barometer is rising slightly; the winds are a steady 11 mph. All around are torn trees and battered buildings. The air stinks of dead vegetation and muck that was dredged by the storm from the bottom of the sea to cover the shore. The all clear is given.


What can I do to prevent illness after a hurricane or other natural disaster?

Often the most vulnerable time during a natural disaster comes after the event has occurred. To protect yourself and your loved ones, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you begin with a plan to recover that takes into account each of the following disease prevention activities:


Protect yourself from animal and insect-related hazards

   Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

   Clean up safely after flooding

   Keep your food and drinking water safe

   Prevent the spread of infectious diseases

   Make sure immunizations are up-to-date

   Protect your mental health

   Prevent temperature-related illnesses

   Prevent or treat wounds

   Don’t forget to care for on-going health conditions


My family is in shock, feeling grief and anger. How do we handle emotional trauma and upset?

Traumatic events are marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death. Traumatic events affect survivors, rescue workers, and the friends and relatives of victims who have been involved. They may also have an impact on people who have seen the event either firsthand or on television.

A person’s response varies, but you may see different emotional, physical, and behavioral ways of coping. To learn about the signs and symptoms and how you can help, you may want to visit the following sites:

   Coping:

   Tips:

   Mental Health Resources:


Where can I find information about volunteering to help victims of the latest disaster?

You, your organization, or business can find volunteer opportunities on the USA Freedom Corps website.  As a coordinating entity in the White House, USA Freedom Corps is charged with promoting a culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility in America. USA Freedom Corps promotes and expands volunteer service in America by supporting Federal service programs, serving as a resource for non-profits and businesses, recognizing volunteers, and helping to connect individuals with volunteer organizations in their communities.

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