When Hurricane Harvey left its path of devastation across Texas and the neighboring states, one of the lesser known side effects was all of the cars that were left behind. An estimated 1 million cars were completely destroyed in the 2017 disaster — more than in any other weather event in American history. While Harvey was indeed a “100-year storm”, it highlighted the power and dangers of storm-related flooding that can happen anywhere.
If you are a driver, knowing what to do when a disaster is looming is critical. Your vehicle could be an invaluable tool to get you to safety before the disaster strikes — or it could turn into a violent projectile. You need to know how to protect your car and how to get proper payment for any damages that occurred.
In addition to understanding your insurance rights, you need to understand what to do to stay safe in your vehicle as you either evacuate the disaster zone or prepare to ride out the emergency. After a serious natural disaster, the roadways in your area may be completely destroyed, traffic signs downed, and emergency personnel stretched thin. There are a significant number of risks, even after the worst of the event has passed.
This guide is intended to help you understand how to stay safe when a hurricane or other natural disaster hits, especially when it comes to cars and drivers. You will find tips on safe driving, what to do in a storm, how to prepare, and what to do afterward.
Hurricane Hacks #1: Tips as a Driver
While many tips are specific to hurricanes, there are tips that apply to all types of natural disasters. Here are some things to keep in mind.
If You’re Driving When a Natural Disaster Strikes
Some natural disasters hit without warning or hit an area they were not projected to strike. Unfortunately, one of the worst places to be during a disaster is inside a car, as 1.3 million of the 5.8 million accidents that occur in the U.S. each year are connected to weather. That said, there are going to be times when you get caught unexpectedly in a storm or earthquake. Here are some tips to help you stay as safe as possible if that happens.
- If you notice flooding, do not drive through it. Flooded roads are often much deeper than they appear, and flood waters can wash away the actual road in moments. Remember, 32% of all flood-related deaths occur in vehicles. It takes just 30 cm of flowing water to move your car.
- If you are caught unexpectedly in your car during an earthquake, try to move to an open area away from trees and buildings. Then, pull over and stay inside your car. Wait at least 15 minutes after the earthquake to ensure the aftershock risk is over.
- Watch for cracks in the pavement and other risks. After an earthquake, tornado, hurricane or other serious storm, heading back out requires precautions. Watch out for cracked pavement, damaged bridges, downed power lines, and other potential risks.
- For high winds and tornadoes, do not stay inside your car. Find shelter as quickly as possible and move far away from your car if you are at risk for a tornado. A ditch or depression in the ground is the best place to hide if you are not near any buildings. Cover your head with your hands and wait.
Driving After a Natural Disaster
If you are driving after a natural disaster is over, you still need to take precautions. These events are called “disasters” for a good reason, and you need to understand that there are still many risks that you face on the roads, even after a natural disaster is over. Here are some tips to help you stay safe.
- Know the road risks and watch out for them. Slippery wet roads, crumbling infrastructure, washouts and more are all possible after a natural disaster. Know the risks specific to the type of disaster your area faced, and watch out for them.
- Always follow posted signs. If there are temporary signs warning you of a danger ahead on the road, follow the instructions. Do not assume that because you are a good driver or have a powerful truck or SUV, you will be fine. If the authorities are warning about dangerous conditions, take note.
- Keep your gas tank full. After a natural disaster, finding gasoline is not always easy. Gas stations may be damaged or closed. Try to find a source of gas, then keep your gas tank at least ½ full at all times. You don’t want to end up stranded because you ran out of gas.
- Prepare for traffic jams. Once a disaster has ended, people are going to need to get out of the area, and this can cause a significant amount of traffic on the road. Be cautious as you head out into traffic, and be prepared for your trip to take much longer than normal.
- Bring food in the car with you. If you are stuck on the road for hours, you may need food and water. Pack some before you head out.
- Before heading out, check your car for damage. If it was submerged in water or otherwise damaged in the disaster, take care of the damage before you start driving if at all possible. It takes just a cup full of water in the wrong place to create significant damage to your car’s engine.
- Remember that other drivers are stressed too. After a natural disaster, people are scared and stressed. They may drive erratically and fail to follow traffic rules. Be prepared for this.
- Watch out for drunk drivers. Sadly, natural disasters cause an increase in substance abuse problems, and this can lead to more drunk drivers on the road.
- Always use your seat belt and properly place children in safety seats. Should an unexpected hazard come your way, your seat belt could save your life. The CDC estimates that over 3,000 lives could be saved every year if people used seat belts properly.
- Recognize that traffic lights and traffic signs may be gone or damaged. Practice safe driving even without signs, such as treating intersections as a four-way stop if the traffic light is out.
- Watch for trash. Trash in the roadway or falling from vehicles that are hauling out debris from the disaster zone is another risk to watch for.
- Stop when you need rest. Natural disasters are exhausting. Take the time to rest, even if it just means pulling to the side of the road for a quick nap, especially when you are exhausted.
- Put paper maps in the car. If your GPS doesn’t work properly and your planned route is impassable, you need a paper map to ensure you can get to your destination.
Pack an Emergency Supply Kit
Finally, before you head out after a natural disaster, make sure you have the supplies you need. Here are some tips for packing an emergency supply bag.
- Pack food and medication. You may take longer to get to your destination than you think, and restaurants or stores may not be open after a disaster, so pack what you need. Make sure you have enough for your family up to 72 hours
- Add some flares. If you have a breakdown along the way, make sure you have a way to tell other motorists of your problem so they can watch out for you.
- Take your most important documents. Social security cards, credit card information and passports should not be left behind. Take these with you when you head out after a disaster.
- Have a stocked first aid kit. If you or one of your family members are injured, having a first aid kit will be important.
- Pack some basic car repair tools. If your car has a problem, there aren’t going to be emergency professionals available to help you. You need to know that you can change a flat or replace a headlight bulb on your own, so pack the tools you might need.
- Toss in a blanket. Even if the weather is warm, you may be stranded overnight. Make sure you have a blanket, just in case.
- Include a flashlight. Flashlights are essential when power outages are likely, so stash one in your emergency supply bag. Don’t forget the extra batteries.
- Toss in a rain poncho. No need to get soaked if you need to step out of the vehicle to deal with something. In a storm, it will likely be raining.
The following resources have more information about driving after a natural disaster:
- Popular Mechanics: Ultimate Disaster Preparedness Kit for Your Car
- TripSavvy: What to Do if You’re Driving When a Tornado Forms
- Queensland Government: Road Repairs in Natural Disasters
- My Drivers Licenses: How to Protect Your vehicle from Natural Disasters
Hurricane Hacks #2: Driving Tips for Hurricanes
Hurricane season has brought some of the most tragic natural disasters in recent history. The sheer magnitude of many recent hurricanes combined with the flooding afterward has devastated communities and cost many lives. The majority of those deaths were from accidents on roadways. If you find yourself facing a hurricane, it’s critical that you know how to properly manage the storm as you seek to protect yourself and your family. Here are some tips to help you avoid a tragedy even when faced with the daunting task of driving during and after a hurricane.
- If you have warning, either evacuate or stay home until the risk of the disaster is over. Hurricanes often come with a bit of warning. If you can, stay home or in a secure shelter. It’s always safest to stay off of the roads during a hurricane when at all possible.
- Evacuate if asked to. Again, with disasters that have some warning, you may be told to evacuate. Do it. It’s not worth the risk of staying in place and getting stranded.
- Recognize the different risks of hurricanes. Hurricanes are such tragic storms because of the many different risks they can cause. Hail, lightning, rain, wind, and flooding are all risks associated with hurricanes, and you need to know how to manage each one.
- Properly prepare your vehicle. Make sure the tires are inflated and your spare is ready to go. Purchase a car phone charger, make sure the A/C works, and stash your emergency bag in the car before you head out. Fill up your car with gas as well.
- Check your tires. In addition to being properly inflated, your tires need to have ample tread to properly grip wet roads.
- Plan your route. If you can, use the hurricane route first. This is where emergency personnel will be set up offering relief stations with food, fuel, and water. Contraflow lanes may be set up, reversing typical traffic direction, to allow more people to evacuate. Tolls may be waived as well. If you live in a hurricane-prone area, your area likely has predetermined evacuation routes.
Driving When There Is Lightning
If you must head out during a hurricane, make sure you understand the risks specific to this type of storm. Hurricanes pose many threats to motorists, and lightning is one of them. Here are some tips for driving safely in lightning.
- If you’re experiencing lightning and cannot go indoors, stay in your car. During a lightning storm, if the car is hit, the metal exterior will transmit the current to the ground.
- Avoid touching metal in a lightning storm. While your car is a safe place to be, you’ll want to avoid touching metal components, including your seat belt buckle, until the storm stops.
- If your car is hit by lightning, wait to exit it until you’re certain the current has dissipated. This may mean waiting out the duration of the lightning storm, if possible.
- Understand that the bigger risk from lightning is the risk of it hitting a tree or power line, which are much taller than your car, and sending obstacles into the roadway. Be aware of what is happening around the roadway while you try to drive through the storm.
Driving When There Is Hail
Hail is a much bigger risk for drivers during a hurricane. Here are some tips to make it easier to drive safely in hail.
- Keep your eyes on the road. The sound of hail hitting a car is disturbing. Make sure you do not let it distract you from the task of driving.
- Seek shelter. If the hailstones are large enough to crack your windshield, take shelter and stop driving until the threat has passed.
- Allow three times the usual distance between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you. It’s much easier to be involved in a collision with the low visibility and slick roads during a hail event in a hurricane. Give yourself plenty of time to react by leaving more space than usual between your car and other vehicles.
- Stay inside your vehicle. If the hailstones are large enough to dent your vehicle, exiting the car puts you at extreme risk of physical injury. If you can’t find shelter, stay inside your vehicle until the hail stops.
- Angle your vehicle so the hail hits the front. Your windshield is made to withstand impact better than the other windows of your car, so aim your car so that most of the hailstones are hitting the windshield.
- Avoid facing the windows. The biggest risk from hail while you are in your car is shattered glass. Lie down inside your vehicle and cover your face with a blanket until the worst of the storm has passed. If stopping the vehicle is impossible, have passengers cover their faces and face away from windows.
Driving in Intense Rain and Flooding
When Hurricane Harvey blasted Texas in 2017, experts estimated that it dispensed 33 trillion gallons of water on Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Rain lasted for days and caused intense flooding, leading to the massive devastation of the killer storm. Rainfall and flooding are some of the most common risks of a hurricane. Here are some tips for driving in this type of weather.
- Turn on your wipers and headlights, but not your emergency lights. Only use the emergency lights if you have an emergency.
- Leave a six second gap. When the rain gets intense, hydroplaning is a real risk. Leave at least six seconds between you and the car in front of you.
- Don’t use your cruise control. Hydroplaning problems get worse if you are using cruise control, because the car will speed up and lose control completely.
- Know what to do if you hydroplane. If you hydroplane, let go of the gas and steer straight until you get control over the vehicle again.
- Never drive through puddles if you can avoid it. It’s impossible to tell how deep the water in a puddle is or what the condition of the road underneath is. Driving through puddles can cause damage to your car allowing it to stall.
- Stop if you can’t see. If the rain is so strong that you can’t see, stop. You cannot drive safely if your vision is obscured.
- Don’t drive through flowing water. It only takes six to twelve inches of water for a vehicle to start floating, so do not drive through moving water.
- Understand that roads under water are prone to collapse. This is another reason why you should avoid traveling on water-covered roads whenever possible.
- If you must drive through standing water, slow down. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid a risk like standing water. If you must drive through a roadway with standing water, slow down to avoid hydroplaning.
- After driving through water, dry your brakes. Depress them slowly to squeeze out any excess water.
- If you get stuck in water, immediately abandon your vehicle and head to higher ground if possible. If you can’t get out of the car, get the attention of someone nearby or call 911.
- Consider bringing a hammer that will allow you to break the window glass. During a hurricane, getting trapped in a flood is a very real risk, so this little tool could save your life.
- Stay away from flood-prone areas. Flash floods can happen in a hurricane, so stay away from low-lying areas or areas near creeks and other bodies of water.
Tips for Managing Winds when Driving in a Hurricane
Deadly winds are the final risk of a hurricane and one that you need to watch carefully to avoid. With wind speeds from 75 to over 156 miles per hour, hurricanes are nothing to mess around with. Keeping your car on the road is hard when the wind is this high, so keep these tips in mind.
- If you don’t have to drive, properly secure your car. Your car can become a projectile or be damaged by wind-blown debris during a hurricane. If you can, park your car inside your garage. If you don’t have a garage, park it near some overhead cover or next to a building to provide a measure of protection. Avoid parking near trees or power lines, which are often the first things to topple under hurricane-force winds.
- Don’t give your car too much credit. That big truck, jeep or SUV is not safer in a hurricane than a small car. In fact, big, bulky vehicles may be more likely, not less likely, to have trouble driving through wind, as they are more likely to experience a rollover.
- Watch for flying debris. Flying debris can destroy your car or cause a fatal accident. Drive slowly, and keep yourself alert for this very real potential problem.
- Steer clear of big trucks. Semis can act almost like a kite in the strong winds of a hurricane, so give them plenty of space. You never know when they may suddenly change lanes due to a sudden gust of wind.
- Watch for downed power lines. If these are on the road or near water, you are at risk of electrocution, so keep your eyes open for power lines downed by the wind.
Tips for Hitting the Road After a Hurricane
If you are going to stay home during the storm, but wish to leave the area once it’s over, consider these tips.
- Don’t be fooled by the storm’s eye. Leaving during the eye of the storm is very dangerous. Stay put until you get the all-clear from emergency professionals.
- Keep a radio on. Your radio will let you know when it’s safe to venture out.
- Know that roads will be damaged. Your normal routes may be impassable, so have alternates planned.
- Prepare for extreme traffic and missing traffic signs. Again, traffic is going to be a problem, so drive slowly to compensate.
- Watch for debris. Debris in the road can make your travels challenging after a hurricane, so keep your eyes peeled.
- Avoid bridges and overpasses when possible. These are the first areas to suffer damage in high winds, so keep away from them as long as you can safely do so.
For more hurricane driving tips, visit:
- Charles + Hudson: Tips for Driving Through a Hurricane or Storm
- Wall Street Journal: Earl Path – Three Tips on Driving in a Hurricane
- Law Offices of Craig Goldenfarb: Five Tips for Hurricane Driving
- Gregg’s Automotive: Eight Automobile Tips for Hurricane Season
- All Truck Jobs: Hurricane Safety Tips for Truck Drivings – Hauling Through Harvey
Tips for the Elderly and Disabled During and After a Hurricane
Those who are elderly or who suffer from a disability are going to need some extra help to get around during and after a hurricane. While the safe driving tips apply universally no matter the age or ability of the individual, some people need to take additional precautions. Consider these tips.
- Evacuate early if you or someone you love is at high risk. This is not the time to wait it out. The elderly and disabled are especially at risk if they are caught in a hurricane, so move quickly.
- Bring plenty of medication. Bring enough medication for several weeks, because it may be hard to get medications refilled during a hurricane. Don’t forget non-prescription items like wound dressings, incontinence supplies, and over-the-counter medications or supplements.
- Bring enough food and water for at least three days. While traveling, getting food and water isn’t always easy, and the elderly or disabled will suffer the most without enough. Plan ahead so you can pack enough supplies.
- Plan stops along the way. Sitting the car for an extended period of time is hard on older or disabled individuals. Plan your route and leave early enough that you can stop and get out of the car safely from time to time.
- Have a plan for portable oxygen. You may not have access to power consistently as you flee a hurricane. If someone is in need of portable oxygen, find out where you can get enough supply for your trip.
- If a disabled or elderly individual is ill, consider pre-admittance into a hospital or specialized care facility in a safe zone. Your loved one’s doctor can help you arrange this. Make sure you carry the pre-admittance letter with you when you evacuate so that the care is covered by Medicare or insurance.
- Charge up the A/C before heading out. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your car, and the weather is likely hot and humid during hurricane season. Make sure you have a working air conditioner to keep your loved one safe, as those who are ill or elderly have a harder time managing uncomfortable heat levels, and a car that is not moving quickly is going to heat up fast.
- Recognize that moving an elderly or disabled individual during or before a storm is logistically challenging. Take time to think through all of the aspects of the move that you need to consider ensuring you don’t forget important equipment or medication that your loved one will need.
- If evacuation is not possible, try to drive or transport your loved one to a special needs shelter. Many communities have started putting up special needs shelters after serious storms or other natural disasters. These shelters have additional medical care and medical equipment to ensure the needs of those who need a little extra help are met well. To use this shelter, you will need to register with the county before the hurricane hits.
- Keep written care instructions. If your loved one is separated from you at some point, having written care instructions that other caretakers can access will help keep care as it should be. Also, having written care instructions will ensure you don’t forget medications or other care needs in the stress of evacuation.
- Understand the risks that a particular special need creates. For example, someone with mobility issues will not be able to take most transportation options. Someone who cannot hear won’t hear emergency sirens. Keep these types of special considerations in mind throughout your planning and your travel.
For more information about emergency preparedness and the elderly or those with special needs, visit:
- University of California San Diego: Emergency Evacuation for People with Disabilities
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: Hurricane Evacuation Planning for People with Special Needs
- Emergency Management: Confronting the Challenges of Evacuating People with Disabilities
- AccuWeather: Why Evacuating Is a Bigger Hurdle for the Poor, Elderly and Disabled Ahead of Major Disasters
- Ready.gov: Seniors
Tips for Young Drivers Driving in a Hurricane
If you are new to driving, you may feel overwhelmed by the challenges a hurricane brings. After all, you are just learning the ropes of the road, and now you must deal with bridges that are out, street signs that are not in place anymore, and drivers who are scared and driving erratically. Here are some tips that will help you get to your destination safely, even as an inexperienced driver.
- Know what to do when traffic lights are out. If you approach an intersection and the traffic light or stop sign is missing, but you know or think that it should be there, treat it as a four-way stop.
- Be prepared for illogical drivers. After a natural disaster like a hurricane, scared people take to the roads. Many act aggressively or abnormally as a result of their fear and anxiety. Be alert for driving behavior that doesn’t quite make sense.
- Know what to do when you hydroplane. A new driver may not have experience with hydroplaning, and your gut reaction will be to turn the wheel of the vehicle hard to get it back in a straight position. This is wrong and will make you spin out of control. Calmly hold the vehicle in a forward-facing position until you gain control again, and do not slam on your brakes.
- Take a defensive driving course. If you live in a hurricane-prone area, a defensive driving course could help. It will teach you the right strategies to use to deal with aggressive and dangerous drivers, which will be invaluable in the event of a hurricane and evacuation.
- Evacuate early. Your inexperience behind the wheel could put you at serious risk if the hurricane hits. Evacuate early to avoid any undue risk.
- Remember the dangers of water and wind. Make sure you look over the tips for water and wind especially, as these will be some of the most serious you will face on the road.
- Avoid distracted driving. Don’t talk on your cell phone or text while driving in the wake of a hurricane. You will even want to avoid hands-free communication. Have your passenger talk on the phone or pull over to make any necessary calls, because you need your full attention on the road and the other drivers.
- If possible, let someone more experienced drive. It’s hard to understand the risks associated with a hurricane and driving. If you have a more experienced driver who can take the wheel for you, hand it over. You’ll have plenty of time to practice your driving skills later when the danger is not so intense.
For more hurricane preparedness tips that can help young drivers be as safe as possible, visit:
- National Safety Council: Hurricanes Among the Most Destructive Forces in Nature
- Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles: Inclement Weather Conditions
- Governors Highway Safety Association: Teen Driver Safety
Hurricane Hacks #3: Insurance and Disasters
Hurricanes are very likely to cause damage to your car, so when the storm is over, you’re going to need to get it fixed. You may be wondering whether or not you have insurance coverage. Here are some things to know.
- Check your policy before the storm so you know what is and is not covered. This will prevent any unwanted surprises after the storm.
- Look for collision coverage. If your car is hit by another car or object, or if it is thrown and hits something else, collision is the type of coverage that will help.
- Make sure you have comprehensive coverage. Comprehensive coverage covers hail, floodwaters, wind and other natural occurrences. Your insurer will determine exactly what “natural occurrence” is covered. If you want to be certain that hurricanes are covered, ask your insurance provider.
- Avoid policies with just the state minimums. Most states have minimum policy requirements. These policies are designed to protect other drivers when you are on the road with them. They do not have any coverage for you or your vehicle, so they will not help in a hurricane.
- Make sure the risks of a hurricane are named. Most insurance policies will limit coverage for “acts of God,” such as hurricanes, beyond what is stated and named in the policy. Make sure wind, hail, water, flood and rain are all named as coverage, or that the policy has a general statement that it covers “acts of God.”
- Get insurance before the hurricane season. Many insurance providers won’t issue new policies when a hurricane is predicted. They place binding restrictions on policies that prevent agents from selling new insurance for vehicle damage in the zip codes or states where the hurricane is expected to make landfall. This prevents people from applying for minimum coverage most of the year, then just adding a rider for hurricane protection when a storm is looming, which would make the insurance company lose money. Get your coverage early to avoid undue risk.
- Understand what you would be paid. In many instances, cars damaged in a hurricane are total losses, which means they would be impossible to repair or would cost more than their value to be repaired. In most insurance policies, you will be paid the car’s value, minus your deductible. If the car is old or has high miles, this may not be much. Make sure you understand what you will be getting if your car is destroyed in a hurricane.
- File a claim with your insurance provider as soon as possible after the hurricane. Hurricanes cause so much damage there may be a delay as insurers deal with a massive amount of claims coming in. The sooner you get in line, the sooner you will get paid. Have your policy number on hand when you call.
- Document your damages. As soon as conditions are safe to do so, take photographs of your car’s damage from many different angles. Type or write all of the observations or damage you have noticed, or the things your mechanics have quoted for repairs. Having this proof will give you something to look at later if you have forgotten and have a question about your claim.
- Ask about a rental car. If you have comprehensive coverage, you may have coverage for a rental car to use while yours is being repaired. Ask about this, but know that many of the local rental companies probably sustained damage to their vehicles as well, which may mean you cannot find a rental.
- Know if you are in a risky area. Determining whether or not to buy hurricane insurance often requires a measurement of your risk. Do you live near the coast in the southern part of the United States or the eastern part of the country? If so, you will want to have coverage that will pay for hurricane damage. Coastal areas in Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana are the most at-risk areas.
- Be prepared for your rates to go up. After a storm that caused you to make a claim, your rates may go up. This is normal and there’s not much you can do about it, but you can shop for new insurance to try to get a lower rate.
- Have a new car? Consider gap insurance. New car owners often face scenarios where they owe more on the car than it is actually worth. If your car is damaged and considered a total loss after a hurricane, you could be left owing the bank quite a bit. Gap insurance covers the gap between the actual cash value of your car and what you owe, so this can be a valuable piece to have if you have a car loan and live in a hurricane-prone area.
For more information about can insurance and hurricanes, visit:
- Insurance Information Institute: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: Insurance FAQs
- Car and Driver: Hurricane Harvey Destroyed More Vehicles Than Any Single Event in America. This Is the Aftermath
- Experian: Here’s What to Do If Your Car Was Damaged by Hurricane Harvey or Irma
- Auto Glass City: Hurricane Driving Hazards and Auto Damage – Protecting Your Car and Who Pays When Car Damage Happens?
- AJC.com: Hurricane Irma: FAQs on Insurance Coverage
Hurricanes Are Serious Risks, but Smart Drivers Can Be Safe
The sheer magnitude and power of a hurricane puts a person in a car at serious risk. It is critical that you understand this risk and what you can do to lessen it when faced with the realities of living in a disaster-prone area. You don’t want to end up stranded in your car on a water-covered road or wake up after the hurricane to find that your car has been completely destroyed. With a little bit of smart driving and a better understanding of the risks, you can keep yourself, your family and your car just a bit safer.