What It's Like to Experience a Hurricane

Satellite images of hurricanes —swirling storms of clouds— are unmistakable. But what does a hurricane look and feel like from the ground? The following pictures, personal stories, and hour-by-hour countdown of how weather conditions change as a hurricane nears will give you some idea.

Learning from Personal Stories

Person Walking in Hurricane Andrew
Warren Faidley / Getty Images

One of the best ways to know what it's like to experience a hurricane is to ask someone who has been in one before. Here's how those who have ridden out hurricanes and tropical storms describe them. 

"At first, it was like a regular rainstorm —lots of rain and wind. Then we noticed the wind kept building and building until it was howling loudly. It got so loud, we had to raise our voices to hear each other speak." 

"...Winds increase and increase and increase—winds that you can barely stand up in; trees are bending over, branches breaking off; trees [are] pulling up out of the ground and falling over, sometimes on houses, sometimes on cars, and if you're lucky, only in the street or on lawns. The rain is coming so hard, you can't see out the window."    

What Kind of Weather Do Hurricanes Bring?

Hurricane Sandy in South Haven
Photo by John Crouch / Getty Images

Whenever a thunderstorm or tornado watch or warning is issued, you may only have minutes to seek safety before it hits. But not so with tropical cyclones.

Tropical storm and hurricane watches are issued up to 48 hours before you are forecast to start feeling the effects of the storm. The following slides describe the progression of weather you can expect as the storm approaches, passes over, and exits your coastal region. Knowing it will help you recognize that one is coming.

Disclaimer: The conditions described are for a typical Category 2 hurricane with winds of 92-110 mph. Keep in mind that all hurricanes (and all storms for that matter) are unique. Because no two Category 2 storms are exactly alike, the timeline that follows is considered a generalization only. What one actually experiences could vary from what's described here.

Skies are Fair 96 to 72 Hours Before Arrival

Beach with cumulus clouds
Markus Brunner/Getty Images

As you might expect, when a Category 2 hurricane is three to four days' distance away you won't notice any warning signs that a cyclone is headed your way. In fact, your weather conditions will likely be fair—air pressure is steady, winds are light and variable, and fair weather cumulus clouds dot the sky.

Beachgoers may be the only ones who notice the first sign: a swell on the ocean surface of 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m) high waves. Red and yellow weather warning flags may be raised by lifeguards and beach officials to warn of hazardous surf. 

 

A Watch is Issued 48 Hours Before Arrival

FLORIDA, MIAMI BEACH. BANK WINDOWS COVERED BY SHUTTERS DURING HURRICANE SEASON.
Covering windows and doors with boards and shutters is a routine hurricane chore. Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images

Conditions remain fair. A hurricane watch is now issued.

This is also the time when preparations to your home and property should be made, including:

  • Trimming trees and dead limbs
  • Inspecting roofing for loose shingles and tiles
  • Reinforcing all doors
  • Installing hurricane shutters on windows
  • Securing and storing boats and marine equipment

Storm preparations won't completely protect your property from damage, but they may greatly reduce it. 

36 Hours Before Arrival

Highway sign displaying Hurricane Warning
Robert D. Barnes / Getty Images

This is when the first signs of the storm appear. Pressure begins to fall, a breeze can be felt, and swells increase to 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 m) high. Looking off into the horizon, white cirrus clouds from the outer band of the storm can be seen.

One of the most familiar events in this timeframe is the issuance of a hurricane warning. Those living in low-lying areas or mobile homes will also be ordered to evacuate. 

 

24 Hours Before Arrival

Man on windy beach
Ozgur Donmaz / Getty Images

Skies are now overcast. High winds are blowing at speeds of around 35 mph (56 km/h), and are causing rough, choppy seas. Sea foam dances across the ocean’s surface. At this point it may be too late to safely evacuate the area.

Those individuals remaining in their homes should finish making final storm preparations. 

12 Hours Before Arrival

People in anoraks struggling to walk against rainstorm
Michael Blann / Getty Images

Clouds have thickened, feel close overhead, and are bringing intense bands of precipitation, or “squalls,” to the area. Gale force winds of 74 mph (119 km/h) lift loose items and carry them airborne as debris. Pressure is falling steadily by 1 millibar per hour.

6 Hours Before Arrival

View of ocean from Crab Pot Restaurant in Rivera Beach, Florida during Hurricane Frances
Damage to Crab Pot Restaurant during Hurricane Frances (2004). Tony Arruza / Getty Images

Winds of over 90 mph (145 km/h) drive rainfall horizontally, carry heavy objects, and make standing upright outdoors nearly impossible. Storm surge has advanced above the high tide mark.

An Hour Before Arrival

HurricaneIrene1999
Hurricane Irene (1999) batters Florida. Scott B Smith Photography/Getty Images

It's raining so hard and fast, it's as if the sky has opened up! More water overtakes the area as 15+ foot (4.5+ m) waves crash over dunes and against ocean-front buildings. Flooding of low-lying areas begins. Pressure continuously drops, and winds of over 100 mph (161 km/h) whip through.

0 Hours - Hurricane Passage

Hurricane Katrina hurricane eyewall
View of Hurricane Katrina's (2005) eyewall from a NOAA hurricane hunter plane. NOAA

A hurricane or tropical storm is said to pass directly over a location when its center, or eye, travels over it. (Similarly, if the storm moves ashore from out to sea, it is said to make landfall.)

At first, conditions will reach their absolute worst. This coincides with the eyewall (the eye's boundary) passing over. Then, all of a sudden, the wind and rain stop. Blue sky can be seen overhead, but the air remains warm and humid. Conditions remain fair for a period of minutes (depending on the eye size and storm speed), after which winds shift direction and storm conditions return to their prior intensity.

Hurricane Conditions Clear By 1-2 Days After

hurricane damage
Stefan Witas / Getty Images

Wind and rain soon returns just as heavy as they were before the eye. Within 10 hours following the eye, winds diminish and the storm surge retreats. Within 24 hours the rains and clouds have broken, and by 36 hours after landfall, weather conditions have largely cleared. If not for the damage, debris, and flooding left behind, you would never guess that a massive storm had passed through only days before. 

Where to Experience Hurricanes in the Flesh

A hurricane simulator at a local mall. © Tiffany Means

If you've never personally experienced a hurricane, there are other ways (besides this slideshow) to do it without actually being in one.

Hurricane Chambers: Found in malls across the US, these machines offer a one-minute glimpse into what it's like to experience a weak category 1 hurricane (the machine generates winds of up to 78 mph (68 kts))

Hurricane Simulators: Hurricane simulators not only replicate the high winds of a cyclone, but its other conditions, too. Although no longer operational as of 2016, Disney's StormStruck attraction at Epcot park was one of the most popular such exhibits. Guests entered a theater and through on-screen footage and special effect wind and rain, felt what it was like to "ride out" a hurricane within a home.

If you haven't heard, a National Hurricane Museum & Science Center is in the works at Lake Charles, Louisiana. Its exhibits will focus on educating Americans how to prepare for and learn from tropical cyclones. Many promise to immerse you in the hurricane experience, including a 4D immersion gallery where visitors will experience the force of a hurricane (complete with rain, suspended debris, and winds as hard as can safely be experienced). Other planned exhibits include views into a hurricane from above it, and a hurricane hunter ride that flies guests into the eye of the storm and back out again. The center is slated to open in 2018. 

Resources & Links:

NOAA AOML Tropical Cyclone Observation FAQs