What It's Like to Experience a Hurricane

'The rain is coming so hard you can't see out the window'

Hurricane Katrina satellite image.
Hurricane Katrina satellite image.

Stocktrek Images Getty Images

Satellite images of hurricanes—roiling swirls of angry clouds—are unmistakable, but what does a hurricane look and feel like on the ground? The following pictures, personal stories, and countdown of weather changes as the hurricane approaches and passes over will give you some idea.

One of the best ways to know what experiencing a hurricane is like is to ask someone who has been in one. Here's how people 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 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." 

When a thunderstorm or tornado warning is issued, you may have only minutes to seek safety before it hits. Tropical storm and hurricane watches, however, are issued up to 48 hours before you feel the effects of the storm. The following slides show the progression of weather you can expect as the storm approaches, passes over, and exits your coastal region.

The conditions described are for a typical Category 2 hurricane with winds of 92 to 110 mph. Because no two Category 2 storms are exactly alike, this timeline is only a generalization:

96 to 72 Hours Before Arrival

Beach with cumulus clouds
Markus Brunner/Getty Images

You won't notice any warning signs when a Category 2 hurricane is three to four days away. Your weather conditions will likely be fair—air pressure steady, winds light and variable, fair-weather cumulus clouds dotting the sky.

Beachgoers might notice the first signs: 3- to 6-foot swells on the ocean surface. Lifeguards and beach officials might raise red and yellow weather warning flags indicating hazardous surf.

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

The weather remains fair. A hurricane watch is issued, meaning that incipient hurricane conditions might threaten coastal and inland communities.

It's time to make preparations for your home and property, including:

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

Storm preparations won't protect your property from damage, but they might substantially reduce it. 

36 Hours Before Arrival

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

The first signs of the storm appear. Pressure begins to fall, a breeze picks up, and swells increase to 10 to 15 feet. On the horizon, white cirrus clouds from the outer band of the storm appear.

A hurricane warning is issued. Residents of low-lying areas or mobile homes are ordered to evacuate. 

24 Hours Before Arrival

Man on windy beach
Ozgur Donmaz / Getty Images

Skies are overcast. Winds at speeds around 35 mph are causing rough, choppy seas. Sea foam dances across the ocean’s surface. It might be too late to safely evacuate the area. People remaining in their homes should make final storm preparations.

12 Hours Before Arrival

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

Clouds, thick and close overhead, are bringing intense bands of precipitation, or “squalls,” to the area. Gale force winds of 74 mph lift loose items and carry them airborne. Atmospheric pressure is falling steadily, 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 topping 90 mph drive rainfall horizontally, carry heavy objects, and make standing upright outdoors nearly impossible. The storm surge has advanced above the high tide mark.

One Hour Before Arrival

Hurricane Irene 1999
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. Waves over 15 feet high crash over dunes and against ocean-front buildings. Flooding of low-lying areas begins. Pressure continuously drops, and winds top 100 mph.

Arrival

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

When the storm moves ashore from the sea, it is said to make landfall. A hurricane or tropical storm passes directly over a location when its center, or eye, travels across it.

Conditions reach their worst when the eyewall, the eye's boundary, passes over. 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 several minutes, depending on the eye size and storm speed, until the eye passes. Winds shift direction and storm conditions return to peak intensity.

1 to 2 Days Later

hurricane damage
Stefan Witas / Getty Images

Ten hours following the eye, winds diminish and the storm surge retreats. Within 24 hours the rains and clouds have broken, and 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 days before.