Hurricane season: a car preparation checklist

If you live near the Gulf or Atlantic coasts, it's time to prepare for another hurricane season. Here are seven tips for keeping you, and your car, safe from the storm.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Cars drive past a Hurricane Evacuation Route sign in Long Beach on Long Island, New York in this August 2011 file photo. Hurricane season, which got underway June 1, 2012, is a time to be extra vigilant about your car's maintenance.

If you live along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts, you know what June 1 means: it's time to add Weather Underground to your bookmarks and prepare for another hurricane season.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a "near normal" year for storms in the North Atlantic. NOAA expects 9-15 named systems, 1-3 of which will become major hurricanes. That's a slightly rosier outlook than normal -- thanks to the recent death of La Niña -- so many folks have breathed sighs of relief.

But even though we have no reason to disagree with NOAA, and even though we're certainly not pessimists (Friday pessimists? Whoever heard of such?), we would like to mention a couple of things:

1. There have already been two named storms in the North Atlantic before hurricane season officially began.

2. All it takes is one major storm to throw you for a loop -- or worse.

The good news about hurricanes is that, unlike some other natural disasters, we can see them coming. In the U.S. we know that they're most likely to appear during the six months between June 1 and November 30, and once they're on the map, our meteorologists can predict fairly accurately where they're going to hit. That means we have time to prepare.

And so, in that spirit of preparation, here's a quick, seven-point checklist for you and your family that ought to keep you safe if and when those storms come a-calling:

1. Maintain, maintain, maintain
 We're sure that most of you are very, very good about maintaining your vehicles. We have no doubt that you dutifully drive in for oil changes, tire rotations, and all the other items on the car-owner's to-do list, even when it means losing some Saturday nap time on the sofa.

Just for the sake of argument, though, let's assume there are a couple of you who've fallen out of step. Now is a great time to get back in your car's good graces by taking your vehicle in for a check of its fluid levels, tire pressure, and other punch-list items.

And no matter whether you're on top of things or playing catch-up, go a step further than you ordinarily would. Ask your mechanic to look over the a/c, the spare tire (if you have one), and your belts. Pretend you're going on a very long, frustrating road trip, most of which will be spent stuck in traffic -- which is, unfortunately, a pretty accurate description of an evacuation.

Most importantly, do all this now. Don't wait until August rolls around and the category-threes are knocking at your door. Getting ahead of the game will make the stressful process of evacuation just a tiny bit calmer. Also, if some of your shop's “repairs” need repairing — for example, if your mechanic forgets to plug up your radiator after changing the coolant — you’ll have ample time to deal with it.

2. Stock up on supplies
 When we leave in a hurry, we tend to overpack (see items #3 and #4 below). That's okay, but be sure to leave room in the trunk for a box of emergency gear – you know, stuff that'll come in handy, even if your auto repair skills are minimal. Some of the items you might consider are: a can or two of Fix-a-Flat, a gallon of antifreeze, road flares, jumper cables, and a gas canister. Need more suggestions? Have a look at this handy list from Subaru, and visit, too.

Also, if you don’t subscribe to a roadside assistance plan like AAA or OnStar, now might be a good time to invest. That goes double if your car has been around the block a few times. (Remember: OnStar FMV is on sale for another two weeks.) It won't make the tow truck come any faster, but at least you know it'll come.

3. What are you taking?
 Hurricanes vary in intensity, speed, size, and other factors, so the length of your "hurrication" will vary, too. Try to cobble together a list of things that will be absolutely necessary while you're away, including medication for you, your family, and your pets; homeowners insurance and medical records; key electronic devices and their respective chargers; and, of course, important phone numbers, including those of your doctor and your kids' schools. If you keep most of those numbers stored on your phone, try to synch that data somewhere in the cloud, so you can access it even if your computer crashes. In fact, you should probably back up your hard drive to the cloud, too, if possible.

Also, make a list of things you want to take that are irreplaceable. Chances are, this will be a big list, so be brutal and limit yourself to those items you truly couldn't live without. Scan things like family photos and upload them to an online storage site like Google Drive or Dropbox. Put all the other irreplaceables into a safe, accessible spot, just so you don't forget them if you need to move to higher ground.

4. What aren't you taking?
 Over the course of a life, we accumulate a lot of valuable stuff. Some of that value is monetary, some of it's sentimental, some of it's both. But you're not going to be able to evacuate with all those goods in tow. Find watertight containers for as many of them as possible. Take photos of your stuff, and file those pics with your insurance agent, so there'll be a record in case the worst should happen. The items with sentimental value won't be worth much when it comes time for payouts, but you'll have preserved a memory of them, which is no small thing.  

Extra cars are trickier. If you plan to leave one of your vehicles behind, try to lock it up in a garage or under some kind of shelter -- preferably away from big tree limbs. If that's not possible, consider taking it to a cheap or free parking garage. Just be sure nothing valuable's left inside.

5. Talk with your family
 Discussing evacuations with your family isn't always pleasant. If you have kids, you might make the younger ones worry unnecessarily, and the older ones may be too cool to take the situation seriously.

Our advice is that you discuss it in terms of a potential vacation. Tell them not to pack yet, but to think about what they would pack if they needed to. You might even turn it into a bit of a game, telling them that everything they take has to fit inside one suitcase. Encourage them to be creative and think like MacGyver (though they're probably too young to get the reference).

And don't forget to chat with your extended family, like parents, aunts, uncles, and children living away from home. Make sure they're prepared and that they have a way out of town, should the situation arise. This is especially important for any family members in care facilities like nursing homes or rehabilitation centers.

6. Talk with friends
 Chances are, you've got more than a few friends who either don't own cars or, if they do, their vehicles aren't too reliable. Have a chat with them and make sure they're covered. There's almost nothing as gut-wrenching as pulling out of town and not knowing if your best pals are safe or not.

7. Plan your route
 Depending on where you live, you need to have at least two evacuation plans at the ready. If you live along most of the Gulf Coast, you ought to have one safe haven to the east, and one to the west. In parts of Florida, Texas, and along the Atlantic, you need to move either north or south. (Note for first-timers: in the northern hemisphere, you generally want to be to the west and/or south of a hurricane, since that's where the storm is usually weakest.)

If you have friends with guest rooms, get in touch now and see if you can ride out the worst with them. If not, you'll need to be a little aggressive with hotel reservations. Plan to get at least 200 miles away from the storm's eyewall -- more if possible. 

Keep in mind that even with contraflow, evacuation traffic is typically very, very heavy. It's not unusual for a journey that would normally take one hour to take six, eight, or ten in advance of a storm. To make things run a little smoother, leave town early, and depart in the middle of the night if you can. The traffic at 2am is going to be a lot more bearable -- and the weather will be a little bit cooler -- than at noon the following day.

In all honesty, we hope you don't have to put this checklist into action. But if you do, maybe it'll give you a head start. Feel free to share it with friends, neighbors, even complete strangers.

Did we miss something? If you've got a handy evacuation tip, drop us a line.

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