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Survive the Storm: A Photographer’s Guide to Hurricanes

In the wake of one devastating hurricane, we are looking down the barrel of another, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded. To put it bluntly, a category 5 storm leaves complete devastation in its wake, but any hurricane is capable of immense damage. In the very likely event that this hurricane makes landfall in the southeast in the next few days, we will see the loss of life, enormous damage, and potentially long-term suffering in its aftermath.

In the face of one of this planet’s most powerful natural forces, it’s important to focus on priorities, and not let our photographer’s brains make poor decisions in search of awesome photo ops.

DON’T BECOME A STATISTIC OR LIABILITY!!!

I admit it, when I have a camera in my hands, I get a bit of a superhero complex. I’m not scared of anything, I become impervious to all harm, nothing will come between me and my shot! But, reality check, a camera doesn’t make us bulletproof, able to breathe underwater, or allow us to ignore the laws of physics.

There will be photographers and videographers out capturing striking footage of storm damage, weather phenomena, rescues, and more. In many cases, these will be highly trained people who know the dangers, and how to stay as safe as possible. But there will be many who are not, putting themselves and the people who inevitably have to rescue them, at risk.

No picture in a storm is worth dying for, or putting another person in harm’s way because you made a poor decision!

 

Tornado descending from a thunderhead at Sunset. What you can’t see here is the people running from it. This happened at a popular beach in my area just before 4th of July fireworks, which made it even more crowded than usual. Fortunately, no one got hurt, but it was a very dangerous situation.

 

Before the Storm

Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best

If you are in the projected cone, you should be dropping everything and preparing. Ideally, you will already have all of your hurricane season supplies ready. But I know the ideal is rarely reality, so nothing else now is more important.

At 96 hours (4 days) out, there is a huge amount of uncertainty in a hurricane’s path, usually upwards of 200 nautical miles. But, these storms are huge. They can send out waves of deadly thunderstorms, capable of producing hurricane force winds, tornadoes, and damaging hail, hundreds of miles away from the eye of the storm. In the case of Irma, tropical force winds can be felt over a 450-mile diameter area. In comparison, the entire state of Florida is only 439 miles long. Even if the path shifts, those within the cone of the projected path will likely experience the storm’s damaging effects, and those outside it may still experience dangerous conditions.

Follow All Evacuation Orders and Emergency Directions

It doesn’t matter how many storms you have ridden out, every one of them is different. When the orders go out to leave, leave! If you stay, you will be on your own for hours, days, maybe longer. Once you have made this choice, do not expect to be rescued any time soon, you must survive on your own, potentially without power, running water, or any means of communication for an extended period.

Protect People First, Gear Second

Cameras are replaceable, you and your loved ones are not. Right now, you need to make decisions that provide maximum safety and protection for you and your loved ones. If it means leaving behind camera gear in an evacuation, so be it! If it means spending time boarding up windows instead of packing equipment, do it! Worry about taking pictures only once you have made preparations to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your home.

Waterproof What You Can, Back Up Everything

As the storm approaches, I will disconnect all my hard drives, and load them into a waterproof Pelican case. This is placed in the most central room in my house, in this case, our laundry room, on a shelf along with other valuables that we have secured. In the event of an evacuation, this case comes with us.

Before that, I have backed up everything to a second set of drives that are also secured in a separate case. I also back everything up to a cloud server, there are numerous services to backup your files off site. For my business, I use Google’s G Suite, which provides unlimited storage for backups, and a handy desktop app to sync your file folders to the cloud.

During the Storm

Weather, Currents, and Tides

Make two assumptions about nature, at all times. Gravity and water are always trying to kill you. I know that sounds dark, but if you do not respect them, you will most likely regret it!

Water is constantly moving, and the interaction of tides, weather, and topography can create dangerous conditions. Storms can whip water into a frenzy, producing dangerous lightning, the wind, and powerful currents that can knock a photographer off their feet.

While you may want to go out and get dramatic, stormy beach photos, in coastal areas one of the primary dangers is from rip currents; narrow, strong currents running perpendicular to a beach that moves water back out to sea. Rip currents are one of the most threatening natural hazards along the coast, 80% of rescues made by lifeguards on US beaches are of people caught and dragged out to sea by rip currents.

As tempting as it is to venture out into the storm during a lull, think safety first, second, and third. A momentary calm in the storm can rapidly be replaced by raging weather, including lightning, tornadoes, hail, and flash floods. While the main danger to your gear is exposure to water, that is a lesser concern than the very real risk of you getting hurt or worse by these storms.

This is the front edge of a fast moving, violent, thunderstorm. In less than five minutes, the conditions went from sunny blue skies, to torrential rain and 60mph wind gusts.

After the Storm

Along with being an outdoor photographer comes various skills, knowledge, and equipment that can be extremely useful to help neighbors, first responders, and search and rescue teams. Once you are sure you and your loved ones are safe, volunteering to help in your community can make a huge difference to those in need.

Do Not Go It Alone

Volunteer for the teams coordinating rescue and recovery efforts. They can make the best use of your knowledge and skills where they are needed most. This also helps ensure you don’t end up getting in the way of rescuers or putting yourself into areas that are too dangerous to enter. Be clear in what you can do, how you can help, and what your training and equipment include.

Drones

UAVs can be a tremendous asset to local search and rescue efforts, but have to be cleared and used for emergency management teams. The last thing you want to do is interfere with recovery operations, like air rescues in flooded areas.

People, Not Pictures, First

Don’t be surprised if you are not used in the way you want as a volunteer. Remember, search and rescue teams undergo extensive, continuous training. Thinking you are just going to hop in a boat with your camera to go rescue people and document the whole thing is probably not going to happen. The priority after the storm is to prevent further loss of life, not take pictures.

Help In Whatever Way You Can!

Beyond the dramatic rescues, there are plenty of other ways you can help in a disaster. It’s easy in disasters for people not affected by it to become numb to what is happening to those who are affected. As we saw in the aftermath of Harvey, with flooded nursing homes, animal shelters, and more, a timely picture of a dire situation can place focus on it and get help there when needed.

BE SAFE OUT THERE!

Resources

Printable Hurricane Preparation Checklist

 

Like this article?  Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques.  Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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