Hurricane Topical Guide

A revived Hurricane Ian pounded coastal South Carolina on Friday, Sept. 30, ripping apart piers and flooding street after the megastorm caused catastrophic damage in Florida and left people trapped in their homes.

Ian had come ashore Wednesday on Florida's Gulf Coast as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest storms ever to hit the U.S. It flooded homes on both the state's coasts, cut off the only road access to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out electricity to 2.6 million Florida homes and businesses.

Before making its way through the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba as a major hurricane Tuesday, killing three people and bringing down the country’s electrical grid.

The Associated Press compiled a style guide of essential words, phrases and definitions related to the storm. Terms are from the AP Stylebook and usage in AP stories.

This guide will be updated periodically.

Tampa Bay vulnerability

Ian made landfall more than 100 miles south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. But officials said the area could still experience powerful winds and up to 20 inches of rain.

Many of the area’s more than 3 million residents live in low-lying neighborhoods that are highly susceptible to storm surge and flooding, which some experts say could be worsened by the effects of climate change.

A report from the Boston-based catastrophe modeling firm Karen Clark and Co. concluded in 2015 that Tampa Bay is the most vulnerable place in the U.S. to storm surge flooding from a hurricane and stands to lose $175 billion in damage. A World Bank study a few years before that placed Tampa as the seventh-most vulnerable city to major storms on the entire globe.

The last time Tampa Bay was hit by a major storm was Oct. 25, 1921. The hurricane had no official name but is known locally as the Tarpon Springs storm, for the seaside town famed for its sponge-diving docks and Greek heritage where it came ashore.

The storm surge from that hurricane, estimated at Category 3 with winds of up to 129 mph was pegged at 11 feet. At least eight people died.

hurricane or typhoon

A warm-core tropical cyclone in which the minimum sustained surface wind is 74 mph or more. Hurricanes and typhoons are subsets of tropical cyclones. All hurricanes and typhoons are considered tropical cyclones.

Hurricanes are spawned east of the international date line. Typhoons develop west of the line. They are known as cyclones in the Indian Ocean and Australia.

When a hurricane or typhoon loses strength (wind speed), usually after landfall, it is reduced to tropical storm status.

Capitalize hurricane when it is part of the name that weather forecasters assign to a storm: Hurricane Dorian, Hurricane Michael.

Use it and its in pronoun references.

Once storms lose strength and are downgraded to tropical storm or tropical depression status, it may be clearer to simply use the storm's name on first reference: Officials released more water Monday from Houston-area reservoirs overwhelmed by Harvey.

Give the storm's current status and history high in the story: Harvey came ashore as a major hurricane and has been downgraded to a tropical storm. After a storm is downgraded, phrasing such as storm Michael or the remnants of Hurricane Maria is also acceptable on first reference, with background later. In broad references to a hurricane and its aftermath: The damage and economic impact from Hurricane Harvey is substantial or the damage and economic impact from Irma is substantial.

hurricane categories

Hurricanes are ranked 1 to 5 according to what is known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Categories 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes are considered major hurricanes.

Category 1 — Winds of 74-95 mph (120-150 kph). Damage primarily to unanchored mobile homes, shrubbery and trees. Some damage to poorly constructed signs and piers. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.

Category 2 — Winds of 96-110 mph (155-175 kph). Some roof, door and window damage to buildings. Considerable damage to mobile homes, small watercraft, trees, poorly constructed signs and piers. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.

Category 3 — Winds of 111-129 mph (180-210 kph). Some structural damage to small homes. Mobile homes destroyed and large trees blown down. Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, was a Category 3 at landfall in 2005 after being a Category 5 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Category 4 — Winds of 130-156 mph (210-250 kph). Wall failures and roof collapses on small homes, and extensive damage to doors and windows. Complete destruction of some homes, especially mobile homes. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Category 5 — Winds greater than 157 mph (250 kph). Complete roof failure on many homes and industrial buildings. Smaller buildings and mobile homes blown over or completely blown away. Major damage to lower floors of all structures located less than 15 feet (4.5 meters) above sea level and within 500 yards (460 meters) of the shoreline. Massive evacuation of residential areas on low ground within 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 kilometers) inland may be required.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm at landfall in 2005, was the costliest U.S. storm on record with damage estimated at $186 billion when adjusted for inflation into 2022 dollars.

Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was second with $149 billion in damage, adjusted for inflation. Hurricane Maria (2017, $107 billion) ranks third, Hurricane Sandy (2012, $82 billion) ranks fourth, and Hurricane Ida (2021, $79 billion) ranks fifth.

Note: When comparing costs of disasters it's important to adjust for inflation in order to make a proper comparison between disasters that happened years ago and modern-day events. See

back-to-back huge hurricanes

More than one major hurricane hitting the U.S. in a season is unusual. That happened in 2017, with back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes Harvey and Irma, followed shortly thereafter by Maria, which was Category 5 when it struck Puerto Rico.

Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, 2017, as a Category 4 storm about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, Texas, then lingered just off the Gulf Coast. Harvey dropped 52 inches of rain in the Houston area as a hurricane and then tropical storm, causing catastrophic flooding and an estimated $125 billion in damage.

The Category 5 Hurricane Irma was the most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever, with winds 185 mph. Irma was still a Category 5 when it raked Cuba's coast, then a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds when it slammed into Florida's Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10.

hurricane names

The names of tropical cyclones are decided by the World Meteorological Organization and are recycled every six years. If more than 21 named tropical cyclones occur in one basin in a season, any additional storms will be named for Greek letters. The names of storms deemed to have caused extraordinary damage are retired from the list. When referring to two hurricanes: hurricanes Maria and Dorian.

hurricane season

The portion of the year that has a relatively high incidence of hurricanes. In the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, this is from June through November. In the eastern Pacific, it is May 15 through Nov. 30. In the central Pacific, it is June 1 through Nov. 30.

hurricane warning

An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph (119 km/hr) or higher are expected somewhere within the specified area in association with a tropical, subtropical or post-tropical cyclone. The warning is issued 36 hours before tropical-storm-force winds are expected to arrive.

hurricane watch

An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph (119 km/hr) or higher are possible within the specified area in association with a tropical, subtropical or post-tropical cyclone. A hurricane watch is issued 48 hours in advance of the expected onset of tropical-storm-force winds.

tropical depression

A tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind is 38 mph (33 knots) or less.

tropical storm

A warm-core tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface winds range from 39 to 73 mph (34 to 63 knots) inclusive. Capitalize tropical storm when it is part of the name that weather forecasters assign to a storm: Tropical Storm Allison. Do not abbreviate to TS.


cancel, canceled, canceling, cancellation


Lowercase when referring to the physical shoreline: Atlantic coast, Pacific coast, east coast. Capitalize when referring to regions of the United States lying along such shorelines: the Atlantic Coast states, a Gulf Coast city, the West Coast, the East Coast. Do not capitalize when referring to smaller regions: the Virginia coast. Capitalize the Coast when standing alone only if the reference is to the West Coast.

damage, damages

Damage is destruction: The storm is expected to cause billions of dollars' worth of damage.

Damages are awarded by a court as compensation for injury, loss, etc.: The woman received $25,000 in damages.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

FEMA is acceptable on second reference. The FEMA administrator is Deanne Criswell.

forecast (n., v.)

Use forecast, not forecasted, for the past tense.

forecasting hurricanes

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center rely on dozens of computer simulations and their own expert experience. They use real-time readings of wind, temperature, air pressure, humidity and more. But those real-time readings are sparse and spread out.

Figuring out a storm's path and strength is tricky and usually forecasts do not go out longer than five days.


Stories about floods usually tell how high the water is and where it is expected to crest. Such a story should also, for comparison, list flood stage and how high the water is above, or below, flood stage. Wrong: The river is expected to crest at 39 feet. Right: The river is expected to crest at 39 feet, 12 feet above flood stage.


good Samaritan

But uppercase when used in a title: Good Samaritan Hospital.

historic, historical

A historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history. Any occurrence in the past is a historical event.

Hurricane Katrina

The late August 2005 hurricane was the deadliest storm to strike the U.S. since 1928 with a death toll that far outweighs any other storm during the modern era of weather forecasting. As of 2022, it was also the costliest storm on record to strike the United States with an inflation-adjusted cost of $186 billion in 2022 dollars. Levee failure played a large part in the destruction in New Orleans, while storm surge was a key factor elsewhere.

There have been varying estimates on how many people died, in large part owing to the high number of dead and the chaotic aftermath in which residents were dispersed across the country. The National Hurricane Center's most recent data from from a 2017 report puts the total number of dead across five states at around 1,400 people. The vast majority of the deaths occurred in New Orleans and its suburbs. (This September 2022 figure updates the previous figure of 1,800 used in the Stylebook.)

Katrina formed in the Bahamas and made landfall in southeastern Florida before heading west into the Gulf of Mexico where it reached Category 5 strength in open water before weakening to a Category 3 at landfall in southeastern Louisiana. As it headed north it made another landfall along the Mississippi coast. Katrina caused damage from southeast Louisiana eastward to the Florida panhandle.

The storm is often remembered for the tens of thousands of New Orleans-area residents stranded in floodwaters or in sweltering heat at the Superdome and convention center, and the much-criticized government efforts to help them.

About 134,000 housing units were damaged in the city, according to The Data Center, a nonprofit research agency in New Orleans. And the population, estimated at over 494,000 by the U.S. Census Bureau in July 2005, never fully recovered. It stood at just under 377,000 in July 2021.

When writing about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, it is important to note that levee failures played a major role in the devastation in New Orleans. In some stories, that can be as simple as including a phrase about Hurricane Katrina's catastrophic levee failures and flooding. Some stories may require more detail.

Some basics: In New Orleans, flaws in the design and construction of the federally built levee system led to multiple levee breaches and catastrophic flooding. Water covered 80% of the city at one point and took weeks to drain.

Storm surge was a key factor in the devastation in other areas. Along the Mississippi coast surge as high as 28 feet in some areas wiped out coastal homes and businesses.

National Guard

Capitalize when referring to U.S. or state-level forces: the National Guard, the Texas National Guard, Texas' National Guard. On second reference, the guard.

When referring to an individual in a National Guard unit, use National Guardsman: He is a National Guardsman.

Lowercase guardsman when it stands alone.

National Hurricane Center

The National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center in Miami has overall responsibility for tracking and providing information about tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean. The acting director is Jamie Rhome. On second reference, the center or the hurricane center.

National Weather Service

The director is Ken Graham. On second reference, the NWS or the weather service.


It is measured in inches; use numerals in all references except when beginning a sentence. The verb should conform with rain, not inches: Forecasters said 30 inches of rain is expected to fall.

storm surge

An abnormal rise of water above the normal tide, generated by a storm.

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