FORT BENNING GA - The tropics are firing up - so Fort Benning officials are reminding community members to stay vigilant as the most active part of hurricane season approaches.

Tropical Depression Ana was loosely organized over the Caribbean but forecast to enter the eastern Gulf of Mexico by the end of the week, while Bill intensified into a major hurricane Tuesday night and remains a threat to the East Coast and Bermuda, according to various news reports. Earlier this week, Tropical Storm Claudette became the first named storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year when it came ashore over the Florida Panhandle.

"Situational awareness is important for Soldiers and their families in order to avoid finding themselves trapped or in an unsafe environment at the onset of a major storm," said Jeff Shuck, chief of installation plans and operations at Fort Benning. "This speaks to proper preparation ... Prepare yourself and your family now. The time to prepare for natural disaster is not during the storm itself."

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, but early to mid-September is considered the peak, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The period between August and October accounts for 78 percent of tropical storms, 87 percent minor hurricanes (categories 1 and 2), and 96 percent of major storms (categories 3, 4 and 5).

Fort Benning has a standing operational plan and conducts a review with key post agencies at the beginning of each season, said Kerry Johnson, chief of the installation's plans section. Officials also sponsor site visits from partners at other installations, including Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which is subject to mandatory evacuations.

He said the last storm to have a major impact on Fort Benning property was Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It downed trees, knocked out power and left minor building damage on Main Post. Ivan also caused significant damage to 6th Ranger Training Battalion facilities at Eglin and the Destin Recreation Center.

Although hurricanes tend to lose their punch over land, storms can still wreak havoc on Fort Benning and the Chattahoochee Valley area, Johnson said.

"Depending upon the strength and category of the storm after making landfall, the worst case is high winds, heavy rain, damaging hail, possible tornadoes and in some cases widespread flooding due to the amount of rainfall," he said. "Usually, the main threat during hurricanes to us is the tornadoes that sometimes arise from hurricanes making landfall."

Johnson said Fort Benning relies on the Lawson Weather Notification System to declare conditions of readiness when hurricanes and tropical storms approach.

The post also fields a giant voice system to widely disseminate information over loudspeakers, he said. This system is currently being used for tornado warnings only but will allow for additional warnings in the near future as the installation buys more of the poles and speakers that will eliminate remaining sound gaps.

He said other means for warnings include e-mails, hurricane operations orders and the Communicator NXT, a mass notification system that can contact telephone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses and BlackBerrys.

In the event of a hurricane, Fort Benning has partnerships with local and federal agencies to provide relief and support, Shuck said.

"Preparation is always key to self-assistance during disaster. In being prepared, you can better assist the installation in recovery efforts," he said. "Equally important to preparation is awareness. Being self-aware and environmentally aware of developing conditions allows yourself and your family to execute your preparations and disaster plans in a timely fashion."

Hurricane Condition (HURCON) scale

Fort Benning relies on the Lawson Weather Notification System to declare conditions of readiness when hurricanes and tropical storms approach. It provides a timeline and scale from 5 to 1:

HURCON 5 - normal operations
HURCON 4 - damaging winds and conditions are possible within 72 hours
HURCON 3 - damaging winds and conditions are possible within 48 hours
HURCON 2 - damaging winds and conditions are possible within 24 hours
HURCON 1 - damaging winds and conditions are possible within 12 hours

Family Disaster Plan

Some tips to prepare for a storm:

* Discuss the type of hazards that could affect your family. Know your home's vulnerability to storm surge, flooding and wind.

* Locate a safe room or the safest areas in your home for each hurricane hazard. In certain circumstances, the safest areas may not be your home but within your community.

* Determine escape routes from your home and places to meet. These should be measured in tens of miles rather than hundreds of miles.

* Have an out-of-state friend as a family contact, so all your family members have a single point of contact.

* Make a plan now for what to do with your pets if you need to evacuate.

* Post emergency telephone numbers by your phones and make sure your children know how and when to call 911.

* Check your insurance coverage - flood damage is not usually covered by homeowner's insurance.

* Stock nonperishable emergency supplies and a disaster supply kit.

* Use a NOAA weather radio. Remember to replace its battery every six months, as you do with your smoke detectors.

* Take first aid, CPR and disaster-preparedness classes.
Source: National Hurricane Center