If you're new to this hurricane thing, you should get used to it.

The Charleston region has seen threats from hurricane-fueled weather in each of the past four years.

And you should get used to it fast.

Hurricane Florence is more powerful than any other storm that has affected South Carolina in recent years, and wind from the system could arrive as early as Wednesday night.

New or not, you might have basic questions about hurricanes and how the storms affect the Lowcountry. Here are some answers:

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Charles Roberts, one of the owners of Robert and Sons Signs Inc., takes down the Coburg Cow in West Ashley in preparation for Hurricane Florence on Monday, September 10, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

What's this lore about the Coburg Cow and Waffle House?

If the Coburg Cow is taken down and Waffle House locks its doors as a hurricane looms, people say things are "about to get real." Well, the cow came down Monday. But Waffle House was still cranking out hash browns. The cow makes up part of a dairy sign along Savannah Highway in West Ashley, and crews remove it when wind threatens. They did before Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Tropical Storm Irma a year ago. But Waffle House is a better gauge of how dire the situation might be — at least the federal government has said so. The Georgia-based chain prides itself in staying open despite dreadful conditions. So when a Waffle House closes for a weather disaster, you know it's bad, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said in recent years. A third of the local restaurants closed during Matthew. Irma set a nationwide record for Waffle House closures.

What's the "cone of uncertainty"?

It's a colloquial term for the possible track of a tropical cyclone's eye over the next five days, and it's plotted by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Meteorologists consult computer models, observations from "hurricane hunter" airplanes and their own expertise in coming up with a cone. The cone's width is based on a historical margin of error. Forecasts have become more exact in recent years. Based on data from the past five seasons, a storm's actual path can be expected to stay within the cone 60 percent to 70 percent of the time, the Hurricane Center said. Still, cyclones can defy computers and take on a mind of their own.

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This photo provided by NASA shows Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, as it threatens the U.S. East Coast. NASA/Provided

If I'm out of the cone, am I in the clear?

No. The cone is the potential path of the eye. Damaging wind, torrential rain and conditions ripe for rapid tornado formation can extend 400 miles from the center in large storms, such as Irma. Florence is more compact, but tropical storm-force wind (at least 39 mph) was extending 150 miles from the eye. Charleston had a 50 percent chance of seeing such wind by Thursday morning. Hurricane-force wind (at least 74 mph) reached 40 miles outward.

When will watches and warnings be issued?

The first watches could be issued Tuesday morning. A watch means hurricane conditions are possible within about 48 hours. A warning means the conditions are actually expected within 36 hours. Tropical storm watches and warnings mirror those definitions, but with lighter wind. An extreme wind warning is issued during a storm when 115 mph wind is expected within an hour.

Where should I get information?

The Hurricane Center is the best source for forecast information. TV meteorologists typically relay these forecasts. City, county and state government emergency managers also are reliable sources for preparation, evacuation and response information. News media, including The Post and Courier, help relay those details. Emergency managers have set up information hotlines. The state's is 803-737-8500.

South Carolina ordered an evacuation for noon Tuesday. What does that mean?

It means the state wants you to get out if you live in a coastal zone for which an evacuation is ordered. That's about 1 million people, Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday, and applies to everyone in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. It doesn't mean the authorities will show up at your home and take you away if you refuse to leave. They can't do that. But if you choose to stay, and the storm is bad, it might take time for first-responders to reach you if you have an emergency. They might not be able to reach you at all. Prepare to fend for yourself if you don't heed the warnings.

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Fishing boats came to rest next to Silver Hill Plantation near McClellanville after tidal surge of Hurricane Hugo subsided in 1989. File/Wade Spees/Staff

What is storm surge?

Surge is the height of the ocean above regular tide. Wind from a major hurricane pushes a tremendous amount of ocean water toward the coast on the northeast side of the storm's eye. This is where the wind blows perpendicular to the coastline in storms like Florence that come straight from the open Atlantic. On the other side, the wind will be blowing back out to sea, creating less surge. During Hurricane Hugo in 1989, it was measured at 16 feet in McClellanville. Six feet of saltwater rushed into a high school gym, where residents were sheltering. This is why it's important for everyone on the immediate coast to leave before such a system makes landfall there. But surge can extend far north, too. When Hurricane Irma's eye hit South Florida a year ago, the system pushed surge over South Carolina's beaches, inundating places such as Edisto Beach, where water and sand filled the streets.

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A man wades in surging ocean water from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 during low tide on Isle of Palms. File/Andrew Knapp/Staff

Are inland residents safe from flooding?

No. Unlike some storms of its strength, Florence holds a dual flooding threat on the coast and inland. High pressure is expected to block the storm from moving immediately to the north, as hurricanes often do once they hit land. This could stall Florence and allow it to dump more than 1 foot of rain, creating problems for low-lying inland areas, river flood plains and poorly draining communities. While Hurricane Harvey's Category 4 wind did significant damage in Texas last year, its slowdown over Houston let it drop rain for days, becoming a slow-motion disaster and one of the most destructive storms ever in the United State.

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Eastbound Interstate 26 was reversed on Wednesday October 5, 2016, to aid a faster evacuation as Hurricane Matthew approached. File/Staff

Interstate 26 is scheduled to flow in one direction. What does that look like?

On I-26, which links Charleston to inland areas and Interstate 95, all entrances to the eastbound lanes will be blocked by police starting at noon Tuesday, and westbound travelers will be allowed to use them. Engineers call this "contraflow," and it can make getting out of Charleston a breeze. That's what happened during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. It was smooth sailing on both sides of the interstate from the Lowcountry to Columbia. But that was a Category 1 storm. Florence is a major hurricane, and if it threatens to make landfall here, you can expect more to heed evacuation orders and hit the road. No other roads in the Charleston area are expected to be reversed.

Schools are closed Tuesday. When will my kids go back?

Probably not as soon as you might like. Schools typically are shut down days ahead of a storm's forecast landfall, allowing for families to prepare to stick it out or get out of Dodge. Because evacuees need time to return, schools can remain closed for days after a storm passes.

Will some communities be closed?

You can count on it if Florence makes landfall in the area. Authorities have closed downtown Charleston to all but authorized traffic during past storms that flooded the city. Barrier island communities, such as Isle of Palms, typically are cordoned off; depending on damage after the storm, only residents with special passes might be allowed back.

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Gas stations such as the Scotchman along Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant were out of fuel Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, as residents prepared for Hurricane Irma. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Will gas run low?

Motorists are likely to line up at gas stations to fill their tanks. Many stations will run dry or might have only higher-octane fuel. Get whatever you can, while you can. Most gas stations will close if the storm makes landfall in the area and knocks out power.

I'm staying and stores are out of bread and water. What should I do?

Don't panic. Never panic. As the storm approaches, retailers will be ordering new shipments of essentials that fly off shelves before a storm. But most stores will eventually close. Keep dropping by to check on the stock.

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A shopper stocks up on water at Harris Teeter in West Ashley ahead of Hurricane Florence on Monday, September 10, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

What should I buy?

  • A gallon of water for each person in your group for at least three days
  • Nonperishable food such as canned meat, fruits and vegetables
  • Manual can opener
  • High-energy foods such as peanut butter, jelly, crackers, granola bars and trail mix
  • Food for infants, the elderly or others on special diets
  • Method of purifying water, such as boiling or adding 16 drops of unscented bleach per gallon
  • Food, water and medication for pets
  • Cash

Why do I need all this food and water?

Because most stores will close if the storm gets close or knocks out power. Also, downed trees and power lines can make getting around dangerous. And remember: Waffle House might not be an option.

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Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.

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