A man walks on the shore against strong winds backdropped by a rough sea as Tropical Storm Erika moves away from the area in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on August 28, 2015. AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo

What you need to know in case Hurricane Joaquin makes landfall.

As hurricanes howl across water, they can gather steam and grow larger. They may make a crashing landfall, hug the coastline, or dissipate.

It’s hard to predict the scale and impact that a storm can have. And since storms are constantly evolving, contradictory messages are everywhere. That’s the case with Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm currently drenching the Bahamas.

Virginia and New Jersey—hammered by Superstorm Sandy back in October 2012—declared states of emergency on Thursday, even though Joaquin’s path remains murky and it’s unclear whether the storm would even reach the U.S. Some outlets declared that coastal cities could be pummeled by flash floods regardless of the storm’s ultimate path.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tweeted:

It can be hard to parse the level of urgency amid all the alerts. That confusion leads some people to dash to the grocery store, ransacking shelves for jars of peanut butter and packs of flashlight batteries. And other people fail to prepare at all.

Michele Baehr, with the Red Cross, explained to a CNN affiliate: "What we're expecting here is to be on alert for flash floods as well as power outages, and so we're trying to get the word out to the community to think ahead, to have a plan."

Here’s a brief primer on how to strike a balance, from the Red Cross and CDC:

Find your evacuation zone. If you live in a coastal area, chances are good that you have a designated evacuation zone. Figure out where it is and plot a few different routes to get there in case transportation is unreliable.

Organize important documents. Collect insurance paperwork, birth certificates, checkbooks, passports, and other hard-copy documents, as well as some cash, in case ATMs are down. You’ll likely need these with you in the event of an evacuation.

Clean up outside. In the grip of heavy winds, toys, bikes, outdoor furniture, and trash cans can cause significant damage. If possible, bring them inside.

Stock up. Yes, you should stockpile non-perishable food items and water (about one gallon per person, per day), but don’t forget to assemble a kit containing extra medication, pet food, and other items on the Red Cross checklist, too.

Prepare your vehicles and appliances. Fill up your car’s tank with gas. Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep perishable items cold in the event of a power outage. Unplug smaller items.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo nodded towards the unpredictability of storms, while cautioning residents to err on the side of precaution:

This post has been updated to reflect that Hurricane Joaquin has been upgraded to a Category 4 storm.

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