Storm surge is major threat from hurricanes

Storm Surge From Hurricane Isaac in 2012

Storm Surge From Hurricane Isaac in 2012 as captured from one of our older generation Surge Cams. Top image is before Isaac on August 28 while the bottom image is during the height of the surge along the Mississippi coast. The water rose several feet at this location along Gulfport Harbor.

This week is Hurricane Preparedness Week and as such, each day has a topic related to hurricanes and being prepared.

Today’s topic is storm surge – one of the most devastating effects from a tropical cyclone. Historically, storm surge kills more people than any other tropical cyclone hazard. We saw a period of time from 1970 through 2004 when few people lost their lives due to surge. Then, in 2005, Katrina changed all of that with scores of lives lost due to surge from the Missisisppi Sound as well as the catastrophic flooding from storm surge coupled with the failure of New Orleans’ levee system.

Sadly, the trend continued, though not to the same scale fortunately, with Sandy last October as storm surge swept in to areas along the New York and New Jersey coasts. A vast majority of the damage from Sandy was the result of storm surge and battering waves.

Most people do not understand storm surge and how it can affect them. Almost all evacauations in a hurricane are because of the threat of storm surge flooding. Studies are done to predict traffic flow, behavior patterns and response to evacuation orders. In most cases, people will wait as long as possible to determine whether or not the threat to their immediate location is substantial enough to warrant the trouble of leaving. While this is an understandble trait of human nature, it could lead to deadly consequences.

Let’s take hurricane Ike from 2008 as an example. It was an especially large hurricane that generated an enormous surge of water that was quite literally pushed towards the northwest Gulf of Mexico coastline. The NHC had forecast Ike to become an intense category three hurricane for several days before its landfall near Galveston on September 13. Yet, thousands of people remained on Galveston Island despite A) the city’s infamous history with hurricanes and B) the warning that people would face “certain death” if they remained behind.

If someone told you that if you remained in your car on a hot July day with the power off and the windows rolled up that you would face certain death, what would you do? I am guessing that 100% of you would not remain in your car under those conditions. Why? Because you know what will happen. You have felt the car get really hot before and have the A/C to fire up in order to make it tolerable. The point is, you’ve experienced the conditions that could kill you before yet you have the tool (A/C) to mitigate the worst from happening. It is that experience with a very hot car that has taught you not to remain inside of it for any length of time during warm to hot days.

The same cannot be said of storm surge. Most people who live along the coast have never experienced a storm surge from a tropical storm or hurricane. Thus, they have no idea what they’re dealing with. They have not seen it with their own eyes and do not grasp the concept of how much energy moving water has. They are shown maps on TV and the Internet and are told to evacuate. Often times, most people do not unless they sense danger.

I suppose that as Ike approached, some people did not sense any danger and chose to remain behind. The resulting storm surge as at least 20 feet high in some locations with thousands of homes either destroyed or seriously damaged by the flood waters. Lives were lost because people did not evacuate though scores of lives were indeed saved because of adequte warnings and people heeding them.

I guess since seeing is believing that we have to do something to further convince people of how bad storm surge can be.

As I announced in a blog post a few months ago, we are going to provide a publicly accessible, brand new, completely redesigned “Surge Cam” that will stream live video from the teeth of the next hurricane and its storm surge. We have been using an older technology for the past seven seasons that ended with Sandy last October. Now, we have new and more effecient technology that will allow us to place un-manned cameras anywhere we wish with almost no risk to either ourselves or to the equipment. We’ve made a decision to make one of these units available through our public Ustream channel at no cost to those who watch. The idea is to show people the effects of storm surge and convince them through live video that storm surge is a lethal, destructive force. We hope to place the Surge Cam in an area where a significant impact from storm surge is expected. The new camera systems last for at least 30 hours now, allowing us more time to place them in locations that no humans have any business being in as the hurricane and its surge sweep in. Perhaps this will help to motivate people to evacuate and take the appropriate measures to mitigate loss to property as well.

We will have three other Surge Cams dedicated to our Client Services members – after all, it’s their funding that supports this effort in the first place. We just thought it would serve the public and local officials, as well as the media, to provide one Surge Cam feed free of charge. Thanks to advances in technology, we can do that starting this season. Once we have a threat of a landfall, I’ll post the URL of the Surge Cam in a blog post and on our Twitter and Facebook pages. People are encouraged to share and embed the player as much as they wish. Anyone in the media may use the feed on-air and on their websites as they see fit. Just credit please – that’s all we ask.

It looks like a very busy season ahead. I hope that folks along the coast, especially newcomers, do their part to better understand the risk from tropical storms and hurricanes. For more info, including excellent video resources, check out the NHC’s preparedness page here: NHC Hurricane Preparedness

Hurricane Conference made one point very clear: it’s time to focus on the impacts, not the categories

Hurricane Isaac, 2012

Hurricane Isaac, 2012

Hurricanes are very unique in many ways. We have come to know them by name, literally, and have also become quite fixated on giving them a ranking before they ever make it to land.

This is not the case with tornadoes. Nor earthquakes. Those phenomenon are not categorized until after they occur. So what is it about hurricanes that makes us want to give them a number, 1 to 5, that somehow signifies the level of danger – or so it would seem? Why is a category one hurricane less dangerous than a category two?

Let’s look at it from the tornado angle. You never, ever hear the legendary James Spann (Birmingham, Alabama TV meteorologist) say, “Oh, this is just an EF1 tornado, nothing to worry about”. Yes, I know hurricanes and tornadoes are vastly different weather events with different impacts but the point is, when we hear “tornado!” we run for cover, right? It’s just not the same for hurricanes and the realities of the public clearly not understanding hurricane impacts have become front and center as of late. Want proof? Look at Sandy and Isaac last year.

Sandy was a huge, powerful and very dangerous hurricane over the open waters of the Atlantic. Every major news outlet and even the small-time bloggers and social media storm watchers said for days on end that Sandy would be a damaging and deadly event for a good deal of the East Coast. Yet, lives were lost and tens of billions of dollars in property damage took place as a result of this “minimal hurricane”.

As for Isaac? Look at the flooding situation in LaPlace and Braithewait, Louisiana. Those areas were hit hard by category one hurricane Isaac – just barely a hurricane. Some people said they were surprised at the amount of storm surge flooding from Isaac. Why? It was noted for more than 48 hours ahead of landfall that a dangerous storm surge was coming in association with Isaac. This was not kept secret, it was right there in the main headline of each Public Advisory from the NHC:


Not sure how much more direct the headline can be other than saying, “Hey, Bob at 101 Main Street, yeah, 10 feet of water is heading your way by 11am on the 30th, better get ready and make plans for evacuation, okay?” Maybe one day we’ll have something that detailed, perhaps not as sarcastic hopefully, but you get the idea. Some people, however, still do not. They do not understand what they’re up against with a looming tropical storm or hurricane. That must change, if it doesn’t, people will die needlessly and more property will be lost that could have been saved.

What is the answer? I feel that there are two angles to this: education before hand and the correct information getting out when a threat is bearing down.

As far as education, yes there needs to be more of it, starting in the schools, especially in hurricane prone areas. Teach the kids and they’ll teach mom and dad. It worked for seat belt usage and (to some extent) for drug use, so why not a natural hazard like hurricanes? Get your local NWS involved. Have them come out and talk to the kids. Invite your local TV weather guy or gal. Do something to educate these kids – they deserve it and will soak it up. I know because I have personally spoken to literally thousands of them in my career.

The other angle is critical too. When a storm or hurricane is headed for land, it is imperative that the hazards affecting land be emphasized over wind speed and category. The wind speeds reported in a hurricane are almost NEVER seen over land. Unless we get a truly intense hurricane like Andrew or Charley, the wind is not the worst enemy, it’s the surge and threat from fresh water flooding. Even tropical storms need more respect. No one would ever in their right mind say, “Well Ted, you’re going to be in a wreck today but don’t worry, it’s only a head-on collision at 40 mph instead of 60, so you’ll be less injured and the car less damaged, so don’t worry too much about it”.

We need to think of tropical cyclones as dangerous, period. No more downplaying the lower categories or tropical storms. Focus on “what can hurt me, my family and cause damage to my property?” Do that, and we can make huge strides at reducing fatalities and injuries – as well as mitigate damage.

The National Hurricane Conference that wrapped up last week in New Orleans really hit this point home for me. The director of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Rick Knabb, spoke time and again about not focusing on the categories. It’s all about impact, pure and simple. When a tropical storm or hurricane affects land, someone is going to have a bad day, always. Who that someone is and where they live is impossible to know ahead of time, not down to street level. It may never get that good so we have to think of a tropical storm or a hurricane as a threat to our lives -every time. This does not mean panic and disarray every time a storm or hurricane heads your way. It does mean TAKE IT SERIOUSLY and do not downplay the threat based on category. Read the Hurricane Local Statements, follow people on Twitter who can provide you with quality info and intel. Know that you are facing a force of nature immensely larger than anything you can possibly fathom. Do that and you’re far more likely to survive and be in a position to recover faster.

I am very impressed at the path the NHC is taking this year and beyond. Their leadership is excellent and the staff is the best in the world at what they do. New products and enhancements to old ones will be coming out over the next few years. This will help in the understanding of what to expect but in the end, it is up to each individual who lives within the reach of tropical storms and hurricanes (this means people who live 500 miles inland) to know the enemy. As G.I. Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle!”.

Subtropics rule the season

Hurricane Chris set the tone for the remainder of the Atlantic hurricane season

Hurricane Chris set the tone for the remainder of the Atlantic hurricane season

It has been a rather odd hurricane season so far. I say this because most of the activity, the stronger activity anyway, has developed well outside of the usual breeding grounds of the deep tropics.

Hurricane Chris, which formed back in the latter half of June, did so at 41.1 N latitude! That is incredible for so far north so early in the season.

Next up was hurricane Ernesto, the only hurricane to form south of 20 N latitude this season out of eight total hurricanes so far. However, Ernesto struggled to become a hurricane until right before landfall, another common trait this season as we’ll see with Isaac.

Gordon became the season’s third hurricane and again, well outside of the deep tropics, attaining hurricane status at 34.0 N latitude while heading for the Azores Islands.

Then there was Isaac. Several times during Isaac’s life span it looked as though it could become a powerful hurricane. Instead, Isaac struggled with dry air and the lack of an inner core all the way in to the north-central Gulf of Mexico. One private weather firm loudly proclaimed that Isaac could be another Katrina or worse! And yet the fourth hurricane of the season only managed to reach 80 miles per hour before making landfall in Louisiana. While Isaac was a large hurricane and caused significant flooding from surge and fresh water flooding, it was not a very convectively active hurricane with a well defined inner core. This kept the winds at flight level that were being measured by recon from reaching the surface. Fortunately for residents of the central Gulf Coast, Isaac was only a fraction of the intensity that we all know it could have been had environmental conditions been more favorable.

It took all the way until hurricane Kirk on August 30 to finally get a category two hurricane. And of course, this happened while Kirk was well out of the deep tropics, affecting only shipping interests.

Leslie also had promise to become a large and intense Atlantic hurricane but it too fell far short of that potential and spared Bermuda with only passing tropical storm conditions. Stronger winds and more pronounced effects were felt in Newfoundland but even here conditions were not as bad as what could have been experienced had Leslie been a much stronger hurricane.

Michael is the season’s only category three hurricane so far and guess what? It made it to this intensity at 29.6 N latitude while out over the open central Atlantic over water temps of about 80 to 81 degrees. That’s it. Just enough to get the small hurricane to really ramp up – and it maintained a strong eye feature for several days. Luckily, Michael was far from land and only padded the ACE index score for the season.

We are still tracking Nadine which has been on the map since the 11th of this month. Nadine became the season’s eighth hurricane on the 14th at 30 N latitude. This is remarkable and a sign that something is definitely “wrong” in the deep tropics this year.

I have heard everything from El Nino to mid-level dry air being responsible for the lack of intense cyclones in the deep tropics. I am sure researchers such as Dr. Philip Klotzbach at Colorado State University will be looking in to the source of this unusual pattern and I look forward to learning more about it myself at next year’s National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans. The obvious benefit here has been a substantial reduction in damage resulting from less intense hurricanes impacting land. What if Ernesto had become a 140 mph cat-4 at landfall along the Yucatan? What if Isaac had become another Katrina and brought 30 feet of surge instead of 12? We know the answers….it would have been horrible. Been there, done that. I am sure no one is complaining about the feeble nature to this season’s hurricanes. I hope too that people are curious as to why? Why would conditions be so hostile in the deep tropics? What was the root cause if it can be pin-pointed down to something that simple? Will this pattern continue for the next several seasons? While we can be thankful for the lack-luster performance of this year’s hurricanes thus far, I think understanding the mechanics of such good fortune (it’s relative, I know, as plenty of people are still cleaning up after Isaac) is important in case we see the reverse take place next season or next month for that matter.

In any case, it all boils down to this: the tropics have been strange this season and strange has meant fairly benign events for us to deal with. So far, it looks to stay that way for the next week at least. Although, once again, we will be looking for possible storm development out in the open central Atlantic, well north of the deep tropics which seem to be closed for repairs….

I’ll have more tomorrow.

Isaac not done, not by a long shot

5 Day Rainfall Forecast from HPC

5 Day Rainfall Forecast from HPC

The field mission to cover Ike along the Gulf Coast is nearing its end. I will write up a more thorough look back at what all we accomplished, and what still needs to be done, in a later post.

Right now, Isaac continues to dump heavy rain on portions of the lower Mississippi Valley. This huge envelope of tropical moisture will spread northward and eventually turn northeast, bringing heavy rain to a large chuck of the eastern United States. Just look at the HPC rainfall forecast and you’ll see what could be coming over the next five days as Isaac leaves the coast and finally moves inland.

For areas that have not seen heavy rain in quite some time, keep in mind the risk of flooding and take the necessary precautions. It mostly has to do with common sense. Follow that, and you will be safe.

As for Mississippi and Louisiana, Isaac will live on long after it moves away from the region. The clean up and recovery phase, something all too familiar in this area of the country, will commence. Some locations were hit harder than others. News reports are full of more sad stories of flooding and loss but the effects, as we well know, could have been far worse. They were far worse exactly seven years ago today.

The rest of the tropics remain busy as we round out August. Kirk is no threat to land and 98L will almost certainly be a depression tomorrow. We’ll watch it and see what its future holds. At least the coming weekend will be nice for coastal areas with no threats from the tropics to worry about.

We had a very successful field mission and I look forward to sharing much of what we learned, the data we captured and some incredible video with you over the coming days. Mike, Kerry and I would like to thank all of the people who watched our live streams and for the support that we received from the great people of Mississippi once again. While it’s tough to see you all have to deal with this on a regular basis, we appreciate you extending a helping hand to us as we do our work to better understand and report about these incredible weather events. I’ll have regular blog posts again beginning tomorrow afternoon.

Flooding from rain is a huge issue with Isaac

Isaac Rainfall Map

Isaac Rainfall Map

Check out this graphic from the NWS. It shows the projected rainfall over the next few days as Isaac approaches and then makes landfall along the northern Gulf Coast. This is as serious a threat as the storm surge will be along the immediate coastline. People who think Isaac is not going to be that big of a deal are going to be mistaken and need to realize that it is not about the category every time but rather about the effects of what is coming. Keep Ike in mind and what it did to Texas as “only” a category two. Isaac will cause significant damage and I hope people are prepared.

The team and I are going to deploy another wind tower tomorrow in New Orleans. This will send wind data and hopefully a web cam image to Tower #2 in the app. We should have it set up early tomorrow afternoon.

We will also continue to post video blogs to the app throughout the day as long as we have a 3G signal. We’re hoping for the best!

Our live Tahoe cam coverage will begin again in the morning, not sure exactly when. Tonight we need some sleep as this is the last chance at that we’ll see for some time to come.

Goodnight from Gulfport, MS where the wind is picking up and the skies are cloudy.