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

East Pacific hurricane season begins today as does my trip to New York and New Jersey

East Pacific invest 90-E

East Pacific invest 90-E

It’s May 15 and that means the east Pacific hurricane season is now underway. Right on cue, a tropical depression appears to be forming well off the coast of Mexico where waters are warm enough to support the deep convection noted in satellite imagery.

All of the forecast models indicate that the developing low pressure area will move westward and away from the Mexican coastline over the next several days.

The east Pacific season begins two weeks ahead of the Atlantic season though both basins see about the same amount of activity per 100 years during this time of the year – so I am not certain as to why the Atlantic season does not officially begin until June 1. In any case, we do have something to monitor on this opening day of the east Pacific season though it poses no threat to land areas at this time.

In other news – I am heading up to New York and New Jersey beginning later this morning. I have a couple of projects to follow up on in New York City tomorrow and then I am going to travel back to coastal New Jersey where I was when Sandy made landfall. I’ll re-trace my steps in Long Branch and Belmar and might get to travel to other places farther south if time permits.

The unique thing about this trip is that I am going to stream the entire journey live on our public Ustream channel. I want to demonstrate our new “everywhere cam” that we’ll be using for our subscriber site this season. We’ll still have a free live camera streaming but it will be a traditional dash-mounted video camera. This new technology is amazing. There’s no laptop needed and the cam is so small and versatile that I can take it anywhere. The audio is incredible as well. I thought it would be great to test it out while showing anyone viewing a little of the East Coast countryside.

Once I get to the Jersey coast on Friday, you’ll want to tune in and see how things have progressed since Sandy. I’ll provide narration and insight as to what the impacts were and where I was and what I was doing back on October 29 of last year. Watch our Twitter feed for updates as to when something really worthwhile is streaming and then tune in by clicking the link below or simply bookmarking our Ustream channel page:

Click here to watch our live Ustream feed


My next post will cover some exciting news about our app which is about to have a major update completed. Plus – is an Android version in the works? Check out the blog on Monday to find out.

M. Sudduth

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!”.

The United States hurricane problem: perhaps it is just too big?

In the wake of hurricane Sandy there has been a constant stream of news regarding how ill prepared the affected areas were to deal with the event. Why am I not surprised? Sandy was an enormous storm. It affected people from Florida to Canada to Michigan. I think Sandy, like Katrina before it and Ike after that, sheds light on an area that we need to perhaps come to grips with. We have a serious hurricane problem and it may now be too big to wrangle.

While there certainly could have been more done to ease the situation, there always is, I am not sure what could have been done to make things markedly better after Sandy hit. Aside from putting almost all of our efforts in to hurricane mitigation and education, what else can we do? We know hurricanes are a threat. They offer the most lead time of any major weather disaster and yet we repeat the same mistakes over and over. Maybe they are not mistakes but rather a symptom; a symptom that our problem is now beyond our grasp.

During the 70s and 80s a tremendous amount of coastal building took place. People flocked to the water’s edge and lived their dream life without many hurricanes at all. Then, in 1995, just when the latest economic bubble that burst began inflating, hurricanes became a real problem again. Yet, luck was mostly on our side as most of the nasty hurricanes remained well out to sea, year after year. The luck ran out temporarily in 2004 and big time in 2005. Since then, we have not had a single category three hurricane to strike the U.S. coast. Yet, Sandy, which was not technically a hurricane at landfall, will likely have the largest cost of any storm event in our history. Further more, Sandy did not bring worst case conditions to places like New York City. What we had was a massive event, affecting people across almost a third of the U.S. and look what happened. It overwhelmed the response system. It won’t be the last time either.

Let’s look at Florida. Not a single hurricane of any strength has made landfall in Florida since October of 2005. You talk about a problem waiting to rear its ugly head. Can you imagine the millions of people who have moved to Florida since 2005 who have ZERO hurricane experience? Even though Florida is expected to be hit year after year, no hurricanes have made landfall there in seven years.

Let’s hypothesize for a minute that a large, classic Cape Verde hurricane comes rolling through around West Palm Beach next August. Winds around the eye are blowing at 125 mph – a category three. Do you think for one minute that the response to that disaster will be swift and made to look easy? I can assure you it will overwhelm (there’s that word again) the Sunshine State and tax the surrounding states who send assistance and aid. Why? Because millions of people will be affected across a densely populated area. There is no way that anyone can adequately prepare for something so large and devastating.

Then, after the landfall shock wears off, people will start pointing fingers at each other for lack of response, lack of preparedness and lack of aid.

Let’s look at a completely different scenario that actually happened.

In 1999, hurricane Bret made landfall in Kenedy county, Texas as a category three hurricane. It was a beast, a powerful, well developed Gulf of Mexico hurricane. Total damage was around $30 million. There were no deaths reported. Why is this? Because hardly anyone lives where Bret made landfall. This same type of hurricane striking West Palm Beach would have a completely different outcome. An even larger, more powerful hurricane would amplify matters to the extreme.

As I read blog after blog about Sandy and how warnings of just such an event went unheeded, I can begin to see the real problem. Sandy was more than anyone could handle. We do not live in a world where $30 billion is spent before hand to beef up our infrastructure. Instead, we live in a world that responds with what funding there is when the infrastructure is taken out. I’ve seen it first hand time and time again and the result is always the same: there is never a good outcome to a hurricane disaster.

Yes, progress has been made in areas that were hit by hurricanes such as Katrina and Ike but for the most part, life goes on as if there are no such things as hurricanes. We try to build back bigger and better but Nature always finds a way to knock progress down again, one way or another.

Trying to blame Sandy’s devastation on one or two people is absurd. While it would have been nice to see politicians come out and say all the right things at the right times, the outcome would not have changed much at all. Sandy impacted one of the most populated areas of coastline in America. What did everyone think was going to happen?

The U.S. hurricane problem is now bigger than ever. The good news is that severe hurricanes are extremely rare. However, when they do happen to cross our shores, significant damage is likely. Unless we are willing to implement drastic changes in to our coastal land use, events like Sandy will continue to happen and we will scratch our heads and wonder why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

When disaster looms, you want to hear from the experts, not politicians

If you have the unfortunate circumstance to suspect that you have cancer and you go to your doctor to have a battery of tests run to determine what the problem is, who do you want to have talk to you about the results? I am going to go out on a limb here and assume it’s not the hospital’s CEO. They very well may be an MD, sure, but they run the hospital. You want to hear from the specialist who has studied cancer, what ever form it may be, for their entire career. What good is the CEO going to do? Probably very little.

So why is it that during a hurricane threat to a large city that we are hearing from the mayors of those cities? When did this become accepted practice? What on earth are the emergency management agencies there for if the mayor is going to be running the disaster? At least that is how the public perceives it, right?

Think back to Katrina. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans was a household name. Why? He is a politician, not a hurricane expert. He has a role, certainly, but I felt like it should have been to introduce the people of New Orleans to his highly trained team of hurricane planning experts who would be in charge of dealing with Katrina.

Even big Hollywood movies get it right most of the time. When some extinction level event is just over the horizon, yeah, we hear from the President who tells us all to remain calm, treat each other with kindness etc, but then we meet the hero, the scientist who has all the answers as to how to stop the menace that could wipe out mankind. Not once has it been the mayor.

Let’s fast forward from 2005 to 2012 and hurricane Sandy. There have been numerous documentaries made about the fate of New York City should a major hurricane come calling. We’ve all seen it: Lower Manhattan will flood. The New York Bight will jam up the water, spilling it over the Battery, flooding the World Trade Center site. It would be utter chaos and lead to the shutdown of the subway systems, paralyzing parts of the Big Apple for days if not weeks. Maybe that was the problem. These shows were all based on a major hurricane, usually a category three or higher. Sandy was definitely not a major hurricane in the Atlantic. Is this why it was not taken seriously by the mayor of New York City? Were there not experts available to tell him that the size of Sandy meant that an unimaginable amount of water was going to be pushed towards the coast?

Once again where were the city’s emergency management staff? Why was the mayor in charge of Sandy and thus the fate of millions of New Yorkers? Knowing what we know now, wouldn’t it have been better for a hurricane or storm surge expert be introduced during those press conferences to explain what was about to happen and why? Don’t people inherently want to hear from their fellow humans who have more knowledge about a phenomenon than they? I just don’t get it.

The mayor is not the expert here. It is my opinion that his role is to introduce the public to the people who are in charge of the event. Let them come out and explain the how’s and why’s. I just think that the public would be better served hearing from the people whose job it is to plan and manage something like a hurricane or superstorm or Godzilla.

My advice to the general public is simple. Look for the expert information from those who are trained and educated to provide such. In the case of Sandy and every other hurricane event since the Internet has been so prevalent, I have preached over and over again the use of You want to know what to expect and approximately when to expect it? Read the watch/warning info, the hazardous weather bulletins, the hurricane local statements, etc, etc. It’s all there – you paid for it with your taxes. I cannot even begin to imagine how many times I have read those very statements aloud to hundreds of people at a time watching our live stream during a field mission.

I have never, not one single time, suggested to anyone listening to the sound of my voice or reading my blogs, Tweets or Facebook posts that they call the mayor of their city to find out what to expect from hurricane X. We’ll see if we’ve learned anything from all of this in due time. I hope, for the sake of the people who live in harm’s way, that emergency management gets the attention that it deserves and was set up to accomplish.