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 HurricaneTrack.com 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

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