We don’t have to be reminded of Hurricane Harvey to know that hurricanes can be dangerous. Yet, often it is not the strong winds, or even the intense rainfall, that poses the most harm – it is the storm surge.
Strom surge is created when large and/or strong hurricanes and tropical storms collect and push water ahead of them, which then forms into a “hill of water” generally to the right side of a hurricane and ahead of the center.
When that hill of water approaches a landmass, with strong winds and momentum behind it, it inundates coastal areas with water in a tsunami like fashion.
What most people don’t know is that
most casualties occur as a result of a storm surge.
Consider, for example, Hurricane Katrina, which produced a massive storm surge of more than 25 ft. (8 meters) in the communities of Waveland (41.5 ft), Bay St. Louis (38 ft), Diamondhead (30 ft.) and Pass Christian (35 ft.) in Mississippi, or the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, a Category 4 hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas and drove a devastating surge ashore resulting in the loss of between 6,000 and 12,000 lives, making it the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States
This is also the main reason that most coastal areas have evacuation zones.
Based on past models of damage – including structures along the coast including homes, bridges, roads, and sometimes even entire communities – and ocean models used by meteorologists, evacuation zones are chosen as the least likely to get hit with a wall of water.
According to stormsurge.noaa.gov, a surprising number of coastal areas are vulnerable to storm surge damage. They note that 72 percent of ports, 27 percent of major roads and 9 percent of rail lines within the Gulf Coast region are at or below 4 feet in elevation.
Because of this, as well as the unpredictability of storm surge, the National Hurricane Control offers watches and warnings both for the potential and likelihood, respectively, for coastal inundation, as well as a reasonable worst case scenario for coastal flooding for land falling storms.
And the warnings they offer, should be heeded.
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