Weathering the Storm Surge

Tropical cyclone-generated storm surges are among the most deadly and costly natural disasters to impact the United States. Storm surges occur as sea water is pushed up against a shoreline by hurricane winds, and are often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane. road_erosion.jpg
Beachfront road and boardwalk damaged by Hurricane Jeanne (2004), posted by the National Hurricane Center. See a simulation of storm surge.

Researchers at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La, have created the first comprehensive database of storm surge information for small and large tropical cyclones alike to hit the Gulf Coast and shores worldwide since 1880. The database, called SURGEDAT, is unique in that it pulls from historical data to help validate computational modelling approaches to hurricane and storm surge predictions.

“When we started this research in 2008, this approach was completely unique,” said ‘Hurricane’ Hal Needham, Geography and Anthropology graduate student at LSU and leading graduate researcher on the project. “Modeling is very useful, but you need to validate it with what’s happened historically. That is what we are trying to do here.”

Historical observations as collected in SURGEDAT may help improve storm surge modelers’ forecasts of future storm surges and potential damages caused by high tropical storm waters. As tropical cyclone-generated storm surge is a complicated hazard and one that many coastline inhabitants and even emergency personnel don’t fully understand, the database can help citizens and officials better prepare for approaching storms and plan evacuations.

SURGEDAT should hopefully help people understand their risk and plan ahead.” — Hal F. Needham

The SURGEDAT database is already providing new insights into storm surge climatology and where surges are most likely to occur.

“When I started this research, I thought it was a crazy coincidence that the two biggest storm surge events we’ve seen – surges from Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – happened in the same location,” Needham said. “This gives support to the idea that there is a pattern here, that this isn’t random.”

SURGEDAT currently provides an interactive map showing locations of more than 400 peak surge events along the Gulf Coast and worldwide. The coordinates for each surge event are plotted in a Geographic Information System, or GIS, with each surge event represented by a circle on the map. Larger, darker circles represent larger surges.

For more about SURGEDAT, read the whole story on LSU’s website, written by LSU Research Communications Intern Paige Brown.

Graphical representation of SURGEDAT database.

NOAA Surge Vulnerability Facts:

1. Much of the United States’ densely populated Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastlines lie less than 10 feet above mean sea level.

2. Over half of the Nation’s economic productivity is located within coastal zones.

3. 72% of ports, 27% of major roads, and 9% of rail lines within the Gulf Coast region are at or below 4 ft elevation (CCSP, SAP 4-7).

4. A storm surge of 23 ft has the ability to inundate 67% of interstates, 57% of arterials, almost half of rail miles, 29 airports, and virtually all ports in the Gulf Coast area (CCSP SAP 4-7)