Quiet in the Atlantic; lessons learned from Hurricane Hugo's storm surge

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 12:35 PM GMT on September 21, 2009

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The tropical disturbance (98L), midway between Africa and the Lesser Antilles Islands, has grown weak and disorganized. No development of this disturbance is likely to occur.

The remains of Hurricane Fred are still kicking up heavy thunderstorms about 400 miles east of the Georgia-Florida border. Fred-ex's circulation has become ill-defined, as seen in last night's QuikSCAT pass. Fred-ex is under about 20 knots of wind shear, and this shear is expected to remain about the same over the next two days. Fred-ex will be moving ashore Tuesday night or Wednesday along a stretch of coast from Florida to North Carolina, bringing heavy rains to some areas. There is too much wind shear and dry air, and not enough time, for Fred-ex to develop into a tropical depression. I don't expect it to cause any flooding problems when it moves ashore.


Figure 1. Morning visible satellite image of Fred-ex, 400 miles east of Florida.

Twenty years ago today
On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo began the day as a minimum-strength Category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds. But as a strong trough of low pressure turned the hurricane to the north and accelerated Hugo to a forward speed of 25 mph, the storm took advantage of low wind shear and warm ocean waters to begin a period of rapid intensification. As darkness fell on the 21st, Hugo had grown to huge Category 4 hurricane with 135 mph winds. Its target: the South Carolina coast near Charleston, at Sullivan's Island. At 11:57 pm on the 21st, Hugo made landfall on Sullivan's Island. It was the strongest hurricane on record to hit South Carolina, and the second strongest hurricane (since reliable records began in 1851) to hit the U.S. East Coast north of Florida. Only Hurricane Hazel of 1954 (Category 4, 140 mph winds) was stronger.


Figure 2. AVHRR visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 21, 1989. Hugo had intensified to a formidable Category 4 hurricane with 135 mph winds.

On Isle of Palms, a barrier island adjacent to Sullivan's Island, the mayor and several police officers were sheltering in a 2-story building which lay at an elevation of ten feet. As related in a story published in the St. Petersburg Times, they heard the following bulletin on the radio at 10:30pm the night Hugo made landfall:

"The National Weather Service has issued a storm surge update. It appears that the storm surge will be greater than anticipated. It is now expected to reach a height of 17 to 21 feet."

"Mom didn't raise an idiot," said the one cop with the most sense, and he convinced the others to get off the island. They left the island by driving at 5 mph through horizontal sheets of rain and hurricane-force wind gusts over the Ben Sawyer Bridge, which connected Sullivan's Island to the mainland. As they crossed onto the bridge, they passed over a large bump--the bridge and road bed were at different levels. Not good. While crossing the bridge, they could feel it swaying and straining, and heard the sound of metal, twisting and grinding and breaking. They made it, but only barely--minutes later, the hurricane tore the center span of the bridge from its connection on both ends, leaving it a twisted ruin in the bay.


Figure 3. The Ben Sawyer Bridge connecting Sullivan's Island to Charleston, South Carolina, after Hurricane Hugo. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

Hugo's storm surge
In McClellanville, on the coast thirty miles northeast of Charleston, between 500 - 1100 people took refuge at the designated shelter for the region, Lincoln High School. Lincoln High is a one-story school, mostly constructed of cinder block, located on the east side of Highway 17, and was believed to be at an altitude of twenty feet. McClellanville is about 4 - 5 miles inland from the open ocean, but lies on the Intracoastal Waterway, so is vulnerable to high storm surges. Near midnight on the 21st, a storm surge of twenty feet poured into Bulls Bay just south of McClellanville, and funneled into the narrow Intracoastal Waterway. Water started pouring into the high school and rose fairly rapidly. Within minutes, people were wading around up to their waists, the water still rising. In the school cafeteria, many refugees gathered on a stage at one end, putting children up on tables. The elevated stage kept them above water; others floated in the water. Another group was in the band room, which had a much lower ceiling than the cafeteria. They had to stand on desks and push out the ceiling tiles for more breathing room, as the water rose within 1 - 2 feet of the ceiling. Fortunately, Hugo's storm surge peaked at that time, at about 16 - 17 feet (Figure 4), and the people sheltering at Lincoln High were spared.


Figure 4. Estimated storm surge (height above ground) as estimated by NOAA's storm surge model, SLOSH. McClellanville (upper right) received a storm surge estimated at 16 - 17 feet.

According to Dr. Stephen Baig, the retired head of the NHC storm surge unit, the back-story is this: To build Lincoln High School, which lies at an altitude of ten feet, the local school board used the same plans that were drawn up for another school that is west of Highway 17, and that IS at 20 feet elevation. Not only the same plans, the same set of working drawings. Those working drawings showed a surveyed elevation of 20 feet above datum (probably NGVD29). Apparently Lincoln High was constructed either without benefit of elevation survey or the plans were not annotated with its site elevation. When the Red Cross inquired as to its utility as an evacuation site, whoever looked at the plans saw the surveyed elevation at 20 feet. That is what the Red Cross published. That is why the school was a designated shelter. Since that near-tragedy, the Red Cross requires a new elevation survey for every potential storm shelter. I think that at the time this was discovered all the designated shelters also were re-surveyed, just to be sure that no similar Lincoln High problems were waiting to happen.

Only one person died from Hugo's storm surge, a woman who sheltered in her mobile home that got struck by the surge. Her death was one of only ten deaths that have occurred due to storm surge in the U.S. in the 35 years between 1969 - 2005 (after the 100+ storm surge deaths due to Hurricane Camille of 1969, and before the 1000+ storm surge deaths due to Hurricane Katrina). This amazingly low death toll can be attributed to four factors:

1) Greater understanding of the storm surge and better storm surge forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center, thanks to such tools as the SLOSH storm surge model.
2) The excellent job NWS/NHC/FEMA and state and local Emergency Managers have done educating the public on the potential surge they can expect.
3) The success local government has had making evacuations of low-lying areas work.
4) Luck. The 20+ storm surge deaths on the Bolivar Peninsula in 2008 from Hurricane Ike show that there are still plenty of stubborn, unlucky, or uneducated people who will die when a significant storm surge hits a low-lying populated coast. The storm surge from the next major hurricane that sweeps through the Florida Keys is likely to cause a lot of storm surge deaths, since many residents there are pretty stubborn about not evacuating.

Kudos and links
I thank Ken Bass for providing the details on the Lincoln High storm surge near-disaster. Ken is working on a book on Hurricane Hugo, and has written a very readable book I plan to review later this year, about a fictional Category 4 hurricane hitting New York City.

Hurricanes-blizzards-noreasters.com has a web page with links to tons of Hurricane Hugo stories. Included are links to YouTube videos of a "Rescue 911" episode that interviewed survivors of the Lincoln High storm surge scare. The show also did a re-creation of the event.

Our Historical storm surge page has SLOSH model storm surge animations of Hurricane Hugo's landafall, as well as of 39 other famous hurricanes.

Tomorrow: I'll wrap up my series on Hurricane Hugo.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting hartfa:


So are you the one who ordered the wannabe blue norther? My gage dropped 20 degrees and the wind kicked up to 35/40!
What do you mean???
Quoting will40:


yea and the surprise may be that he not tropical lol highest winds are well ahead of whats left of the the center


How astute of you that you figured that out. Our educational system must be better than we thought.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26848
Weather456, was it originally forecast to snow in colorado???
S-N-O-W, what is that? I am not familiar with that weather condition here in Miami...

Q: What is worse than raining buckets?




A: Hailing Taxis...

A little light (very light) humor for the night.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10571
Quoting antonio28:
98L Has a close SFC Low again near 15N 45W



Yellow at 2am IMO...


I would say 15N 47.5W but definitely much improved since this morning when it was only a limited convergence line. " Yellow " would not be an unreasonable conclusion IMO.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
621. JLPR
Quoting antonio28:
98L Has a close SFC Low again near 15N 45W



Yellow at 2am IMO...

yes the LLC has strengthen :P
now who was expecting that? lol
This morning:

This evening:
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Quoting antonio28:
98L Has a close SFC Low again near 15N 45W



Yellow at 2am IMO...


This was posted earlier this afternoon

This analysis was based solely on visible images and satellite winds and not on the TPC surface analysis. The low pressure area was clearly evident on visible images but the surface trough was picked up using the satellite winds which abruptly changed direction along the analyzed axis. The yellow arrows shows the shear direction.



Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Quoting Grothar:



009 Remember what you were told.
HE IS 11. I AM 240 years old!!...THERE :)
LOL Orca...

Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10571
Quoting Hurricane009:
SNOW IN COLORADO!!!!!!!!!!!! SNOW IN COLORADO!!!!!!!!


So are you the one who ordered the wannabe blue norther? My gage dropped 20 degrees and the wind kicked up to 35/40!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
pjaa...
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Quickscat will not miss 07L tonight, lets see if it picks up a LLC
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7423
Quoting Dakster:
At least Cankid98 can have a conversation with WS... They both speak on the same level.

:(
Quoting Hurricane009:
He is 11. I am 12.



009 Remember what you were told.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26848
Quoting iceman55:
I miss being 11


And next year you will miss being 12 :)
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26511
Quoting Grothar:
Before I retire, I think Fred may have a surprise for us tonight. The current flare-up has been consistent in the past few hours. Have a good evening everyone and play nice!

Mail someone!
What kind of suprise???
At least Cankid98 can have a conversation with WS... They both speak on the same level.

Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10571
Quoting Grothar:
Before I retire, I think Fred may have a surprise for us tonight. The current flare-up has been consistent in the past few hours. Have a good evening everyone and play nice!

Mail someone!


yea and the surprise may be that he not tropical lol highest winds are well ahead of whats left of the the center
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
98L Has a close SFC Low again near 15N 45W



Yellow at 2am IMO...
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
?
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Quoting iceman55:
Eastern Pacific water start cooler.???








and if it does really continue, then almost all winter forecasts will have a dent in them, lol. gotta love the weather, so unpredictable that much I can predict.

lol
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Before I retire, I think Fred may have a surprise for us tonight. The current flare-up has been consistent in the past few hours. Have a good evening everyone and play nice!

Mail someone!
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26848
Quoting tornadodude:


he is 10 or 11..
He is 11. I am 12.
601. JLPR
Quoting antonio28:


Cheng Wang QPass, or whatever his name is, the larger TC that I ever see!

Just an amaizing mother nature monster.


it isn't a tropical cyclone anymore
its now extratropical
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
lol ice
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
how could hugo be 07L?

"H" is the 8th letter of the alphabet


lol.. I was just pointing out that it's in the same spot as Hugo, not saying it's Hugo
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7423
and looking a 24hr ban lol
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11
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Quoting will40:
Canekid98 grow up


he is 10 or 11..
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Quoting PcolaDan:


These sights still send chills up my spine. I wish someone had taken pics and videos of the tent cities that were set up. Was something to behold.


I can stand on the corner of our office and remember the army vehicles moving up and down, on loud speakers, telling people where they could go for food and water. The debris everywhere, the dirt, and the faces of the people.

I agree about tent city - maybe I will check with city hall, they must have pictures. Our receptionist after andrew lived in tent city, we celebrated with her when they finally found her a building to live in.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
pjaaa.. well...
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I've stated a blog entry about historical hurricanes.
Link
Member Since: August 9, 2009 Posts: 10 Comments: 5074
Canekid98 grow up
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full-fledged El Nino this winter

Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Quoting will40:


I think he said same area as Hugo


your right my bad lol
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I was in Gainesville, GA at East Hall High School at the time when Hugo hit. I remember the morning of the 22nd, we were about to go to class when all of the sudden, the power went out. We all got sent home, and I saw why the power went out. 3 or 4 telephone poles were snapped in half from the winds. Just figured I'd put in my little experience from Hugo.
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
how could hugo be 07L?

"H" is the 8th letter of the alphabet


I think he said same area as Hugo
Member Since: Posts: Comments:


Cheng Wang QPass, or whatever his name is, the larger TC that I ever see!

Just an amaizing mother nature monster.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
how could hugo be 07L?

"H" is the 8th letter of the alphabet
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I won't go as far as saying Fred is dead. However he has been very interesting to track for about two weeks now. Espically when everyone thought he was going N in the mid-Atlantic.

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Quoting zoomiami:
If any of you have looked at the link that Dr. Masters posted hurricanes-blizzards-noreaster.com, they have lots of different storms on their page.

I have just spent the better part of an hour watching the videos they have on Andrew. If any of you are interested in what the aftermath was like, they have the best collection of photos and videos I've seen. Very eery to watch the reports leading up to the storm, to see Max Mayfield telling us what to expect, and see the reports from during the storm.


These sights still send chills up my spine. I wish someone had taken pics and videos of the tent cities that were set up. Was something to behold.
Member Since: August 22, 2008 Posts: 12 Comments: 6010

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About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.