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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Interesting point Dr. Masters made in his blog today about The Keys being susceptible to surge.
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FredEx not looking well tonight.

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Quoting Weather456:


I dont know about December since winter has just started then and usually takes a while to kick in. But there is an increase chance of conditions to support snow across the SE during Jan-Feb-Mar. Similar to what you just mentioned.



ok thanks. i thought last winter was bad, this one's gonna be terribly cold.
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Quoting HurricaneSwirl:


so above normal chances of snow in SE? not saying necessarily a good chance, but above normal? Seeing how most of the SE already had snow Feb 30-Mar 1 this year wouldn't it be something to have snow again all within the same year.


I dont know about December since winter has just started then and usually takes a while to kick in. But there is an increase chance of conditions to support snow across the SE during Jan-Feb-Mar. Similar to what you just mentioned.

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

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Quoting weathermancer:


Bring on the Nor'Easter Season already!


Starting to feel that its time for me and KOG to start working on the weather machine... I think we may have perfected it... we are going for Snow in Florida :)

Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
Quoting Weather456:
Along with the European, CFS and GloSea forecast models, the IRI is expecting below normal temps and above normal precip for the Southeast USA. I am hoping it verifies as it could mean improve skill in seasonal predictors. This pattern is typical of El Nino years and positive NAO (which is also expected this winter). It seems that these two forces are the reason why climate models are in so much agreement about the SE USA this winter. or it could also indicate to me that one is affecting the other. Either way, it seems the consensus and reason is fair.


so above normal chances of snow in SE? not saying necessarily a good chance, but above normal? Seeing how most of the SE already had snow Feb 30-Mar 1 this year wouldn't it be something to have snow again all within the same year.
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Quoting Orcasystems:
Had to go almost half way around the world from here to find a decent Blob



Bring on the Nor'Easter Season already!
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Quoting PensacolaDoug:



Summit County.

Home of Breckenridge, Copper, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, Ski Areas. I've skied everyone of 'em. My favorite area of the country!
Yeah, and I-70 through there is a scream, even when there ISN'T snow, ice and cold temps....
Member Since: October 25, 2005 Posts: 19 Comments: 22735
Quoting homelesswanderer:

432. Dakster

Lol


Hi Homeless..... I see things are still quiet.
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
is there anything out there
Hey, that u have to ask tells me a LOT abt conditions worldwide.... lol
Member Since: October 25, 2005 Posts: 19 Comments: 22735
Hey, all.

Are we still talking abt summer snow? Because it snowed in Wyoming while I was there in late July..... lol only on the higher elevations, though.... Also rode down I-70 a couple times this summer, and places like Copper Mtn and some of the other peaks in the area still had snow/ice on them....

Guess the ATL must be pretty dull for us to be deep into snowboarding country.... lol
Member Since: October 25, 2005 Posts: 19 Comments: 22735
Issued by The National Weather Service
Atlanta, GA
5:17 pm EDT, Mon., Sep. 21, 2009

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN PEACHTREE CITY HAS ISSUED A * FLOOD WARNING FOR THE NANCY CREEK NEAR ATLANTA * FROM THIS AFTERNOON UNTIL LATE TONIGHT. * AT 4PM MONDAY THE STAGE WAS 12.2 FEET AND RISING. * MODERATE FLOODING IS OCCURRING AND RECORD FLOODING IS FORECAST. * FLOOD STAGE IS 11.0 FEET. * THE RIVER WILL CONTINUE RISING TO NEAR 16.3 FEET BY THIS EVENING. THE RIVER WILL FALL BELOW FLOOD STAGE TONIGHT. * AT 11.0 FEET... FLOOD STAGE IS REACHED. MINOR FLOODING OCCURS WITH FLOODING OF YARDS. * THE FORECAST OF 16.3 FEET WILL BE A NEW ALL TIME RECORD AT NANCY CREEK. THE CURRENT RECORD IS 15.5 FEET SET ON DECEMBER 1 1973.

More Information
... THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN PEACHTREE CITY HAS ISSUED A FLOOD WARNING FOR THE FOLLOWING RIVERS IN GEORGIA...

NANCY CREEK NEAR ATLANTA AFFECTING DE KALB AND FULTON COUNTIES PEACHTREE CREEK NEAR ATLANTA AFFECTING DE KALB AND FULTON COUNTIES

Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 27210
Had to go almost half way around the world from here to find a decent Blob

Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516


AOI

AOI

AOI

AOI

Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
Along with the European, CFS and GloSea forecast models, the IRI is expecting below normal temps and above normal precip for the Southeast USA. I am hoping it verifies as it could mean improve skill in seasonal predictors. This pattern is typical of El Nino years and positive NAO (which is also expected this winter). It seems that these two forces are the reason why climate models are in so much agreement about the SE USA this winter. or it could also indicate to me that one is affecting the other. Either way, it seems the consensus and reason is fair.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
thank you, stormW,, may i ask, if you are a mason or a vfw,, just asking,,thanks for commenting on my post,,greatly appreciated..
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Quoting PensacolaDoug:
I started snow skiiing 8 yeas ago when I was 42. Iv'e been on 9 ski trips, all but one to Summit County. The other was to Vail in Eagle County about another 20 miles or so west of Copper Mountain.

If you despise slush and ice (as I do), you might like Taos (NM)...out of Park City (UT), Heavenly Valley (Lake Tahoe), and Breckenridge, I like Taos most. Never much of a crowd (as in an out-of-hand number of people) and if the snow is warmed enough to melt, it just evaporates...no slush, no re-freeze (ice).
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October hotpots are the GOM and W Caribbean based on

1) Climatology

2) expected MJO pulse*

3) near normal SLP

4) above average rains for the GOM.

*the GFS and CFS is showing weak upward pulses while the EWP is showing a strong upward pulse. The reason for this is that the former two are dynamic while the latter simulates where the MJO is expected to propagate under normal conditions. There is no guarantee that the latter will verify since it assumes the MJO is a perfect oscillation.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
I guess it is not too late for me then... Although the snow skiing is a bit rough in South Florida.

Now Water Skiing is another thing entirely. The only white Christmas we get here is when we go to the beach on Christmas day.
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453. JLPR


Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Heads up Tulsa to Joplin:



And, wow, that is a pretty large area of lightning:
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I started snow skiiing 8 yeas ago when I was 42. Iv'e been on 9 ski trips, all but one to Summit County. The other was to Vail in Eagle County about another 20 miles or so west of Copper Mountain.
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Quoting PensacolaDoug:



Summit County.

Home of Breckenridge, Copper, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, Ski Areas. I've skied everyone of 'em. My favorite area of the country!
Keystone is great in the summer too!
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El Nino is expected to affect the 2009-2010 Southern Hemisphere Season. The effects include:

Enhance activity over the SW Indian Ocean based a secondary circulation other than El Nino. They recorded two invests already and the season 15 November.

Reduce activity near the Jakarta and Australia area of responsibility due to the down motion of El Nino and enhance upper level winds. This region is the parallel of the Atlantic Ocean.

SW Pacific Ocean

Cyclone tracks will shift further east towards the warm pool. Cyclone numbers and intensities maybe enhanced. This is the Fiji area of concern.

These area just the effects of El Nino and does not incorporate other seasonal moderators.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
PensacolaDoug,

Sounds great. I've only been to Telluride... Unfortunately, I don't ski all that much.
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Put up the Eisenhower tunnel cam.
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Quoting Dakster:
Ok. I should have elaborated. Where is COPPER MTN and I-70? (Country? City, State?) and WHEN. M238 AI doesn't help me here. It can be the hebrew calendar or julien, but M238 AI I can't read.



Summit County.

Home of Breckenridge, Copper, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, Ski Areas. I've skied everyone of 'em. My favorite area of the country!
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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
The NHC has released the TCR on Tropical Storm Enrique in the East Pacific: Link.
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good afternoon all hows EX-Fred
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442. JLPR
98L's circulation is still alive but this is an old pass

a new one should be available tonight, unless it misses the system
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
is there anything out there
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432. Dakster

Lol
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Hey Hurricane009...
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10804
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Here's an old one about winter, but still makes me laugh. (And is family friendly - which is odd for me)

It was October and the Natives on a remote reservation asked their new Chief if the coming winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was a Chief in a modern society he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky he couldn't tell what the winter was going to be like.

Nevertheless, to be on the safe side he told his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect firewood to be prepared. But being a practical leader, after several days he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, "Is the coming winter going to be cold?"

"It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold," the meteorologist at the weather service responded.

So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more firewood in order to be prepared. A week later he called the National Weather Service again. "Does it still look like it is going to be a very cold winter?"

"Yes," the man at National Weather Service again replied, "it's going to be a very cold winter."

The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of firewood they could find. Two weeks later the Chief called the National Weather Service again. "Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?"

"Absolutely," the man replied. "It's looking more and more like it is going to be one of the coldest winters ever."

"How can you be so sure?" the Chief asked.

The weatherman replied, "The Indians are collecting firewood like crazy."
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10804
431. JLPR
Quoting Dakster:
JLPR - In order to make a come back, shouldn't it have been something in the first place?


yep it was an invest so its trying to become an invest lol
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
JLPR - In order to make a come back, shouldn't it have been something in the first place?
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10804
429. JLPR
umm
98L trying to make a comeback

Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223

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

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