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 hurricaneseason2006:
Weather456,

I have never seem to understand, how a hurricane uses evaporation on a scale that it is. I mean, evaporation seems like a slow and ineffective method and yet it can support storms like Wilma. Why is this so?


Evaporation may seem small on the human scale but winds blowing over a large ocean and can make evaporation propagate. For example, one cell divides to 2, 4, 8, 26, 32, 64, etc to become a mass on larger scale that it is. One convection coming from the sea on scale of hundreds of km works in the same way.

Also positive feed back loop where the hurricane increases the rate of evaporation as it grows which in turn dry more winds and start the loop all over again but with increasing cycles.
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If anyone lives to the NW of Atlanta, could you please post some pics if you are experiencing any flooding?
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276. IKE
Freddie is dead-ee....

TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
200 PM EDT MON SEP 21 2009

FOR THE NORTH ATLANTIC...CARIBBEAN SEA AND THE GULF OF MEXICO...

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

$$
FORECASTER PASCH
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Quoting Weather456:


We just gotta hope for the best



Wow. That area is just practically asking for something. Weather, what do you think are the chances of a RI like Wilma with the water like that down in the Western Caribbean?
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Quoting Weather456:


We just gotta hope for the best



Imo at this point any storm that would affect you would be like Omar and Lenny, West to East. The W Caribbean looks ominous.
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I'm just a lurker but it sure seems like x-Fred is flaring up quite a bit today! Any of the experts on here thinking their might be a chance of development? I see Dr. Master's doesn't think so. I was thinking about how fast TS Gaston-later Hurricane Gaston developed off of the SC coast a few years back.
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Things are getting really really bad in the Atlanta area.
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
Here is an interesting thought though

what if we were to get a strong October storm this year, only 1 and the year ended with 7 named storms officially

but that storm in October did major damage somewhere either in the Caribbean or United States. What would downcasters say then?


We just gotta hope for the best

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Thanks for sharing, Cookiethief. It is hard to imagine the fear if you haven't gone through a bad one like Hugo.
Meanwhile, all's weak in the CATL.

Vorticity
Member Since: July 11, 2006 Posts: 14 Comments: 11317
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
Here is an interesting thought though

what if we were to get a strong October storm this year, only 1 and the year ended with 7 named storms officially

but that storm in October did major damage somewhere either in the Caribbean or United States. What would downcasters say then?
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:
Here is an interesting thought though

what if we were to get a strong October storm this year, only 1 and the year ended with 7 named storms officially

but that storm in October did major damage somewhere either in the Caribbean or United States. What would downcasters say then?


Your right!! It only takes one! We are definitely not out of the woods yet!
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The 2009 Hurricane Season was also a blessing in disguise. My economy along with you guys in the USA is in downturn and a hurricane weaker than Georges would inflict twice the damage.

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2009 is also a negative anomaly as 2005 was a positive anomaly.

The chances of next year being another 2009/2005 are slim to none.

The first signs of an active 2010 is to watch the Southern Hemisphere and WPAC season next winter and spring.
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I am a professional lurker but I will decloak for Hugo's anniversary.

I rode out the storm in Roper Hospital on the 4th floor of the building as a young (thin) nurse. The roar of that storm is something I will never forget. Even inside that massive building, we had to yell to each other to be heard over the wind.

At 1130PM we moved patients into the main halls of the hospital and out of their rooms. The doors of the rooms were tied closed with sheets to prevent the doors from pulling open. About midnight you could hear glass popping out of the window and the patient room doors rattling against the pull of the wind and against the sheets.

Water covered the 1st floor of the building. We saw that though the gift shop windows on 1st floor. We also saw cars, pieces of building and boats floating by under water. I thought about old Dr. Flagg and the mermaid storm of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina in 1893. I really wondered who was strapped to trees out there.

Then, the backside of the storm hit. We lost the phone lines then. Our ability to communicate with the rest of the world was via a radio station out of Jacksonville Florida. They kept us sane.

20 years later we have "Hugo Trees." They are furry sticks. No limbs, just leafy tree trunks that come back every year. Life continues...
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Here is an interesting thought though

what if we were to get a strong October storm this year, only 1 and the year ended with 7 named storms officially

but that storm in October did major damage somewhere either in the Caribbean or United States. What would downcasters say then?
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I believe this is what is commonly referred to as a "naked swirl."
98LFloater
Member Since: July 11, 2006 Posts: 14 Comments: 11317
yea this is more than just El Nino; which also leads me to believe that we may sneak in a strong October storm this season, most likely in the Caribbean; when the MJO gives us a window to do so
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Quoting StormChaser81:


El Nino would affect the entire globe, thats a huge change in tempoeratures for the oceans, and the oceans play a huge role in weather.


El Nino would cause both the EPAC and CPAC to have above normal seasons and they havnt.

Also this El Nino is weaker than both the 2006 and 1997 El Nino.
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Quoting Weather456:
atmoaggie,

I have been trying to get the word out. The slow activity of 2009 cannot be blamed on El Nino one - have you seen 2006? This El Nino was weaker than 2006 and 1997 and yet we are 5 and 2 short respectively.

I agree with you 100%


I combinations of weak MJO signals, a global tropical decline, a more stable air over the Atlantic and El Nino caused what we are seeing in 2009.

The EPAC is also averaged out, considering it is sn El NIno year.



yup and the WPAC is well below average as well, so is the Indian Ocean
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atmoaggie,

I have been trying to get the word out. The slow activity of 2009 cannot be blamed on El Nino one - have you seen 2006? This El Nino was weaker than 2006 and 1997 and yet we are 5 and 2 short respectively.

I agree with you 100%


I combinations of weak MJO signals, a global tropical decline, a more stable air over the Atlantic and El Nino caused what we are seeing in 2009.

The EPAC is also averaged out, considering it is an El NIno year.

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Quoting StormChaser81:


El Nino would affect the entire globe, thats a huge change in tempoeratures for the oceans, and the oceans play a huge role in weather.


yes but in El Nino seasons', other areas of the globe are above average in terms of tropical activity.

The entire globe is below average this year, that is why I say its more than just El Nino
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Who knows we might be going into a less active period overall in hurricanes.
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Quoting will40:


Yea i sent admin a mail on that last week. Got a reply yesterday that said ty for input

Does anyone know who Admin is?
He/she knows all of us...shouldn't we know Admin?
Member Since: July 11, 2006 Posts: 14 Comments: 11317
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


I agree with you 100%, to me El Nino isn't the primary reason that this season has been slow, but a combination of things

The MJO being stuck in phase outside of the Atlantic is another major reason. Also look at other basins that have had upward MJO phases most of their season and some are still below average.

This is something bigger than El Nino, it is the entire globe that is below average in activity. 2009 does in fact look like 1977


El Nino would affect the entire globe, thats a huge change in tempoeratures for the oceans, and the oceans play a huge role in weather.
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Quoting atmoaggie:
I see the "master" has been about and laying our season and upcoming winter that the feet of El Nino as the primary factor.

I say, El What ?

1997:


2009:


How does ENSO relate to MJO?
(Really, I wish Michael StL were here, he would know. But, alas, his demeanor towards anyone that looked at his posts oddly got out of hand...or maybe he is here, but under another handle and exclusively talking tropics.)

MJO has been very good to us in the NW Atlantic except for that one spike when Ana, Bill, Claudette, and Danny formed:


I agree with you 100%, to me El Nino isn't the primary reason that this season has been slow, but a combination of things

The MJO being stuck in phase outside of the Atlantic is another major reason. Also look at other basins that have had upward MJO phases most of their season and are still below average.

This is something bigger than El Nino, it is the entire globe that is below average in activity. 2009 does in fact look like 1977
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Quoting pearlandaggie:
Hey Presslord...you said damage from Hugo is still apparent in Bulls Bay...how so? (I'm curious what damage is still visible 20 years later)


lottsa dead, spindly trees..in fact, ya can see that in a number of places in and around that area...
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A general comment - many of the Emergency Management Agencies/Organisations on the Caribbean islands "struggle" (with low budgets and a sometimes complacent audience) each year to raise (and keep elevated) the public awareness about Hurricane/Surge etc risks, the need to be prepared, the requirements for higher Building Code Standards and a variety of simple but effective "do it yourself" household mitigation measures.

These Agencies/Organisations have a hard enough job immediately Pre-Season especially if the previous Season has been quiet - but their job is certainly not made any easier when there are pundits, on what is among the top 2 (IMHO) Tropical Weather Sites, categorically stating in the 3rd week of Sep that the Season is over.

Please be careful as there are probably many "lurkers" out there who take a lot of what is stated on this Site as gospel and may not, as yet, have learned to "separate the wheat from the chaff".
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I see the "master" has been about and laying our season and upcoming winter that the feet of El Nino as the primary factor.

I say, El What ?

1997:


2009:


How does ENSO relate to MJO?
(Really, I wish Michael StL were here, he would know. But, alas, his demeanor towards anyone that looked at his posts oddly got out of hand...or maybe he is here, but under another handle and exclusively talking tropics.)

MJO has been very good to us in the NW Atlantic except for that one spike when Ana, Bill, Claudette, and Danny formed:
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Quoting JRRP:
Georges



This time in 1998.


Rain finally stop falling after almost 10 hrs since the eye left around 3 am.

Persons finally got up and witnessed the devastation first hand. I was stuck in my house until Tuesday 22 September 1998 since a wall fell on hour front door jamming it and the tree debris was blocking the back door. The neighbors finally got us out.
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Quoting tacoman:
IKE IT DOESNT MATTER ...STORM W DONT FEEL BAD WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES BIG GUY..
I wonder if we couldn't convince Admin. to change "Ignore User" to "Ignore Loser"
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Good Afternoon

Texas Drought Situation

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246. JLPR
Quoting TheCaneWhisperer:



It's about time for the far east to close up shop anyway. The dust will just drive the last nail on the final week IMO. Good catch on the dust plume, I hadn't noticed.





yep the shop is closed XD
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Hey Presslord...you said damage from Hugo is still apparent in Bulls Bay...how so? (I'm curious what damage is still visible 20 years later)
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244. JRRP
Georges

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 5799
243. JRRP
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 5799
img src="" width="700" height="600" alt="" />


Hurricane georges 09-21-1998
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Pond guy has arrived, not quite what I had in mind, but more interesting than the weather at the moment! Do they know they are on video Orca?
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Quoting Orcasystems:
For those of you totally bored... in about an hour.. the Pond guy will be repairing the waterfall on my pond (I hope anyway, he has been saying that for 3 months now)

Pond cam


Orca is having his pond fixed today, and I assume because he is at work, he will be able to monitor the progress via webcam...
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World At Rest


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Quoting presslord:
My 2 cents: the 'quote' feature should be changed so that it posts "Reference post #___"


Yea i sent admin a mail on that last week. Got a reply yesterday that said ty for input
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4227
Quoting surfsidesindy:


I just have a dirty house...because I'm a domestic engineer...


Never admit to that, we would never know! But now we know why you are waiting for Pond boy or whoever. By the way, what is that all about with Orca. I believe I may have missed something. tornadodude made an earlier reference for me to look, but did not have the time.
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Pond boy is late...hope he shows this time Orca.
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Quoting ElConando:
post whatever.

Pass Christian is 128 miles south and west of Buras La, the area of Katrina's land fall.


Pass Christian is north and east of the original Buras landfall; the distance, as the crow flies, is 78 miles...by car it's considerably further, something on the order of 220 miles
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Quoting surfsidesindy:


I just have a dirty house...because I'm a domestic engineer...


Since i retired, thats what I have become too....
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Quoting Grothar:
Hydrus, you're on too!! No wonder industrial production is dropping in the US. Nobody works anymore, they are all on this blog. The students aren't studying.

I guess that would include me, as well?


I just have a dirty house...because I'm a domestic engineer...
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Hydrus, you're on too!! No wonder industrial production is dropping in the US. Nobody works anymore, they are all on this blog. The students aren't studying.

I guess that would include me, as well?
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AP news: 2 killed, 1 missing as storms drench Southeast
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229. JRRP
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 5799
Quoting presslord:
My 2 cents: the 'quote' feature should be changed so that it posts "Reference post #___"


Hey presslord, did not know you were on! Your .02 is always worth a comment.
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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.