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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Coffee time! Mornin' all.
Member Since: July 25, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 670
Good Morning

Texas Drought Situation
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Morning all.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1024. IKE
Birmingham,AL. long-term....

"LOOKING AT THE WEEKEND...MODELS ARE STILL INDICATING A PROGRESSIVE
PATTERN...AND TAKES THE UPPER TROUGH OUT OF THE HIGH PLAINS AND
INTO THE GREAT LAKES BY SUNDAY AND OUT BY MONDAY. THIS HAS BEEN A
CONSISTENT FEATURE NOW FOR SEVERAL RUNS...AND WILL BEGIN TO BITE A
LITTLE MORE ONTO THIS FORECAST. SO MUCH SO...WILL ACTUALLY HAVE
SOME DRY PERIODS IN THE FORECAST BEGINNING OVERNIGHT SUNDAY IN THE
NORTHWEST...AND THE REST OF THE AREA DURING THE DAY MONDAY. THE
ONLY UNCERTAINTY IS CAN THIS SYSTEM ACTUALLY MAKE IT TOTALLY
THROUGH THE AREA SUNDAY NIGHT...THEREFORE ALLOWING DRY...FALL
CONDITIONS FOR MONDAY...OR DOES THE SOUTHEASTERN PORTIONS OF THE
AREA STILL SEE SOME RAIN. STILL SOME TIME TO ADJUST...BUT
CONFIDENCE IS GROWING THAT WE MAY ACTUALLY DRY OUT THIS TIME NEXT
WEEK."



Mobile,AL. long-term....

"LONG TERM...(FRIDAY THROUGH MONDAY...THE UPPER HIGH BEGINS TO GET
SHOVED OFF TO THE EAST AS THE UPPER CYCLONE MOVES OUT OF THE CENTRAL
PLAINS TO THE NORTHEAST....PULLING A FRONT SLOWLY EAST. WITH THE
UPPER TROUGH HANGING BACK TO THE WEST THE FRONT WILL NOT BRING MUCH
IF ANY COOLER OR DRIER AIR INITIALLY BUT WILL BRING AN INCREASED
CHANCE FOR SHOWERS AND THUNDERSTORMS OVER THE WEEKEND WITH POPS BACK
UP AROUND 40 TO 50 PERCENT AREA WIDE. THE UPPER TROUGH WITH THE
STRONGER FRONT LOOKS LIKE IT WILL CROSS THE AREA SUNDAY NIGHT OR
MONDAY BRINGING DRIER AIR AND COOLER TEMPERATURES."

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Happy Autumnal Equinox Day Everyone
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting iceman55:
:0


hey iceman, I'm going to go to bed, so you have a good rest of the night, take it easy! :)
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting Halyn:
Good night, gentlemen :) I have enjoyed the relative peace tonight .. I am sorry about Grother .. whatever it was about .. I always enjoyed his posts .. :(


goodnight, and yes me too :(
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
1018. Halyn
Good night, gentlemen :) I have enjoyed the relative peace tonight .. I am sorry about Grother .. whatever it was about .. I always enjoyed his posts .. :(
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting iceman55:
tornadodude no.i,m south man lollol


haha yeah, well it is a blast!

Quoting Halyn:
Just let me know when you come this way .. down I70 or I64 and I'll be out by the highway waiting .. :)


will do :)
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
1015. Halyn
Just let me know when you come this way .. down I70 or I64 and I'll be out by the highway waiting .. :)
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Quoting Halyn:
Tornado .. I have great-grandchildren .. lol
.. but thank you .. :)


well with age comes wisdom :)
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting Bordonaro:
Folks all have a good morning!! Be back later today!! Tropics are peaceful and quiet, for the moment!! In meteorology I've learned, "Always EXPECT the unexpected"!!

Peace out, be back later today!!


have a good one!
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
yeah.


have you ever skied or snowboarded?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
1010. Halyn
Tornado .. I have great-grandchildren .. lol
.. but thank you .. :)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Folks all have a good morning!! Be back later today!! Tropics are peaceful and quiet, for the moment!! In meteorology I've learned, "Always EXPECT the unexpected"!!

Peace out, be back later today!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Halyn:
I have loved weather and the patterns of weather since I was a little girl in Oklahoma watching for a tornado .. now I am much older and still fascinated by the weather .. maybe in my next life .. lol


haha well I am planning on going "storm chasing" this coming spring and summer, maybe I'll pick you up on the way ;)
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
1006. Halyn
I have loved weather and the patterns of weather since I was a little girl in Oklahoma watching for a tornado .. now I am much older and still fascinated by the weather .. maybe in my next life .. lol
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Quoting iceman55:
tornadodude sound like fuuny


you should do it lol

Quoting Halyn:
It is true .. and this old bird is getting tired :) These two young whipersnappers make me feel really old .. :)


oh dont feel too old :)
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
1004. Halyn
It is true .. and this old bird is getting tired :) These two young whipersnappers make me feel really old .. :)
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Quoting iceman55:
tornadodude yeah ihope to.


yeah, you will have to come up here and go snow boarding with me sometime
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting OracleDeAtlantis:


With Flash Gordon on here replying to my posts, I have to be careful to edit everything immediately.

When I was in college, we didn't have the Internet to chat on. Instead we did horrible pranks to one another that gave us a mind full of lasting memories. I'm not sure all things, always change for the better.

The power of nature isn't everyone's interest, however, so I guess finding birds of a feather to flock together makes sense?



well, if it is of any significance, I am currently pursuing a degree in meteorology
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
tornadodude more snow now i,mlooking at weathertap Radar,


oh alright, yeah I hope I have a lot of snow this year
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting tornadodude:


Time tells no lies, so we will find out


With Flash Gordon on here replying to my posts, I have to be careful to edit everything immediately.

When I was in college, we didn't have the Internet to chat on. Instead we did horrible pranks to one another that gave us a mind full of lasting memories. I'm not sure all things, always change for the better.

The power of nature isn't everyone's interest, however, so I guess finding birds of a feather to flock together makes sense?

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting iceman55:
thank i tryalot.haha


haha well heck
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
u make me feel old.i have baby onway


Congrats!
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
my babymom she 20.


oh ok cool
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
19 noway wow


yeah, I feel really young when I'm on this blog
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
lol


haha I'll be 19 in January :P
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
yeah im get old shi


it's part of life my friend lol
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
nope im 29


well now youre almost 29 :O
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
haha keep try


26?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
guess


23?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360

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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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