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 iceman55:
guess


23?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
oct 19 my bday i.m get old


haha how old?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
:) wow september 22 go by fast


its getting there lol
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Quoting will40:
ok im out nite Lady and Gentlemen


take it easy man
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
stay hunkered down ice
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
ok im out nite Lady and Gentlemen
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting OracleDeAtlantis:
There's been a sudden shift in the pattern we've had for weeks. This big push westward we saw over the past week and a half, that began over the upper Midwest, and then continued eastward into the North Atlantic is interesting. I smell more than just Fall coming on. I sense something else. I wonder if this odd change is related to this unusual minimum in sunspot activity, which if you take away our sensitive equipment, would be more historical that is widely held.


Time tells no lies, so we will find out
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
There's been a sudden shift in the pattern we've had for weeks. The big push westward we saw over the past week and a half, that began over the upper Midwest, and then continued eastward into the North Atlantic is interesting. I smell more than just Fall coming on. I sense something else. I wonder if this odd change is related to this unusual minimum in sunspot activity, which if you take away our sensitive equipment, would be more historical than is widely held.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
one of the Waltons wrote that one lol
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
sorry for the long post lol
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
AXNT20 KNHC 220521
TWDAT

TROPICAL WEATHER DISCUSSION
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
205 AM EDT TUE SEP 22 2009

TROPICAL WEATHER DISCUSSION FOR NORTH AMERICA...CENTRAL
AMERICA...GULF OF MEXICO...CARIBBEAN SEA...NORTHERN SECTIONS
OF SOUTH AMERICA...AND ATLANTIC OCEAN TO THE AFRICAN COAST
FROM THE EQUATOR TO 32N. THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION IS BASED
ON SATELLITE IMAGERY...METEOROLOGICAL ANALYSIS...WEATHER
OBSERVATIONS...AND RADAR.

BASED ON 0000 UTC SURFACE ANALYSIS AND SATELLITE IMAGERY THROUGH
0430 UTC.

...TROPICAL WAVES...

TROPICAL WAVE IS ALONG 35W/36W S OF 14N MOVING W NEAR 20 KT.
SATELLITE IMAGERY AND SATELLITE DERIVED WINDS INDICATE BROAD LOW
LEVEL CYCLONIC FLOW IN THE VICINITY OF THE WAVE AXIS. A LARGE
AREA OF SAHARAN DUST TRAILS THE WAVE MAINLY E OF 30W INHIBITING
MOST DEEP CONVECTION NEAR THE WAVE. HOWEVER...A FEW CLUSTERS OF
SHOWERS/POSSIBLE THUNDERSTORMS ARE N OF THE WAVE AXIS NEAR
16N35W...E OF THE WAVE AXIS NEAR 7N34W...AND W OF THE WAVE AXIS
FROM 8N-11N BETWEEN 37W-39W.

TROPICAL WAVE EXTENDS ALONG 23N43W TO 15N46W MOVING WNW NEAR 10
KT. THE WAVE IS APPROACHING A 1012 MB SURFACE LOW NEAR 14N48W.
SATELLITE IMAGERY INDICATES BROAD LOW-LEVEL CYCLONIC TURNING
AROUND THE WAVE AXIS EXTENDING TO THE LOW. A BROAD DEEP LAYER
MOISTURE MAXIMUM IS ALSO OBSERVED IN TOTAL PRECIPITABLE WATER
IMAGERY ALONG THE WAVE AND LOW. A LARGE CLUSTER OF NUMEROUS
STRONG CONVECTION IS E OF THE LOW AND ALONG THE S PORTION OF THE
WAVE FROM 13N-17N BETWEEN 46W-48W. SCATTERED MODERATE/ISOLATED
STRONG CONVECTION IS E OF THE WAVE AXIS FROM 17N-22N BETWEEN
41W-44W.

...ITCZ...

THE ITCZ AXIS IS CENTERED ALONG 13N15W 9N24W 10N35W 8N46W 8N61W.
ISOLATED MODERATE CONVECTION IS WITHIN 150 NM S OF THE AXIS
BETWEEN 21W-26W.

...DISCUSSION...

GULF OF MEXICO...
THE GULF OF MEXICO REMAINS FAIRLY CALM TONIGHT AS A WEAK SURFACE
RIDGE BUILDS FROM THE E ALONG 29N. AN UPPER LEVEL RIDGE COVERS
THE MAJORITY OF THE BASIN CENTERED OVER MEXICO NEAR 20N101W. A
FEW ISOLATED SHOWERS/POSSIBLE THUNDERSTORMS ARE NOTED NEAR SW
FLORIDA AND ACROSS THE YUCATAN CHANNEL DUE TO UPPER LEVEL
DIFFLUENT FLOW BETWEEN THE UPPER RIDGE AND A SHORTWAVE UPPER
TROUGH THAT DIGS ACROSS THE NW BAHAMAS TO THE STRAITS OF FLORIDA
CONTINUING TO THE NRN YUCATAN PENINSULA. MODERATE SURFACE WINDS
ARE ACROSS MUCH OF THE BASIN FLOWING ANTI-CYCLONICALLY AROUND
THE SURFACE RIDGE ACROSS THE N GULF. EXPECT THE RIDGE TO LIFT N
OF THE AREA AS A WEAK COLD FRONT MOVES OFF THE COAST OF TEXAS.

CARIBBEAN SEA...
AN UPPER LEVEL RIDGE COVERS THE W CARIBBEAN W OF 75W WHILE AN
UPPER LEVEL TROUGH COVERS THE REMAINDER OF THE BASIN EXTENDING
FROM THE ATLC. UPPER LEVEL DIFFLUENCE BETWEEN THE UPPER
RIDGE...THE UPPER TROUGH...AND THE AFOREMENTIONED SHORTWAVE UPPER
TROUGH EXTENDING FROM THE NE BAHAMAS ACROSS THE STRAITS OF
FLORIDA TO THE NRN YUCATAN PENINSULA IS SUPPORTING ISOLATED
SHOWERS/THUNDERSTORMS ACROSS THE NRN CARIBBEAN N OF 16N W OF
68W. SCATTERED SHOWERS/THUNDERSTORMS ARE ACROSS THE SW CARIBBEAN
S OF 10N W OF 77W DUE TO SURFACE CONVERGENCE NEAR THE E PACIFIC
ITCZ. A FEW ISOLATED SHOWERS ARE ALSO ACROSS THE LEEWARD ISLANDS
FROM 14N-15N E OF 63W. FRESH TRADE WINDS ARE ACROSS MUCH OF THE
S CENTRAL CARIBBEAN WITH STRONGER WINDS NEAR THE COAST OF
COLOMBIA AND ACROSS THE ERN CARIBBEAN.

ATLANTIC OCEAN...
A WEAKENING 1017 MB SURFACE LOW IS IN THE WRN ATLC NEAR 30N76W
SUPPORTING SCATTERED SHOWERS/THUNDERSTORMS FROM 28N-30N BETWEEN
72W-75W. THE SHOWER ACTIVITY IS ALSO ENHANCED BY DIFFLUENT FLOW
ALOFT BETWEEN A SHORTWAVE UPPER LEVEL TROUGH ACROSS THE NW
BAHAMAS AND AN UPPER LEVEL RIDGE CENTERED NEAR 29N72W. A SURFACE
TROUGH EXTENDS FROM 30N65W TO 25N67W. SURFACE CONVERGENCE NEAR
THE TROUGH IS SUPPORTING ISOLATED SHOWERS FROM 26N-28N BETWEEN
65W-68W. ANOTHER SURFACE TROUGH EXTENDS FROM 23N60W TO 17N60W.
THIS SURFACE TROUGH IS SUPPORTED BY AN UPPER LEVEL TROUGH WITH
AXIS ALONG 60W. ISOLATED SHOWERS/POSSIBLE THUNDERSTORMS ARE FROM
19N-22N BETWEEN 61W-65W...AND FROM 22N-27N BETWEEN 53W-60W. THIS
ACTIVITY IS PROBABLY ENHANCED MOSTLY BY UPPER LEVEL DIFFLUENT
FLOW ALONG THE E SIDE OF THE UPPER TROUGH VERSUS SURFACE
CONVERGENCE NEAR THE SURFACE TROUGH. THE REMAINDER OF THE ATLC
REMAINS FAIRLY CALM UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF A WEAK SURFACE RIDGE
ACROSS THE BASIN. IN THE UPPER LEVELS...AN UPPER LEVEL RIDGE
DOMINATES THE CENTRAL ATLC BETWEEN 30W-50W. AN UPPER LEVEL LOW
CENTERED NEAR 31N25W COVERS THE ERN ATLC SUPPORTING ISOLATED
SHOWERS N OF 26N BETWEEN 19W-25W. A BROAD UPPER LEVEL RIDGE
COVERS THE TROPICAL ATLC E OF 46W CENTERED NEAR 17N30W ENHANCING
CONVECTION NEAR THE TROPICAL WAVE AND SURFACE LOW CENTERED NEAR
14N48W.

$$
WALTON




Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting will40:


ty matt i enjoyed it


me too, has been a nice mood on the blog lol
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting tornadodude:
haha you guys have been great company tonight


ty matt i enjoyed it
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
nope no circle ice
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
haha you guys have been great company tonight
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
dokey okey
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
You think theres gonna be a yellow circle there lol?
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting iceman55:
dnot leave


ok ice you talked me out of it lmao
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting tornadodude:


and then proceeds to wipe out Florida, New Orleans, the Carolinas, and New York in one swift blow? right?


Ha yea we cant predict tomorrow much less something that far out
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
i was gonna wait up for the 2:00 but dont think anything will be there so im out
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting will40:



ty matt i added it to favorites


no problem
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting OracleDeAtlantis:


It depends upon what door it comes in. I'm predicting, it might be the back door, in which case it enters the GOM and finds plenty to feed on.


and then proceeds to wipe out Florida, New Orleans, the Carolinas, and New York in one swift blow? right?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting tornadodude:


here is a good site about Doppler radar



ty matt i added it to favorites
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting will40:
doppler radar not that old is it?


here is a good site about Doppler radar
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting jipmg:


it wont make it, shear is one thing, but a huge front by early next week is going to block off anythign from getting close to the U.S


It depends upon what door it comes in. It might be the back door, in which case it enters the GOM and finds plenty to feed on.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
doppler radar not that old is it?
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting tornadodude:


that is true, tornadoes are by far more common also, but the impacts of a hurricane are felt over hundreds of miles, but I guess the 1,000 tornadoes the US sees on average accounts for the size of hurricanes.


i guess the warnings are better now than years ago tho
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting will40:
thats what so bad about a tornado versus a cane not much warning


that is true, tornadoes are by far more common also, but the impacts of a hurricane are felt over hundreds of miles, but I guess the 1,000 tornadoes the US sees on average accounts for the size of hurricanes.
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
will40 i have redhat on what some blue block glass haha


ha ha ice
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
thats what so bad about a tornado versus a cane not much warning
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting will40:



wow thats the bow effect right?


yessir, Bow Echo
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting iceman55:
;) sound good tome


I might saw you see that wood but am i gonna see you saw it lol?
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting tornadodude:
Little Rock is getting ready to get pounded.
Link



wow thats the bow effect right?
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting iceman55:
i have a ChanSaw


Good hurryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Little Rock is getting ready to get pounded.
Link
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
thats accuweather for ya
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting will40:
come up here and help me cut fire wood lmao


haha its pretty dang cold there
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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