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

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

Share this Blog
1
+

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

Reader Comments

Comments will take a few seconds to appear.

Post Your Comments

Please sign in to post comments.

or Join

Not only will you be able to leave comments on this blog, but you'll also have the ability to upload and share your photos in our Wunder Photos section.

Display: 0, 50, 100, 200 Sort: Newest First - Order Posted

Viewing: 878 - 828

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22Blog Index

Quoting Bordonaro:
I'm not sure if there are records for largest meso's or not but this squall line extends in a continuous line from St Louis, MO to SW of Austin, TX


it is crazy, well defined too, I guess this is the first sign of the coming cold air
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
As a S.E. coastal resident where can I expect the reminants of Fred to come ashore and when? Where can I look for the anwser?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I'm not sure if there are records for largest meso's or not but this squall line extends in a continuous line from St Louis, MO to SW of Austin, TX
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
The second snowy norther brought us a white Christmas, with heavy snow--6.6". You can see the snow in my avatar from a pic of the house I grew up early morning December 24, 1989. Dec 1989 was very cold, and a powerful arctic cold front blasted through, giving us our coldest max temperature ever of 24 on December 23, 1989. That was at midnight--the temperature was in the upper teens continuously all late morning and all afternoon and evening.


A powerful upper level disturbance was able to wring out precip from the mid levels of the air---at first we had freezing rain for 20 minutes, then sleet for 4 hours as the cold level grew deeper and colder. Dynamical cooling finally finished off the warm air and it turned to SNOW!

There was no real low pressure center with this storm at first, but the upper level disturbance made a very powerful storm bomb out over the gulf stream, which was 77 degrees 90 miles to our east.

Dec 22, 1989: Link

Dec 23, 1989: SNOW ALL DAY!! Link


wow that is intense for your area!
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting tornadodude:
Here is a little something from the "mini ice age" that a good friend of mine recommended, 1816: the year without a summer


from Wikipedia:
River Thames Frost Fairs

The worst cold spells in Britain occurred between 1550 and 1750. The climate during this time was known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were so cold that the Thames froze over each year. It was not uncommon for the freeze to last over three months, as in the case of the winters of 1683 - 1684 and 1715 - 1716.

The first recorded Frost Fair was held on the frozen river Thames in London in 1608. It had tents, sideshows, food stalls and even included ice bowling!

The Thames had frozen over several times before 1608. In the 16th century, Henry VIII is said to have traveled all the way from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river during the winter of 1536 and Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter of 1564.

The last Frost Fair was held in the winter of 1814. It began on February 1, and lasted just four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.


from www.thamesweb.co.uk

Historical Note - Other Thames Freezes

This is not intended to be a definitive list, and is based on reported weather conditions from agricultural records where the freezing of the Thames was recorded on most occasions in London.
The intention is however to demonstrate that severe weather conditions such as described below were not unique and occurred from time to time on a reasonably regular basis.
Freezes occurred in 1963, 1953, 1947 (the coldest February ever), 1940, 1895-6, 1893, 1880, 1857 (Source: Leslie Ward ('SPY' of Vanity Fair) Autobiography, page 17 where he recalls well that an ox was roasted on the Thames at Eton), 1821, 27 December 1813 - 27 March 1814 (Frost Fair 4th Feb 1814), 24 December 1739 to early March 1740, (Frost Fair Christmas 1739 - February 1740), 1708, 1688, 1685, 1684, 1683, (The winter was 'intolerably severe' (John Evelyn), Frost Fair), 1665, 1649, 1608, 1607 and 1564. There are earlier records of freezes also back to 1100AD.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting btwntx08:

ummm radar is down

You can open the link, hit the "regional radar" button!! MAN, that is one bad, bad squall line!!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1900hrricane :,,so flooding is underway????
get you sigh out of this blog ,go to weather channel,,,,GEORGIA IS ALREADY FLOODED EVERYWHERE!!!!!!!!! PLUS 10 PEOPLE DEAD OR MISSING!!!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Bordonaro, it wasn't a blue norther/frontal type thing. There was a weak front that went through the day before, but a powerful upper level disturbance went over us and wrung moisture out of the cool air, and dynamical cooling did the rest. However we have had norther-type fronts give us snow twice in my lifetime:

And thanks for the graphics, orca!


OK, I see!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Halyn:
Tornadodude .. yes .. I know where Vincennes is located .. :)


ok :) well I lived in Washington Indiana until this summer when I moved to Purdue, so we arent too far apart
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Here is a little something from the "mini ice age" that a good friend of mine recommended, 1816: the year without a summer
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
That convection headed into the BOC has went poof. Link
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
857. Halyn
Tornadodude .. yes .. I know where Vincennes is located .. :)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
DFW radar link did shows the build up of storms behind the meso, near Love Field AP, DallasLink
Radar down for maintenance
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I'm at the South end of it where it formed in Texas. They called out the storm spotters and it was past us in about 15 minutes. Now it's windy and cool. Was 93, now 70 and winds from the North at about 20 mph.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Way. Read Ludlum's books "Early American Winters 1604-1820" and "Early American Winters II 1821-1870" See if Purdue has em in the library.


I was being slightly sarcastic, I lived in Washington Indiana for 10 years, which is 20 miles east of Vincennes, we had plenty of snow :P

but yes, those were incredible winters back then
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting tornadodude:


No way


Wasn't that still part of the "Little Ice Age"? Didn't that end around 1850? The world used to be MUCH colder than it is now in the not too distant past!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Vincennes, IN had snow in September 1836.


No way
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
All,

The squall line which has now pushed passed the DFW area to the SE has something developing behind it. There has been some massive thunderclaps in the last 10-15 minutes to the South and the Luck Field NEXRAD shows intensification beginning on the backside of the storm front as well as something beginning on the counties bordering to the west of Fort Worth.

Given the expected weather conditions for tonight predicted by local weatherman, this storm front has been much less intense as expected. I mean, when you get an icestorm in Pueblo, CO and pretty strong hot, humid winds blowing from SE to NW, and temps exceeding 90 degrees and all this is colliding over North Texas, this could have been a really bad night....
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting JLPR:


thanks =P


no problem sometimes we all in the US forget that we are not the only ones here
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting Halyn:
I'm up on the north end of that squall line .. just outside St. Louis on the IL side of the river .. looks like it won't have much effect here .. but I was raised in Norman, Okla. and am all too familiar with tornado ..


Do you know where Vincennes is?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Hurricanes, snowstorms, thunderstorms, extreme weather.... I LOVE witnessing extreme weather firsthand! Being a native of coastal Carolina, it looks as though I picked a good year to move to the western piedmont region of the state since the hurricane season has been a dud so far. I've seen Diana '84, Bertha'96, Fran '96, Bonnie '98, Floyd '99, and numerous other Tropical Storm-forced systems pass directly over my hometown throughout my life. I have enjoyed every one of them despite the hard, hot work cleaning up afterwards. Yes, storms are destructive, but most of the destruction happens to people who foolishly choose to live on our fragile barrier islands. I say let the storm blow and I have no sympathy for people with houses on barrier islands. Furthermore, our tax dollars should not be used to clean up their crap...they should pay to clean up every bit of it.

Anyway, I'm up in the piedmont now and I hope to see some good winter storms this year!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
A LEC storm has developed to the SW of Macon, GA. The storm is constantly backbuilding and is bring rainfall rates in excess of 3 inches/hr. A flash flood event is underway.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
842. JLPR
Quoting will40:


well said JLPR


thanks =P
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
840. Halyn
I'm up on the north end of that squall line .. just outside St. Louis on the IL side of the river .. looks like it won't have much effect here .. but I was raised in Norman, Okla. and am all too familiar with tornado ..
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting iceman55:
Bordonaro w/bbbbbbbbbbbb

Thanks, had the BLOG D/T's for awhile!! Just read through Orca's blog and Weather 456's blog!! And waited for the hours to SLOWLY pass!!

Tropics are still very, very quiet!! Kinda scary! I don't totally understand how the MOJO works, per Weather456, he indicates that tropical activity will increase early 10-09 due to it!! Even the W Pac basin is quiet! One "orange" in the E Pac!! Too much energy is locked up in parts of the W Atl, Caribbean and the GOM!!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting JLPR:


there are other areas before the US


well said JLPR
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
837. JLPR
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


there are other areas before the US
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
836. jipmg
Quoting JLPR:
to the west it goes
:|


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
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
835. JLPR
to the west it goes
:|
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
March 1986 was a real surprise--not forecast at all--not even at 11 p.m. the night before. The previous day it was 57 in the afternoon, and at 11:00 p.m. it was 49, with a dewpoint of 38. Not what you expect for snow. But it started to rain at 3:00 a.m., and amazingly the dewpoint dropped while it rained! Crazy! It snowed quite hard from aroun 6:30 to 8:15 that morning, with around an inch everywhere, although it was not officially recorded as such. But it was there. Visibility dropped to 1/8 of a mile for a while in the snow, which shows it was heavy.

Sound like you had the equivalent of a N TX Blue Norther!! Temps drop, dew point drops, cold air is right there, and SNOW!!

Remember a few yrs ago in Arlington, TX at 3PM is was 74F, at 3:15PM, it was 42F!! The cold air gradient was 50MI across!! In that 50MI stretch the temp dropped from the 70's to the 30's!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
833. Skyepony (Mod)
Saw Tom Sorrels on 6 in ECFL show yesterday's 18Z spegetti model run on Fred-ex, say something about squashed spider & promise rain..
Member Since: Posts: Comments:

AOI

AOI

AOI

AOI
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
831. jipmg
Cold front forecasted to go through SFLA early next week
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
That's too bad about Grothar, he seemed pretty cool. Any model tracks for FredEx? Curious as to whether we'll get a shower out of him.


No models. I have been checking the NWS. look for your local National weather service.
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 4266
Quoting JLPR:
98L looking very interesting
It appears 98L is stationary, maybe that is what helping convection, avoiding most of the higher shear ahead. Nevertheless shear remains high as it has been since the beginning of the month in that zone, east of Antilles.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:

Viewing: 878 - 828

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22Blog Index

Top of Page

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.

Local Weather

Overcast
35 °F
Overcast

JeffMasters's Recent Photos

Lake Effort Snow Shower Over Windsor, Ontario
Sunset on Dunham Lake
Pictured Rocks Sunset
Sunset on Lake Huron