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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Almost looks like a pineapple express, but its not.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting JLPR:


lol thats a big If XD
but it is definitely trying very hard to come back =P

It sure is.
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Quoting TriniGirl26:


Things good for now....I'm dreading to go to work tomorrow...The long weekend was great. (Today is the Eid-ur-Fitr (Muslim holiday) here)

Hi trini, a lot of trinis live here and they tell me that you cant walk down the road in Trinidad anymore in a nice pair of sneakers without someone holding you up with a gun for them. Is this true??
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724. JLPR
Quoting kmanislander:
I wouldn't hazard a guess at whether 98L will regenerate or not. We have seen too many failed attempts at that this year as well.

Still, it could be the comeback story for this year, IF it comes back LOL


lol thats a big If XD
but it is definitely trying very hard to come back =P
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Quoting TexasHurricane:
Good blob fixing to come off Africa...


It looks like something might form.
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722. JLPR
Quoting kmanislander:


It has been stationary all day which makes you wonder what is going on out there.


probably because there is no High on top? xD
maybe once the high on the US coast moves more towards the east it could start moving
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
I wouldn't hazard a guess at whether 98L will regenerate or not. We have seen too many failed attempts at that this year as well.

Still, it could be the comeback story for this year, IF it comes back LOL
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Quoting OhioCanes1667:


Or at least healthcare...

Lol!
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Quoting Hurricane009:
SNOW IN COLORADO


'Tis the season.
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Everyone,the leading edge of the storm system in the SW USA, just came thru Fort Worth about 15 minutes ago. Lot of rain, some pretty good wind, and lots of lightning, but no hail that I observed. Things were probably a little worse in Johnson County then in SW Tarrant County.

Its 2029L and the second wave of thunderstorms is showing up right now (near the intersection of I-35S and I-820. More rain, but no hail as predicted. Again, its worse about five miles to the south of my location.
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Good blob fixing to come off Africa...

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The 1977 Florida snowfall was an anomalous event. Temperatures were below normal -4 to -2 degrees Celsius for the month of August in Florida.


A strong deep-layered longwave trough, associated with a strong low pressure system, dipped all the way down to South Florida lowering the 500mb geopotential heights.

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Quoting kmanislander:


It has been stationary all day which makes you wonder what is going on out there.


Yeah.....more odd goings on in the tropics.......

I guess right on par for the entire season. What a strange season. I'll take it, though. However....It is scary to think what might have happened hadn't it been for the shear/troughs.

Ana = Hurricane threatening islands/US (*shear protection*)
Bill = May have ended up threatening land (*trough protection*)
Danny = Hurricane threatening the Carolinas (*shear/trough protection*)
Erika = Hurricane threatening the islands/US (*shear protection*)
Fred = Hurricane threatening islands, etc.? (*trough protection*)

...and several other invests probably would have developed.
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Quoting Ameister12:

Tropical Depressions should have their rights!!!


Or at least healthcare...
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In a normal year, 98L would likely be a tropical cyclone and Fred would have regenerated (if it died in the first place)
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Quoting AllStar17:


Westward?


It has been stationary all day which makes you wonder what is going on out there.
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Quoting kmanislander:
Road map for 98L Part two ??



Westward?
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You Think there's storms in the atlantic look at the weather on Orca's neck of the woods Link
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Quoting IKE:


Just teasing.



Bring it on!


This system coming into TX is dang near like the one that brought us the F5 Jarrell tornado in '97. Twister that went SW instead of the ususal NE.

One agricultural company? even uses the flareup in its ads.

As a CenTX, I've been wondering where or how our skies changes from totally sunny bunny to 'katie-bar-the-door' but I see it now.

This is a duck and cover deal, soon.
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Quoting iceman55:
will40 oh .guess we have find huh.


Yup
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Quoting BahaHurican:
Hey, will u STOP with the snow in the tropics thing???? Some of us ENJOY having highs in the 70s and lows in the upper 50s or low 60s, which is why we only go to the mountains in the SUMMER!!!!

And u guys with the wx machine, I have only 2 words for u....

DEFLECTOR SHIELDS.....


only once in my life i saw snow and that was my one visit to the US last year... i don't know how u all can take that coldness...i froze my tail off.
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Quoting iceman55:
will40 ?


All of that precip
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I'm out, ya'll - early morning tomorrow [scowl] plus the blog is slow - humourous, but slow.

If I don't get on in the a.m., ya'll have a good day, don't wish too much snow on the FL panhandle or anywhere else in the state, and hopefully nothing abt Fred....

G'nite!
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October 2009 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.

==========================================

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.

============================================

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.
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Quoting IKE:
Shutters up


BRB...... gonna throw the pool furniture into the pool! LOL
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Quoting iceman55:



bad weather
wow ice if that gets to the east coast same time as the rain from xfred gonna ba a mess
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Hey, will u STOP with the snow in the tropics thing???? Some of us ENJOY having highs in the 70s and lows in the upper 50s or low 60s, which is why we only go to the mountains in the SUMMER!!!!

And u guys with the wx machine, I have only 2 words for u....

DEFLECTOR SHIELDS.....
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jan 1977// SNOW FALLS IN MIAMI........
Member Since: August 13, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 59
690. IKE
Quoting Dakster:
Phew. Ike...

You had me worried...


Just teasing.

Quoting Orcasystems:


Ike... looks like snow for you this year :)


Bring it on!
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37858
Ice, make like ur name and chill out, dude. Orca isn't meaning anything serious by it. Unfortunately he's discovered that u will get ticked off by it, so (like any mischievous Orca) he will continue doing it.

He's pretty harmless, mostly, except when posting exceptionally large graphics. Just bide thee by, my friend. Didn't someone once say, "the worm turns"????

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Quoting TriniGirl26:


I'm sorry, i couldn't help it :)


I like and appreciate a good shot as much as anyone else... god knows..I have been known to fire a few also :)

Thats why I have the 45 Gallon drum of Halo polish :)
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Quoting Dakster:
Have a good "Holiday", if that is appropriate to say, TriniGirl?


yeah it was good...not Muslim though but the time home was good and well needed :)
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685. JLPR
Quoting Hurricane009:
1 - 5 is elementary. 6 - 8 is middle. 9 - 12 is high school.



yes its like that in PR too
:)
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
hey Orca, you have mail
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8327
Quoting Orcasystems:



Ohhh way to many places to go with that one... now my Halo will get tarnished :)


I'm sorry, i couldn't help it :)
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Quoting TriniGirl26:


Things good for now....I'm dreading to go to work tomorrow...The long weekend was great. (Today is the Eid-ur-Fitr (Muslim holiday) here)


oh, well glad to hear that, but yeah, I worked tonight, so I know how you feel :P
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8327
Are there more ice storms in an El Nino year?
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Have a good "Holiday", if that is appropriate to say, TriniGirl?
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Quoting Orcasystems:


Not sure about 3... but I would pay good money to be 19 again :)
Hey, there are quite a few of us who'd like to do that, but keep the knowledge of the years since then, so we could make better use of the year.... lol

Then there are the rest of us, who would pay good money to be 19 for the first time.... lol

Making me think of Steely Dan's song..... and having a very hard time thinking of a link to weather with this one... lol
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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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