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 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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Quoting IKE:


Yes...it was a joke.


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


hey how's it going?


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)
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Hurricane and anybody else who wants to come on Tropics Chat, i'm on.
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Phew. Ike...

You had me worried...
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10815
670. IKE
Quoting Dakster:
IKE -

Whisky Tango Foxtrot with the shutter's up comment...

Coming from you that really bothers me... I am assuming you are joking.


Yes...it was a joke.
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Quoting TriniGirl26:


lol...thank for telling me...i don't really know much about the US education system :). So who taking up babysitting duty for Ocra tonight?



Ohhh way to many places to go with that one... now my Halo will get tarnished :)
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659. Me too... Well, somewhere between 15 - 22 would be nice.

I was in no pain, slim, used to eat at various Y's often, and the rest you already know.
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Quoting TriniGirl26:



hey stranger


hey how's it going?
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Most US schools now use the system

Gr 1-4 Elementary
Gr 5-8 Middle
Gr 9-12 High

Most Caribbean / Canadian [connect me if I'm wrong on the Canadian] schools use

Gr 1-6 Primary
Gr 7-11/12 Secondary

In the Bahamas we subdivide Secondary into Junior (7-9) and Senior (10-12)

Not sure what the UK is using now....
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Quoting tornadodude:
Hey, I do have to say that iceman is older than you would think, just saying



hey stranger
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Quoting iceman55:
Orcasystems You Really Need To Get A Life noob


Your starting to make me miss JFV and STORMTOP :)
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Quoting Weather456:


I think its called elemneary school in the USA.

From Trinidad. hello neighbor.


lol...thank for telling me...i don't really know much about the US education system :). So who taking up babysitting duty for Ocra tonight?
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Hey, I do have to say that iceman is older than you would think, just saying
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Quoting BahaHurican:
LOL are we including Orca? Some pple think that tonight he is only three, which would make him only pre-schooler....

LOL

][Sorry Orca, couldn't resist}


Not sure about 3... but I would pay good money to be 19 again :)
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IKE -

Whisky Tango Foxtrot with the shutter's up comment...

Coming from you that really bothers me... I am assuming you are joking.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10815
656. JLPR
lets see
another image of 98L
too keep the blog on topic =P

Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Quoting TriniGirl26:
Good night everyone...i see we have several primary/high school children around :)
LOL are we including Orca? Some pple think that tonight he is only three, which would make him only pre-schooler....

LOL

][Sorry Orca, couldn't resist}
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Quoting BahaHurican:
Guess Orca lost his halo... I mean MISPLACED his halo again....


I think post 649 basically said it all :)
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Quoting TriniGirl26:
Good night everyone...i see we have several primary/high school children around :)


I think its called elementary school in the USA.

From Trinidad? hello neighbor.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076

AOI

AOI

AOI

AOI
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Good night everyone...i see we have several primary/high school children around :)
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Quoting iceman55:
Orcasystems Grow Up 3 year old
Guess Orca lost his halo... I mean MISPLACED his halo again....
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Quoting will40:
family tree goes straight up hee hee


This is just too easy for the jokes to start rolling in. Most of which will get me banned.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10815
Quoting IKE:
Shutters up?



Battened down the hatches, hunkerdown, He's gonna blow! lol jk
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Road map for 98L Part two ??

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643. JLPR
Quoting IKE:
Shutters up?



What shutters?, get out of there XD
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
642. IKE
Shutters up?

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640. JLPR
Quoting kmanislander:


I would say 15N 47.5W but definitely much improved since this morning when it was only a limited convergence line. " Yellow " would not be an unreasonable conclusion IMO.


yep definitely
you can see the convection crawling towards the center

This one doesn't want to die yet
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
family tree goes straight up hee hee
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635 - Hightech Redneck here... (and Jewish too..)

yes, I know wierd combo... What can I say, you can't pick your parents.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10815
Here's a page showing some of the damage from Hugo in the Charlotte / Mecklinburg Co. area of North Carolina....

Link
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will<<< educated redneck
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634. JLPR
Quoting iceman55:
I miss being 11


I miss being 11 too :|
life was simpler lol
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223
Quoting Hurricane009:
Weather456, was it originally forecast to snow in colorado???


sorry but you are asking something I'm not aware of. lol.

But you can look it up.... look at the forecast that was made earlier and see if it verified. I will try to find that info for you.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Quoting Grothar:


How astute of you that you figured that out. Our educational system must be better than we thought.


lmao you go man
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Grothar - We have an educational system? When did this happen?
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10815

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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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