With Tropical Storm Emily expected off the coast of North Carolina later this week, residents and tourists could see a new National Weather Service effort to warn people about the most deadly threat from tropical storms and hurricanes.
For the first time, the weather service has begun to issue watches and warnings for coastal flooding caused by storm surge. The new alert system is intended to reduce the number of people killed by storm surges, which accounted for about half of hurricane-related deaths from 1963 to 2012.
Storm surge is the water that builds up underneath a tropical storm as it moves across the ocean. When the water reaches the shore, it can ‘surge’ into coastal towns and move up rivers, causing widespread flooding.
Storm surge was responsible for most of the fatalities from Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005. Nine-foot storm surges in New York and New Jersey caused billions of dollars of damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
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And although most of the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew was due to torrential rain inland, storm surge flooding did have a significant impact on the Outer Banks. The sandy, barrier islands are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, said Drew Pearson, the emergency management director for Dare County. Pearson said the new storm surge warnings will be a great tool for alerting the public to hurricane risks.
“I always say, it’s not the wind, it’s the water that’s going to get people,” he said. “We can shelter ourselves from the wind pretty easily, but people need to run from the water.”
Tropical Storm Emily is projected to cross central Florida on Monday before turning up the East Coast, with the center of the storm remaining offshore when it passes the Carolinas on Wednesday and Thursday. While it should weaken over Florida, but Emily is expected to strengthen to a tropical storm again over the Atlantic, with wind speeds between 39 and 73 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Richard Bandy, the meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service’s Morehead City office, said hazards like storm surge can occur even during storms with low wind speeds.
“Just focusing on the track of the storm and the category of the storm is a big mistake,” Bandy said.
The new storm surge alerts will be issued in addition to the current watches and warnings, said Brian Zachary, a storm surge expert at the National Hurricane Center. A storm surge watch will be sent out 48 hours before the surge is expected, while a warning will be issued 36 hours before.
Zachary said the entire North Carolina coastline is very vulnerable to storm surges, especially the Outer Banks.
“Those kinds of forces can make moves inland and can knock down structures, and it’s very difficult to predict exactly what’s going to occur,” he said.
In addition to a map showing the areas at risk for storm surges, Zachary said storm surge alerts will be sent out to mobile phones.
“This is really aiming to help guide evacuation decisions and to get people to evacuate,” he said. “I think nowadays if your cellphone goes off and it says you’re in a storm surge warning, you’re going to take some sort of action.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an above-average hurricane season, with more storms than usual. But the predictions aren’t as important as preparation, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesperson for the National Hurricane Center.
“The numbers don’t matter,” Feltgen said. “What matters is if a hurricane is going to hit you, and if you’re prepared for it.”
Sam Killenberg: 919-829-4582