May 24, 2013

Hurricane center: Beware of the storm surge

Jennifer Kay / The Associated Press

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Residents evacuate their flooded neighborhood in LaPlace, La., in this Aug. 30, 2012, photo, as Hurricane Isaac's winds drove a storm surge into portions of the coast between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.


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Separate storm surge warnings, similar to current tropical storm or hurricane warnings, will be rolled out in 2015.

The hurricane center dropped estimates for storm surge and inland flooding from its wind scale three years ago because the predictions often didn't match what actually happened. For example, Hurricane Ike was a Category 2 with winds of at least 96 mph when it hit the Texas coast in 2008, but its storm surges was much greater than a typical Category 2 storm.

"Storm surges can behave so differently from storm to storm that you can't just apply a single number or use a scale like you can with the wind. That's been tough, trying to get people to understand that every storm is different," Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist who has taken the lead on social science at the hurricane center.

Berg said Hurricane Irene didn't produce the storm surge in 2011 that some expected, and the following year, many people were surprised by Sandy's extreme tides and flooding.

Still, the advisories for Sandy were dramatically improved from the ones for Ike, explaining storm surge in layman's terms and easy-to-read bullet points instead of long pages of jargon that required meteorologists and emergency officials to make their own calculations.

The progress may seem subtle, but Berg believes it's helping emergency managers make better decisions about whether to order evacuations.

"For as bad as Sandy was, it almost makes you wonder what would have happened had we not made some of these changes since Ike," Berg said. "I would hope that because of these new changes, they're more educated and they're more prepared to make those evacuation decisions when needed."



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