Tracking storm surges and flooding from hurricanes

December 18, 2012

As Superstorm Sandy demonstrated, one of the most dangerous parts of a hurricane is not just the wind, but storm surges that can pose the greatest threats to life and property, and have devastating coastal impacts.

Thanks to a new application developed by Benton McGee of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), officials can now record the precise time the storm-tide arrives, how ocean and inland water levels change during a storm, the depth of the storm-tide throughout the storm and how long it takes for water to recede.

This real-time picture of the storm-surge is beneficial to federal, state and local emergency preparedness officials, emergency responders, scientists and researchers. The sensors capture critical data that is used to assess storm damage, coordinate flood-response activities in affected areas and evaluate the impact on structures such as buildings, bridges and levees. The data also is used to improve computer models that forecast future coastal inundation and prepare storm-tide warnings.

Robert Mason, deputy chief of the USGS’s Office of Surface Water, believes that the collection of this data is a real game-changer.

“We have the ability to report and use data essentially in real time so that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, can take our data and more precisely know which buildings are flooded and to what depths. It used to take weeks to start the recovery process, but now it is cut down to days,” he said.


Benton McGee, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

Since 2005, the USGS has deployed the sensors during 10 different hurricanes occurring in the Gulf Coast and along the East Coast. For Sandy, which registered a record storm surge, they deployed more than 150 sensors from Chesapeake Bay to Massachusetts.

McGee said the sensors have allowed USGS and other scientists to more accurately model what the likely impacts of storm surge will be in future storms, which can ultimately save lives. Prior to the development of these sensors, he said, there was limited data available to study the effects of storm surge.

From Hurricane Andrew in 1992 through Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the USGS would collect high water marks in the impact area to create maps illustrating the extent of the storms’ surge impact.

“We were like detectives coming in and reconstructing the magnitude of the storm surge based on the devastation left behind based on the event,” McGee said. “However, it was always a reactive process.”

McGee, who lived through Katrina’s landfall and assisted with the rescue of survivors, wanted to be more proactive. Less than a month after Katrina, McGee, a hydrologist, with his colleagues at the Louisiana Water Science Center, took an instrument used to collect ground water data and created the first-of-its-kind application for measuring the height and intensity of a storm surge.

For McGee and his team, the timing was perfect. Hurricane Rita was moving east and projected to make landfall in southwest Louisiana. They selected a 4,000 square mile area to deploy 47 sensors on objects and structures such as trees, fire hydrants and damns that would be inundated with storm surge but would most likely remain after the surge.

“Ben is courageous,” said Mason. “He was willing to take some risks to put our plan in action for Hurricane Rita, but he did so safely and intelligently.”

McGee said they found that by recording water levels and the barometric pressure, the sensors could capture the movement of the water inland and create an accurate record of the magnitude and timing of the storm surge. “This was an extremely unique data set at this point in time,” he added.

McGee and his team found that the sensors showed that the storm surge during Rita actually was higher than shown by older types of indicators.

“The sensors are now viewed as the gold standard in measuring the extent, timing and magnitude of storm surge,” said McGee.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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