Do you know what storm surge means to you?
Studies show many coastal residents don't know enough about the dangers
borne by rising waters.
Another hurricane season is upon us and, for coastal residents, that means the usual:
1) The annual predictions of how many storms forecasters prognosticate will be a problem this season.
2) A round of warnings about who's at risk and how overdue some areas are for a landfalling storm.
3) Studies that remind us how unprepared some coastal dwellers are should a major storm event head their way.
Nos. 1 and 2 were easy to find: Up to 18 named storms, with 6-10 of those breaching hurricane status (74 mph winds) and 3-6 of those having the potential to become major hurricanes (winds in excess of 111 mph). Almost every article that mentioned these numbers also mentioned that it's been five years since a major hurricane made a U.S. landfall, inferring (or even flatly saying) that means we're overdue.
An aside: The last "major" hurricane referenced as making landfall on the continental U.S. was Wilma in 2005. Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston in 2008 and is listed as the third most costly Atlantic hurricane so far, was "only" a strong Category 2. That -- and seeing the images from the Bolivar Peninsula where Ike made landfall -- should give any coastal resident pause.
So far, the study that's been most revealing (or concerning) was one where people along the coast were asked to pick the elevation of their homes above sea level. Less than one in five got the number right -- and more than half of those asked didn't even try to hazard a guess. Combine this with a separate study that showed how much people do (and don't) know about storm surge (the higher tidal water pushed ahead of an approaching storm), and a problem becomes clear: Many people who live along the coast don't know how at risk they are to rising tides and crashing waves, and they may not understand to listen when the call comes to evacuate in the face of a storm heading their way2222.
One estimate puts some 11 million people living in places at risk for storm surge -- not an insubstantial number. And there's no good reason not to know your property's risk to rising tides; the potential for flooding based on the severity of the storm is a staple of forecasters and emergency operations people alike, and surge maps are commonplace in every coastal county susceptible to storms.
But to find out how high your specific property is, you have a couple of resources to check:
1) If your property was surveyed in order to be sold, check that. In many coastal areas, the land elevation is listed as part of the property details.
2) Most coastal communities are part of the National Flood Insurance Program, which enables resident to get access to federal flood insurance to cover up to $250,000 of a property's value. That also means that your community has been mapped to determine flood risks areas...which may also yield an elevation map for your lot. (If you have a flood insurance policy, the lot elevation may be part of its documentation, since it's part of how they determine rates.)
3) If all else fails, check with your local government (who may have sophisticated mapping software or systems that can help determine your property's elevation) or a surveyor (who may be able to determine elevation for a fee).
While you're doing this research (assuming you're not in the 20% of the population who know their lot elevation), here's three more things to do:
1) Determine the storm surge category your property is listed under; it's usually by the severity (wind speed) of the storm.
2) Look at potential flooding-risk areas in your neighborhood that you need to take into account should a storm approach...low-lying areas, places that don't drain off quickly, roadways that could pose problems.
3) Look at any potential evacuation routes for their risk of flooding. Your lot could be high and dry, but if you decided you need to evacuate in the face of an approaching storm does any part of your route to safety at risk for being under water when you have to drive through it?
Remember, wider beaches, tougher buildings and better infrastructure can make it easier to survive a hurricane. But a big storm pushing a lot of water ahead of it can overwhelm even the most prepared coastal areas if the conditions are right for a disastrous deluge. A storm's surge can be the most damaging part of a hurricane, and the relentless rise of the waters can be the most dangerous part for residents.
The bottom line: Storm surge is a real risk in coastal storms, but understanding its impact on your plans (and preparing ahead for dealing with it) makes it a risk many can manage.