Monday, September 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Storm Surge

Photo by LBC9 News

During the extensive media coverage of Hurricane Irma this week anyone listening to the radio, watching television, or reading the newspaper heard endless discussion about storm surge.  Some agencies and entities estimated that places on the Southwest Florida coast would experience 10 to 15 foot storm surge and along with that discussion came all sorts of angst and misinformation about what exactly is storm surge.

I was petrified by what was forecast to happen in Florida and especially in Sarasota.  I had images of a tsunami-like force gushing water into de-watered areas causing all sorts of havoc and destruction.  Reports began to accumulate about how far from shore water had moved near Marco Island, then Naples, then Fort Myers, then Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota Bay and finally Tampa Bay.  With each incoming description my heart rate increased and my blood pressure climbed because I was convinced that a tsunami like the one we witnessed 15 or so years ago in Sumatra and Thailand was about to occur here.  

My angst subsided substantially about 10:00 pm last night when Weather Channel meteorologist Stephanie Abrams, reporting from the balcony of a hotel just up the road in Bradenton, explained that storm surge is not a tsunami.  Its a gradual refilling of areas that had been de-watered but by no stretch of the imagination is it a repeat of what happened in Phuket Thailand in 2004.

Thinking about what Stephanie reported I wondered if maybe the issue isn't what the water does but how the process is explained to the public.   Storm surge estimates are developed by the National Hurricane Center in Miami, a vital arm of the National Weather Service. Perhaps the old adage of "Its not what you say but how you say it" applied to reporting on storm surge and it was words used in that reporting that scared so many people.  Maybe the answer is to use a different word or phrase that is more descriptive of what actually happens.

That said this morning I wrote the following letter to the National Hurricane Center and asked them to not stop forecasting the phenomenon but to use different, less ominous, words to describe it.  Whether I hear from the Hurricane Center is up to them, but I had to try.

Public Information Office
National Hurricane Center
11691 SW 17th Street
Miami, Florida 33165

Re:  Renaming “Storm Surge”

Dear NHC

First of all, thanks so much for the yeoman’s effort all of you put into keeping us informed and safe during Hurricane Irma.  You should each receive an award for your efforts.  That said, I have a question and suggestion about storm surge that I’d like someone to answer.

Beginning with the first images of the “dry” bay on Long Island in the Bahamas we heard endless mention of storm surge and were warned about its dangers.  Then, later, we saw water recede from Marco Island, then Naples, then here on Sarasota Bay, and finally Tampa Bay.  In each instance, we were warned about the impending dangers of the surge when water comes “rushing back” to fill the space that had been de-watered.  The images many of us had, myself included, was that water would gush back to fill the void like how a tsunami functions.

However, it wasn’t until Stephanie Abrams from The Weather Channel reported from Bradenton during the peak of the storm here that anyone explained to the public how the water doesn’t come back in a rush like in a tsunami.  Instead it filters back sort of like the tide but on steroids (my words, not hers).  Thus from Ms. Abrams’ description the “surge” isn’t a surge as much as a refilling.

I hold a BS degree with a double major in geology and in biology with double minors in math and in physics.  My Master’s degree is in wildlife biology and I am retired from 31 years as a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. With that much science in my background, and especially geology and physics, I still thought the “surge” was going to be of tsunami proportions.  However, it isn’t.  If I was this misinformed and concerned can you imagine the confusion experienced by a local bank teller or the janitor at the nearby elementary school?

I’m writing to ask if there is a way for the National Hurricane Center to develop a different term or phrase to use for what is currently called a “surge” because it is not.  It’s something akin to a resoaking or a refilling but it is not the tsunami-like gush of water that so much of the public believes it is.  Perhaps use of a different phrase to describe the phenomenon will reduce the degree of angst among the public (and me) the next time we are faced with a land-falling tempest like Irma.

Again, thanks for all that you did during this storm.  And please consider my suggestion. 

cc:  Stephanie Abrams, The Weather Channel