Surviving a Storm Surge

At 6:10 a.m. on August 29, 2005, the category 3 Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, Louisiana. A 2-hour and 22-minute drive away on the Mississippi coast, Judith and Bill Bradford were waiting out the storm at their home in Waveland, Mississippi. The house had never flooded in past hurricanes and since the couple worked in the medical field, they were going to be needed as responders. At 8:30 a.m., Judith recorded a storm surge in the front yard. Within ten minutes, the Bradford family had to quickly retreat upstairs away from the water. Before the water finally retreated, the Bradford’s home was filled with 10 feet of flood water.

The picture below was taken from a window on the Bradford’s second floor. Bill rescued that man, named Glen, who was floating on what was left of the roof of his house with his dog, Pinky. His other dog and three of his birds were killed when his house collapsed.

Man floating on the part of a roof in a storm surge

Judith and Bill Bradford took a picture of this man before they rescued him.

You can read more of the Bradford’s story here.

The most hurricane-related deaths are due to storm surge.

  • In 1970, the Bhola Cyclone storm surge in the Bay of Bengal killed 500,000.
  • A 2008 storm surge killed 138,000 in Myanmar.
  • A typhoon in the Philippines caused a storm surge that killed 6,000 in 2013.
  • The United States’ most devasting modern-era hurricane, Hurricane Katrina caused a historical 27.8-foot storm surge in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Due to the storm surge, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,836 people.

In fact, the National Hurricane Center reports that 88% of deaths during a hurricane are due to storm surge.

What is a Storm Surge?

storm surge covering the docks at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi

A storm surge is a rising of the water level in the ocean due to the high winds of a hurricane. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kimberly Rae Moore)

A storm surge is a rising of the water level in the ocean due to the high winds of a hurricane. The hurricane’s winds blowing on the ocean’s surface causes an up and down flow of the water. When the hurricane hits shallow water, this flow is disrupted by the ocean’s floor and the water can’t go down, so it rises and moves forward to shore. This surge of water moves as fast as the hurricane and can rise to 10 feet in just a matter of minutes.

The storm tide, which is the ocean’s regular tide mixed with the surge, the ocean’s waves, and rainfall from the storm all contribute to the storm surge. The stronger the winds and the bigger the storm, the larger the storm surge.

A storm surge’s devastation can travel for miles. The surge resulting from Hurricane Ike in 2008 traveled 30 miles inland in Texas and Louisiana.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Katrina, a category 3 hurricane caused a 28-foot storm surge; Hurricane Ike, a category 2 storm caused a 20-foot surge; and Hurricane Irene, a category 1, resulted in an 11-foot storm surge, as examples.

Weather Underground explains the powerful and devastating force of a storm surge:

“One cubic yard of sea water weighs 1,728 pounds — almost a ton. Trees, pieces of buildings and other debris float on top of the storm surge and act as battering rams that can cave in any buildings unfortunate enough to stand in the way.”


Preparing for a Storm Surge

A storm surge can begin before a hurricane hits landfall and warnings can be issued up to 48 hours before the threat. If there is an evacuation notice, it is imperative to leave as soon as possible. It is the only way you can be sure you’ll survive the possible scourge of a storm surge.

Heed the Warning

Since flooding can begin while the hurricane is still offshore, you need to evacuate as soon as you possibly can. Low-lying roads may already flood, and coastal roads can become impassable quickly. It only takes two feet of water to float off virtually any-sized car, truck or SUV. In some cases, these types of roads are your only escape route. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Senior Airman William Killett of the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Civil Engineering Squadron, comforts a dog rescued from the rooftop of a flooded home in the town of Braithwaite, La., Aug. 30, 2012.

Members of the Air National Guard rescue a dog after Hurricane Issac. U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Dan Farrell, 159th Fighter Wing, LA ANG/RELEASED)

Prior to Hurricane Season

  1. To be fully prepared, start planning before hurricane season begins. This includes saving money to pay for gas, hotel rooms, supplies and keeping your car in good shape. Many survivors of storm surges report that the reason why they stayed behind and ‘rode out’ the hurricane is that they did not have the financial ability to leave.
  2. Discuss getting extra medical supplies and prescription medications with your doctors to store in case of an emergency. For those with disabilities, special attention might be necessary to organizing how to evacuate.
  3. Develop a plan of where you will go and which route you will take. Pick the closest possible place—friends or family who live in a safer area, a hotel or local shelter. Include multiple alternative routes to each location. Drive those routes and become familiar with them, note any hazards or barriers of getting to safety.
  4. Make a hurricane survival kit. Include a flashlight, sturdy shoes, batteries, a first aid kit, water, a NOAA-approved weather alert battery-powered and alternative-powered radio, personal sanitation items, maps, rain gear, prescription meds, cash and blankets. Pack everything in an easy grab-and-go backpack or duffel bag.
  5. Put copies of all your important documents—including your homeowners’ insurance—on a flash drive. Keep those flash drives in a waterproof bag or box and put it in your emergency kit.

Before and During a Hurricane

  • Keep a full tank of gas in your car.
  • Bring in or secure patio furniture, grills and yard equipment.
  • Board up the house.
  • Turn off utilities.
  • Leave town early to avoid traffic congestion and possible stoppages.
  • Take your pets with you. Include water and food for them when packing your emergency kit.
Six Flags Over Louisiana under water after Hurricane Katrina

Six Flags Over Louisiana remained submerged two weeks after Hurricane Katrina (Bob McMillan/FEMA Photo)

If you find yourself unexpectedly caught in a storm surge, go to the highest level of your house. Your only option might be the roof. The attic isn’t necessarily the safest place to be, as rising water can trap you. Keep a good ax in an easy-to-access location to chop your way through the roof to escape the attic if you are stuck.

Keep your eye on NOAA’s storm surge prediction map, which is released upon a hurricane warning or watch and always listen to your emergency weather alert radio for the latest updates.

A storm surge rises quickly and is potentially deadly. There is no guarantee first responders will be able to rescue you if you choose to stay behind. With some forethought and pre-planning, surviving a storm surge is possible. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Do you live in a hurricane-prone area? How do you prepare? Tell us in the comment section.

Need more guidance on how to prepare for a hurricane? Click here.

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