While the detailed maps were first used experimentally in 2014’s Hurricane Arthur, it wasn’t until Tropical Depression Nine, which eventually became Hurricane Hermine, crept into the Gulf of Mexico with a bead on the Big Bend area of Florida that they were made operational.
“Historically speaking, storm surge is the biggest reason for deaths in a hurricane or tropical cyclone,” said Jamie Rhome, storm surge specialist for the National Hurricane Center. “Our wind-based warnings are really good, so now we are just trying to advance our surge-based products.”
Rhome said there’s no rigid benchmark for when the maps will be issued with each individual storm, but that typically they accompany either wind-based watches or warnings.
That means it’s quite possible Palm Beach County could see similar maps this year with color-coded storm surge depths snaking up into the Jupiter Inlet and painting the shores of the Intracoastal.
“Anything that can be done to communicate better is an improvement,” said Hugh Willoughby, a retired 27-year veteran of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hurricane division and a professor at Florida International University. “They want people to know that you don’t want to be somewhere that will be underwater.”
Between 1963 and 2012, 49 percent of tropical cyclone deaths were storm surge related. Another 27 percent were attributed to rain accumulation.
Just 8 percent of deaths were from wind.
Rhome said the hurricane center formally started working on storm surge maps after 2008’s Hurricane Ike made landfall along the north end of Galveston Island, Texas. Up to 20 feet of storm surge washed ashore and is blamed for at least 13 deaths, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“Back then, the Saffir-Simpson wind scale included surge,” Rhome said. “Ike exceeded the surge values on the scale, and that’s when we knew it was not the best communication tool for surge.”