Powerful Hurricane Matthew will send its strongest winds into Palm Beach County near high tide, which could enhance the potential for deadly storm surge.
More than 4,000 people are riding out Hurricane Matthew in one of the counties shelters after emergency managers ordered evacuations of mobile homes and barrier islands.
They are using new maps from the National Hurricane Center in making those decisions. Those maps debuted during Hurricane Hermine, which hit Florida’s panhandle as a Category 1 storm in August.
“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.”
In a worse-case scenario, Palm Beach County could see between 3 and 6 feet of storm surge above dry ground. Areas in the Space Coast, including Kennedy Space Center, could see more than 9 feet of storm surge above dry ground.
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.
“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.