In a National Hurricane Center report released last week on Hurricane Harvey,which hit Texas in August as a Category 4 storm, officials lament the 65 lives lost to freshwater flooding but tout the lack of storm surge deaths even as up to 10 feet of hurricane-driven saltwater charged ashore.
But it wasn’t just Harvey. Hurricane center officials said no storm surge deaths are believed to have occurred in hurricanes Irma or Maria — both Category 4s — or Category 1 Hurricane Nate, which landed near Biloxi, Miss. on Oct. 8.
The lack of storm surge deaths is being attributed by the NHC to its new storm surge watch and warning system, which debuted operationally with Harvey. While the system is not yet used in Puerto Rico, emergency managers had hurricane center-provided maps in order to make evacuation decisions based on storm surge.
“We can argue that what caused it was luck, chance, geography, but you would be hard pressed to convince me it happened by itself,” said NHC storm surge specialist Jamie Rhome about the absence of storm surge deaths. “Somewhere along the way, this 10-year effort moved the needle.”
My birthday is coming up again, and as usual, I’m dreading it.
But not for the reason you might think.
Every year around this time, I start to see news reports of amorphous blobs forming in the East Atlantic. Early in the summer, they pop up every so often. But come the end of August, the blobs start to form with greater frequency.
Growing up in South Florida, I had more than a few birthday parties postponed because of a weather event. Then I moved up north for college and work, and I enjoyed a few storm-free birthdays.
But when I moved back to Florida in the late 1980s, the memories came back. They weren’t good.
I mostly remember my anxious mother criss-crossing the windows with masking tape (don’t do this) and explaining to me why we need to keep the windows open on one side of the house during a storm, for the pressure.
Now I have my own house, and it’s my job to keep it safe. This is a task I have grown to hate because of one particular birthday and one particular storm.
In 2004, I turned 40 and decided to throw myself a party: A real party, at a restaurant, with a few close friends.
But then the blobs starting forming off the coast of Africa. I tried to ignore them, but my childhood years of hurricane panic were too deeply ingrained.
So even as I pondered which dress to wear for the party (flouncy A-line or the LBD?), I kept one eye on a threatening blob. OK, both eyes.
OK, I obsessively checked the 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m, and 8 p.m, updates on five websites I used to track storms. I don’t think I’m alone in doing this, by the way.
The truth is, I knew about hurricanes. My family had gone through Hurricane Andrew, which leveled parts of Miami in 1992 and transported my in-law’s roof to a neighbor’s house down the street.
But in the intervening years, we hadn’t had another big storm. And it was my birthday, right? On a Saturday, no less. Wonderful!
Except the blob was now Hurricane Frances, and it was churning our way.
The day before the storm hit, I got a call from the restaurant.
“Uh, I just wanted you to know we’re going to be closed tomorrow and…”
“Noooo!” I practically shouted into the phone. “It’s my birthday!!”
Silence, then finally: “Look, lady, there’s a hurricane coming and we’re not going to be here.” Click.
I wish I could tell you our house was a model of preparedness, but it was not. This is because I am married to an optimist. My husband simply did not believe the storm was real, or was really going to hit, or was really going to be much of a big deal.
So even though I had purchased water, batteries and a few loaves of bread, he didn’t do much in the way of prepping.
As the wind started blowing, the patio furniture still was outside. So were the garbage cans. My father and I eventually brought everything in and jammed it into the dining room.
Thus, I spent my birthday night not drinking champagne and laughing with my friends, but huddled on the dining room floor in the middle of all that patio furniture, listening to a scratchy radio and cursing our lack of hurricane shutters.
We make it through the storm fine except we lost power for two weeks, which turned me into a bitter woman.
And there was still the matter of my birthday party.
What had happened to it?
We rescheduled the party, of course. It was held two weeks later, on Saturday, Sept. 18, at that same restaurant. My dear friend told me the timing was perfect because in Hebrew, 18 is “chai”or life, which means good luck.
We had a great time at my party. I laughed with my friends and we drank champagne.
Then a few days later, another blob formed.
I’m happy to report my husband was roger-on-the-spot for that storm. The flashlights were loaded with fresh batteries. The patio furniture was STACKED inside the house. He even arranged for us to spend the night at a friend’s house, which had shutters.
And after Hurricane Wilma hit us the following year, in 2005, we finally bought hurricane shutters for our house, plus a new roof.
A Category 4 hurricane dubbed the “double-header devil” drove into the side of Fort Lauderdale in 1947, pushing a surge of seawater over Palm Beach County 11 feet deep and dissolving miles of Ocean Boulevard.
The storm, which earned its nickname because it reportedly had two center eyes at one point, devastated the coast.
Since then, condominiums have spread like honeycome on the beach, and one hurricane researcher says Palm Beach County is more vulnerable to storm surge because residents haven’t experienced what a hurricane-driven ocean is capable of in more than 50 years.
Hal Needham, who has a Ph.D in climatology from Louisiana State University, has spent eight years analyzing storm surge data as part of his U-Surge Project, which looks at the histories of storm surge events in coastal areas.
Last month, he posted his Palm Beach County assessment, choosing the area to analyze first over more flood-prone regions because he believes residents have a false sense of security when it comes to surge. The analysis, which focuses on West Palm Beach and Lake Worth, can be found at www.u-surge.net.
“From a psychological understanding, I think Palm Beach is really underestimating their storm surge vulnerability,” Needham said. “What happens if the 11-foot storm surge from 1947 repeats itself? It could happen this year.”
While Florida hasn’t had a hurricane make landfall in a decade, Palm Beach County did get a glimpse of the power of storm surge during 2004’s Hurricane Frances. The storm, which made landfall as a Category 2 on Hutchinson Island, came with 6.3 feet of surge, according to Needham, and tore 240 feet off of the Lake Worth Pier.
“The idea is just to bring public awareness,” said Needham, who is the director of the Center for Coastal Heritage and Resiliency at the Galveston Historical Foundation. “Mississippi may be more physically vulnerable than Palm Beach, but if you talk to people there they say, yeah, we have a major problem with storm surge and flooding.”
A 2014 study published by the American Meteorological Society found 82 percent of deaths directly attributable to Atlantic tropical cyclones between 1963 and 2012 were caused by storm surge, rain or surf. Just 8 percent of hurricane-related deaths were wind-related.
“While people think of wind first and foremost, that’s not what is killing the most people,” said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb during the 2016 National Hurricane Conference in Orlando.
Yet, the same 2014 study, notes that a survey of coastal residents found “nearly three out of five respondents have never heard or read an estimate of the potential storm surge risk in their area.”
In Palm Beach County, the hurricane evacuation maps are built around storm surge threats over wind. The point emergency managers push is to “run from surge, hide from wind.”
“The biggest thing we do is try to disassociate the category of storm from the surge,” said Michael Resto, emergency management specialist with Palm Beach County’s Division of Emergency Management. “The category of storm as we know it has everything to do with wind and nothing to do with water.”
Consider Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Its strongest winds never came close to Palm Beach County, but it blew in powerful waves that breached Manalapan’s sea walls, pulled Lantana’s lifeguard station into the sea, sank a floating burger stand in the Intracoastal and undermined oceanfront pools.
According to Needham, Sandy’s storm surge was just 2.29 feet as measured at the Lake Worth Pier.
A year later, Tropical Storm Isaac packed little punch, yet dumped as much as 18 inches of rain, leaving western communities under several feet of water for days.
“Long story short, Palm Beach County is vulnerable to inundation, but because of climatological factors and a bit of good luck, the area has avoided any substantial storm surges for more than 50 years,” Needham wrote in his U-Surge analysis. “We can only hope residents realize their luck will run out and salt water will once again inundate their coastal communities.”
And although Florida enjoyed a more than 10-year hurricane drought after 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Hermine made landfall in the Big Bend area in September 2016. And the east coast experienced a scary swipe from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.
Still, HomeInsurance.com has ranked Florida’s cities based on their evaluation of NOAA-identified storms from 1965 to October 2014, doling out scores based on the number of storm events, number of storm-related deaths, property damage and storm-related injuries.