Understanding and Preparing for Hurricane Storm Surges

As coastal populations grow and decades of increased hurricane activity arrive, the risk of drowning thousands of people living in low-lying areas increases.  Recently, Hurricane Katrina has served as a wakeup call to remind us of the power of storm surge flooding.  During Hurricane Katrina, several hundred people on the Mississippi coast were killed by 20 to 30 foot storm surges.  The State of Florida has the longest coastline in the nation and is the state most impacted by hurricanes based on historical records.  Most of Florida’s coastal areas are vulnerable to storm surge flooding because of low elevation.  Our ability to save people’s lives and mitigate property loss due to storm surge flooding relies heavily upon the capacity to predict the surge and convey this information to the public.

The State of Florida is completing a state-wide LIDAR data collection for all coastal areas at a cost of $25 million.  This high-resolution elevational data makes Florida the best in the nation in understanding and preparing for storm surges.  The first objective of the proposed research is to develop a real-time storm surge forecast system using robust, fast structured SLOSH and CEST models.  The second objective is to examine the feasibility of performing real-time forecast using the unstructured SELFE model, which can represent complex coastal and estuarine topography and bathymetry.  The third objective is to improve surge forecasts through updating model basins along the Florida coast using LIDAR data.

The real-time forecast of storm surges will provide the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the coastal county emergency management offices, the Red Cross, insurance companies, and the public with critical information for better planning, decision-making, and response to hurricane impacts.  The forecast will provide scientific data for making regulations and policy related to storm surge flooding.  The system has the potential to be expanded to forecast storm surges along the U.S. East and Gulf coasts to serve all the people living in coastal counties.

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