Storm surge

As the climate changes and ocean temperatures and sea levels rise, flooding from hurricanes has become more serious. That’s why it’s important for people who live in places vulnerable to hurricanes to prepare for the dangers associated with flooding and storm surge.

How climate change is influencing storm surge

Many people associate hurricanes with high winds, but storm surge – the wall of water pushed ashore by the storm – can be an equal or even greater danger for people and property.

“We want people to know that they can hide from the wind, but they need to run from the water,” says Jay Wiggins, who directs the Emergency Management-Homeland Security Agency in Glynn County, Georgia.

'We want people to know that they can hide from the wind, but they need to run from the water.' Click To Tweet

Water weighs about 1,700 pounds per cubic yard. As it’s pushed by hurricane winds, it can act like a battering ram, pummelling the shore and buildings.

Sea levels are rising in substantial part from warming ocean waters, melting glaciers, and ice sheets. Because of that sea-level rise, storm surges can inundate more coastline than they did in the past. Storm surges are particularly dangerous when they occur during high tide, because they can raise water levels by as much as 20 feet.

Although the overall number of hurricanes isn’t known to be increasing, there is evidence that climate change is making some storms worse. For example, several studies have found that climate change increased the odds of the intense precipitation that fell during Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas in 2017. A 2013 study projected a 45-87 percent increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes – the most dangerous categories – in the Atlantic Basin during this century.

How to prepare for a hurricane

Before a hurricane even pops up on the forecast, there are a few steps that you can take to prepare. Consider investing in flood insurance – or if you’ve already purchased it, familiarize yourself with the policy. Sign up for your community’s emergency alert system.

If a hurricane is imminent, it’s important to take additional precautions to minimize potential damage and threats to your safety. Here are some key steps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends:

  • Familiarize yourself with evacuation routes and plan to follow local evacuation orders if possible.
  • If you are not ordered or are unable to evacuate, store enough food, water, supplies, and medications for at least three days.
  • Put important documents in a safe, waterproof place.
  • Charge all electronic devices that you might need.
  • Turn your fridge to the coldest setting so that if you lose power, it will stay cooler for longer.
  • Cover windows with plywood boards and place sandbags around doorways to reduce the risk of water damage – note that some flood insurance policies may cover up to $1,000 in avoidance measures to protect your property.
  • Bring lightweight objects indoors.
  • Create a plan to contact family and friends. Save phone calls for emergencies because the lines will likely be busy; rely mostly on text and social media to communicate.

What to do during a hurricane

FEMA warns to not walk, swim, or drive through floodwaters. Floods can develop quickly, so stay alert for the potential of flash flooding.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready campaign, six inches of water can knock a person down and one foot of water can be enough to pick up some vehicles.

Avoid flood water. It may contain dangerous debris and be contaminated. Floodwaters also pose the danger of electrocution if electronics or downed power lines are exposed to water.

And creatures like snakes may lurk on or beneath the surface.

What to do after a hurricane

Before you begin to clean up, listen to authorities for further instructions. In addition, follow these FEMA guidelines.

  • Stay off the roads unless it’s an emergency.
  • Avoid driving in or making contact with floodwaters.
  • Beware of electrocution. Don’t touch electrical equipment if it’s wet or while you’re standing in water.
  • Use a generator or other gasoline-powered machinery only outdoors and away from windows.
  • Always use heavy gloves and boots while cleaning to protect yourself from sharp objects and biting creatures.
  • If your home was exposed to water, it likely contains mold. Consult these EPA guidelines on protecting your safety while cleaning mold after a flood.

ChavoBart Digital Media contributed reporting.

AUTHOR
Brooke Bauman is an intern at Yale Climate Connections and a student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying environmental science, geography, and journalism.

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