The Dangers of Storm Surge

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Hurricane Ian storm surge. (Credit: WINK News)

Hurricane Ian’s lessons on the power of water

Paul Barnett remembers the day he and his wife Janice came home after Hurricane Ian to find that their historic bungalow near downtown Fort Myers had been flooded from the storm. “When we walked in, it was an unbelievable sight,” Barnett recalls. “The refrigerator was upside down, things had floated around to different rooms, there was mud everywhere. We were heartsick.”

They walked through the house, cataloging what had been destroyed: an antique barrel desk held together with horse glue, now falling apart; filing cabinets filled with a wet mush of important papers; most of Barnett’s clothes. “I’m tall,” he says, “so all my long-sleeved shirts and pants were hanging down into the muck.”

In the parlor, they discovered that their piano—a 1909 Steinway concert grand—had been sitting underwater. When they tried the keys, the keys stuck. The soundboard was cracked. They knew the piano was ruined. “We used to joke that when I showed Janice that piano, she decided to marry me,” Barnett says.

In the garage, Barnett found a sight to bring a grown man to his knees: his cherry-red ’63 Cadillac convertible was banged up and waterlogged. “I’d spent the past four years restoring it mechanically and cosmetically,” Barnett says. “It was as close to perfect as you can get.”

Like many of those affected by Hurricane Ian, the Barnetts never counted on the kind of flooding that the storm brought with it. They’re not alone, said Dr. Cody Fritz, storm surge specialist at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the devastation witnessed in Fort Myers and on Fort Myers Beach showcased just how powerful and dangerous storm surge can be. Storm surge can inundate communities quickly with devastating force, powerful enough to move cars and boats and even wipe homes off their foundation. For this reason, storm surge has historically been the leading cause of death from tropical cyclones.”

As the Barnetts learned, it’s not just communities directly on the coast that need to be wary of dangerous storm surge. In addition, as Hurricane Ian proved, nearly every place across Southwest Florida is susceptible to the dangers of flooding.

“Storm surge is often one of the greatest dangers to life and property from a hurricane,” says Caitlyn Gillespie, deputy state meteorologist with the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “And it’s not solely devastating along the coastline. It’s an inland threat, as well.”

Gillespie warns that those in the path of a weather event should not rely on a storm’s category number as a predictor of safety. “Even Categories 1 and 2 can produce significant life-threatening storm surge,” she says. “A mere six inches of rushing flood water can knock over a standing adult. It takes only two feet of water to sweep away most vehicles. Water is extremely powerful. It’s not something to mess around with.”

Know Your Zone, Know Your Home

The Florida Division of Emergency Management is encouraging all Florida residents to determine the risks of their living situation long before hurricane season arrives. The first step is to determine which evacuation zone a home is located in — A, B, C, D, E or F. The website provides a link to the Know Your Zone Map, a detailed aerial map of the state of Florida with each flood zone carefully indicated by color. The map is searchable by address.

Once residents have determined their evacuation zone, they should be alert to evacuation orders as a storm approaches. WINK, the Weather Authority, will broadcast evacuation orders as they arrive. Anyone living in a low-lying, flood-prone area, a mobile home or an otherwise unsafe structure should evacuate with Zone A.

If a resident’s home is not located in an evacuation zone, they must determine if their home is safe enough to withstand a hurricane. Take the home’s elevation into account. The higher off the ground a house sits, the better chance it has of withstanding devastating flood waters. If a resident has any doubts about whether their home might potentially flood during a storm, then they should evacuate.

For the Barnetts, coming home to a flooded house was devastating. But the alternative had they stayed would have been much worse. Thankfully, they were far away from Southwest Florida when the flood waters filled their home. “We were lucky,” Barnett says.

That luck came because of careful planning and the wise move to evacuate. When flood waters threaten, choosing to leave is often the safest and the smartest decision.

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