The rush of the water from the wind’s push can become a deadly combination, as Hurricane Ian put on full display in Southwest Florida.
“Statistically, storm surge is the greatest killer, and that was the case with Ian,” said WINK News Chief Meteorologist Matt Devitt. “We had Lee County have the greatest death toll. And that was because of storm surge, that water level rise of upwards of 15 feet.”
Storm surge’s potential to take lives, cause property damage and disrupt Southwest Florida’s coastal ecosystems is why studying and understanding it is crucial. That process has become easier thanks to technology and data mapping.
“The main purpose of our sensors is to record the height of the storm surge and the duration throughout the storm,” said Don Hampton, a hydrologic technician for U.S. Geologic Survey.
Hampton and 50 team members deployed more than 400 water level sensors just days before Hurricane Ian roared ashore.
“We’ll attach this little bracket on a bridge piling, or dogpiling, something we expect to survive the storm, we’ll attach a little sensor in there,” said Hampton. “And then once that’s in there, we’ll slide this over to protect it. And then we’ll let it go. And we’ll come back after the storm to recover.”
At 6:39 p.m., back in September, a sensor attached to the Fort Myers Beach pier recorded a 13.23-foot surge. It was the highest water level recorded by the sensors, but not the highest recorded by the USGS.
Two miles down the road and two weeks after Hurricane Ian, teams measured a water line they found. It was measured at 13.8 feet above the ground.
“If you go back 200 years, there has never been a storm surge to that caliber in Southwest Florida,” said Devitt. “Those tides sensors from the USGS, especially after Ian, and when I went through the data, was so incredibly important because it shows that with a hurricane, every single mile makes all the difference. So for example, those USGS tide sensors and the levels were showing about three feet for Boca Grande.”
“But in the case of Sanibel, they were in the worst part of the storm, just 20 miles south of the Boca Grande sensors, they hit about 13 feet,” said Devitt.
The 10-foot difference in just 20 miles from Boca Grande to Sanibel is a clear example showcasing the importance of every mile.
“It just pinpoints why we need to collect this data in order to improve these models and help the public prepare the public for future events,” said Hampton.
WINK News and Devitt discussed how he will use the data that was collected.
“I think it improves forecasting in general because with looking at that data, we can analyze what Ian did because of its size because of its slow speed. And we can see the distribution of how low the tide levels got or how high they got,” said Devitt.
Engineers will also use the information to design structures to withstand storm surges and floods. Emergency managers may use information learned from Hurricane Ian to change Florida’s building codes.
Hurricane Ian is among the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States. Hurricane Ian featured 150 mph winds, 2.6 million people without power and 12.6 billion in insured losses. However, with the sensors, USGS said we should be more prepared for storms in the future.