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  • Writer's pictureA Rinconvenient Truth

#HurricaneReady: Storm Surge Is Often the Biggest Threat to Human Life

If you have ever lived through a hurricane like most Rincoeños did in 2017, you know strong winds can blow windows and doors in, knock down trees and lamp posts, and even rip out whole wooden houses and send them flying down the road, piece by piece.

But storm surge is often the biggest threat to human life and property, accounting for about half of deaths associated with tropical cyclones in the United States, according to a report by the National Weather Service (NWS), and it all starts with cyclonic winds.

This abnormal rise in seawater level, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) explains, is generated when a storm blows over the ocean surface and produces vertical circulation in the ocean. In open water, there is enough space for surface water to circulate up and down freely, but once the eye of the storm reaches the coast, where the bottom of the ocean is closer to the surface, circulating water has nowhere to go but inland.

Damage caused by Hurricane Ike in the Bolivar Peninsula, Texas in September 2008 (NOAA)

Storm surge can quickly ravage coastal communities on its path inland. In fact, during hurricane Ike in September 2008, storm surge moved almost 30 miles inland in some parts of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana.

Back in Puerto Rico, the northeastern part of the island is the most vulnerable to storm surge, which could rise above nine feet of water during a category 5 hurricane. Other pockets exist near Arecibo and Vega Baja to the north, Humacao to the southeast, Santa Isabel and Ponce to the south, and Cabo Rojo to the southwest, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Storm Surge Hazard Map.

In Rincón, the worst-case scenario suggests that the neighbors in the Calvache, Ensenada, and Puntas barrios might experience nearly three feet of storm surge because of their proximity to the coast, as well as the folks closest to the Río Grande de Añasco’s delta in Barrio Río Grande.

Graphic depicting the mean sea level rise due to storm tide, the combined force of storm surge and the astronomical high tide (NOAA)

But storm surge only accounts for part of the total rise in coastal water level during a storm. The astronomical tide, which we know is caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun, and have learned to model and forecast, combines with storm surge to produce the storm tide.

Furthermore, when waves continually break along the shoreline and the water runup is not allowed to recede out to sea due to strong onshore winds, it piles on the storm tide. And as it is common prior to a hurricane, heavy rainfalls can cause rivers to overflow, flooding nearby communities and amplifying the impact of the storm tide near the river deltas.

Once inland, this large volume of water is a major flash flood hazard. It can quickly take over ground-level housing, drag people, and carry all sorts of debris, including unsecured vehicles, down the road, as this video by The Weather Channel explains.

The director of the Municipal Office of Emergency Management (OMME) in Rincón, Hector Martínez, highlighted that those living in Stella or near Ventana al Mar were the most vulnerable to this type of flash flooding during hurricane María in september 2017. Folks in these communities, he said, should be ready to evacuate their homes if local authorities advise them to do so.

“When officials say it’s time to evacuate, go! Don’t fall victim to storm surge,” warns the NHC.

Meanwhile, Rincoeños living on higher ground should stay alert and prepare for storm surge, just in case the storm tide ever extends as far inland as it happened in Texas or Louisiana during hurricane Ike. But how do you prepare for storm surge?

Cabo Rojo homes flooded by storm surge during hurricane María in September 2017 (FEMA)

Before the storm hits, consider your need for flood insurance

If you live in a flood-prone community, the chances are you have already lived through one in 2017, when hurricane María ravaged through the island. Otherwise, click here and zoom to your community to find out. If you live in zones VE or AE, you are in flood danger, much more so than those who live in zone X. Here's a short FEMA video explaining flood zones.

The sure solution to this problem is moving to higher ground, but it is not always the easiest. The alternative is to ensure that you have the means to rebuild your life after the flood in your neighborhood.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “just one inch of water can cause $25,000 of damage to your home.” And although it is the most common insurance claim after a hurricane or tropical storm, homeowners or renters’ insurance does not typically cover flood damage.

About 80 percent of floods happens in a high-risk flood zone, which is why FEMA advises those living in these areas to strongly consider getting flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Nevertheless, the other 20 percent of floods happens where least expected, so no one’s property us exempt from water damage.

NFIP covers the building’s foundational walls, anchorage system and staircases, electrical and plumbing systems, refrigerators, cooking stoves and built-in appliances such as dishwashers, amongst others.

It also covers personal belongings such as clothing, furniture and electronic equipment, portable and window air conditioners, microwave ovens, laundry washers and dryers, original artwork and furs (up to $2,500), food freezers and the food in them.

This program does not cover damage caused by moisture, mildew or mold that could have been avoided by the property owner or which are not attributable to the flood, damage caused by earth movement, even if it is caused by flood, temporary housing, while the building is being repaired or is unable to be occupied, pools, hot tubs, fences, patios or decks, financial losses caused by business interruption, currency or stock certificates, or most vehicles.

When calculating your flood insurance costs, the NFIP considers the year the building was built, its occupancy, number of floors, location of its contents, and its flood risk, amongst others factors. To learn more about Preferred Risk Policy for Homeowners and Renters, click here.

Make copies and safeguard critical documents

Imagine the wind blew one of your windows and rain poured in for minutes or even hours before you could plug the hole. Once done, you take a breath, turn around, and see that all of your important documents stored in the top drawer of the desk by the window that once was are now drenched and illegible, including your flood insurance policy.

Although you might be able to get digital copies once power and internet connectivity are restored, that could take months, setting you up for failure during the insurance claim process.

Instead, before the storm hits, you could make several copies of important documents, place them in a water-tight plastic bag (vacuum-sealed food bags also work), and store them in different locations around the house. If a flood is imminent, you should grab the original documents and keep them with you at all times, as they will be your lifeline down the line.

If you need help tracking down these documents, here’s a checklist.

Document the conditions of your property prior to the storm

Take pictures. They do not need to be high quality photos, just recent. Go outside and snap a picture of all sides of your house, including your roof, clearly showing all its features (walls, windows, doors, gates, steps, stairs, shingles, etc.). Then, come back inside and take photos of all your kitchen and laundry appliances, furniture, electronics, art, and every room in your house or apartment.

Jot down the date when you took each picture and a few comments on what is shown in them. Also, write down the year, make, model of each home appliance and electronic device.

Digitize this document and store it, along the photos, in as many locations as possible (your computer, a portable hard drive, a USB drive, on your phone, or in the cloud). This will constitute your house inventory and it will come in handy when filing your insurance claim.

Print out a copy of your inventory and store it with the rest of your important documents. Don’t forget to update it whenever you buy new items or replace old ones.

Graphic depicting the power of storm surge water once it gets inland (NOAA)

In case the flood catches you off-guard, look for higher ground

If public officials ask you to evacuate, but for any reasons you choose not to, you run the risk of drowning when the storm surge barges inland. Then, no one might be able to reach you in hours, even days, so you’ll have to survive on your own.

In that case, the National Weather Service advises you get to higher ground immediately, and, above all, avoid flood waters. It reports that it only takes six inches of moving water to knock you off your feet, 12 to float a car or small SUV, and 18 to carry away larger vehicles.

Water may also be deeper than it appears, so you shouldn’t drive through flooded roadways, which could also hide hazards such as sharp objects and electrical wires. And stay off bridges over fast-moving water. Remember that when you don’t look after your life in these critical times, you also put rescuer’s lives at risk.


This story is part of the A Rinconvenient Truth’s #HurricaneReady series. If you want to learn more about how to prepare for hurricane season 2019, which officially starts on June 1st, check out other stories in the series by clicking here.

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