Storm Surge, Not Wind, Is the Deadliest Part of a Hurricane

As Hurricane Ian bears down on Florida’s west coast, it’s likely we’ll see intrepid television weathermen, hanging on to wind-whipped lampposts for dear life. What many people don’t know is that it’s not the wind that will get you when a high-category storm heads your way — it’s the water. Statistically, it’s the biggest culprit when it comes to death and destruction in a hurricane. Storm surge is largely the result of high winds pushing the water along. Crashing surf and rising rivers are signs of storm surge, and there are typically two factors: one is lower atmospheric pressure and the other is wind blowing across a body of water. Things like the height of the tide, the slope of the sea floor as it approaches shore, how the storm hits the coast, and where the prevailing winds are as it lands all create a surge that can push water levels 20 feet higher than normal or more. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina pushed a surge more than 30 feet high in parts of Louisiana, while the world record, set in Australia in 1899, surged more than 42 feet. These are not tsunamis, in which killer waves come out of nowhere. Normally, it’s a gradual increase over hours and hours as the storm approaches and the water slowly gets higher and higher. That’s what catches people off guard. Typically, the peak for the storm surge is right at landfall or shortly after. The key to weathering surge is simple: pay attention and be prepared. There’s any old saying: “run from water, hide from wind.” Most people don’t have any idea if they’re in an evacuation area and that they have to leave. That’s because they don’t do any planning, and that can be deadly.