Storm Surge in the Winter?

We all know storm surge can be deadly and destructive during hurricanes. But, as the Northeast United States deals with yet another major storm moving up the coast, don’t forget that storm surge can be a problem at any time of the year and with any coastal storm. Storm surge can be particularly dangerous in the cold icy waters of winter.

Coastal storms like this one, often called nor’easters, have been known to bring with them hurricane-strength winds, coastal flooding, and beach erosion as they move up the Atlantic coast. A blizzard tore through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut in February 2013. Not only did the storm dump over two feet of snow across the area, but it produced storm tides about 13 feet above mean lower low water in some areas. Damage and erosion in coastal areas were reported as moderate to major coastal flooding with this storm. This damage could have been a lot worse if the highest storm surge of 4.2 feet recorded in Boston Harbor had occurred at high tide instead of near low tide like it did.

Blizzard Feb 2013
Coastal flooding in Scituate, MA, February 9, 2013. Photo courtesy of Jason Burtner, Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management


And in November 2009, a powerful nor’easter ripped through the Mid-Atlantic causing strong winds, heavy rains, and moderate to severe coastal flooding. Coastal flood watches were issued along the east coast from Long Island to South Carolina. Sewells Point in Norfolk, VA experienced near-record flooding at 7.75 feet. Multiple locations in New Jersey experienced water levels of 7 to over 8 feet. Four homes were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

OBXStorm_KittyHawk_20091114_01_Bill Birkemeier USACE
Coastal flooding in Kitty Hawk, NC, November 14, 2009. Photo Courtesy of Bill Birkemeier, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


Protect Your Community

It’s never too late to prepare your community for winter storms and the storm surge that comes with them.

  1. Map the risk to see the potential impacts to your community. It can be difficult to know what parts of a community are vulnerable to flooding from storm surge. You will need elevation data to create your map. If you do not already have elevation data, it can be downloaded through a number of public domain sites, including the Digital Coast Data Access Viewer, the USGS Earth Explorer, and the NSF OpenTopography. You will probably also want to have data specific to your community: roads, buildings, emergency facilities, and other critical infrastructure. If you have basic GIS skills this Mapping Coastal Inundation Primer can help refresh your memory on how to map inundation from storm surge.
  1. Consider how natural areas can help protect your community. Those natural areas you enjoy seeing in the warm summer months like beach dunes, oyster beds, and coastal wetlands provide the first line of defense against storm surge. This animation provides more detail on the benefits of these natural areas, or “green infrastructure” and how they can help protect your community.
  1. Listen to forecasts of coastal flooding from the National Weather Service when storms are approaching. Implement your community emergency plan if necessary.

Get Personal

Preparing for storm surge from winter storms can be pretty similar to preparing for storm surge from a hurricane. Residents in areas not prone to hurricanes may not know what to do and those that live in areas that can get hurricanes can always use a reminder. They may be lucky enough to have avoided hurricanes in the past or it may have been a while since they had to prepare. Encourage your constituents to follow these tips to protect themselves and their families:

  1. Know your individual risk. We have all seen pictures of damaged homes on the beach. But most of us don’t live on the beach. If you live in a low lying area or are close to a river or other waterway you may be vulnerable to storm surge. Storm surge maps for hurricanes are a place to start. You can find a seamless national map of near worst case storm surge flooding scenarios for different hurricane wind categories at a high tide online.
  1. Know your evacuation route. Listen to state and local officials and evacuate if told to do so.
  1. Develop a family disaster plan. Be sure everyone in the family is familiar with the plan. Practice your plan. Be ready to implement it if the need arises.
  1. Assemble a disaster supply kit in case of evacuation. Know where the kit is and make sure it is up to date.

As we continue to power through the cold months, let’s not forget that storm surge can happen any time of year. Now is a great time to prepare your community for the next storm surge event. If we are lucky enough to be unscathed by winter storm surge, we will be that much more prepared for hurricane season. That reminds me…I need to keep my resolution and pull together a better family disaster plan in 2015.