WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

New hurricane alert system acknowledges storm surge, not wind, is most deadly

Posted May 19
Updated July 21

Hurricane season is here and,  for the first time, the National Hurricane Center is using storm surge to gauge the strength of a hurricane.

Up until now, wind speeds were used to categorize storms, but 50 percent of hurricane related deaths are due to storm surge while less than 10 percent of deaths are due to wind.

When Hurricane Fran ripped through North Carolina in 1996, the winds were 115 miles per hour and the storm surge was a staggering 12 feet. Twenty-four people died as a result of the storm.

“The point is to highlight the areas that have life-threatening flooding,” said Jamie Rhome with the National Hurricane Center.

Eighty percent of all hurricane deaths are the result of heavy rains and storm surge. New technology is giving meteorologists with the National Hurricane Center the ability to predict storm surge associated with hurricanes.

For the first time this year, alerts will be issued when flood waters reach three feet above ground level, which is considered life-threatening. The warnings would go out to the public 48 hours to 36 hours before flooding is expected.

Combined with North Carolina’s extensive data that maps 5.2 million buildings in the state and their elevation, local emergency management officials believe the new alerts will save lives.

“So we can very quickly understand, based on the storm surge info we’re getting, how deep it will be in certain buildings, how it’s going to affect bridges and roads and things like that,” said North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry.

Experts believe the biggest hurdle they still face is changing the public’s perception of hurricanes. They said when most people hear about an approaching hurricane, the first thing they want to know is the strength of the winds.

“Contrary to popular belief, wind is not the most important component of a hurricane,” Rhome said.

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