Storm Surge App Makes Theoretical Damage Personal

Pinellas County, Fla., Emergency Management unveiled a computer application that gives people a realistic view of what can happen when a hurricane comes ashore.

by Steven Girardi, Tampa Tribune / June 1, 2015
Pinellas County’s computer app gives people a realistic view of what can happen when a hurricane comes ashore. Storm Surge Protector application

(TNS) — Staring at an image of your home and neighborhood inundated with 2, 6 or maybe 9 feet of rushing water from a hurricane storm surge can be horrifying.

At least that’s what Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop is hoping.

As the 2015 hurricane season dawns on Monday, Bishop is unveiling her department’s newest tool for storm preparation: a Storm Surge Protector computer application that gives people a realistic view of what can happen when a hurricane comes ashore.

It is so site specific that anyone can enter a Pinellas address, see the property’s evacuation zone and get an animated view of the building and the water levels to expect in a variety of hurricane categories. With it, Bishop is hoping to get people’s attention.

“I want to make it personal to them,” Bishop said. “I want people to see this.”

The reason is simple. Nine in 10 hurricane deaths are related to the surging water that races through and over neighborhoods, streets, homes and vehicles, Bishop said. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many of the roughly 1,600 fatalities and much of the $108 billion in damage stemmed directly or indirectly from storm surge.

“They don’t die from wind,” Bishop said. “They die from water.”

Storm surge has emerged as the top concern in coastal areas throughout Florida. Hillsborough and Pasco counties’ emergency officials also have developed website links that allow residents to find their addresses and evacuation zones, though with less dramatic effect.

“That is what we know is the biggest killer, the storm surge. So people really need to know that (evacuation) zone,” Hillsborough Emergency Management Director Preston Cook said.

The Bay Area has not had a direct hurricane hit since the one that hit Pinellas in 1921, and it has been nine years since Florida has been hit. Bishop and other emergency planners fear that too many people won’t take hurricane threats seriously, and especially storm surge, no matter how many warnings, brochures or evacuation maps are sent out.

“People can’t visualize it. They have never experienced it,” she said.

So two years ago, Bishop looked for a better way to get the message across, and her staff came up with a computer model to show the impact of storm surge on individual properties and areas. The county hired a software company to make the application, the only one of its kind, which was completed late last summer, Bishop said.

The Storm Surge Protector application, on the county’s website at www.pinellascounty.org/emergency, is based on property records and on storm and flood models from the National Hurricane Center, she said.

The program can determine what kind of structure is at each address, show it on a map and display a picture of it. It shows the evacuation zone, from “A” through “E,” which indicates when people need to leave the area. “A” is the most vulnerable and the area that will be ordered to evacuate first; “E” is the least vulnerable, except for nonevacuation zones.

An “A” level evacuation might leave property in that zone under 2 feet of water while “E” remains dry. But an “E” level evacuation not only will flood that zone, but also could leave the “A” zones under 9 feet of water or more.

The flooding images on the website come with a list of perils to expect when the water rises. At only 2 feet, electrical outlets in a house will be covered and cars start to float and move with the current, along with tree limbs and any other debris that is swept away, Bishop said.

For coastal properties, waves can reach 16 feet, in addition to flooding, swamping buildings or entire barrier islands. Zoom out on the page, and it shows full neighborhoods as water levels rise, possibly leaving no way in or out. Even while one property might remain dry, it could be surrounded by water, trapping residents there.

“I’m trying to give them ways to understand this stuff is really dangerous,” Bishop said. “If they don’t internalize this — that this can kill me — they’re not going to plan to go anywhere.

“My hope is that with this kind of information, people can make better decisions,” she said.

In Hillsborough, Cook said his department’s site (www.hillsboroughcounty.org/emergency) shows evacuation zones by address and the area shelters, which he called critical information. “You need to be looking at it now,” he said.

Hillsborough is vulnerable not only to storm surge from Tampa Bay, but also to river flooding that quickly could swamp neighborhoods. A hurricane coming through the shallow bay could be particularly devastating, pushing water far inland.

“People just really can’t image the force of that water,” Cook said. “And when they underestimate it, that’s when people lose their lives.”

Annette Doying, Pasco County’s emergency management director, said her website (www.pascoemergencymanagement.com) shows individual evacuation zones, although with less animation than Pinellas’ application. She said Bishop’s application is impressive and might be incorporated into Pasco’s program.

Doying said about 250,000 people, more than half of Pasco’s population, are vulnerable to storm surge. In east Pasco, with an abundance of tree cover and mobile homes, wind is a major threat.

Doying said the strong emphasis on storm surge follows studies by hurricane center scientists and the impact of recent storms such as Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012. Katrina hit Mississippi and Louisiana as a Category 3 storm but had storm surge equivalent to a Category 5. Sandy hit the New York and New Jersey area as Category 1, with a Category 3 storm surge.

“It moves cars, it moves building, it moves boats,” Doying said. “What it really does is it drowns people. It’s the No. 1 killer in a hurricane.”

As a result, emergency planners have become more cautious and more aware of the potential destruction and don’t hesitate to move people out of the way.

“We don’t give evacuation orders lightly. We know it’s a real hassle,” Doying said. “We’re saying it because we fear for the lives of the people who are in the way of the storm surge.”

For some, that might mean leaving the area to visit relatives or to take an impromptu vacation, Bishop said. It could mean finding a safe place in a nonevacuation zone, perhaps with family, a friend or co-workers. Or it could mean moving to higher and drier areas in neighboring counties. Staying closer to home is better because you have easier access to return once the storm passes, she said.

Workplaces, churches, civic organizations and community groups are encouraged to establish Host Homes programs to shelter co-workers or group members in nonevacuation zones.

“People don’t understand they’re evacuating from storm surge. That’s why we make them move,” Bishop said. “We tell people to go tens of miles, not hundreds of miles.”

Those who flee the county are advised to go early, before evacuation orders if possible, to avoid traffic jams, she said. Cook, in Hillsborough, said those who don’t have to evacuate should stay put so they don’t clog roads.

Bishop said emergency officials will provide an evacuation time window as a storm approaches.

“By the end of that time window, there are tropical storm winds. You should be where you need to be by then,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for an evacuation order to leave.”

Pinellas has 70 emergency shelters, mainly in schools and other public buildings, but those should be for people with no other options, she said. They often are crowded, noisy and uncomfortable.

“People are not going to enjoy themselves there,” she said.

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