“Hurricane” Hal Needham is a storm surge scientist who specializes in data-driven storm surge analysis. He is the founder and president of Marine Weather and Climate.

Here’s What to Know About Harvey’s Storm Surge and Widespread Flood Threat

  • Aug 26, 2017

Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas, as a Category 4 hurricane yesterday evening. This blog post provides some insights on Harvey's storm surge and widespread flood threat.

Highest Surge

Harvey's highest storm surge occurred east of Rockport. We should expect a long-term, severe storm surge as far east as Matagorda Bay, where strong onshore winds are continuing to push a substantial storm surge into places like Port Lavaca.

A NOAA Tides and Currents gauge at Port Lavaca, Texas, reported an observed storm tide level of 7.0 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL) at 3:48AM Central Time. Unreported storm tides in this region likely reached as high as reached 10-12 feet.

Port Lavaca

port lavaca surge

Time series of storm tide (surge plus tide) levels at Port Lavaca above mean sea level from 1900-2017. Hurricane Harvey likely generated a storm tide of 10-12 feet near Port Lavaca, although the highest observed level reported was 7 feet above mean sea level.

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Harvey has generated the highest storm surge at Port Lavaca since Hurricane Carla (1961). However, Harvey's storm surge level in this area is not as rare as we might believe, and it may come in fifth place for all surges since 1919. What's exceptionally rare about Harvey is that this storm surge will combine with a stalling storm and tremendous rainfall, which will generate catastrophic flooding.

Compound Flooding

harvey rain forecast

Forecast rainfall totals from Hurricane Havey through Thursday.

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To the east of the storm center, onshore winds will keep storm surge levels elevated and impede the drainage of heavy rainfall. This will be a major problem, as Harvey is forecast to dump 20+ inches of rain across a widespread area over the next week.

Highly Variable Storm Surge Levels

Storm surge levels closest to Harvey's center of circulation will be highly variable, depending upon wind direction. As Harvey is forecast to drift for several days, a change in the center of circulation by even a few miles can change the wind direction from offshore to onshore in places. Areas closest to Harvey's circulation center may see rapid water level rises and falls as wind direction changes from offshore to onshore and vice versa.

Tide Gauge Harvey

Water levels in places like Rockport, Texas have been highly variable. The red line in this graph is observed water level and the blue line is predicted water level, based on astronomical tides. 

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For example, the storm surge level was about 1 feet below normal at Rockport around 2:00 a.m. local time today, but then began rising rapidly to around 0.8 feet above normal by around 3:00 a.m. at which point the tide gauge failed.

Houston-Galveston-Freeport

Farther east from the center of circulation, around the Houston-Galveston-Freeport area, expect persistent onshore winds with strong squalls today. The squalls will likely be separated by periods of multiple hours with no rain. Depending on Harvey's track, onshore winds and rainfall may increase in this area from late Sunday through Tuesday, which would increase flood potential.

harvey rain squalls

Strong squalls of rain and wind will occur east of Harvey's circulation center. Such squalls produce torrential rain and sometimes spawn tornadoes.

Tornadoes most often are spawned in these bands well east of the circulation. Hurricane Carla (1961) made landfall in the Port Lavaca region, but generated several powerful tornadoes that caused substantial damage in Galveston.

If Harvey tracks northeast after stalling, the threat of strong onshore winds and heavy rainfall will increase in this region. Prolonged onshore winds even below tropical storm force could elevate water in places like Galveston Bay by several feet for multiple days. Even a modest storm surge in this area could exacerbate flooding, as a prolonged storm surge of 2-4 feet in Galveston Bay will impede the drainage of torrential rainfall.

Larger Perspective on Coastal Flooding and Extreme Events

Harvey has struck an area that has observed multiple major hurricane strikes and storm surge events in the past century. Prior to Harvey, four hurricanes have generated storm surges of at least 13 feet at Port Lavaca, but none since Hurricane Carla hit 56 years ago.

Harvey is a classic example of why we need to know our hurricane history. From a storm surge perspective, this event may seem exceptional along the central Texas coast, but in the bigger picture it may end up more like a 20-25 year storm surge event (surge level we should expect every 20-25 years on average). Again, what is truly exceptional about Harvey is the likelihood of it stalling and dumping tremendous rainfall, which will be coupled with a long-term storm surge.

Harvey is striking one of four areas along the U.S. coastline that concern me because they have observed severe hurricanes and storm surges in the past but not in recent history. Here are the areas that concern me most:

Georgia and Southern South Carolina

historic storm surge georgia

The Great Hurricane of 1898 generated a 16-foot storm surge at Brunswick, Ga., completely devastating the harbor.

This area observed hyperactive hurricane strikes and severe storm surges in the late 1800s, but nothing of that magnitude since 1898. The area south of Charleston concerns me the most, because they were on the "weak" side of Hurricane Hugo (1989) and did not experience Hugo's massive surge.

Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale

historic storm surge florida

The 1947 Hurricane smashed the coastline of Palm Beach County with a powerful storm surge. This photograph of the Seacrest Hotel in Delray Beach was taken at the northwest corner of Ocean Blvd. and Atlantic Ave. 

This area observed large surges in 1928 and 1947 and has had many near misses. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, both in 2004, made landfall just north of this region, keeping it on the weaker side and forcing the strongest winds to blow offshore. Hurricane Andrew (1992) was a powerful but geographically compact hurricane the made landfall south of Miami and did not generate substantial surge in Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach.

Tampa-St. Petersburg

This area is setup for a massive storm surge event with an astronomical impact because the bay is highly developed, with relatively minor flood protection. Storm surge models suggest a surge exceeding 20 feet could strike the bay, if a hurricane tracked in from the southwest and made landfall north of St. Petersburg-Clearwater.

Two hurricanes struck the area in 1848, both generating surges that exceeded 10 feet. The last substantial storm surge in this region occurred in 1921, when a hurricane generated a 10.5-foot surge.

Central Texas Coast

Hurricane Harvey is currently striking the fourth region that concerns me.

Port Lavaca had observed four storm surges exceeding 13 feet in the past century but nothing higher than 6.9 feet since 1961.

Corpus Christi, the largest city along the southern part of the central Texas coast, shares a disturbing history of hurricanes and storm surges. The city has observed seven storm surges that have exceeded 7.9 feet in the past 102 years, or about one surge every 15 years over that threshold. But none of them have occurred since Hurricane Allen struck 37 years ago.

Long periods of relative calm often lead us to underestimate our risk.

As I told a reporter on the phone yesterday, our foremost problems are public perception and lack of awareness. Once we truly understand our risks, widespread support for coastal protection rapidly increase and funding these projects follows.

Notes

I usually write well-referenced articles, but as Harvey is impacting our area, I do not have time to add references and citations right now to this blog. If you have any questions about Harvey or anything related to coastal flooding in general, shoot me an email and I will try to get back to you ASAP.

For the most frequent updates, check out the U-Surge Hurricane Harvey page.

Thunder starting again and lights flickering, so I guess that means I'm done here!

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Stay safe, much love, and thanks for reading!