“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.
Snapshot: Many people consider the stretch of coast from northeast Florida through southern South Carolina as a "protected coast," immune to coastal hazards. Hurricane Matthew now threatens to slam this coastline with a storm surge more severe than anywhere else the storm has impacted. The Protected Coast is now the most dangerous place of all, as Matthew turns back time and delivers a knockout punch similar to the vicious hurricanes that struck this region in the late 1800s.
Many people consider the stretch of coast from northeast Florida through Southern South Carolina, including the entire coast of Georgia, as a "protected coast," immune to coastal hazards (I’ll refer to it as the Protect Coast throughout this piece).
And with good reason.
The coastal profile in this region bends quite smoothly in a concave fashion, creating a broad basin of water that extends west from the Gulf Stream Current. This concave coast does indeed appear protected compared to more vulnerable areas to the north and south.
To the north, the coastline of North Carolina juts out into the Atlantic, exposing it to more hurricane strikes. To the south, the Florida Peninsula reaches out towards Cuba, extending itself into a hurricane highway running from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. But in between these areas is a protected enclave, enabling folks in Savannah to sleep well at night and not worry too much about the next hurricane strike.
Hurricane history from the past decades seems to support this notion. Hurricane Hugo slammed South Carolina to the north of Charleston in 1989, but the area south of Charleston survived with little damage. Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992, far away from this region, and even hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 inflicted little damage, as they passed to the south.
Longer-term scientific analysis of hurricane strikes also supports the idea that this region is protected. For example, when Dr. Barry Keim and others at Louisiana State University conducted a comprehensive analysis of hurricane strikes from Texas to Maine, they found that only two hurricanes since 1901 impacted St. Simons Island, Ga. Neither of these storms were major hurricanes, defined as Category 3 or higher storms.
In this same period, Cape Hatteras, N.C. observed 21 hurricanes and three major hurricane strikes. Miami and Palm Beach both observed 21 hurricane strikes and six major hurricane strikes in this same timeframe.
Likewise, from Cocoa Beach, Fla. to Tybee Island, Ga., on the border with South Carolina, only one (Jacksonville Beach) of five cities had observed a major hurricane since 1901. This study showed a strong geography to hurricane risk with observed hurricane data providing a clear picture of drastically reduced risk along this concave-shaped coast.
As a graduate student in climatology at LSU, I cut my teeth on this and other data-driven studies conducted by Dr. Keim and other scientists. Such research fascinated me. I saw great value in it, and I endeavored to do similar analyses for storm surge, a project I am still working on today.
Throughout the years of data-driven analysis, one of the lessons I have learned is the value of looking "beyond" the period of analysis to see what's on the other side. Every climate study needs to start somewhere, and this study by Dr. Keim and others starts in 1901. However, when we look just before that start date, into the late 1800s, we see an interesting pattern emerge along our Protected Coast.
(And this is of no fault to Keim and others. My own storm surge research began with the year 1880, and I was sometimes asked if it bothered me that I just missed out on the 1875 Indianola Hurricane that struck Texas. But if I moved my start date up to 1870, then I would just miss another major storm. It's a never ending cycle.)
The Hyperactive Period of the Late 1800s
The late 1800s was a time of hyperactive hurricane activity along the Protected Coast. Catastrophic hurricanes frequently lashed this region with vicious winds and deadly storm surges.
Perhaps the statistic that best sums up the hyperactivity of this time is an obscure fact I found hiding in the back of a book in a Charleston library. Between 1888 and 1898, eight different hurricanes passed within 75 nautical miles of Hilton Head, S.C.
That's eight hurricanes in 11 years. The years 1893, 1894 and 1898 all saw two hurricanes in this area.
However, in the 117-year period extending from 1899 to 2015, only seven hurricanes passed within that area. This means the Hilton Head area, in southern South Carolina near the Georgia border, observed more hurricane activity during an 11-year period in the late 1800s, than it did in the following 117 years.
The graphic below (a photo I snapped with my camera) shows this pattern. It reveals five hurricanes from 1899 to 1993, but hurricanes Irene (1999) and Charley (2004) must be added to the list, because they passed within 75 nautical miles of Hilton Head.
Not only did many hurricanes strike this region in the late 1800s, the most severe storms inflicted catastrophic storm surges. The three most severe examples are the back-to-back hurricanes in 1893 and the Great Hurricane of 1898.
Back-to-Back Hurricanes in 1893
This storm devastated the region from Savannah to central South Carolina, causing thousands of fatalities.
Here is a quote on the storm from NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS Hydro-19:
“This major hurricane, which originated in the Cape Verde Islands, reached the Georgia coast on August 27. It was accompanied by a very high storm tide which submerged the islands along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. Between 2,000 and 2,500 people lost their lives on the coastal islands and in the lowland between Tybee Island~ Ga. and Charleston, S.C. Property damage along the coast was estimated at $10 million. Damage in Savannah was placed at more than $1 million. Nearly every building on Tybee Island was damaged and the railroad to the island was wrecked. The highest tide known to have occurred in the county was estimated to have a range of 17.0 to 19.5 ft msl at Savannah Beach.”
Shockingly, another powerful hurricane struck the region on October 13, generating a storm tide of 14 feet at Pawley's Island, S.C. and 12 feet at Charleston.
The Great Hurricane of 1898
The Great Hurricane of 1898 was even more severe in terms of maximum storm surge levels along the Georgia coast. This vicious storm generated a storm surge of 16 feet at Brunswick, Ga. and a storm tide of 18 ft at Sapelo Lighthouse. Storm storm killed 179 people in Georgia alone.
This stretch of coastline is less vulnerable to hurricane strikes than areas to the north and south. However, these three powerful hurricanes in the late 1800s show us that when a hurricane does strike this area, the storm surge can be catastrophic.
Ironically, some properties of storm surge are counterintuitive. Places that are usually the safest, like harbors, bays and inlets, generate the highest storm surges. This is also true for concave-shaped coastlines, like the Protected Coast. The shape of this region and the relatively shallow bathymetry (offshore water depth), efficiently pile up storm surge, but first we need a powerful hurricane tracking in from the southeast, like Matthew. This region is particularly vulnerable to storms like Matthew, as the coastline is open to the east, the very direction from which Matthew is blowing powerful winds for several days.
The efficiency of the Protected Coast for enhancing surge levels was already seen yesterday evening, while Hurricane Matthew was centered off the coast of South Florida. Even though Matthew was located closer to Palm Beach than Jacksonville, storm surge levels in extreme northeast Florida and Georgia were already higher than any other NOAA Tides and Currents tide gauge.
This should cause concern, as Matthew was not expected to make landfall in this region for more than 24 hours after these data were collected (see map below).
The National Hurricane Center storm surge forecast has remained consistent since yesterday evening, with peak water levels of 7-11 feet above ground level predicted from northeast Florida to southern South Carolina. See the map below that I created yesterday evening (the forecast is the same now).
Indeed, the Protected Coast is now the most dangerous place of all right now, and we can only hope that coastal populations in this region have heeded the mandatory evacuation and moved themselves out of harm's way.
One of the take home lessons from Hurricane Matthew is that we should take the time to read deep into the history of coastal hazards. We should be concerned when we see hyperactive hurricane history in a location like Georgia and southern South Carolina, even if the past decades have been relatively quiet.
This originally appeared on Hurricane Hal's Storm Surge Blog.