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Health News Florida

New Storm Surge Warning Aims To Be "Beautifully Simple"

Damage from storm surge in Cedar Key due to Hurricane Hermine.
Damage from storm surge in Cedar Key due to Hurricane Hermine.
Damage from storm surge in Cedar Key due to Hurricane Hermine.
Credit Pat Bonish / Pat Bonish Photography
Damage from storm surge in Cedar Key due to Hurricane Hermine.

Last season’s storm surge in Cedar Key from Hurricane Hermine ranked in the top five, despite the category one storm staying more than 100 miles offshore. Even though winds never reached hurricane strength, life-threatening storm surge flooding still occurred.

Hurricane Specialist Jamie Rhome believes this is why the National Hurricane Center needed to create a new warning. It will be a Wireless Emergency Alert from the department of Homeland Security.

“If you’re in this warning area it means you’ve got the potential for life threatening conditions that you need to take action and protect yourself,” said Rhome, noting that it’s designed to be ‘beautifully simple.’

“I think the problem with storm surge is that everybody’s hung up with the specifics, such as elevation. Instead we need to be focusing on hey, if there’s a significant enough threat in your community that the National Weather Service feels necessary to warn you, you should take action.”

The warning is different than one of those detailed maps you may have seen on a website that shade in a color with a corresponding water level. Meteorologist Angie Enyedi from the National Weather Service Jacksonville says those numbers aren’t an exact forecast.

“But the key is that it's giving you a worst case scenario and it's highly recommended that you prepare for that worst case scenario,” said Enyedi.

Pat Bonish, store owner in Cedar Key, thought he looked at “worst case” straight in the eye during Hurricane Hermine. He and his wife were rescued by the town’s mayor during the height of the storm.

“I’ve never seen it come in that fast,” said Bonish. “That’s sort of the reaction everyone has said...is that it came in so fast. I mean within a matter of a half hour to 45 minutes it had come up 2 to 3 feet.”

And it just kept coming; up to 7 feet in some parts of the quaint Nature Coast community.

“You could almost see it roll in like a wave...like they’d opened a dam or something. If anyone ever says, oh we’ll leave if it starts coming up. In that situation you don’t have that opportunity. It just comes in.”

The force of that water can wash out roads and bridges, which would be a huge problem for Cedar Key since the entire town - not just those who might flood - is connected by only one bridge.

“The last thing I want to do is put other people in danger to have to come and rescue me because I was the idiot that stayed,” Bonish said.

Pat, his wife, and all of Cedar Key were under a prototype for the new warning last year, even though the eye of Hermine stayed more than 100 miles off shore.

storm_surge_watch_vs_warning.jpg
Credit weather.gov / NOAA

Storm surge is not something new, but history has taught us that the hazards from the water are not always married to the wind. This is why Hurricane Specialist Mister Rhome believed there needed to be an upgrade to the way the science was communicated.

“You’re either in it or you’re not in it. So it’s a very quick call to action. If you’re in it, then you would probably seek evacuation instructions from local emergency managers,” Rhome said.

And Enyedi says frankly, “If you're waiting on the storm surge map and the storm surge watch and warning to prepare your already behind the curve ball.”

Pat and his wife certainly won’t be waiting.

“I think one storm like this will it to the forefront to everyone’s minds to say the next storm, days in advance, we’ll make sure we’re 100% prepared. Knowing what we know now, I would probably never stay for another storm.”

An alert can be sent straight to your mobile device if you’re in a new Storm Surge Watch or Warning this year through the mobile app Florida Storms.

Copyright 2020 WUWF. To see more, visit WUWF.