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Life-saving storm surge modeling deployed in Hispaniola

Life-saving storm surge modeling deployed in Hispaniola

April 29, 2019 at 8:54am

The island of Hispaniola, a frequent target of hurricanes, is now armed with an operational system to improve early warnings for storm surge thanks to a research team from FIU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center (NHC).

FIU and NHC were awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award for this effort during the U.S. National Hurricane Conference April 24 in New Orleans. The award recognizes an innovative achievement for a hurricane-related activity that can serve as a model to others. In the case of the storm surge project for Hispaniola, a Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the team created a model factoring in the expected tide at a storm’s landfall with the atmospheric pressure and wind characteristics of the oncoming weather system. It also builds in such major coastal topographic features as coastal ridges and barrier islands, which are crucial to improved impact mapping and risk forecasts.

The storm surge model will help government agencies in the Caribbean Basin and elsewhere make informed decisions when hurricanes approach, including more refined evacuations. The researchers’ ultimate goal is to save lives, according to Earth and Environment Professor Keqi Zhang, a researcher in FIU’s Extreme Events Institute. The project received funding from NOAA and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

“For decades, storm surge has devastated countries and caused needless loss of life,” said NHC Director Ken Graham. “While teams of experts and humanitarian organizations tried and tried to find a way to cut deaths, nobody could break through. Via FIU’s innovative and bold efforts, this team managed to do what others could not — deliver actual capacity.”

Coastal communities and island populations in hurricane zones are highly vulnerable to the surge often created by tropical storms and hurricanes. Nearly half of all hurricane-related deaths result from storm surge. Wind accounts for less than 10 percent. Better storm surge predictions can save lives. In this joint FIU-NHC breakthrough, the research team combined hydrodynamic modeling technology with low-cost satellite data to improve coastal risk mapping — and did so at a 92 percent cost savings compared to traditional methods.

“Those cost savings brought the whole storm surge flooding program into funding and operational feasibility for many countries and multiple agencies,” said Richard S. Olson, director of the FIU Extreme Events Institute.

The team is now working with other countries including Mexico and Belize to implement the same technology and method.