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CofC professor conveys storm surge threat with simulator

By Sonya Stevenssstevens@abcnews4.com

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- It's the greatest threat to life and property associated with a hurricane. The storm surge can cause extreme flooding but it's often hard to convey the danger which is why one CofC professor is working to change that.

The storm surge is often the deadliest part of a hurricane. It is caused when water is pushed onshore by the force of the winds. And when this abnormal rise in water meets the tide, it can mean more than 18 feet of water.

"You would say OK, we expect a storm surge of 15 feet, but what does that mean?" said Lee Lindner, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston. "OK, if you don't know your elevation and you don't know the variability within your region it could mean anything to you -- very hard for the public to understand."

That is why Dr. Lindner has been working on a storm surge simulator.

"This is the first time this has been done nationwide, so we are kind of guinea pigs for this," said Lindner.

But it's been ten years of hard work and collaboration with the National Weather Service. Currently, maps are being used by the National Hurricane Center to portray potential storm surge.

"An awful lot of inundation going on where there is an awful lot of people living: Charleston, Folly Beach, West Ashley, Mount Pleasant up into Berkeley county," said Frank Alsheimer, the science and operations officer at the National Weather Service. "In this particular example, it was a Category 2 hurricane so we aren't even talking about a major hurricane."

But for most people, this type of map even with a scale is hard to interpret, and that is where the simulator comes in. There are roughly a thousand different landmarks throughout the Tri-County area .

The data was gathered by Lindner's students. They collected latitude and longitude and then took pictures.

"They are interacting a GIS model with an HTML model and several other visualization schemes so it has been getting all of that technology to work together -- that has been the challenge," said Lindner.

This is how it works: they pick a spot, for example The Sullivan's Island Post Office, then they set up the scenario: it's high tide, a hurricane is forecast to make landfall around Edisto Beach and it's a Category 5. Then they can see approximately how much water to expect. In this case, the post office would be completely underwater.

Images like those generated by the program make it more realistic.

"The idea would be to scale it across many locations that have the storm surge threat," said Alsheimer. "Mock up a model there, get the resources to have computers to support running these in real time and not just for study purposes and then continue to scale it as funding become available."

The scientists involved have one common goal.

"Make it easier for people to interact directly with the forecast. It will personalize it in a sense," said Lindner.

So that then they will take storm surge seriously and evacuate if and when the time comes.

Dr. Linder needs the public's help. He needs feedback on the storm surge simulator website.

There is a short survey anyone can take. The data from that will help him develop the model more which in turn could help keep the Lowcountry safer when a hurricane strikes.

Check it out here.

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