Experts: Storm surge the deadliest part of hurricanes

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- When discussing about hurricanes, most people talk about wind, but the storm surge is the deadliest part of the storm.

In fact, homeowners on Folly Beach still have reminders of how high the water was during Hurricane Hugo.

Storm surge is often a difficult thing to understand, but two groups are trying to change that - the local National Weather Service and a group of researchers at the College of Charleston.

"Charleston is set up to be particularly vulnerable to storm surge," said Frank Alzheimer, a meteorologist at the Charleston National Weather Service office. "Not only do we have a low-lying coastline, but we have three rivers that extend very far inland."

It's a tough thing to imagine, water from the ocean in your home.

When meteorologists used to talk about storm surge, you'd have to do math to figure out your elevation, slope of the land, and other things, but this year the National Weather Service makes it easy with new inundation maps.

"The inundation graphic takes the math out of the problem," said Alzheimer. "It just tells you above ground, where you're standing, how much water we expect."

Areas in blue indicate three feet of water; yellow, greater than three feet; orange, six feet; and red, nine feet or water or more. And you may be shocked at how far the storm surge could go inland, possibly all the way to Summerville.

"I bet you there's quite a few people up there who don't realize they live near the Ashley River, even if it's 20 miles inland, they still could be under a threat with a major hurricane," said Alzheimer.

Closer to the coast and with the right scenario, a lot of downtown Charleston, Mount Pleasant, James Island and West Ashley would be underwater.

"A lot of people would say, 'Well I don't see the water from my house, I don't have a threat,' and that's not true at all, especially with the storm surge," said Alzheimer.

But some say the new aerial maps can still be hard to understand. A group at the College of Charleston wants to be even more specific.

"What we're trying to do is create a side view, to give people an actual image of something they understand, and then show the flood heights for that hurricane," said Dr. Bernhard Lindner, professor at the College of Charleston.

Dr. Lindner and 40 of his students have been working on a storm surge model for years and while the programming is hard, the concept is simple.

You log on, you find a building close to your home and then you run it through various scenarios. They hope this will give a clear message the public will understand.

"We're working with the weather service," said Lindner. "We're working with the hurricane center, and they're having difficulty getting their message out. A lot of people don't understand what they're saying. So we're trying a different approach, and we want to see if that connects better with people on the street."

But there's one problem with this new software, like any forecasting equipment, it's just a computer model. There will always be mistakes.

"The tough part is to include the errors," said Lindner. "Make people understand there's an error in the water level, an error in the elevation, an error in the tide. All these things have errors with it and can we get that across to the public other than just showing a picture?"