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September 30, 2008

Keeping them honest: How bad was Ike?

Posted: 01:56 PM ET

CNN Meteorology Intern Andrew Maloof crunched the numbers on what was predicted for Hurricane Ike's storm surge, and what really happened.

Searchers recovered three more bodies from the wreckage of Hurricane Ike yesterday, bringing the storm's death toll to 67. That awful toll, and the images of lost homes and changed lives all happened from a storm that fell short of predictions.

Homes on the Bolivar Peninsula before Ike.

Homes on the Bolivar Peninsula before Ike.

The public advisories and discussions of the forecast storm surge from Hurricane Ike were off by 5-10 feet, and yet destruction reigned over Galveston Island, Bolivar Peninsula and other coastal communities.

The same area after Ike.  (USGS Photos)

The same area after Ike. (USGS Photos)

100 AM CDT FRI SEP 12 2008

(National Hurricane Center, Miami, FL)

The National Hurricane Center predicted huge storm surges that, for most areas on the coast, didn't happen. Had those dire predictions been true, the chemical and oil refineries along Galveston Bay could have taken a much larger hit.

These are the actual recorded surge heights:

STORM SURGE Max Heights in FEET (Tidal Surges Will Vary .5’-2’)
Galveston State Pleasure Pier.. 11.19’
Rollover Pass.................. 11.06’
Eagle Point.................... 10.75’
Port of Galveston Pier 21...... 10.25’

–Harris County
Manchester..................... 11.74’
Morgans Point.................. 7.76’
Battleship Texas State Park.... 6.11’

Sabine Pass.................... 12.54’
Texas Point.................... 11.79’
Port Arthur.................... 11.25’
Rainbow Bridge................. 9.29’

When the word hurricane pops up on the news, the first thing people start to ponder is how big it will get. The category, known as the Saffir-Simpson Scale, is based on wind. It can range from Category 1 (74 to 95 MPH) to Category 5 (over 155 MPH). What many do not realize is the fact that wind is not the true killer, but only an accomplice to the most deadly aspect of a hurricane, the storm surge. According to the National Weather Service, “Storm surge is simply water that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the storm. This advancing surge combines with the normal tides to create the hurricane storm tide, which can increase the mean water level 15 feet or more.” So, when meteorologists tell the public that the category of a storm is increasing from say 3 to 4, they is also implying that the storm surge will increase.

Before/After aerial photos of Ike's damage can be viewed here

Coastal communities on Bolivar Peninsula as you look at “after” pictures, anyone staying in the homes that are now completely gone would have been swept into Galveston Bay by the storm surge, a trauma that would have not been survivable.

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DL   September 30th, 2008 2:33 pm ET

this is why it should not be allowed for people to build house on sandbars

Franko   September 30th, 2008 3:32 pm ET

"Supercomputers still too slow to forecast storm surges"
Reads an old headline, requesting more computer funding.

"Greenhouse Equations Totally Wrong"
Climatists religion exposed in the press and by Mother Gaia.

Could not model how to tie a shoelace
No matter the petafloppies; calculating with wrong models, more accurately

Need climate and hurrican prediction contests. The spelling Bees for for safety.
Running, Jumping, and other survivor skills, add hurricane predicting.
Perhaps some child, in an often bombed country, could do better job.

Tom F   September 30th, 2008 3:36 pm ET

Even though the storm surge was not as high as projected, it is still better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Hurricanes are very unpredictable. Many factors go into the process to determine where a hurricane will land. This storm will help remind people just how powerful a storm can be. Many who did not take the evacuation orders serious will do so in the future. Some who stayed on the barrier islands to Texas were lucky and survived. Some were stupid and stayed – paying with their lives.

Texas was blessed that the storm was not as bad as projected at times. If it had stalled – even for just a little while – it could have been a lot worse.

txlady   September 30th, 2008 3:49 pm ET

Mr. Maloof,
You've made a mistake. The locations listed under LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA are actually locations in Jefferson County, Texas not Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

Get real   September 30th, 2008 3:51 pm ET

Let's tell the truth, shall we? Ike was a small Cat 2 hurricane, with a pretty high storm surge. But it should not have caused the amount of damage shown in the photos. As South Florida learned during Andrew, years of allowing houses that do not meet minimal hurricane codes leads to significant loss. Strict enforcement of these codes really does diminish damage and loss of life. Consider too, that if you live on the Southeastern coast, you either accept that you may lose everything or you pack up and move. Because sooner or later, you are going to be hit by a hurricane.

7th Grade English Teacher   September 30th, 2008 4:38 pm ET

This is totally off topic of the actual content of the article, but I thought I would share. I just showed a segment of the article to one of my 7th grade English classes, and asked them if they could figure out what needed to be fixed. They all got it right.

"This advancing surge combines with the normal tides to create the hurricane storm tide, which can increase the mean water level 15 feet or more.” So, when meteorologists tell the public that the category of a storm is increasing from say 3 to 4, they is also implying that the storm surge will increase."

Does anyone else see the blatant agreement error? My 7th grade kids did.

CNN, I know you publish a lot every day, but let's at least try to read the articles out loud once over before choosing to publish. Major agreement errors should be as easy to catch as reading the sentence out loud and knowing something sounds wrong. If it doesn't sound like there's anything wrong there, maybe you would have been better suited for an occupation that doesn't involve writing.

Easttexan99   September 30th, 2008 4:55 pm ET

In the same manner as Deep East Texas had hours and hours of rain and high wind that caused the damage during Rita, I think it was the length time that there was a storm surge that cause the tremendous damage on Bolivar. I think there was water over the peninsula in places for almost 24 hours. Plus, my basic math skills tell me that an 10+ft. storm surge and an 10+ft. wave can do pretty serious damage to a house that is only 15 ft off of ground that is only5 foot above sea level.

Ray G.   September 30th, 2008 5:02 pm ET

Although the storm surge was 11 feet, houses on 25 foot pilings were still destroyed. Does this mean that wind driven waves reached another 10 feet or more above the surge?

Ray G.   September 30th, 2008 5:32 pm ET

DL, you may be onto something! In fact, based on other recent events, people probably shouldn't be allowed to swim in the ocean (sharks), drink milk (toxic contaminants), or send their children to school (predatory teachers).

Chuck   September 30th, 2008 5:51 pm ET

The surge heights given above, for at least the 2 gauges with which I'm familar – Rollover Pass and Morgan's Point, is the height at which the gauge stopped recording data; not necessarily the surge height.

Although still less than earlier estimates, Galveston National Weather Service recently estimated the surge at 12 – 15 feet on Bolivar Peninsula and 18 – 20 feet in Anahuac.

JMB   September 30th, 2008 6:27 pm ET

The Saffir-Simpson Scale is inadequate to describe a hurricane. Wind speed at the eye wall is one thing, but how far the hurricane force winds extend from the eye is a very important measure. Also surge does NOT depend solely on max wind speed, but again, how far the hurricane force winds extend from the center. I have experienced several small and large hurricanes here in Beaumont, Texas, and can tell you that Saffir-Simpson by itself is a very poor predictor of hurricane "strength", storm surge levels and the damage the wind and surge will cause. Ike was a HUGE hurricane with widespread destructive force, but was labeled a "2" based on simple wind speed. A new measure is needed that will more accurately reflect the destruction potential of hurricanes. People were reluctant
to evacuate for a "2" but would have scrambled to get out of the way of a "4". Calling Ike a "2" is is technically correct but did not alert people of the seriousness of the destructive force of that dangerous storm.

By the way, the reference to Lake Charles, LA above is wrong – those locations are all near the Beaumont-Port Arthur area near and on the TX-LA border.

KP   September 30th, 2008 6:58 pm ET

Much ado about misreading the original statement. It says the surge will be at most 20', not 20' +/- something, or at least 20' so the prediction itself was absolutely correct as long as the surge was less than 20', which was the case.

Ray G.   September 30th, 2008 7:19 pm ET

I don't think anyone living on the Texas coast had previously experienced a storm surge like the one Ike produced. Friday morning, skies were still sunny and winds were light as stragglers on Bolivar Peninsula casually packed their cars and got ready to leave. They were blissfully unaware that the advancing storm surge was already flooding parts of State Highway 87 just to the East, making their only escape route impassable.

FYI – My beach house was just east of the aerial photos in the link above. The home met building codes and had previously survived Category 3 Hurricanes Alicia and Rita almost unscathed. But Hurricane Ike completely destroyed it. I'm just beginning to learn about neighbors who did not evacuate in time and who are now missing. But even as a geoscientist with some rudimentary understanding of atmospheric processes, I was completely ignorant and left dumbstruck by how far in advance of a hurricane's clouds, winds, and rain that a storm surge can appear.

Amber H   September 30th, 2008 7:32 pm ET

Regardless of how you feel about whether the communties wiped out by Ike belonged there or not, a disaster has befallen our fellow Americans and not only is the national news not reporting it but my fellow citizens are badmouthing the victims. At the very least it is time now for empathy and compassion – not publicly pointing fingers at people who have already lost everything, including friends and family. There is a more appropriate time to discuss changes to insure it doesn't happen again. Can we at least wait until they recover and bury all the bodies? Have we as a nation of people really become so cold and heartless?

Rogers Mills   September 30th, 2008 11:05 pm ET

I use to live in San Leon TX, some 22 miles from Galveston. This is a small community of primarily fishermen, boat works and a few upscale homes. Not an incorporated town or city, just a village. My fiancée and I use to live at a boat yard while I was restoring a 29' sailboat. The sailboat sustained minor damage but the little house we lived in had another tale. The storm surge was over 8 feet in the boat yard. Half of the boats are now on the ground. Two ended up off property and in the woods. The house is 4 feet off grade and had 4 feet of water, sewage and Lord knows what all in the house. Some things ended up in strange places while other things remained in place. An opened bag of epsom salt floated across the house and stopped in the kitchen and was on the floor unharmed and dry. We were going to ride out the storm but in the nick of time a friend called and said that the storm surge had started ahead of the storm. We made it out with little and now are homeless. The scale of hurricane intensity needs to be enhanced. The Red Cross has provided hot meals and FEMA is finally getting a clue but they are helping. Friends have really helped out. They all get my applause.

Lyndell.NET’s Word Chaos » Blog Archive » Ike: USGS pics   September 30th, 2008 11:20 pm ET

[...] SciTechBlog blog on CNN points out that the actual surge was less than predicted. [...]

Sean L   October 1st, 2008 1:49 am ET

This article is terrible. It states that storm surges near Galveston were lower than forecast, but doesn't discuss why. A few hours before landfall, Ike made a slight wobble to the right of the forecast track. Despite being a very small change – one that is essentially not forecastable – it made enough of a difference that the most populated parts of the area were hit not by the strongest part of the hurricane, but the weakest.

This also would have been an ideal place to discuss in more detail what the Saffir-Simpson scale tells us, and what it's limitations are, primarily when it comes to storm surge. It also would have been an ideal place to discuss Integrated Kinetic Energy, or (ironically) IKE. This system uses the wind fields, in addition to wind speeds to estimate the amount of energy in a storm; this is used to estimate the Destructive Potential Rating (DPR) for wind and surge damage. Despite being a Category 2 storm, it was very large (as opposed to small, 'Get Real'), which led to the piling up of a massive amount of water. The surge DPR was the highest one in the past 40 years in the Atlantic Basin.

Josh   October 1st, 2008 9:20 am ET

Ray – the brunt of Hurricane Rita did not come anywhere close to Galveston. I often see people comparing current situations to old ones and basing their decisions to evacuate on that instead of current warnings. For example, you have compared a category 3 storm that hit well north of Galveston to an unusually large category 2 storm that hit Galveston directly. The two scenarios in your city couldn't have been more different, yet you have tried to compare them in an attempt to explain why you are surprised that your house is gone. It is recommended that people take evacuations seriously and leave the science to the scientists, and that is why. The science is not perfect, but evacuations are not uneducated decisions.

Milian Kurten   October 1st, 2008 11:43 am ET

Though many were lost, a couple of people did survive being swept away from their homes on Bolivar Peninsula at the height of the storm. See the Houston Chronicle story on their ordeal:

Smendle   October 1st, 2008 11:52 am ET

Mother Nature is quite a force even with the power that man has over the elements. Still you would think that with all the money congress is talking about floating out, they would figure that shoring up our coastlines where 'regular natural disasters' strike would be money well spent.

to quote the article
" So, when meteorologists tell the public that the category of a storm is increasing from say 3 to 4, they is also implying that the storm surge will increase."

"they is" also say 'its time to get out of the way!"

haha much love to your proof-readers/editors.

Mark Keehn   October 1st, 2008 12:52 pm ET

In his report, Mr Maloof indicated that the Galveston Pleasure Pier had a peak storm surge of 11.19 feet. That is true, but it was 11.19 feet above the forecasted tide levels, referenced from Mean Lower Low Water, MLLW. When you add the predicted tide to the maximum surge value, the storm tide was 12.94 feet above MLLW. If you add 1.2 foot of water to convert from MLLW to Mean Sea Level, the storm tide at the Galveston Pleasure Pier was roughly 13.84 feet above MSL. You would need to do similar conversions for the other gauges to find out how high the water really got.

The tide gauge at Rollover pass stopped working at 1 AM on 09/13/2008. The reported tide level was the last report before the gauge stopped reporting.

PJR   October 1st, 2008 1:30 pm ET


I just moved from Florida and the codes there are for wind ratings only, nothing is mentioned about surge. The reason for this is the Bahama Island block most of the water and there is only wind to deal with.

Ike was a very large Cat 2 strom. If Andrew would have been the same size (area wise) more than just the small city of Homestead would have been affected. There was not much damage north of Miami Airpoort.

What is not mentioned in this article above is the wave action on top of the surge. The waves in some locations reached well over 35 feet high.

Not too many homes even built to South Flordia standards would still be standing. You can build for wind, this is easy, but a 35 foot wall of water weigh millions of tons is almost impossible.

Native Houstonian   October 1st, 2008 2:59 pm ET

Get real, first off get your information straight. Ike was not a 'small category 2 storm. Ike was keeping sustained winds at the time of landfall at 114mph....1mph short of Cat 3 and Galveston is along the southwest coast (northwest Gulf Coast region) with gusts well into Cat 3 wind speed. If you have ever used that canned air to clean your keyboard you know well that a sustained blast moves some, but short bursts moves more.

Second, cities that have not experienced major hurricanes in the last 50 or 60 years, likely do not have 'Hurricane Building Codes", so because Homestead now has them (they largely were not in place in '92) as do other communities along the Atlantic coast of Florida. I can't speak to whether or not the City of Galveston and others along that area have Hurricane Building Codes.

This country is largely a reactive country and those living along the coast, or anywhere else for that matter, are not going to spend money to upgrade existing residences, further the existing structures would likely be grandfathered in based on date of construction and new construction would be required to meet those codes.

Most of these folks were aware of the risks of living where they did, especially after the 2005 hurricane season. This was a risk they took, history was on their side with strong hurricanes landing in the area, although statistics and reality were not.

Your comments diminish the experiences of those in the communities hardest hit, including Gilcrest which was completely wiped off the face of the map. Fishing communities such as these are typically not raking in six-figure incomes and squeek by with a meager existence yet most are extremely happy in the life they have by the sea and living off the 'land'. Many have no choice and are going to have to make the tough decision to rebuild, if they are even allowed with proposed building restrictions, or to relocate and possibly even make total career shifts from what they have known their entire lives and what they have known as their parents and grandparents careers.

Anybody living along coastal regions of the US are well aware of the risk of hurricanes, especially along the southern coasts, and those along the northeastern seaboard are a little bit more aware after recent events.

JAy.   October 1st, 2008 3:14 pm ET

Ray G. got it right. Although the storm surge was a "minimal" 11 feet (still considerable), that only measures the mean water rise. The waves in open water were reported up to 40 feet. You can be assured that the water reached significantly more that 11 feet above normal tide levels.

The most interesting thing to me in the USGS photos is the number of houses whose pilings were well grounded, whose roofs were properly strapped, but whose floors and walls have disappeared. Some of the large homes that look to have survived by the pictures are actually more like tunnels when you look closely at the full resolution photo.

Amazing what nature can do!

RobinA in Houston   October 1st, 2008 3:57 pm ET

Ray G. you are right on the money. The storm surge on Ike was the scariest thing I've ever seen recorded on tv and I've been in several hurricanes (Carla, Beulah, Celia, Allison, Gustav & now Ike). I'm not sure that the Texas coast has had a storm surge like that since the 1900 Galveston hurricane. People just didn't realize how bad it was going to be. They said in the paper that altho it was a Cat 2, Ike acted like a Cat 4. My heart really goes out to all those people on the islands – my prayers are with them.

S. Cotton   October 2nd, 2008 7:29 am ET

Andrew Maloof needs to go talk to the people that lost everything along the Texas Gulf Coast. I have lived in this are for over 40 years, and this is the worst storm I have encountered here. I have friends that have lost their entire house due to storm surge, while others sustained major damage due to the wind. I'm tired of the national media and our political leaders downplaying what Ike did to many counties. I guess it's easier for the press to report on a small location like New Orleans, especially when there isn't much going on news wise (unfortunately Ike hit during an election year and our economy is tanking), verses a large area of many counties. Perhaps if the media and our leaders hadn't downplayed the situation, there would be more professionals looking for missing people. Instead, areas hardest hit are left with only a handful of people looking, and the "promise" of more help to come.

Woodie, ATL, GA   October 2nd, 2008 10:26 am ET

People shouldn't build houses on the shore like this. If they do, they need to consider them disposable and they should leave immediately when a hurricane is discovered. You can't be stupid about this.

Larry   October 2nd, 2008 11:38 am ET

Woodie shouldn't be stupid about living in Georgia where there is no water and no gas.

But just for the record, the article mentions not being able to survive in Bolivar if you were in the house and it got wiped out. Well two men did survive. The storm surge pushed them all the way across the bay, about 5 to 10 miles, where they were left stuck in the debris from the storm. One was able to walk away, the other was discovered over 36 hours later and is still in the hospital.

Franko   October 2nd, 2008 3:19 pm ET

"events like this keep stupid under control"
Stupid is not dumb. Knows the truth, but has faith, does the wrong.
Highway speed deaths, another result

Accurate predicting is the issue. NOAA into all kinds of things
Mission creep, cooking advise, how to crack an egg, next ?
Nose to the hurricane grindstone, just super gaming on the computer ?

S. Cotton   October 2nd, 2008 5:13 pm ET

People living in areas (like Bolivar) have two ways to get out, Hwy 87 and the Bolivar Ferry. They were told a mandatory evacuation order would go into effect at 7:00 am Thursday Sept 11th, and the ferry would discontinue running no later than 11:00 pm that night. Good planning provides a 72 hour window to evacuate people. These people were effectively given 16 hours to evacuate. Due to the size of this storm, it did not take long for water to begin going over Hwy 87. Taking this into consideration, I have to wonder if there were people that would have evacuated but couldn't due to the short window of time given. Yes, I realize that 16 hours seems like a huge amount of time to someone who has never prepared their house for a hurricane and then evacuated on to a road or ferry with 100's (in the case of some areas, this would be thousands/millions) of other people. However, 16 hours is a drop in the bucket. In reality, they should have been given 72 hours. Unfortunately, weather forecasters have not reached a point where they can tell us "exactly" where a storm will land, so people are not always given 72 hours to evacuate.

Franko   October 2nd, 2008 6:09 pm ET

Competition is needed. NASA can predict the climate decades ahead
Cuban military, can do better with their laptops ?
Another case of "Totally Wrong" ?

c   October 11th, 2008 2:34 pm ET

I am sorry these people lost their homes. But it is inevitable, you can't expect to build in an area like this and not be wiped out at some point. Yet the government sells them insurance that is cheap and allows them to do this over and over again.
It is ridiculous..They have the advantage and luxury of living on the beach and the tax payers build them a new home after it is wiped out.
New roads, elec. water.. It is all paid for...
Each and every time it happens..
Thats not right.

c   October 11th, 2008 2:51 pm ET

And the people that are defending this by saying other people live in bad areas..YES they do..
But there is no government help for these people. NO insurance they can buy cheap.
They pay for that risk.
People that live on the coast in a area prone to hurricanes, buy cheap insurance from the government that assures they can and do re build right back in the same spot.
If it cost as much as it should, or if people had to rebuild at their own expense, I bet there would be very few homes built in areas like this.
I bet very few people would think it was such a "OK" thing to do if they had to keep paying for it themselves.
All of you that defend this, need to think in terms of common sense.
If this were not picked up by the tax payer and fixed, who in their right minds would sink it all into a home built in an area like this??
Only the super rich who could afford a throw away home.
And you know, not many rich people are so willing to toss a home in the ocean either.
But with the insurance they can buy the fun of living there is worth the risk.

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