Hurricane season officially begins on June 1, but it had an early start again this year when Ana became the first named Atlantic storm. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re heading for a wild and crazy season like 2020, with more than 30 systems in the Atlantic Basin. But NOAA predicts above-average tropical weather for 2021. If that happens, the greatest worry is Louisiana. Heavy rains have already been soaking the Mississippi Delta region again. Lafayette and Lake Charles reported flooding. A temporary dam broke near Baton Rouge last week and 500 homes had to be evacuated.
The hurricane list this year includes Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, Elsa, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Julian, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Teresa, Victor and Wanda. We can’t predict which name will end the season, or whether we’ll have to add Greek letters again to name additional storms. But it doesn’t really matter. It takes only one monster storm to cause monster damage. And there again, the “where” is crucial. It determines the amount and nature of the damage.
Imagine a scenario where “Superstorm Sam” makes landfall between Brunswick and Savannah. At the peak of the storm, northeasterly winds are pushing flood waves far up the Savannah River. Tucked between the Savannah and Little Back River (it’s not that little, actually) is Hutchinson Island, with elevations about a dozen feet. The island gets flooded in this fictitious sequence. On the other shore of the Savannah are the Georgia Ports authority and large petroleum shipping and storage facilities, also 12 feet or less above sea level, getting flooded. Much of Savannah’s Historic District is safer at about 40 feet elevation. But if the storm surge and wind-driven waves make it 20 miles upstream, entire suburban neighborhoods in Port Wentworth are in peril because they are only 10 to 20 feet above sea level.
As fictitious Superstorm Sam moves northwestward and finally into North Georgia, the threat changes from overland flooding to flash flooding in the narrow valleys. Lake Lanier allows some control over the Chattahoochee. But above the lake, the river can rise and overflow its banks quickly, as it has repeatedly done in Helen. The worst scenario would be a nighttime flash flood/landslide combination. Hurricane Ivan produced one near Franklin, North Carolina in 2004, sweeping away entire homes.
Maybe we won’t get a superstorm this year. But preparation won’t hurt.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.