Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Author Spotlight - Connie Chastain talks about the storm in Storm Surge

At one point in Storm Surge, my protagonists, Justin and Briana, are watching television and Justin presses buttons on the remote control....

The Weather Channel came on the screen. Tropical Storm Fay was still far away, down in the Keys.

Justin murmured, "The ECMWF is predicting the storm will cross the state, move into the Atlantic, and then veer westward across the panhandle and into the Gulf. Let's hope not."

"What's ECMWF?"

"The European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. They have a reputation as one of the most accurate forecasting bodies on the planet, so we're probably in for a lot of rain and possible flooding in a few days."

No other storms loomed on the horizon, just a tropical wave trying to form off Cape Verde. Justin narrowed his eyes.

"We need to keep an eye on that one, too," he said. "At this time of year, that place, Cape Verde, is where monster storms are born."

The Cape Verde Islands, off the west coast of Africa, are indeed the birthplace of hurricanes that can be come monsters. Wikipedia says about two hurricanes per year originate there.

According to NASA and the NOAA, the reason they can, and frequently do, become monster storms is because they have a long trajectory over warm oceans — which are ideal conditions for hurricane intensification.

Earlier in the story, Justin explains storm surge to Briana and cites Hurricane Camille, a storm with origins off the west coast of Africa.

"Tropical cyclones are areas of low pressure. They pull the water up under them, like when you sip liquid with a straw, only the sides of a storm's low pressure area aren't straight. So the water sucked up is more like a dome beneath the hurricane. Between the dome and the water pushed by wind, a storm surge is a lot higher than sea level usually is. When it reaches shore, it floods low-lying areas. But flooding is only part of the damage. The water is wind-driven, very turbulent and destructive. Smashes buildings and uproots vegetation, and the resulting debris does more damage."

He clicked links that featured photos of coastal damage from storm surge -- smashed buildings, uprooted trees. Briana stared and whispered, "I always thought hurricanes damaged things with wind. Storm surge. That's scary."
"Yeah. It's the deadliest part of a hurricane. The wind's bad. Knocks down trees and power lines, breaks windows. If it's strong enough, it'll rip the roof off a house, but it doesn't smash buildings to rubble, like a tornado. But storm surge can."
"Oh, my," she said softly, and swallowed hard, spooked a little by the gravity in his voice.
"When Camille made landfall, a twenty-four foot storm surge crashed into Biloxi. Smashed everything in its path."

A few weeks later, Justin and his staff are watching the weather forecast in the conference room at his the office. The news is about Hurricane Fay, which is headed for their territory....

"If nothing steers it away from us, we'll get lots of rain over the weekend," Justin added. "Not much wind or storm surge, though. Nobody's expecting us to need policy dumps."

When a hurricane headed for Gulf States claim territory, certain procedures were set in motion by the four major property and casualty insurers that subcontracted claim handling to Justin's company. One of the most crucial procedures was the dumping of all coverage information for policyholders with property in the affected area to Gulf States' server.

Normally, individual policy and coverage information accompanied new claim files downloaded each day, but when long-term, widespread power and communications outages were anticipated, the information was transmitted en masse well ahead of time because without it, not a single claim check could be issued, not even the standard, thousand-dollar emergency advance.

"At least, we won't need them for Fay," Justin added. "But that one -- who knows?"

On the screen, the view had changed to a computerized depiction of the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern portion of North America. The Cape Verde tropical wave from two days ago was now a tropical storm named Kathy churning about a thousand miles east of Tobago. The predicted three-day track had it entering the Caribbean and staying over water. Where it would go from there was anybody's guess.

"I don't like to wish trouble on other folks," Gil Anderson said, "but I think we need to be on our knees praying that that sucker heads for the Yucatan or Texas."

Like Camille, monster 'canes Andrew and Ivan were born off the west coast of Africa. The fictional hurricane in Storm Surge, Kathy, is patterened after Hurricane Ivan, making landfall in the same area and causing much the same damage.

But, interestingly -- for some, perhaps -- the most notorious hurricane to strike in recent years, Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi coast on August 29, 2005, was not a Cape Verde storm. Katrina formed over the Bahamas August 23.

Photo Caption and credit: Hurricane Ivan entering the Gulf of Mexico between the Florida and Yucatan peninsulas. NOAA


  1. Good description of hurricanes and the damage they cause. Having experienced numerous storms first-hand, including Hurricane Ivan, I have to agree...the areas undergoing the most damage are those on the shoreline.

    I'm looking forward to reading Storm Surge...sounds exciting!

  2. Thanks, Tommie. Yep, Hurricane Ivan. You survived it -- and wrote about it too, right?