The greatest potential for loss of life related to a hurricane is from the storm surge, which historically has claimednine of ten victims.
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. In addition, wind waves are superimposed on the storm tide. This rise in water level can cause severe flooding in coastal areas, particularly when the storm tide coincides with the normal high tides. Because much of the United States' densely populated Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastlines lie less than 10 feet above mean sea level, the danger from storm tides is tremendous.
The level of surge in a particular area is also determined by the slope of the continental shelf. A shallow slope off the coast (right, top picture) will allow a greater surge to inundate coastal communities. Communities with a steeper continental shelf (right, bottom picture) will not see as much surge inundation, although large breaking waves can still present major problems. Storm tides, waves, and currents in confined harbors severely damage ships, marinas, and pleasure boats.
The intensity of the storm (as given by theSaffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) affects the possibility of flooding from storm surge at two locations. Storm surge also affects rivers and inland lakes, potentially increasing the area that must be evacuated.
Obviously, the more intense the storm, and the closer you are to its right-front quadrant, the larger the area you will have to evacuate. The problem is, how do you know what category storm is going to hit you?
Wave and current action associated with the tide also causes extensive damage. Water weighs approximately 1,700 pounds per cubic yard; extended pounding by frequent waves can demolish any structure not specifically designed to withstand such forces.
The currents created by the tide combine with the action of the waves to severely erode beaches and coastal highways. Many buildings withstand hurricane force winds until their foundations, undermined by erosion, are weakened and fail.
In estuaries and bayous, intrusions of salt water endanger the public health and send animals, such as snakes, fleeing from flooded areas.