Shorelines program develops a website and app to predict the impact of coastal storms


Coastal storm surges – the rise of water above sea level caused by high winds – are responsible for the greatest amount of casualties and property loss from hurricanes, and Western Carolina University faculty, staff and students are collaborating on a website and mobile app to record and help predict storm surge severity. The project began when Rob Young, director of WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was considering the aftermath of 2005’s disastrous Hurricane Katrina and how to better predict and contact the public about storm surges.

“It’s hard to believe that nobody was compiling all the relevant data in one place,” Young said. Information about storms, especially meteorological/weather data and post-storm flooding, was being collected by agencies within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and many other sources, but there was no central collecting point. Young and his students set about building one, a relational database to be hosted eventually by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville.

One of those students was Katie McDowell Peek ’07, who went on to complete graduate studies and return to PSDS as a research scientist. “Katie’s done an incredible job in creating the database from a complicated dataset,” Young said. Storm landfall information was imported from NOAA’s database; water-level data was collected from more than 30 sources. Then PSDS calculated and added more from that information: storm track straightness or curvature, as well as speed and angle of impact on the shoreline. Records as far back as 1928 yield information about 4,900 high-water marks associated with 40 hurricanes, “from Maine all the way down to Texas,” Peek said.

The trick then became making the raw data more useful, not only to scientists, but to the general public as well. “After Hurricane Katrina, we began to realize there was a need to improve how we predict and contact the public about storm surges,” Peek said. “Our challenge was to reach the average person; get the information out to the public in the best way.”

The answer was an interactive website using Google Maps to display high-water marks, pinpoint storm landfalls and plot their tracks to shore. The site, called the Storm Surge Viewer, was built by mathematics and computer science students Brian Lenau, Russell Gaskey ’11, Cristina Korb ’12, Brad Proctor ’11, Chris Blades ’11 and professors in cooperation with WCU’s Information Technology department. Still in beta-testing, the site will grow in time as more data – including information from the recent Hurricane Isaac – are added. Viewers can search for a particular hurricane or storm by name or by location and area radius, then select surge/high-water marks and/or path.

“Our hope was that the website would make it easier for coastal residents, emergency planners and land developers to have that information,” Peek said. To make storm surge information even more accessible, a team from the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science is working on a mobile phone application for the Android operating system. PSDS researchers plan to add even more information to help make accurate surge predictions. “I’d like to team up with modelers of storm processes to address open questions like why a big storm sometimes produces a small surge, and vice-versa,” Young adds. “In the past, weather forecasters would simply estimate storm surge based on the category of the storm. We’ve found no direct correlation from that by itself.”