Expert: Winds Blow, But Storm Surge Kills

With hurricane Rita still tracking toward the Texas gulf coast, flooding experts say winds the system will likely bring might be hard to ignore, but it's the storm surge that could do the most damage.

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Storm surge varies quite dramatically depending on the size of the storm. For example, a category 1 hurricane would cause a storm surge of between 4-5 feet. A category 5 hurricane would bring storm surge of 18 feet or more, an increase in water level that would be devastating to coastal communities. Dr. Phillip Bedient is a professor of engineering at Rice University and has run analytical models this week of storm surge associated with a category 4 or 5 hurricane. "You could see storm surge comes in inland quite a ways, but don't forget if you bring in 10 or 12 or 15 inches of rainfall in addition to that, you basically have impacts all the way back to the Medical Center and you see impacts along Buffalo (Bayou) all the way back up to the 610 Loop," he says.

The last major hurricane to hit the Galveston-Houston area was Alicia in August of 1983, a storm that brought a lot of wind, but not much rain or subsequent flooding. Tropical Storm Allison was a rain event with very little wind, but caused a huge amount of flooding. Bedient says the flood control infrastructure is essentially the same as it was four years ago. "There have been some improvements, but in terms of a major hurricane hit along the coast, not a whole lot has changed. The systems pretty much look about like they looked in 2001," he says.

Walter Peacock is the director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University and says storm surge is often a forgotten, but very dangerous element during hurricanes. "People have tended not to pay attention to surge, when in fact surge is what kills people. Wind generally doesn't kill people," he says.

eacock says unlike New Orleans, Houston and Galveston don't have levees to worry about, but could still experience major flooding with a category 3 hurricane.

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