USGS Continues Response to Four Hurricanes

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As thousands of people remain displaced by or are recovering from one of the four hurricanes that have affected the United States the past month, the U.S. Geological Survey is in the field providing science that will help with recovery from these historic hurricanes and with preparing for the next storm.

When a major storm is on the horizon, the USGS uses its water monitoring, coastal change, mapping, and modeling expertise to help emergency managers, coastal planners and communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from hurricanes and tropical storms.

Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas August 25, the USGS has deployed hundreds of staff into the field responding to these back-to-back storms. Below are some of the efforts currently ongoing.

 

José Santiago-Saez, USGS Hydrologic Technician, installs a storm-tide sensor in Fajardo, Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria
José Santiago-Saez, USGS Hydrologic Technician, installs a storm-tide sensor in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, before Hurricane Maria made landfall. USGS photo.(Public domain.)

Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico Wednesday morning as a strong category 4 hurricane, with winds of 155 mph that knocked out power for the entire island, and greatly impacted communication channels. Prior to the storm making landfall, USGS crews were out installing storm-tide sensors and maintaining streamgages critical to helping with flood forecasting. While many of the 108 USGS streamgages installed throughout the island continued to read and report water levels in rivers, canals and lakes via satellite, approximately 35 streamgages were damaged by the storm.

The USGS has a staff of 31 in Puerto Rico, most of whom sheltered in place during the storm. Once the staff is fully accounted for, and as conditions allow, the USGS will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to prioritize its efforts on the island. Typically, after a storm the USGS goes into the field to repair gauges used for flood forecasting, validate flood measurements, identify how high flood waters reached, and recover storm-tide sensors deployed before the storm to help FEMA distinguish between wind and water damage.

USGS activities and data related to Maria will be posted at www.usgs.gov/maria.

 

A USGS hydrologic technician installs a Rapid-Deployment Gauge on a bridge in Norfolk, Virginia.
Jim Duda, USGS hydrologic technician, installs a Rapid-Deployment Gauge near the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Virginia, to monitor elevated water levels caused by Hurricane Jose. An RDG is a fully functional streamgage designed to be quickly deployed for real-time data monitoring of a stream or river in emergency situations. Photo by Howard Ross, USGS. (Public domain.)

Hurricane Jose

Downgraded from a hurricane, Post-Tropical Cyclone Jose is lingering off the mid-Atlantic to New England coast, bringing waves and storm surge to the region. Prior to the storm reaching the area, USGS specialists across three states installed 17 storm-tide sensors – seven in Connecticut, seven in Massachusetts and three in Rhode Island – along shorelines expected to receive large waves and storm surge from the hurricane.

These scientific instruments were put in place ahead of Jose to collect information about the hurricane’s effects on the coast. The retrieval of the sensors and the valuable data they hold will begin once Jose has passed, although discussions are already taking place on whether more may need to be deployed depending on Hurricane Maria’s track up the east coast. To learn where the storm-tide sensors were deployed for Jose, visit the USGS Hurricane Jose Flood Event Viewer.

The USGS also uses models to calculate the dune impacts to expect during a hurricane. A new experimental Water Level Viewer shows whether a section of coastline can expect dune erosion, overwash or inundation during storms, with details on what coastal change took place available later on the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal.

Learn more about USGS efforts for Hurricane Jose at www.usgs.gov/jose.

 

This USGS streamgage on Otter Creek in Florida was one of almost 100 gauges destroyed in Florida by Hurricane Irma. USGS photo.
This USGS streamgage on Otter Creek in Florida was one of almost 100 gauges destroyed in Florida by Hurricane Irma. USGS photo. (Public domain.)

Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma made landfall September 10th in the Florida Keys as a category four storm and was the first major hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Wilma struck in 2005.

Days before the powerful storm made landfall, USGS hydrographers began installing storm-tide sensors to monitor large waves and surge along the coasts of Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Since then, dozens of USGS personnel have been tirelessly working to gather scientific data about the storm surge and flooding Irma caused across the Sunshine state as well as coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina.

Now, 12 days after Irma made landfall, USGS crews in Florida are still working to record the flooding Irma brought by flagging and surveying high-water marks in the Keys and in southwest Florida, from Naples to Everglades City. High water marks are seeds and other debris left behind by floodwaters, recording their extent and depth. FEMA uses this and related information gathered by USGS to steer relief to areas of greatest need. So far, more than 140 high-water marks have been found in Florida, with more expected to be found as the efforts continue through the next week.

In addition to looking for high-water marks, Florida crews are also assessing and repairing damage to USGS streamgages across the southern part of the state. Almost 100 permanent streamgages were damaged by Irma, and crews have managed to repair about 70 of them. But, since some of the gauges are located in areas that are still difficult to get to, repairs at a few locations may not be complete until October.

Irma’s rainfall contributed to more than 70 record peaks on the rivers and streams across the state of Florida. In response to the high water and flooding in Florida, USGS specialists have performed more than 200 high flow measurements to monitor the depths and discharges of the many rivers across the state, and more measurements are likely to happen through the end of the week on the larger rivers.

Learn more about USGS efforts for Hurricane Irma at www.usgs.gov/irma.

 

Image shows a USGS scientist in a PFD taking a high-water mark
USGS scientist Steve Hannes marks high water marks along the Colorado River after flooding from Harvey in Matagorda County, Texas.(Credit: Scott Green, USGS. Public domain.)

Hurricane Harvey

More than 130 USGS employees from 16 states have been in Texas this month, part of a massive effort to measure streamflow peaks and collect high-water marks documenting the extent and depth of floodwaters which, at various times during and immediately after Harvey’s August 25-30 journey along the coast, stretched more than 375 miles from Kingsville in southwest Texas to Lake Charles, Louisiana. USGS staffers from Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and other parts of Texas joined this intensive effort.

FEMA tasked the USGS with collecting high water marks at 1,500 locations in Texas and Louisiana by September 30. As of September 20, field crews had flagged high water marks at 1,286 Texas sites. About 30 USGS workers remain in the field carrying out this assignment.

The high-water marks also provide important verification for satellite imagery and data from the USGS’ network of storm-tide sensors and river and streamgages, which will be combined as the USGS develops flood inundation maps of the region. Workers have repaired or replaced at least 15 gauges that were damaged by flooding, which reached record high levels at more than 50 different locations in the Colorado, San Bernard, Brazos, San Jacinto, Neches and Sabine river basins. Detailed information on the flooding in Texas and Louisiana is available on the USGS’ Hurricane Harvey Flood Event Viewer.

Of special concern were two reservoirs, Barker and Addison, which captured water from Buffalo Bayou, upstream from downtown Houston. At the height of the record-breaking flooding USGS crews replaced storm-damaged streamgages at the reservoirs under police escort, to ensure accurate flow measurements as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made decisions regarding emergency releases of water from those reservoirs. At the request of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USGS also installed webcams to communicate information about the status of releases. The USGS continues to closely monitor water levels in that area.

USGS scientists have also developed a tool to help natural resource managers assess where zebra mussels and other problematic species might have spread during the flooding associated with Harvey, and to help inform where decontamination efforts might be needed. By entering in the species of interest, viewers can see where a species is present in a watershed, and where it may spread to during flooding.

Learn more about the USGS work before, during and after Hurricane Harvey at https://www.usgs.gov/harvey.