USGS: Laura to strongly affect Texas, Louisiana beaches and barrier islands

Release Date:

To learn more about USGS’s role in providing science to decision makers before, during and after Hurricane Laura, visit www.usgs.gov/laura

If Hurricane Laura continues on its current track and strengthens as forecasters expect, USGS experts predict that storm-driven waves and tides will strongly affect sandy beaches and barrier islands along the central Gulf Coast, particularly in Louisiana and southeast Texas. Regionwide, more than one-third of sandy shorelines could see storm waves inundating coastal sand dunes and flooding areas behind them. Coastal inundation, the most serious storm surge effect on sandy shorelines, may affect more than half of barrier islands and beaches in Louisiana and more than one-fourth of those in Texas, with less severe and extensive impacts forecast for Mississippi and Alabama.

The USGS prediction can help local emergency management officials decide which areas to evacuate, where and when to close coastal roads, and where to position clean-up equipment in advance of the storm. They cover only sandy shorelines, such as beaches and barrier islands, and not marshes, forests or shorelines with seawalls or other armoring. Louisiana has more marshy shorelines and fewer sandy beaches than the other three states, so this prediction applies to a smaller portion of that state’s coast, but the predicted extent of overwash in Louisiana is still significant, said USGS oceanographer Kara Doran. 

“The storm surges are likely going to be the most impactful events of this storm,” said Doran, leader of the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Storm Team based in St. Petersburg, Florida. "The coast is vulnerable with back-to-back storms in the same general area.” 

Closeup view of potential beach erosion from Hurricane Laura

This Coastal Change Storm Hazard Team forecast was made at 4 a.m CDT August 25, 2020 and shows forecast beach erosion at the base of the dunes (the strip of colored bars closest to the coast), overwash (middle strip) and inundation (outer strip) from Hurricane Laura.  Note: The model accounts for sandy beaches and barrier islands and does not include marshes, forested or sea walled shorelines. Credit: USGS, Public domain.

(Public domain.)

Storm surges are increases in ocean water levels generated at sea by extreme storms. They can have devastating coastal impacts. The least severe level of storm damage on sandy shorelines is erosion at the base of sand dunes, known as collision. More than 86% of Texas beaches and barrier islands from Freeport to the Louisiana border and more than 85% of Louisiana’s sandy shorelines are predicted to erode at the dunes’ base. About 36% of Mississippi beaches and 11% of Alabama’s beaches are projected to erode at the dunes’ base.

Overwash is the middle range of potential storm damage. As waves and surge reach higher than the top of the dune, overwash can transport large amounts of sand across coastal environments, depositing sand inland and causing significant changes to the landscape. Overwash can reduce the height of the coast’s protective line of sand dunes, alter the beaches’ profile, and leave areas behind the dunes more vulnerable to future storms.

A substantial amount of overwash is predicted in Louisiana, with about 82% of the states’ sandy beaches very likely to be affected by overwash. Texas is forecast to have 40% of their beaches overwashed and Mississippi could have 18% of beaches overwashed. Only 1% of Alabama sandy shorelines are expected to be overwashed.

The most severe category of beach damage is inundation, when seawater completely and continuously submerges beaches and dunes. The forecast calls for 61% of Louisiana sandy shorelines to be inundated, compared to 27% in Texas, less than 2% in Mississippi and none in Alabama.

The prediction of Laura’s effects at landfall is based on results of the USGS Coastal Change Forecast model, which has been in use since 2011 and is continually being improved. The Coastal Change Forecast model starts with inputs from the National Hurricane Center’s storm surge predictions and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wave forecast models. The USGS model then adds detailed information about the forecasted landfall region’s beach slope and dune height. The predictions define “very likely” effects as those that have at least a 90 percent chance of taking place, based on the storm’s forecast track and intensity. 

The latest coastal change forecast for Laura is at https://marine.usgs.gov/coastalchangehazardsportal/. It will be updated whenever the hurricane center’s surge forecasts change.

Over the weekend other USGS scientists from the Lower Mississippi Gulf Water Science Center and the Oklahoma-Texas Water Science Center deployed scientific instruments called storm tide sensors along the coast from southeast Texas to Alabama. The sensors will stay in place, taking readings, until after Hurricane Laura has passed. Scientists will use the information they collect to document storm surge and help improve future forecasting of storm effects. The public can see data from these sensors and other USGS instruments that track water levels in the region at the USGS Flood Event Viewer.

As the USGS continues to take all appropriate preparedness actions in response Tropical Storm Marco, those in the storm's projected path can visit Ready.gov or Listo.gov for tips on creating emergency plans and putting together an emergency supply kit.

Before and after pictures - Hurricane Rita and Holly Beach, Louisiana, USA

Hurricanes can cause severe beach erosion. This picture shows the impact of Hurricane Rita on Holly Beach, Louisiana in 2005. In the right photograph, note the sand deposit emerging from the flood waters in a mid-island location half way between the arrows, as well as landward of the main highway along the far-left side. Evidence of flow-induced scour under and around structures is present in the post-Rita photograph. (Public domain.)