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Three years after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic coast, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) continues to help Americans prepare for future extreme storms.

View from a satellite of a hurricane swirling over the ocean and approaching the east coast of the United States.
Hurricane Sandy about a day and a half before it crossed the New Jersey coast. NOAA satellite image, October 28, 2012.

Three years after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic coast, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) continues to help Americans prepare for future extreme storms.

Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the eastern United States in 2012. The storm caused over $70 billion in property damage, killed more than 200 people, and permanently changed coastlines. After the storm, the USGS ramped up the research needed to help Americans prepare for future extreme storms.

As we work to implement the Hurricane Sandy Science Plan, the USGS is committed to being responsive to stakeholder needs, improving and facilitating access to predictive tools to protect coastal communities and resources, and enhancing our Nation’s capabilities to respond to the next hurricane.

—Suzette M. Kimball, USGS Director

Since 2012, the USGS has completed many Hurricane Sandy projects, including:

  • Expanding a network of storm wave and storm surge sensors
  • Presenting state-of-the-art hurricane coastal change forecasts on the web
  • Improving hurricane coastal change forecasts with the help of citizen scientists
  • Presenting long-term studies of coastal change on Fire Island, New York

Measuring storm waves and storm surge 

A man squats on a dock by a pole where he is attaching a pipe.
Craig Brown, a USGS hydrologist, installs a sensor pipe for the SWaTH Network.

While many news reports focus on top wind speeds, a hurricane’s large waves and storm surges often cause most of the destruction. A storm surge is the increase in sea level, above the natural tides, caused by hurricane winds pushing seawater toward the shore. 

The USGS developed portable sensors to measure the height and other aspects of storm waves and storm surges. Technicians place the sensors in the predicted path of an approaching hurricane. Some sensors transmit live data, which helps emergency responders find the worst damage. After the storm, scientists use the data to improve storm wave and storm surge forecasts; engineers use the data to design storm-resistant buildings and roads; and coastal geologists use the data to learn more about how dunes protect coastlines.

However, Hurricane Sandy was so large that the USGS did not have enough sensors or a quick enough installation process to cover all of the affected areas.

A map showing the USGS SWaTH Network.
A map showing SWaTH Network sensor locations.

Using Hurricane Sandy recovery funds, the USGS bought more sensors and established the Surge, Wave, and Tide Hydrodynamic (SWaTH) Network. The SWaTH network runs from North Carolina to Maine.

To speed up sensor installation, USGS staff bolted pipes to storm-resistant walls, piers and other facilities, and then recorded the precise location and elevation using GPS receivers. As a hurricane approaches, technicians can quickly drop sensors into these pipes.

Scientists have found new uses for Hurricane Sandy storm surge and storm wave data from New York. A recent study prepared in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) looked at how damage estimates change as more information becomes available. FEMA and others use damage estimates to declare disasters, prioritize relief, and guide reconstruction.

Fire Island, New York, prior to Hurricane Sandy
The USGS coastal change forecast for Fire Island, New York, released before Hurricane Sandy, with a photo showing what actually happened. The photo confirms a successful inundation forecast.

“The results from this new study demonstrated how the additional resolution and accuracy of flood depictions resulting from these efforts greatly improved the damage estimates,” said Chris Schubert, a USGS hydrologist. “The storm-tide information we provided to FEMA in the immediate aftermath of Sandy is one of the building blocks for this research.”

Forecasting coastal changes caused by hurricanes

A major hurricane like Sandy approaches your area, and you have questions. Is my home in danger? Will my evacuation routes work? What could my favorite beach look like afterwards?

With a couple of mouse clicks or finger taps, you can “see” past, present, and future hazards for most of America’s coastline. The USGS Coastal Change Hazards portal can help citizens prepare for emergencies and help resource managers plan to restore ecosystems. The USGS expanded and improved the portal using long-term research and Hurricane Sandy recovery funds.

USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal
The USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal on a tablet computer.

The portal runs in any modern web browser on a desktop computer, tablet, or smart phone. The USGS designed it for a wide range of audiences, from government planners to people worried about a looming hurricane.

“As a storm approaches the coast we will be able to make timely forecasts of coastal change, and identify where the greatest threats are,” said Hilary Stockdon, a USGS research oceanographer. “As the storm’s landfall location becomes more certain, the forecast is updated to provide more accurate information on what to expect in terms of coastal change.”

A video demonstration of the portal (“Coastal Change Hazards Rodanthe Tutorial”) shows how someone living in Rodanthe, North Carolina, can use the portal to answer the question: How much beach erosion is occurring in my community?

“Our nation’s coastlines are constantly changing landscapes that pose unique management challenges,” said Suzette Kimball, USGS director. “This new USGS portal is truly one-of-a-kind, providing a credible foundation for making decisions to protect resources, reduce risk, and prevent economic losses.”

Video Transcript
Video demonstrating the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal. The portal has changed slightly since the production of this video.


A woman taking photos out the window of an aircraft
USGS geologist Karen L.M. Morgan taking aerial photographs after a hurricane.

Citizen scientists improve hurricane coastal change forecasts

You can help the USGS improve hurricane coastal change forecasts. The iCoast web site lets you compare photographs taken by USGS scientists from airplanes before and after major hurricanes.

In iCoast, you click a few boxes identifying coastal features such as beaches and buildings, and changes such as dune erosion and dead vegetation. This helps researchers improve forecasts of coastal changes caused by hurricanes.

iCoast allows citizen scientists to identify changes to the coast by comparing aerial photographs taken before and after storms.
Screen shot of iCoast, where you can help improve forecasts of hurricane coastal change by comparing before and after photos.

“Computers cannot yet automatically identify damages and geomorphic changes to the coast from aerial photographs,” said Sophia B. Liu, a USGS research geographer who led the development of iCoast. “Human intelligence is still needed to finish the job.”

Over 700 citizen scientists have scrutinized nearly 8,000 before-and-after photos from Hurricane Sandy. You can sign up at iCoast to help the USGS inspect more than 8,000 new Hurricane Joaquin shots.


Long-term research: Fire Island, New York

Photograph of damaged homes on Fire Island following Hurricane Sandy.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed or damaged many ocean front homes on Fire Island, NY.

The Fire Island coastal change website presents over a decade of research on changes to the island’s beaches and dunes. Fortunately, many years of USGS research preceded Hurricane Sandy, so we can compare conditions on Fire Island before and after the storm.

“The website is intended to provide our Federal, State, and local partners and stakeholders with an access point to the large body of science we have produced,” said Cheryl Hapke, research geologist and currently Director of the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Fire Island is the longest barrier island on the south shore of Long Island, New York. A barrier island is long and narrow, running parallel to the coast, separated from the mainland by shallow water. Most of the island is part of Fire Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service.

Scientists and land managers can use research from Fire Island on other barrier islands up and down the U.S. Atlantic coast, and along the Gulf of Mexico.

“Barrier islands are dynamic systems that also provide protection from future storms to the built environment,” Hapke said. “A thorough understanding of the long-term and short-term evolution of barrier islands can lead to models that better predict future changes to the coastal system at Fire Island.”


Three people standing in a parking lot near a trailer with two jet skis on it.
USGS research geologist Cheryl Hapke (center) explains to National Park Service manager Mike Bilecki (right) how instruments mounted on personal watercraft will measure depths in shallow water. USGS engineering technician BJ Reynolds is beside the watercraft.
Photo of a beach with a lighthouse in the far distance
Looking east toward Fire Island lighthouse. The flat, sandy overwash sheets (middle of photo) are where Hurricane Sandy destroyed the dunes.

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