Critical Communications, Severe Weather

The Importance of Storm Surge Notifications During Hurricane Season

By Aaron Kuhn

Consider this: according to the National Hurricane Center, storm surge directly causes approximately half of all deaths associated with massive storms.

In June, we watched the progress of Tropical Storm Cristobal as it moved along the Gulf Coast and inland. News stories about missing boaters and vacationers requiring rescue from cabins in a state park in Louisiana brought to mind a topic we’ve discussed on this blog before: sending out storm surge information as part of your critical communications messaging to your citizens.

For many years, close to all of the attention during a storm was given to the storm itself, and not the threat of surge. Then Katrina happened. And later, Maria and Ike. It became obvious that storm surge communications needed to be a critical part of the overall emergency messaging plan.

Today, there are many predictive models and tools—online, apps, emergency notification systems and others—to map and communicate storm surge threats. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) provides a tool on its website for finding the latest storm information, including storm surge.

Using the National Weather Service’s Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes model, the tool can predict where storm surge and resulting coastal flooding could occur, as well as the potential height of water above ground. And using a critical communications system like OnSolve CodeRED, life-saving information can be pushed out quickly to the public.

Did you know?

  • In some cases, storm surges can span hundreds of miles of coastline and reach heights of more than 20 feet.
  • During Hurricane Ike, coastal flooding from storm surge penetrated 30 miles inland—reaching areas as distant as southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.
  • Storm surge flooding during Hurricane Katrina reached as high as 28 feet above normal tide levels.

Predicting, Preparing, Communicating

Using the predictive tool mentioned above, the government keeps a close watch on potential surges and publishes the information on the NHC website, as well as through various agencies’ emergency notification systems. Surge notifications are released within 90 minutes of when the first hurricane watch or warning is issued.

How can you use your critical communications system to ensure the public has full and accurate information about the threat of storm surge to specific areas?

  • Prepare storm surge templates, just as you have for other aspects of hurricane alerts.
  • Use all available channels to educate residents about what a storm surge is and the threat it presents to life and property.
  • Raise awareness about the times of day you will send regular alerts and make clear to the public the identity of your official critical communications messenger.
  • And finally, deliver your messages. For Cristobal, the NHC sent out alerts every three hours starting at 1 a.m. and concluding at 10 p.m.


Unlike the storm itself, storm surge is not a threat to broad regions. Effective storm surge alerts must be targeted to reach people only in those areas where surge is predicted. For instance, the NHC posted surge warnings for Cristobal only for the mouth of the Mississippi River to Ocean Springs, MS, and for the Lake Borgne area.

Having the ability to target messages to people in only critical areas is a must-have capability for your critical communications system. Without targeting, you risk spreading confusion in the public and reducing the effectiveness of your emergency response.

The Example of Cristobal

What does a good storm surge communication strategy look like? Below, we’ve followed Cristobal’s development to provide an outline you can use to guide your messaging efforts.

June 2: A tropical depression over Mexico becomes Tropical Storm, Cristobal.

  • If you haven’t already been working to raise awareness and drive registrations with your critical communications system, you should start in earnest now.

June 4: The first alert that the storm should reach the U.S. is released.

  • Begin your daily messages. Remind your residents to turn alerts on for their emergency notification system, if they haven’t already, to ensure they’re aware when new messages arrive.

June 5 The NWS issues its first storm and surge watch advisory, pinpointing where the surge is forecasted, and where to find more information.

  • Send this information to the projected surge areas, let people know the steps to take, and identify places to go for shelter if needed.

June 6 Some of the surge watches are upgraded to warnings.

  • Let residents know that the threat has increased and remind them to monitor their ENS. Reinforce evacuation routes, shelter locations and other critical actions they may need to take.

June 8 The storm dissipates; the surge and storm warnings are taken down.

  • Make sure everyone receives the “all clear” message.

Cristobal was an early storm. More severe storms—and their surges—aren’t expected to hit until later in the summer. Now is a perfect time to assess your readiness. An emergency action plan—including comprehensive communications strategies—is imperative to keep your residents safe and their property secure.

Hurricane season is here. Are you ready to communicate about the coming hurricanes and storm surges that could create dangerous situations?