Future storm surge could have devastating impacts to Cameron County

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HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — As September begins, the peak of hurricane season gets closer on September 10. 

While the Rio Grande Valley does not see hurricanes every summer, storm surge poses the greatest threat to life and property to our coastal communities like South Padre Island, Laguna Vista, and the Port of Brownsville.

Hurricane Hanna last summer spared us from severe storm surge, the only question left is when the next major storm surge will occur.  

“We are not looking at once in 100, once in a 200-year event for the reasonable worst case. We are looking at in our lifetime,” said Barry Goldsmith, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with National Weather Service Brownsville.

The Rio Grande Valley is no stranger to damaging storm surge from a landfalling tropical cyclone. Dating back to 1933, there have been three storms that brought at least 13 feet of storm surge to parts of the Valley. That is 13 feet of water above sea level, not including the wave action on top of that.  

“There is a lot of wave energy and wave power, and faster a tropical cyclone moves onshore it brings more wave power with it,” said Goldsmith. “If it’s slower it will bring a little bit less wave power with it. Just something people should know, but regardless there is going to be wave energy coming in and those waves could cause an awful lot amount of damage on top of the height of the water.” 

That water rise caused by tropical force winds piling water along the coastline could be as high as 20 feet here in the RGV with category four or five-level storms. That high of water would cause devastating flooding and structural damage from Brownsville to Rio Hondo. 

According to Dean Kyne, UTRGV’s Disaster Studies Program director — and studies the social impacts of hurricanes —, that strength of storm could put 37% of Cameron County underwater including parts of Brownsville, Rio Hondo, and Los Fresnos.

“If this is as we are anticipating, then the impact would be very large,” said Kyne. “And also rebuilding then would take a lot of time.”

Kyne adds that with at least 30% of the population of Cameron County living below the poverty line, recovery would be that much harder. 

“When we look at this population, who are exposed to this storm surge risk, they have a lower education level and lowest income level, so I think there might be less preparation and less mitigation,” said Kyne. “So, that may hinder the speedy recovery. It may take time and they may need more resources in many cases of a more severe hurricane category and storm surge event.”

While this potential worst-case scenario has not happened in recent recorded history, Goldsmith said there are two scenarios he could see happening here in the future. The first being a large, slow storm like Beulah [category three at landfall] in 1967 with the power of a category five. 

“And it was moving at probably the perfect direction to create a large surge, which is from the southeast to the northwest, making landfall around the mouth of the Rio Grande River,” said Goldsmith. “Then you take Beulah and make it a category five. Keep the size and increase the strength.” 

The second scenario is taking the faster and smaller 1933 storm [category three at landfall] and making that a category five as well.  

“Even though it was a little smaller because it was moving faster, it had more wave energy,” said Goldsmith. “That means the breaking waves would have been stronger and more powerful with the 1933 storm than Beulah moving slower.” 

Goldsmith says each scenario would bring a storm surge of 13 to 22 feet. With a storm like that, it is important to remember the phrase: hide from wind and run from water.

“When there are many people, like 37% of the total population going to be affected during the hurricane category five, and if they have to do the mandatory evacuation then you have to consider about the time they need to move from their residences to go to their safe haven place,” said Kyne. “And that takes time.”

While we may or may not see a storm this hurricane season it is important to know your evacuation route to get out of harm’s way. It is also important to look into getting flood insurance for your family. Your homeowner’s insurance does not cover floodings.

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