Buzzards Bay at Higher Risk for Storm Surge Damage in a Hurricane

Aug 7, 2018

Credit Wikicommons / bit.ly/2MhkKni

WCAI has partnered with the Cape Cod Times to bring you the series, "Are we ready? Examining hurricane preparedness on Cape Cod and the Islands." WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with some of the Cape Cod Times reporters about what they learned in writing their stories for the series, including Doug Fraser, the Times' environmental reporter, who took a look at the dangers of storm surge in Buzzards Bay.

Eident: Good morning Doug. Thanks so much for chatting with us.

Fraser: Good morning Katie. Good to talk.

Eident: People often think of wind damage, things like downed trees and power lines, when they think of a hurricane. But you talked to a hydrologist who says Buzzards Bay is especially at risk for storm surge in a big storm like a Category 3 hurricane. Why is Buzzards Bay particularly vulnerable?

Fraser: It’s a pretty well-known fact that Buzzards Bay would probably be the highest storm surge on the East Coast. And, in part, that's due to the fact that it's kind of a funnel-shaped, south-facing Bay, relatively large compared to the other bays along the Cape, and it channels the energy of the storm into ever-narrowing channels--and there's a lot of small beach communities and residential communities that lie along these channels.

The storm surge itself is like snow in front of a snowplow; it's getting shoved forward, and as it hits these channels, it gets forced up and over the banks. And it happens fairly quickly.

The storm surge from the 1635 hurricane, which was reproduced from journals and using computer models, showed a 21.7-foot foot surge at the head of Buzzards Bay. That kind of Category 3 storm we haven't really seen here in recorded history other than that in 1635. So you know you have to expect the unexpected.

Eident: That's definitely what we've been hearing in our reporting as well. Talk about what dangers something like that poses for residents.

Fraser: Well, we saw over the past winter with the storm surge came in very quick from the Nor'easters. Now, those tend to come from a different direction, of course. But, people talked about 15 minutes going from kind of a normal tide to suddenly being three to four feet underwater. You know it's very fast, and it can come without warning.

The storm surge for hurricanes usually happens a few hours in advance of landfall--people are kind of focused on landfall. And for us, the perfect storm so to speak, would hit Rhode Island. So, you might be focused on the landfalls Rhode Island, but actually on the right side of the storm is getting shoved right up into our bays.

It tends to cut off escape routes very quickly. So, medical emergencies are harder to deal with, people who might see themselves--especially in the case of something like a 20 foot sea rise--well, you know, a lot of homes are not going to be safe anymore. We saw that happen in Sandy and in Katrina.

This is a pretty dangerous, pretty strong surge that comes in that can damage property and kill people. It's responsible for 49% of the deaths from Atlantic hurricanes each year.

Eident: Are towns and residents starting to prepare better for something like this?

Fraser: There's been a lot of coastal resiliency project going on, and those are more preparing for kind of a long-term things like sea rise and maybe to strengthen against a normal surge.

But this is something that's abnormal, and some planners say it's really hard to plan for something of this magnitude--other than to get people notified and out of the way.

The emergency management people are much better connected and informed than they were when Bob hit it in 1991, the last major hurricane to hit us. The problem now is to get people aware of the danger and that they should be taking steps to get out of there 24 hours in advance of the hurricane.

Eident: Take it seriously, the takeaway from all this Doug Fraser of the Cape Cod Times. Thanks so much for joining us. And you can read more from Doug's story at Cape Cod Times dot com. Doug, thanks a lot.

Fraser: Thank you.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

See Doug's story in the Cape Cod Times here