Risk Management

Managing Risks of Storm or Sea Surge

A storm surge is defined as a rise above the normal water level along a shore resulting from strong onshore winds and / or reduced atmospheric pressure. Storm surges accompany a tropical cyclone as it comes ashore. They may also be formed by intense low-pressure systems in non-tropical areas.

We are experiencing more extremes of weather and likely the possibility of more storm surges in the future due to climate change.

Further if you combine storm surge and normal (astronomical) tide you get what is known as a 'storm tide'. The most severe impacts occur when the storm surge arrives at the height of a high tide. If this happens, the storm tide can reach areas that you might expect to be safe compounded by waves generated by powerful winds.

Storm Surge - what you need to know

Why is it a concern?

It is possible that sea water flooding may extend several kilometres inland if the land is low lying. It can be up to 100 kilometres wide.

The reason this is such a concern is that the combined effects of the storm tide and waves can knock down buildings and wash away roads. In Australia, most people live by the Coast with many right by the Beach.  Also ships can run aground. If you are caught in your home or in a car when a significant storm surge arrives, you may not survive.

Also of concern is that even if you are insured, most insurance policies will exclude claims arising from storm or sea surge. Some will give cover if it occurs the same time as a Storm or a flood. It is worth checking if you have cover or not.


What warnings are available?

It is very difficult to forecast exactly when and where a cyclone will cross the coast due to their erratic nature. This makes it difficult to predict how high the astronomical tide will be when the storm surge strikes, since the time difference between high and low tide is only a few hours. Therefore the Bureau of Meteorology, will assume the worst that the cyclone will cross the coast at high tide, in its warnings to the public.


How high will a storm surge be?

Every cyclone that affects the coast produces a storm surge. But not all storm surges rise to dangerous levels. The height of the surge depends on:

  1. The intensity of the cyclone - as the winds increase, the sea water is piled higher and the waves on top of the surge are taller.
  2. The forward speed of the cyclone - the faster the cyclone crosses the coast, the more quickly the surge builds up and the more powerfully it strikes.
  3. The angle at which the cyclone crosses the coast - in general, the more head on the angle, the higher the surge. However other angles can lead to local zones of enhanced surge in areas such as narrow inlets and bays.
  4. The shape of the sea floor - the surge builds up more strongly if the slope of the sea bed at the coast is shallow. If the sea bed slopes steeply, or if fringing reefs are present, then the surge will be less.
  5. Local topography - bays, headlands and offshore islands can funnel and amplify the storm surge.


How can I avoid the risk of death or injury?

It is important to plan well ahead of time.

  1. Determine whether you are under threat? Contact your local Emergency Services or local council to determine if you are in a surge-prone area. Particularly if you live or work in the coastal tropics or subtropics.
  2. Where would we evacuate to? Decide where you will go should there be a storm surge. Perhaps a friend or relative living on higher ground who could let you stay.  Determine where your nearest safe high ground shelter might be and the best safe way to get there.
  3. What should we do if we need to evacuate? You should have a plan laid for when an evacuation is required. Will you have essential medicines? What about vital documents? What will you do with your pets? Ask for help from your local council or Emergency Services about what you should do.
  4. Time to evacuate! Be prepared to evacuate as soon as you are advised to do so. This makes it easier for Emergency Services to manage the difficult task of moving a lot of people all at once, especially if the weather is getting worse. If you choose to leave of your own accord, tell your neighbours.

When a cyclone threat develops, keep listening to official warnings issued by the Bureau of Meteorology. These will advise if high tides and coastal flooding are expected.

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