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Google, hurricane center create storm surge maps

Those storm surge maps found in telephone books soon might be relics of hurricanes past.

The National Hurricane Center and Google Earth are joining to create a free Web-based program that allows computer-users to zoom into street-level storm surge maps. They are the same satellite views as regular Google Earth, but color-coded according to storm surge categories.

The partners hope to launch the program by June 1, which kicks off the Atlantic hurricane season.

Officials say Florida residents don’t worry enough about the rising water in cyclones, especially in low-lying areas and barrier islands that are just a few feet above sea level. Storm surge — not high winds or rain — is what created the most damage when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005.

While experts say residents should take storm surge maps seriously and use them to prepare for storms, people also should heed evacuation orders from emergency management agencies.

“Some people may look at that (storm surge map) and say, ‘Nope, I’m not going to evacuate. Why do it?’” said Bob Lay, Brevard County’s emergency management director. “The reason you should is, you can’t make accurate predictions and decisions about that until almost the last minute — and it’s too late at that point.”

When Hurricane Charley hit Southwest Florida in 2004, weather forecasters changed their storm surge predictions from a few feet up to 15 feet as the Category 4 storm approached land. Ultimately, the eye rapidly shrunk, thus sparing coastal areas from devastating surge. Captiva Island had a 6.5-foot surge.

In addition to storm surge maps in the phone book, the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Web site, leepa.org, also lists storm surge categories and elevation for every piece of land in Lee. Near downtown Fort Myers, for example, storm surge categories range from tropical storm to Category 4-plus within a few city blocks.

Unlike a tsunami, with just a few giant waves, storm surge is a continual rise of water pushed ashore by a tropical system.

“You talk to a lot of people, especially beachside, and they’ll say, ‘I don’t worry about storm surge. The water will dissipate,’” said Dave Diana, co-owner of Hurricane Product Warehouse in Melbourne. “Once it comes over … the beach, it’s not going to dissipate. It’s not going to go down into the sand. It’s going to spread out, and it’s going to keep going.”

Stephen Baig, hurricane center oceanographer, is among those tweaking the new mapping program. Storm surge predictions serve as “the foundation of evacuation planning” for coastal populations, Baig said.

To create computer models, programmers downloaded seafloor elevations and launched about 15,000 hypothetical hurricanes across the East Coast on a basin-by-basin scenario. The program also includes storm surge statistics for Lake Okeechobee, which is surrounded by a levee.

Another sign the hurricane season is approaching: the National Hurricane Conference kicks off this week in Orlando, drawing emergency officials from across the country.

On Friday, Colorado State University atmospheric researcher William Gray and his team will discuss the 2008 hurricane season forecast.