Professors at CCU seek to understand complex hurricane systems, ‘disastrous inland flooding’

Professors at CCU seek to understand complex hurricane systems, ‘disastrous inland flooding’
Members of Coastal Carolina University's hurricane project are looking at how storms can cause disastrous inland flooding along the Grand Strand.

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Leaders of Coastal Carolina University’s Hurricane Genesis and Outlook Project (HUGO) are looking for new ways to research how storms can cause disastrous inland flooding in our area.

The HUGO program started in 2013 and is made up of many scholars, students and other universities. The group looks into climate factors that could contribute to the upcoming hurricane season and then makes a prediction.

CCU professor, Len Pietrafesa, heads the program and said the goal is to try to better understand these complex hurricane systems. The diverse backgrounds of people from all research disciplines make observations ranging from studying water quality, flooding and beach erosion. Pietrafesa said there are a lot of agricultural areas in the southeast where the precipitation gets absorbed by the land and goes into the water table. The problem is that the water doesn’t go away, it reappears days later, making it hard to detect. He added that the terrain in coastal states is relatively flat, which increases the risk of rapid flooding. He says it’s important to understand how these storms work and its potential impacts along the Grand Strand.

“If you get more precipitation falling, then that leads to explosive flooding upstream because if the water can’t go up anymore, it can only go out. And one of the things of the terrain in these coastal states is that the terrain is relatively flat, even though you’re going up into the Piedmont and the mountain area it’s still, you know, very gradual in how the elevations increase so you can get very rapid flooding. And then once again if it happens to be near a highway, then you flood the highway. So instead of taking days to flood and hours to flood, it can happen over a few tens of minutes, and that’s why cars get washed off the road because suddenly a car is in a foot of water,” said Pietrafasa.

HUGO project leaders say there’s always going to be changes in the climate. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to adapt to those changes.

The goal is to be able to manage, predict and understand coastal systems. Also, identifying how to manage the environment and economy in an effective manner. Executive director of the Centers for Marine and Wetland Studies at CCU, Dr. Paul Gayes, said there are multiple projects going on to build this overall research. One project right now is the focus of building instruments to deal with some of the technical aspects of sensing flooding. They’ve created a handheld device with sensors that can be tossed in a flooding river and collect data to better understand flooding and obtain information for future predictions. He also noted that a lot of the state’s economy is based on the infrastructure and activities in coastal zones, so better understanding our environment and managing that sensibly into the future is in everyone’s collective interest.

“It’s pretty simple, we have instrumentation that does that on a day to day basis. But during events, you’ve seen the very devastating effects of the flooding. The instrumentation that’s in the water tends to be compromised, so it’s a real challenge to get it, it’s tough operationally to do it, it’s tough on the equipment, so coming up with newer technology that will allow you to do that rapidly with some quick response because you don’t know where the pressure’s going to be. Hurricane winds predicted seven days out where it will land, we don’t have instrumentation everywhere, so you got to be able to adapt to that and do things quicker and faster than we’ve done in the past,” said Gayes.

Gayes says a challenge with predicting forecasts is that the predictions are based on past events. So now, they're working on finding new ways to observe how the hurricanes happen as they are happening.

“How we can get better information that we can make sure we are covering our risk and our concerns. We have so much in our coastal zones. We have to protect that because it is an important part of our way of life and we have to do that as effectively and efficiently as possible because it’s very expensive to do that. So, underestimating that risk is quite economically vulnerable and overestimating it is a problem as well because these responses will be very expensive,” said Gayes.

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