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Longtime residents who live in US coastal communities know the danger of storm surge damage all too well. Sure, it’s the tropical storms and hurricanes that get named and categorized. However, if you ask those same coastal residents, ones who’ve experienced dozens of ocean storms, what their memories are of the most destructive storm surge events, you likely won’t hear them rattle off any hurricane names. It’s the large winter ocean storms that send a flood of bad memories.

Take January 2016 as an example. As a large and powerful blizzard blanketed much of the east coast with several feet of snow, the storm was churning up the ocean waters with tremendous ferocity, pushing massive amounts of water and waves toward the coast of New Jersey. At Cape May, NJ, it wasn’t the snowfall amounts that worried them. Water levels swelled to 6.61 feet, setting an all-time record for water level height and resulting in major coastal flooding. More record flood levels fell farther down the east coast as residents were left in awe at the amount of flooding that a winter storm caused.

Of course, hazards like storm surge are not restricted to impacting just one season. The storm surge threat is one that exists year round, with peaks in vulnerability depending on your location. Along the West Coast, large ocean storms are more common in December and January and can combine with astronomically high tides to amplify the storm surge threat.

Winter's surge

What can you do to prepare?

As with any natural hazard, there are always steps that can be taken in order to be properly prepared for the threat of storm surge.

  • Know your zone! It’s more than just a catchy slogan and it may end up saving your life. Many local communities and towns have set up websites with resources such as local flood zone maps, evacuation routes and shelter information. You can find more information on your home state’s flood emergency plans at NOAA’s Coastal Services Center.
  • Keep an eye on the forecast: There is no better resource during a potential winter storm surge event than your local National Weather Service forecast office. Meteorologists will regularly update storm forecasts and issue coastal or storm surge advisories. Find your local office here.
  • Have a plan: Flood related evacuations happen quickly, often leaving little to no lead time before you are forced to move. Having a plan ahead of time can mitigate this loss of lead time. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides excellent guidelines for flood evacuation preparation.

Remember, just because you take a break from the ocean in the winter doesn’t mean the ocean takes a break from you! NOAA’s Storm Surge and Coastal Inundation has more information on storm surge, impacts, preparedness, and forecasts.