Storm Surge 101: How USAID Helps Caribbean Countries Prepare for this Hurricane Threat

When hurricanes barrel close to communities, many people’s first instincts are to protect themselves from the high winds that threaten to flatten homes and snap trees in half. But, in fact, storm surges — or rising coastal waters created by the storm — pose a far more dangerous and deadly threat.

USAID Saves Lives
3 min readMay 1, 2021
After a bridge was washed away by Hurricane Matthew’s heavy rains and winds in October 2016, these people in Haiti crossed a flooded river with the help of a rope. Photo credit: Logan Abassi UN / MINUSTAH

What is Storm Surge?

It wasn’t so long ago — September 2019 — when Hurricane Dorian made landfall in The Bahamas as a Category 5 storm, making it the strongest hurricane in modern history to hit the island nation and only the fifth Atlantic hurricane on record to achieve such an intensity. The storm destroyed infrastructure and affected more than 76,000 people.

While the 180+ mph winds caused damage, it was the storm surge, or rising water, that rose more than 20 feet above tide level and devastated most communities. That’s equivalent to reaching the top of a two story house! Hurricane Irma in 2017 also led to devastating storm surges in the Caribbean, reaching roughly eight feet above tide level in Antigua and Barbuda, and up to 20 feet in Cuba.

Heavy flooding battered Abaco island in The Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian (left) and Buzi in central Mozambique following Cyclone Idai (right). Photo credit: Alison Harding, USAID; ADRIEN BARBIER / AFP

Meet one of our USAID experts

USAID Hydrometeorological Advisor Sezin Tokar provides technical advice to our disaster experts on how to prepare, respond, and reduce risks related to weather, including hurricanes and floods. Here, she explains why storm surges are such a threat:

VIDEO: USAID Hydrometeorologist Advisor Sezin Tokar explains storm surges.

What is USAID Doing to Protect Against Storm Surge?

To reduce the threat of devastating storm surge, USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance is working with the National Hurricane Center, national meteorological services, and disaster management agencies across the Caribbean to use cutting-edge science and technology to advance early warnings of storm surges and strengthen preparedness across this vulnerable region.

Under the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership, this work is helping our Caribbean neighbors develop maps to assess and visualize storm surge risk, as well as strengthen capacity for early warnings in the countries across the Caribbean. Paired with early warning systems, this storm surge mapping program will help Caribbean countries ensure they are ready for weather threats and can respond quickly by providing forecasts and early warnings that will help emergency managers, first responders, governments, businesses, and the public identify who is most at-risk and make smart and timely decisions.

VIDEO: USAID Hydrometeorologist Advisor Sezin Tokar explains how storm maps work.

This storm surge forecasting and early warning program has already been rolled out in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and is under development in The Bahamas, Belize, and Cancun, Mexico. USAID and the National Hurricane Center plan to expand the program to the other countries in the Caribbean in coming years.

In 2016, Category 4 storm Hurricane Matthew battered Haiti and left this community south of Port-au-Price severely flooded by the overflowing of the La Rouyonne river. Photo credit: Hector Retamal / AFP

USAID works year round to reduce the risk and impact of disasters — including hurricanes and related threats — across Latin America and especially in the Caribbean, where small island communities are uniquely vulnerable. This storm surge mapping program adds one more critical tool to the toolbox for local governments and humanitarian organizations working on the ground to prepare communities at risk before the next storm hits.

Learn more about USAID’s humanitarian work around the world.

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USAID Saves Lives

USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance saves lives on behalf of the American people.