Jacksonville coast is more prone to hurricanes than you think

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Out of all the dangers hurricanes bring, storm surge is the most deadly and damaging.

Hundreds of thousands of families in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia live right in the path of a potentially dangerous storm surge.

Action News Jax traveled to Miami to see first-hand how the world’s largest storm surge simulator is helping communities like Jacksonville.

It's been nearly 52 years since Hurricane Dora hit Jacksonville’s coast as a low-end category two storm. Even though it wasn't the most powerful storm, the damage was devastating.

“Hurricane Dora, in 1964 had water all the way past 3rd Street,” said First Alert Chief Meteorologist Mike Buresh.

Jacksonville’s coast faces the threat of a hurricane or tropical storm every year. It's not if the next storm will hit, but when.

The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science developed the world’s largest storm surge simulator called SUSTAIN, which stands for SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction Facility.

Action News Jax got a close-up look at the simulator turned up to category five storm winds.

“When you turn this facility up to extreme winds, the way that the waves are breaking and the spray that's being thrown off of that it's very different than what we would've thought,” said Dr. Brian Haus, who is the director of the facility.

Reliable information is critical for communities like Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.

“One of the most frequent places in the Atlantic basin where hurricanes go is about 100 miles offshore of Jacksonville," said Haus.

All it takes is the right weather pattern at the wrong time. In Atlantic Beach, for example, you could see storm surge of up to 15-20 feet, enough to reach many homes and businesses.

Being further inland doesn't mean you’re safe from storm surge. There are markers near The Jacksonville Landing that show how high the water from the St. Johns River could get during a severe storm.

It would only take hours for water to reach deep into local communities. If a storm like Hurricane Dora were to hit today, first responders would face another major challenge.

“Ponte Vedra alone in St. Johns County would be a tremendous evacuation, as would be Duval County just purely because the population has more than doubled,” said Buresh.

Studying how wind and water react helps communities understand the real life storms.

“Working with first responders is one of the things we're hoping to develop further because yes they're very dependent on having good information,” said Haus.

It’s been nearly 11 years since a hurricane made landfall in Florida. In 2012, Jacksonville Beach was hit by tropical storm Beryl.

Having the most accurate forecasting and information right now, will save lives when the next storm comes.

The information gathered from SUSTAIN could also have an impact on how coastal homes and businesses are built. Scientists at the University of Miami said they hope the research will play a role in strengthening coastal construction projects.