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With help from local fishermen, guides and clam farmers, a mass-cooperative effort among local, state and national agencies to more accurately predict storm surge off the coast of Levy County is nearly complete.
New storm tide markers based on accurate Mean Sea Level readings have been placed around Cedar Key and Yankeetown and will allow municipal emergency responders to work closely with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, Fla. - resulting in more accurate data to determine storm surge behavior.
The Storm Tide Project is a public safety program initiated by Mark Johnson, Director of Levy County Emergency Management and Dan Noah of NWS-Ruskin.
Over the years discrepancies have been found in weather predictions versus actual outcomes, said Johnson, who has been the LCEM Director for six of the 11 years that he has been with the agency.
“We need to be able to make more accurate protective action decisions when hurricanes are threatening our county and coastline,” said Johnson, who works closely with several local, state and federal agencies before making recommendations to the Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners during emergencies. The Chairman makes the protective action decision - whether to evacuate - based on those recommendations.
Johnson contacted Dan Noah, who is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for NWS-Ruskin and together they held a meeting in Cedar Key back in November. In addition to Yankeetown and Cedar Key officials, as well as representatives from the county, they invited those who know the tides best: fishermen, guides, and clam farmers.
The men and women who spend their lives on the waters of the Levy County coast were able to give a picture of tides and water behavior that the National Weather Service and Emergency Management could not get from their computer models.
“They have a unique knowledge of tidal patterns that affect the coastline of Levy County,” Johnson said. “We left that meeting thinking, 'You just don't get that kind of training anywhere else.'”
After that, town officials in Yankeetown and Cedar Key selected several key areas in their respective jurisdictions known as first flood points to be the locations for storm surge markers.
“They went out of their way to ensure the markers were in places that are safe for emergency responders to get to,” Johnson said. “Each one can be observed safely from a vehicle by flashlight during extreme weather.”
Once the first flood points were designated - nine in Cedar Key and six in Yankeetown - Johnson contacted Craig Fugate who at the time was the Director of Florida's Emergency Management Operations. Fugate has since been appointed as the head of FEMA under the Obama administration.
Fugate connected Levy County with Randy Harrell at Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, who brought a team to survey the first flood points. They took Mean Sea level readings in Otter Creek and worked their way toward the coast, setting new benchmarks.
“The entire county is now standardized to Mean Sea Level for storm tide prediction,” Johnson said. This will eliminate confusion and discrepancies, he said, because in the past other measurements have also been used.
“This will help eliminate confusion to the public,” said Dan Noah. “We do the behind the scenes number crunching to determine storm surge… it also helps us to have everyone using to same standard measurement.”
Until now, many storm tide predictions have been based on data using a measurement known as Mean Lower Low Water.
“Mean Lower Low Water is based on a 19 year average - that's a two foot difference in Cedar Key,” said Cedar Key Commission Pat O'Neal, who is also the Emergency Management Director for the City of Cedar Key. “It was hit or miss as to whether you got it right. This gives people a visual reference of the water levels.”
Mean Sea Level markers
When the DEP survey crews were ready to place their findings on markers, Central Florida Electric Cooperative stepped in and joined the project.
“CFEC played a major role as partners,” Johnson said. “They donated electric poles to be used as storm tide markers and they donated the crews to install them into the ground.”
With the markers in place, the DEP survey crew came back and marked the poles.
“It took a lot of coordinating to get this very accurate reading for Mean Sea Level,” Johnson said. “The entire project took a lot of coordination and cooperation.”
Commissioner O'Neal agreed.
“It's a classic, good example of cooperation between agencies - federal, state and local,” O'Neal said.
The poles will provide easily observable information during extreme weather.
“With the poles up, it gives us a visual,” Noah said. “We can actually give them a call to see what's happening at any given time.”
Another great outcome of the project, Noah said, is the personal relationships developed between NWS-Ruskin and the local municipalities. “If we have any question about the tides in Levy County, we can call (Commissioner) Pat O'Neal in Cedar Key or (Mayor) Dawn Clary in Yankeetown,” he said. “And it goes two-ways - they know they can call us anytime as well.”
Cedar Key Mayor Sue Colson is pleased with the responsiveness of NWS-Ruskin and the emergency management agencies at the county, state and federal levels.
“It's very responsive…to recognize these coastal towns that have unique needs,” Colson said. “And it's very responsible to recognize that something isn't working and make changes,” she said. “The cookie cutter doesn't work for everybody.”
The nine first flood points of Cedar Key
South of Number 4 Bridge, SR 24
Warning siren, Number 3 Bridge, SR 24
4th Street and SR 24
3rd and A Street
Gulf side boat ramp at City Marina
Cedar Key Cemetery