Monday, September 10, 2018

Here Comes Florence

Just this afternoon, what was just yesterday Tropical Storm Florence has blossomed in the mid-Atlantic into a full-on Category 4 hurricane. Words like "Catastrophic" and "Monster" are being used to describe her.  Warnings are up along the East Coast of the US--particularly the Carolinas and Virginia. A Weather Channel report online (also the source of these images) includes very dire projections of wind, rain and flooding well inland, over the next week.

States most likely to be impacted have already issued emergency warnings and evacuations are underway for places like North Carolina's Outer Banks. For those of us just outside the immediate area of threat, yet close enough to likewise be concerned, preparation is underway. The bottom line is that, when these threats are made and demonstrated by satellite and other data, there is an opportunity to prepare by leaving the threatened area altogether; or, where there may be no place to go, hardening our places of refuge against the onslaught and acquiring supplies needed to protect and sustain our lives during and following the event.

Hurricanes are typically the kind of events that are quite often very difficult to avoid.  Yes, we can remove ourselves and some of our belongings and prevent injury or harm, but the intermittent frequency and massive scale of a landfalling hurricane make more finite solutions (like avoiding development in the affected area) virtually impossible.  Hurricanes and Typhoons are things we end of living with and preparing to face, if needed.  Even though our modern technology provides better buildings, roads and drainage systems to weather these storms, the real advantage of our 21st Century science is one of time.  Forecasting methods allow us to know days (even a week or more?) in advance of an impending storm event.  The advantage of time can't be overstated.

I was reminded that, at the turn of the 19th Century, things were very different.  In September of 1900, the people of Galveston, Texas were going about their business barely aware that there was a swirling monster about to engulf and destroy their community.  The Wikipedia page about the event describes the city as "a booming town" of nearly 40,000 people.  It says:

Galveston had many ornate business buildings in a downtown section called The Strand, which was considered the "Wall Street of the Southwest."  The city's position on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay along the Gulf of Mexico made it the center of trade in Texas, and one of the busiest ports in the nation.  With this prosperity came a sense of complacency.  A quarter of a century earlier, the nearby town of Indianola on Matagorda Bay was undergoing its own boom and was second to Galveston among Texas port cities. Then in 1875, a powerful hurricane blew through, nearly destroying the town. Indianola was rebuilt, though a second hurricane in 1886 caused residents to simply give up and move elsewhere. 

Many Galveston residents took the destruction of Indianola as an object lesson on the threat posed by hurricanes. Galveston is built on a low, flat island, little more than a large sandbar along the Gulf Coast. These residents proposed a seawall be constructed to protect the city, but their concerns were dismissed by the majority of the population and the city's government.... (By September 8th), the swells continued despite only partly cloudy skies. Largely because of the unremarkable weather, few residents heeded the warning. Few people evacuated across Galveston's bridges to the mainland, and the majority of the population was unconcerned by the rain clouds that began rolling in by midmorning... 

The Hurricane made landfall in the evening of September 9, 1900. It had estimated winds of 145 miles per hour at landfall, making it a Category 4 storm on the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale. The hurricane caused great loss of life with a death toll of between 6,000 and 12,000 people; the number most cited in official reports is 8,000, giving the storm the third-highest number of deaths or injuries of all Atlantic hurricanes.... The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is (the deadliest hurricane ever to hit the US and) one of the deadliest natural disasters ever to strike the United States. This loss of life can be attributed to the fact that officials for the Weather Bureau in Galveston brushed off the reports because the city had "weathered them all" and they didn't realize the threat.

We don't know for sure how different things could have been had warnings been issued and/or taken seriously, but the lesson for us is to take advantage of the time we have now to prepare.

Some useful resources are:

The US Homeland Security/FEMA site on Hurricane Preparedness

Information and Preparedness Tips from the National Hurricane Center

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Earth Just Got A Whole Lot More Dangerous

Last year, in a post here, I noted my observation (and those of a few others, far more knowledgeable than I) that there seems to be a correlation of some kind between the occurrence of atmospheric phenomena, like hurricanes and typhoons, and the frequency of earthquakes.

This week, the largest typhoon to hit Japan since 1993, killed at least 6 people.  A news report cited the strength of the typhoon, but then made note of the fact that, less than a day after, the country was rocked by two major earthquakes. Fortunately, there was no tsunami generated by the quakes. Even so, the news got me thinking about the links between the two disaster events and whether or not one could be considered as "causing" the other.  Surprisingly, evidence is mounting that this is so.

Maps: The Safest Places to Live from the New York Times

An article in Smithsonian Magazine notes that, a few days after an unusual earthquake of 5.8 magnitude rocked Virginia, causing damage to landmarks in Washington DC, "Hurricane Irene moved into the region, wiping out power, downing trees and, according to new research presented at the meeting of Seismological Society of America, says Nature, triggering more small earthquakes in the recently ruptured fault.  'The rate of aftershocks usually decreases with time, says study leader Zhigang Peng, a seismologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. But instead of declining in a normal pattern, the rate of aftershocks following the 23 August, 2012 , earthquake near Mineral, Virginia, increased sharply as Irene passed by.'"

Hurricanes are known to produce seismic waves on their own. Smithsonian notes that Hurricane Sandy produced seismic activity as far away as Seattle, but the aftershocks that hit Virginia were not the same sort of waves.  But how would a storm cause the earth to move?  The article offers an explanation and an eerie warning:

“Scientists did not initially notice the unusual pattern, Peng said, because the aftershocks were small (many below magnitude 2) and the hurricane itself produced a lot of seismic noise.” A careful analysis of the data, however, revealed that the aftershock activity actually rose around the time of the hurricane’s passing.

The scientists, says Nature, argue that “a decrease in pressure caused by the storm’s travel up the East Coast might have reduced forces on the fault enough to allow it to slip.” More research will be needed to definitively pin down the proposed tie between the hurricane and the earthquake. But the suggestion that the Virginia fault system would have been susceptible to the stresses caused by the hurricane aligns well with the idea that big natural systems, sometimes treated as if they act independently of the world around them, might actually all be connected.

The Irene-triggered aftershocks could have happened because the fault system that had ruptured in Virginia has memory—that is, the fact that it slipped so recently makes it easier for it to do so again. The idea of a natural system having memory is one that is becoming increasingly important for scientists trying to understand natural disasters. The idea is important to the field of complexity science. In a previous interview by this author with Surjalal Sharma, the University of Maryland astronomer explains this idea of memory:

“Memory is, essentially, a correlation in time or space. My memory of past events affects what I do now; that’s long range or long-term correlation. The bunching or clustering of events is, as we understand it, due to the memory of the events in a system. That is, a sequence of natural disasters may not be just a coincidence. If we look at the data for floods, earthquakes, or solar storms, we see that their distributions are ... not random events. Rather, these systems have long-term memory."

More research is needed, but if it turns out to be the case that hurricanes really can cause earthquakes, then (the earth) just got a whole lot more dangerous.


More about the concept of geologic "memory" and some other reasons these events might be related are discussed in a Newsweek article on the subject and in this article by a researcher at Florida International University who suggests understanding the link might help better predict such events.

Friday, August 31, 2018

132 Years Ago Today

This TWEET caught my eye today.  The great Charleston Earthquake occurred on this day (August 31st) in 1886.  I vacationed in SC recently and had no idea this had ever occurred, at least not in recorded history. Hurricanes seem to be on everyone's mind, but other hazards exist in many places--even those you wouldn't expect.  The recent quakes in Virginia and Maryland that damaged the Washington Monument and other historic structures are a sobering reminder to "be prepared." 

An online piece by Earth Magazine (also the source of the photo) described the chaos that ensued, as:

"In late August 1886, Charleston, S.C., was in the grip of a heat wave. It was so hot during the day that many offices were closed and events were postponed until later in the evening when temperatures had cooled. So, when powerful seismic waves rippled across the city at 9:51 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1886, people were sent scrambling not just out of homes, theaters and the opera house, but out of churches, offices and other buildings .... Regardless of their social standing, residents found themselves out on the steamy streets in varying degrees of dress, many barefoot. The air was filled with dust, sent up from the dry ground as roofs, chimneys and columns crashed to Earth. White dust from brick mortar and plaster, which had been sheared and pulverized as the rolling ground pulled down walls, now coated a mass of terrified Charlestonians."

The shaking was felt along the entire east coast and as far west as the Mississippi River.  To-date, it is the most powerful and destructive seismic event in recorded history to occur in the southeastern US.  As many as 100 people perished; but feeling the earth move in such a populated area spurred action by scientists and politicians that helped bring about many advancements in seismic science and detection.

A postscript from the article is interesting:

"It is an unusual location for such an event. South Carolina sits in the middle of the North American Plate, far from active tectonic boundaries. Research indicates that the rupture of this rare, intraplate earthquake occurred on an ancient, buried fault thought to be a remnant of the breakup of Pangea during the Mesozoic."

Friday, August 24, 2018

Moving Along

Following my prior entry about geographic relocation as a means of mitigating future damage by flood waters, I found a few interesting news stories about towns being moved for various reasons.

While not all were being pushed out by natural forces, the lessons learned (and indeed the experiences of the relocated citizens) are likely very similar.  A common theme seems to be that such relocations will be more common in the future, so worth understanding the dynamics, issues and best practices.  Here’s a sample:

A Swedish mining town in the arctic being moved to facilitate mining under its current location.  Note the “new town” planning methods being used to support a community-centered focus.

A Korean town relocated to make way for an Olympic venue.  Not all were happy with the lucrative buyout the organizers offered, but all left--even if by force.

Washington State town being relocated to avoid potential damage from tsunami.  The town, a Native American village in an earthquake prone area, is scrambling to put funds together and setting priorities for development of their new "upper" village.  One tribal council member is quoted as saying:

"You know, just to see the timber on the ground up there, it's a wonderful thing to see—to be able to try to get everybody up to safety, because you never know when that's going to happen. You don't want it to happen, but if we can prevent it -- save lives -- I mean that's the ultimate goal."
Finally, a commentary piece by Terry Anderson that begins with a discussion about how property values are  increasing in direct positive correlation with elevation due to sea level rise, and how climate change is shifting agriculture northward, offers another very interesting opinion about the potential negative impact of hazard mitigation efforts. Anderson writes:

Government programs aimed at making us more resilient to the threat of climate change only delay adaptation. Codes requiring building high to withstand a hurricane storm surge or requiring fire resistant roofs in the urban-wildland interface may reduce the cost of bailing out victims of nature's wrath, but they only delay the inevitable adaptation required to live with it.

Instead, we should get rid of subsidies to coastal developers and to hurricane, flood, and crop insurance.  The best thing policy makers can do is to make sure they don't distort market forces. If asset prices are allowed to reflect the risks of climate change, property owners who have the most at stake will literally move to higher ground. 

It is not faith in better or more government, but faith in humanity that will allow us to weather the climate change storm.

Well-said, Terry. Sounds like fodder for a number of future entries.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Ellicott City has a location problem

Click here for a Baltimore Sun video of Ellicott City flooding.

It's quite the scene.  And I've spent a number of posts here discussing the floods and their aftermath--specifically the actions being taken to prevent future inundation and damage.

Maryland's two US senators dropped by Ellicott City yesterday with the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss plans and funding needed to address the problem.  According to a Baltimore Sun Article (also the source of the photo above), "officials estimate the area needs 18 structural and non-structural projects that would total $80 million to mitigate future flooding."  (The former are the streambed diversions, dikes and pipes discussed in the plans, while the latter are things like waterproofing and notification systems.) 

The article goes on to say that "long-term, structural solutions that have been proposed include widening the Patapsco River and Hudson/Tiber Watershed tributaries to hold more water during heavy rainstorms."  Local community leaders have spent time and energy "focused on preserving the historic neighborhood and investing in mechanisms to divert massive amounts of rainwater away from Main Street, instead of through it."

And yet Mark DeLuca, the County's Deputy Director of Public Works, said “$80 million could fall out of the sky and we would still have a problem with flooding."

In my opinion, the problem with Ellicott City is far more complicated. First, the climate is such that floods are becoming more frequent and more severe.  The senators at the public meeting yesterday mentioned that too.  Furthermore, there are issues related to the general terrain and geography of the area that limit both what can be done and how well water can be managed via engineered solutions. Add to this the simple fact that so many homes and businesses are built literally in the convex of the two mountainsides (i.e., directly in the water's pathway) and you have a real problem.

Simply put, Ellicott City has a location problem.

The US government recently announced the funding for relocation of the entire town of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana (albeit only 99 citizens) to higher ground.  The culprit? Sea level rise.  The town is already almost entirely underwater.  Granted, as this article admits, given the high cost of the move it's not a replicable model for other projects.  Even worse, scientists predict 13 million similar "climate refugees" will have to be relocated from coastal areas by the end of the century.  Villages in Alaska are already in the process of relocating.  Add to this towns along rivers and in vulnerable topographies like Ellicott City, and the need expands exponentially across the country.

The article goes on to describe the process in Lousiana:

During the summer of 2014, the Obama administration announced the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC).  The competition, administered by HUD, had an ambitious purpose: to shift the way the U.S. manages natural disasters, from simply responding to and recovering from them, to planning and preparing for their inevitability. The competition would award $1 billion in funding to resilience projects across the nation.

The Louisiana Office of Community Development, Disaster Recovery Unit (OCD-DRU) worked with Isle de Jean Charles community leaders, NGOs, and development companies to draft an application for four resiliency projects, one of which was the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project.  The application didn’t blunt the truth about the difficulty of the task at hand. It called the resettlement process “excessively complex.” It noted that failing to adhere to the preset timeline “could lead to potentially catastrophic outcomes.” It warned that a lack of prior examples to work from made the whole project uncertain. And it recalled that every government-backed relocation effort in the U.S. so far has been at least a partial failure.

Rather than balking at the hurdles, the OCD-DRU decided that Louisiana had an obligation to “improve upon our nation’s track record.” They would do this, the application said, by focusing not only on environmental resiliency, but “cultural resiliency” as well.  It was exactly what the competition was looking for, and the project was awarded the full $48.3 million it requested.

The project's managers admit the project is already behind schedule and complicated by a host of political, demographic and historical issues.  The most pressing problem now seems to be the answer to a simple question:  Where will the new town be constructed?  That, according the article, is the most complicated, contentious and financially demanding aspect of this resettlement effort.

Regardless, the lesson for Ellicott City is that, despite the sentiment attached to the historic nature of the town, perhaps only solutions involving the partial relocation of town's structures themselves will render a more resilient and successful outcome for everyone.  As with Isle de Jean Charles, however, that desired long-term safety and security for Elicott City's residents and business owners won't come without a complicated and, yes, contentious discussion of the realities they face.


A recent article provides an update on the relocation of the community of Isle de Jean Charles:  "Following a two year search and negotiation some 500 acres of former sugarcane land was purchased for nearly $12 million near Schriever in southern Louisiana. Development is slated for 2019."

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Where's the Triage?

Earlier this summer, shortly after the town experienced the second of two devastating floods in less than two years, an article in USA Today highlighted the action (or, as some residents might say, inaction) of government officials related to flood prevention.  The article included the following:

Leaders in Howard County crafted a thorough plan in the aftermath of the 2016 flooding disaster and say large changes to mitigate a flood simply can't happen overnight, even though they're moving quickly.

But the downtown area, which is woven with three different rivers, isn't a stranger to flooding, and numerous reports over the years, including as far back as the 1970s, have warned that Ellicott City, in particular, was in danger and a flood could devastate the area.

Local leaders long have known that storms could leave the city, which sits at the bottom of a valley, in shambles. But critics say very little over the years has been done to meet the threat head-on, even though study after study has offered both warnings of disaster and possible solutions.

After the (2016) flood… Howard County commissioned a study that pointed to blocked water channels as one of the primary reasons for flooding. Another study found that the walls along streams that wind through the city needed repairs and wouldn’t hold up against heavy floods.

Other studies identified solutions to the threat: The clearest way to help mitigate flooding was through retention ponds. The county rejected the plans because of the high expense and low reward since the fixtures wouldn't be a cure-all for the floods, especially for intense storms such as what the area saw Sunday.

The county reversed its decision after the 2016 floods. Four stormwater retention facilities are in the progress of being planned and constructed…

"It’s study after study after study. That’s all they do is conduct studies," said Ron Peters, a property owner who works on a citizen flood group with Howard County. "It’s just another way for them to not actually do anything."…

But all of the posed solutions wouldn't completely fix the community's problems since much of it is centers on old structures that don't have to meet current standards for storm water management, such as retention ponds that could absorb rain.


So let’s take a look at Howard County’s effort.  Documents on their Master Plan web page for Ellicott City, linked here (including quoted presentations and map on thispage), are preceded by the following statement:
“Howard County launched its master plan process for Ellicott City and its watershed on May 31st, 2017. The master plan process will help define a comprehensive community-driven vision for rebuilding a stronger and more resilient Ellicott City. The master plan will take a fresh and creative look at potential long term flood solutions and strategies.”

The plan focuses on a much larger watershed area (see map above), some of which has been impacted by recent development.  According to the plan,

1.  Portions of the watershed are identified as areas of growth and revitalization in PlanHoward 2030, particularly the historic core and those areas adjacent to Route 40.

2.  The historic core is established over the confluence of multiple streams and is characterized by steep topography.

3.  The existing infrastructure is unable to contain the 100 year storm and even smaller storms.

4.  As we consider upstream development, it is important to understand that development in a watershed is not the sole or primary source of flooding. Additionally, the impact of development depends on the storm water management requirements at the time of construction.

The plan discusses the reasons for the repeated flooding—at least the reason the particular physical configuration of the city vis-à-vis the topography affects the impact of major storms.  These components then seem to direct the reader directly to the three major components of the solution:

1.  Addressing retention and drainage in upstream development;
2.  Widening conveyance channels and correcting constriction points (e.g., by diversion); and
3.  Flood-proofing businesses in harm’s way (e.g., by making the first level of most buildings space in which water can flow through).

The planning presentation continues:

“The greatest public improvements to reduce flood impacts in Ellicott City can be made by addressing conveyance, alongside other practices that include retention basins in the watershed and preventing additional runoff from redevelopment.”  Officials then add that “this needs to be done while balancing water quality, cost benefits, constructability, and policies for appropriate growth and revitalization.”

It’s interesting to note that this plan was begun in response to the 2016 flood, but a year before the “repeat” flood of 2018. And yet there doesn’t seem to be any change in urgency attributed to its implementation. 

In my opinion, the long-term answer to preventing this kind of problem in the future rests on bold actions that might require taking property, relocating businesses, and redirecting funding to the “flood prevention” pieces of the plan that reduce the physical impact of flooding, while paying less attention to concerns for allowing growth and improved water quality. 


A triage approach is needed, but it doesn’t seem to be a priority for the County.  In an interesting article comparing the use of a triage approach in disaster recovery to that of an IT systems manager, author Mike Talon notes that:

Modern military, relief, and medical organizations have practiced a workflow management technique known as triage for nearly a century now. The idea is that the appropriate amount of effort should be put forth for each situation, but before that can happen, the situation must be defined and classified to ensure it receives the proper treatment. Triage is the process of placing situations into those classifications, and the practice of triage can be quite valuable in planning out Disaster Recovery operations as well.

He lays out various stages of his approach. I would expand the final stages of Talon’s triage designation beyond simply addressing the current problem to include the period of rebuilding and planning.  His comment that Tier 5 requires “careful consideration of future events that are likely to occur at any moment,” is particularly important here. 

At one point in my career, I was worked with a major university as a project manager. Faced with a massive deferred maintenance backlog, I was tasked with helping our Board make informed decisions in terms of using our finite resources to make the highest priority repairs first, thereby preserving as much function as possible from the buildings we had. Typically, this meant first repairing the building “envelope” (such things as roofs, windows, walls, etc.) to reduce the impact of weather and water infiltration.  Only then, once a building was watertight and structurally sound, we would make repairs to systems and interiors without fear of further damage.

One project involved a historic theater facility that had deteriorated badly over the years.  As our budget was limited, we set about establishing a scope of work for an initial phase to repair a seriously leaking roof, securing windows and doors, and repointing the masonry walls to preserve the structural integrity of the facility.  A second phase would include interior reconfiguration and improvements that included accommodating the requirements of the newly established Americans with Disabilities Act. Finally, the interior would be refurbished and refinished with new seating, etc.

Shortly before work was to begin, a visitor to the theater threatened a lawsuit related to the new ADA law, citing the difficulty in accessing the more desired seating in the facility by the disabled.  The university took the complaint very seriously and worked through the complaint successfully.  In the interim, however, we were directed to cease work on the facility until the complaint could be resolved.  Ultimately, the work did commence, but not until after significant additional funding had been secured so the accessibility improvements could be made as part of the same contract.   

Ironically, the logical progression of construction still required the exterior envelope improvements be made first.  Unfortunately for the theater, however, the delay made the whole project more costly, as the leaky roof continued to damage the interior for an additional year.

The point here isn’t that accessibility or life safety improvements aren’t important, but that sometimes a slight reshuffling of priorities makes sense.   

In the case of Ellicott City, pulling out all the stops to prevent further flood damage should be an absolute first priority.  After all, no investments in pedestrian improvements, parking, or rebuilding of amenities is safe until the water stops flowing through town.

The Purpose of this Page

News of communities devastated by natural climatic and geologic events seems to be increasing.  The increased density and vulnerability of our built environment exacerbates that devastation.   Thus, reducing that vulnerability will dramatically improve societal resiliency in the face of natural hazards.   

If we can create physical communities that are less susceptible (by location and design) to damage, we can focus our post-event attention on restoring functionality and community spirit, rather than mourning loss of life and paying to rebuild homes and businesses.  It seems simple enough.  The solutions are there.  But implementing them—particularly in some of the most populous and vulnerable places in the world—remains a challenge.   

This web page is intended as a resource to help inform and to inspire safer and less vulnerable human habitation through the geographic integration of science, engineering, economics and public policy. I highlight newsworthy events and case studies; and I seek to share exemplary policies and “best practices” with the goal of improving locational decisions that reduce damage and loss of life from natural events.   

I welcome your input and feedback!

For more about me and what prompted me to begin this blog, please see my first post, here:

It's Elemental