Friday, October 12, 2018

So many lives have been changed forever

Thursday morning, October 11, 2018.  An AP story (and the source of the photo, below) carries a headline that includes the phrase: "Changed Forever." The article, describing the aftermath of Wednesday's devastating hurricane (named Michael) that slammed the panhandle of Florida with record-breaking ferocity. The article continues:

Under a clear blue sky, families living along the Florida Panhandle emerged from shelters and hotels to a perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centers, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.  Gov. Rick Scott said the Panhandle awoke to “unimaginable destruction.  So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything..."

The full extent of Michael’s fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach with roads blocked by debris or water...  Video from a drone revealed some of the worst damage in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters).

Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, leaving concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were rendered piles of splintered lumber. Entire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 people, now a scene of utter devastation.  State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.

National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more rescue crews arrived Thursday. But the fate of many residents was unknown.


I don't typically get personal in this blog, but this storm elicited a particularly visceral response in me. Perhaps it was the vivid TV images that streamed non-stop during Michael's daylight landfall.  But a series of text messages from a friend of my wife's last night was sobering and brought everyone with whom we could share this story to their knees in prayer.

This friend's married daughter lives, with her husband, near what was once Mexico Beach. The husband's parents live nearby.  The young couple had evacuated to Alabama for the storm, but the young man's father had opted to "ride out" the storm in their home, as his wife was in a nearby hospital.  As Michael battered the town, a cryptic call from the father indicated that the roof had blown off their house.  Nearby, the hospital itself was being damaged by the tornado-like winds.  Then nothing more was heard.

Fearing for his parents, the young man left the safety of their refuge and headed back to the scene of the disaster.  For a few long hours, nothing was heard from him. Then came word that he had found the former location of his parents home, but the structure had vanished.  There was no sign of his father and his mother had been evacuated to an unknown hospital.  The young couple's own home and the business where he worked were gone as well.

Night is now day again in Florida and we've not heard any more from them.  Like many others with friends and family in the area, the vigil continues.  Should we hear any more, I'll provide an update here.  Suffice it to say that the memory of Michael should forever be a warning to a generation about heeding the advice of authorities to seek safety elsewhere during a predicted event like this.


Good news! After nearly 24 hours of searching, all of the individuals mentioned above have been located and are safe.

Monday, October 1, 2018

They asked, and we knew the answer before the ink was dry

A Twitter user posted dramatic video of the tsunami following an earthquake in Indonesia on Friday that one commenter called "small," citing its relative small height of 6-9 feet.  There is nothing "small" about such an event--particularly when it occurs over a broad, densely populated area.  Over 800 are dead and that number is expected to go into the thousands.  The video is interesting because it shows the somewhat slow start to the event, followed by the surprisingly large wave that comes in at high speed and washes over the community.  A media report (here) provides more detail.

In a sad irony, an article published Friday by the National Geographic Society following the earthquake but before the tsunami had struck, asked the question: "Will Indonesia be ready for the next tsunami?"  Sadly, the answer (if you read between the lines) was, "no, not really."  The day's events bore this out.

Source: National Geographic.  From the referenced article.

The article goes back to 2004 and the cataclismic tsunami that hit southeast Asia.  The article notes that, in 2004, tsunami waves hit Sumatra at nearly 100 feet high. As the article admits, the earthquakes are dangerous, but "it was the tsunami that did the killing."  The article continues:

Like other countries ravaged by the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia is now linked to a tsunami detection system in the Indian Ocean. Once an earthquake has occurred, that system of seafloor sensors and surface buoys relays signals via satellite to government warning centers around the world, alerting them that a tsunami might be on the way.

A decade ago such detectors existed only in the Pacific. Had they been deployed in the Indian Ocean in 2004, some of the 51,000 people who died in Sri Lanka and India would have been spared: The tsunami took two hours to cross the Indian Ocean, and timely warnings—or any warning at all—would have saved thousands of lives.

But Indonesia—the fourth most populous country in the world—is in a less fortunate situation. It borders a number of dangerous seismic faults, especially a long, arcing one called the Sunda megathrust, which parallels the islands of Sumatra and Java. The 2004 tsunami that began on that fault struck the Sumatran coast within 30 minutes of the earthquake. Even with a near instantaneous tsunami alert, many residents wouldn't have had enough time to reach high ground.

The article offers a sobering conclusion:  "Given the sheer numbers of lives at risk, says [Kerry] Sieh, [a geologist at Nanyang Technological University's Earth Observatory in Singapore], there is only so much governments can do, especially in poor countries like Indonesia, to prevent catastrophic losses from the inevitable future tsunamis. 'Is good work being done?' Sieh asks. 'Yes. There are people trying to educate; there are people trying to build vertical evacuation structures. But will it solve even 10 percent of the problem? I have my doubts.'" 

Sadly, even before the ink dried on the National Geographic piece, Seih's doubts were known to be based in truth. More, I would urge, must be done.

Landforms and Wind Speed

Good locational decisions require a variety of data be evaluated.  A report was issued recently by the Mitigation Assistance Team (MAT) that the Federal Government (FEMA) sent to the US Virgin Islands.  The MAT evaluated the effects of recent hurricanes and developed new guidelines for building standards to build on the lessons learned.  Among them was that many building codes don’t consider the effect of landforms on wind speed.  The diagram below (from this web page) shows how wind speeds are enhanced where hills are introduced in their path, in the same way that an airplane wing enhances the flow of air.  

Buildings constructed to standard local codes in areas where topography can enhance the speed of storm-driven winds, therefore, are not adequately prepared and many were needlessly damaged.  The MAT prepared new wind speed maps for the Islands.  The report includes the following: 

The wind speed-up maps developed for St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix aid in the understanding of how topographic effects may increase the wind speed in areas of higher elevation, such as the mountainous areas of St.  Thomas.  When  this  speed-up  occurs  during  a  hurricane  or  tropical  storm  event,  the  wind  speeds  can  increase  by  more  than  20 percent  resulting  in  a  significant  increase  in  the  wind  pressures  acting on the surfaces of buildings. If these higher loads are not considered in the design and construction of a building, partial or total failure of the building may occur, as seen in Figure 2-3. This can help design professionals better account for the local conditions resulting from the USVI’s unique topography.

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.