Disaster Do-Overs

Ready to do it all over again? Fresh on the heels of a $100+ billion hurricane, we very well may be headed for another soon.
As Houston and the Gulf Coast begin a long recovery from Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma is now rampaging through the Atlantic. With 185 m.p.h. sustained winds on Tuesday, Irma became the strongest hurricane in Atlantic history outside of the Caribbean and Gulf. The hurricane made its first landfall early Wednesday in Barbuda and still threatens the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the United States.
If Irma continues along the general path of 1960’s Hurricane Donna, it could easily tally $50 billion in damage. This estimate, from a study by Karen Clark and Co. (discussed recently on Category 6 Blog), is already four years old (i.e., too low). Increased building costs—which the report notes rise “much faster” than inflation–and continued development could drive recovery costs even higher.
In short, as bad as Houston is suffering, there are do-overs on the horizon—a magnitude of repeated damage costs unthinkable not long ago, before Katrina ($160 million) and Sandy ($70 million).
Repeated megadisasters yield lessons, some of them specific to locale and circumstances. In Miami after Hurricane Andrew, the focus was on building codes as well as the variability of the winds within the storms. After Hurricane Rita, the focus was on improving policies on evacuation. After Hurricane Katrina, while the emergency management community reevaluated its response, the weather community took stock of the whole warnings process. It was frustrating to see that, even with good forecasts, more than a thousand people lost their lives. How could observations and models improve? How could the message be clarified?
Ten years after Katrina, the 2016 AMS Annual Meeting in New Orleans convened a symposium on the lessons of that storm and of the more recent Hurricane Sandy (2012). A number of experts weighed in on progress since 2005. It was clear that challenges remained. Shuyi Chen of the University of Miami, for example, highlighted the need for forecasts of the impacts of weather, not just of the weather itself. She urged the community to base those impacts forecasts on model-produced quantitative uncertainty estimates. She also noted the need for observations to initialize and check models that predict storm surge, which in turn feeds applications for coastal and emergency managers and planners. She noted that such efforts must expand beyond typical meteorological time horizons, incorporating sea level rise and other changes due to climate change.
These life-saving measures are part accomplished and part underway—the sign of a vigorous science enterprise. Weather forecasters continue to hone their craft with so many do-overs. Some mistakes recur. As NOAA social scientist Vankita Brown told the AMS audience about warnings messages at the 2016 Katrina symposium, “Consistency was a problem; not everyone was on the same page.”  Katrina presented a classic problem where the intensity of the storm, as measured in the oft-communicated Saffir-Simpson rating, was not the key to catastrophe in New Orleans. Mentioning categories can actually create confusion. And again, in Hurricane Harvey this was part of the problem with conveying the threat of the rainfall, not just the wind or storm surge. Communications expert Gina Eosco noted that talk about Harvey being “downgraded” after landfall drowned out the critical message about floods.
Hurricane Harvey poses lessons that are more fundamental than the warnings process itself and are eerily reminiscent of the Hurricane Katrina experience: There’s the state of coastal wetlands, of infrastructure; of community resilience before emergency help can arrive. Houston, like New Orleans before it, will be considering development practices, concentrations of vulnerable populations, and more. There are no quick fixes.
In short, as AMS Associate Executive Director William Hooke observes, both storms challenge us to meet the same basic requirement:

The lessons of Houston are no different from the lessons of New Orleans. As a nation, we have to give priority to putting Houston and Houstonians, and others, extending from Corpus Christi to Beaumont and Port Arthur, back on their feet. We can’t afford to rebuild just as before. We have to rebuild better.

All of these challenges, simple or complex, stem from an underlying issue that the Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross emphatically delineated when evaluating the Katrina experience back in 2007 at an AMS Annual Meeting in San Antonio:

This is the bottom line, and I think all of us in this business should think about this:  The distance between the National Hurricane Center’s understanding of what’s going to happen in a given community and the general public’s is bigger than ever. What happens every time we have a hurricane—every time–is most people are surprised by what happens. Anybody who’s been through this knows that. People in New Orleans were surprised [by Katrina], people in Miami were surprised by Wilma, people [in Texas] were surprised by Rita, and every one of these storms; but the National Hurricane Center is very rarely surprised. They envision what will happen and indeed something very close to that happens. But when that message gets from their minds to the people’s brains at home, there is a disconnect and that disconnect is increasing. It’s not getting less.

Solve that, and facing the next hurricane, and the next, will get a little easier. The challenge is the same every time, and it is, to a great extent, ours. As Norcross pointed out, “If the public is confused, it’s not their fault.”
Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina caused catastrophic floods for different reasons. Ten years from now we may gather as a weather community and enumerate unique lessons of Harvey’s incredible deluge of rain. But the bottom line will be a common challenge: In Hurricane Harvey, like Katrina, a city’s–indeed, a nation’s–entire way of dealing with the inevitable was exposed. Both New Orleans and Houston were disasters waiting to happen, and neither predicament was a secret.
Meteorologists are constantly getting do-overs, like Irma. Sooner or later, Houston will get one, too.

AMS Presidential Town Hall Meeting to Stress Adaptation, Resilience to Climate Change

In weather forecasting, the past is often a harbinger of the future. In a rapidly urbanizing world facing climate change, however, the future looks less and less like the past. With a theme of Building, Sustaining, and Improving our Weather and Climate Hazard Resilience, we’re facing this problem head on at the AMS Annual Meeting, nowhere more so than in tonight’s Presidential Town Hall Meeting (7:00–8:30 p.m., Room C111 of the Georgia World Congress Center).
The speakers include FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and an IPCC coordinating lead author, Donald Wuebbles—two key figures in communicating climate change hazards and adaptation. Helping all to visualize extremes in the weather will be NCAR’s Mel Shapiro—a master at telling a tale through stunning imagery. This time his tale is Superstorm Sandy, which crashed ashore in the Northeast in fall 2012 with deadly fury. Sandy exposed just how vulnerable our nation is to natural disasters. Storm surge flooding didn’t just wreck the beaches, our playgrounds at the shore. Seawater rushed inland, flooding airports and mass transportation routes and partially disconnecting the biggest city in America—and financial heart of the nation—from its neighbors. The price tag was enormous.
You’ll hear a lot at the Town Hall about how weather- and climate-driven disasters in America are costing us more and more. Multibillion-dollar weather disasters, once consisting solely of major hurricanes and extended drought, are becoming common—even from small-scale thunderstorms. With a climate that’s heating up–resulting in an increase in extreme weather, as Wuebbles will discuss–so too will we see an increase is such megadisasters.
Wuebbles’ playbook on Monday will be the fifth assessment report (AR5) of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Wuebbles was coordinating lead author of the Working Group 1 section, which was released in full form last week. He says he plans to overview its findings with “an emphasis on our state of understanding of severe weather events under a changing climate.” The presentation will include a preview of the U.S. National Climate Assessment to be released in April.
Wuebbles, who is an atmospheric science professor at the University of Illinois, will also report from a series of NOAA workshops evaluating attribution science (in BAMS here, here, and here), which currently supports making useful projections on some but not all types of severe-weather events. Projections of heat waves and cold spells as well as heavy precipitation events are now possible, and “meaningful trends in floods and droughts” are also discernible by region in the United States. Confidence in an increase in hurricane intensity as the climate warms is also growing. But forecasts of how climate change will affect severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, which in recent years have broken into the billion-dollar disaster range, remain out of reach for now, Wuebbles says, but he adds, “By the next assessment we may be able to make stronger statements.”
Even without the financial burden, today’s weather disasters are becoming debilitating. Look no further than last week’s shutdown of Atlanta due to a well-forecast snowfall. It shouldn’t have happened—particularly since the city went through the same thing just three years ago (January 2011), only with a slightly heavier snowfall. No one thought it could happen again, but it did.
Our ability to successfully communicate is challenged most when disaster strikes. That’s where Fugate comes in. As the top emergency manager in the nation, his job is to organize meaningful and rapid response, which relies on successful communication.
The key is to organize lines of communication beforehand, so when the weather becomes extreme, the avenues of information will remain open. But there are other forms of disaster response. Fugate sees resilience to disaster through increasing adaptation as the way forward in a changing climate. By reducing the risk, he believes we can manage to recover more quickly from extreme weather events. Most importantly, in his view, is to turn victims of disaster into what he prefers them to be called: survivors. He encourages neighbors and communities to get better at coming together when disaster occurs and to help each other overcome the odds and survive.
As AMS Associate Executive Director Bill Hooke explains in Sunday’s Living on the Real World column, there are many levels of disaster response, and all of them “need to be mastered.” When disaster strikes a community, its residents probably will look to the top command-and-control such as FEMA to make things right. But at the other end of disaster response is personal responsibility. Each of us has the task before us to take action to improve our situation. We can wait for disaster to strike, but better would be to plan now how to adapt and make ourselves resilient to weather and climate hazards so they won’t turn into catastrophes.

Planning for the Next Superstorm: Kids Will Lead the Way

by Ellen Klicka, AMS Policy Program
Superstorm Sandy was a reminder that the best time for severe weather preparedness is before hazards strike. Unfortunately, it also made clear that many people still lack sufficient know-how to take measures against potential loss of life and property from natural hazards.
Where to get that know-how? From their kids!
At least, that’s the solution developed in a new online gaming initiative—the Young Meteorologist Program (YMP)—launched during the height of this week’s storm. Children can be passionate about issues that concern them and can be effective at mobilizing the whole family and ultimately the community. Thus YMP stands out from other preparedness initiatives by recognizing children as the gateway to educating families, neighbors, and friends.
YMP is an educational collaboration between the AMS Policy Program, PLAN!T NOW (a non-profit organization that assists communities at risk of disasters), the National Weather Service, and, eventually, children across the nation. PLAN!T NOW asked AMS to help create this free online resource and computer game about severe-weather science and safety. In 2010, AMS Policy Program staff connected PLAN!T NOW to disaster preparedness and response leaders.
NOAA contributed considerable knowledge and support for the Young Meteorologist Program and other PLAN!T NOW initiatives. The AMS Policy Program and NOAA advised PLAN!T NOW on such topics as storm classification, tornado development, flooding and storm surges. The National Education Association also assisted to ensure the educational quality of the program. The diverse team of experts involved in YMP includes educators, scientists, entertainers and software developers, all working towards the common goal of creating disaster resilient communities across America.
The joint effort culminated in YMP’s public launch on October 29, as the Eastern seaboard began to feel Sandy’s impact. The AMS Education Program has assisted in promoting the program’s availability by reaching out to its network of K-12 science teachers. YMP will be a part of classrooms, museums, libraries, major city expos and events all over the country, reaching tens of thousands of children and adults.
YMP also brings Owlie Skywarn – a trademarked character of NOAA, revised and updated by PLAN!T NOW – into the 21st century by making him a central character in an interactive environment online—no longer limited to printed brochures. YMP game designers began with educational material from a NOAA booklet featuring Owlie; he and a host of other animated characters help each child become a junior data collector for the game’s “Weather Center.” Game modules cover hurricanes, lightning, floods, tornadoes, and winter storms. Each game is created in full, interactive animation.
Students who complete the online program earn a Young Meteorologist Certificate. Empowered by this recognition of their knowledge and effort, they are more likely to encourage parents and others to make assemble disaster kits, write emergency plans, and overall make preparedness a priority. The kids are invited to put their new knowledge to work through hands-on activities and community service projects highlighted on the program’s website. Resources for educators, parents and meteorologists to give further guidance to the Young Meteorologists are also available there.
Attendees at the upcoming AMS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, can learn more about YMP from the expert’s perspective–NOAA’s Ron Gird and colleagues will present a poster at the Education Symposium (2:30-4 p.m.; 7 January 2013). Dan Pisut of NOAA’s Visualization Lab spoke to the AMS Broadcast Conference about YMP this past August, and that presentation can be heard on our meetings archive.
Future versions of YMP may include new modules on fires and tsunamis, in addition to the five modules in the current game. Other scientific disciplines, such as oceanography and climatology could serve as the basis for programs similar to YMP down the road.
Prepared communities start with prepared households. AMS and its partners are recognizing that those households might become prepared because of knowledgeable children.

Disaster Risk Management Meets Climate Change Adaptation

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director, from the AMS project, Living on the Real World
An increasingly popular and visible feature of AMS Annual Meetings is a suite of so-called Town Halls. Often scheduled for the lunch hour (and therefore attracting primarily that minority of attendees who prefer food for thought to the competing invitation of physical sustenance with friends), these sessions are supposed to model the iconic town halls that once were the heart of the new England political process. They’re more about community input than any erudition of the speakers.

AMS Town Halls are typically used to roll out federal agency initiatives, strategic plans, and/or explore the interface between our community’s science and major developments within the policy arena. A sampling: yesterday one provided researchers a look at emerging directions for DoE’s climate and earth system modeling. Another looked at threats to the continuity of Earth observing systems – a topic frequently discussed in this blog.
I was a last-minute substitute panelist, for the panel on Risk Mitigation for Climate Adaptation and Natural Hazards. The session took its cue from a recently-released Summary for Policymakers of an IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).
For those in the field, this special report has been required reading. Thirty pages or so of thoughtful, well-reviewed and well-documented material. [We can look forward to publication of the full document next month.] Here’s the bit that to me looks salient today: Closer integration of disaster risk management and climate change adaptation, along with the incorporation of both into local, subnational, national, and international development policies and practices, could provide benefits at all scales.” [page 9]
The idea, in a nutshell, is that disaster risk management and climate change adaptation share much in common. The Town Hall announcement highlights the difference this way: risk management draws from history, while climate change looks to the future. The idea is the incorporating this forward-looking perspective into more traditional hazard risk management will lead to more resilient communities.
This is a great thought…but also maybe a no-brainer.
On reflection, this session also provides opportunity to reflect anew on five ways (there are undoubtedly others) we might make hazard risk management itself (and by implication, climate adaptation) more effective.
Embrace No-Adverse-Impact policies. Environmental impact statements have been with us a long time. You know the idea. When you and I contemplate construction, land use, etc., we have to assess the environmental consequences of our actions. In a similar way, we could and should assess the benefits and/or risks our plans and actions imply for community resilience.
Learn from experience. When it comes with natural hazard rsik management, we should adopt the learn-from-experience habits of aviation, as embodied in the work of the National Transportations Safety Board.
Measure progress. Hazard loss figures are noisy year-to-year and uncertain. But the discipline of continually honing our ability to estimate losses will in itself contribute to the awareness needed to motivate loss reduction when averaged over years.
Foster public-private collaboration. Such collaborations are not optional in today’s free-market societies. However, there’s considerable room for improving the level of such collaborations. They should not be fragmented, haphazard, merely tactical. They should instead be truly collaborative, ongoing, strategic.
Revitalize a venerable institution. Much has been made recently about a notional move of NOAA from the Department of Commerce into the Department of Interior. Dr. Lubchenco was questioned on this in her talk of yesterday. With NOAA embedded in Commerce, a good case can be made that the Department of Commerce provides an excellent home for achieving these several goals of hazard risk reduction and climate adaptation. However, this potential has been recognized and ignored for decades. If it’s never to be realized, then a move to Interior makes more sense.

The Services Response to the Tōhoku Disaster a Focus of the 2012 AMS Meeting

The science ministry in Japan reported last week that more than 30,000 square km–eight percent of the country–is contaminated by radioactive caesium from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster that stemmed from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March. The radiation was washed out of the skies by rain and snow. As much as four-fifths of the caesium ended up in the ocean–much of it having blown northeastward toward Alaska–and currents carried it to the U.S. coastal waters within a week of reactor releases. By one week later some of the micron-sized particles had traveled around the world.
Because the geophysical dimensions of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown last March are evident in so many ways, so are the demands it placed on scientific services–from the warnings of giant waves to forecasts of tainted precipitation and groundwater to modeling global ocean currents. Not surprisingly, the disaster literally redefined the job of the Japanese Meteorological Agency.
On the first day of full sessions at the upcoming 2012 AMS Annual Meeting in New Orleans, the epic Tōhoku cataclysm will be discussed from numerous angles, particularly the premium it put on enhanced operational response. “The earthquake and tsunami increased vulnerabilities to meteorological disasters such as sediment disasters, flood, and inundations, in the affected area, by shaking and loosening the soils and damaging the embankments and drainage facilities,” notes JMA’s Junichi Ishida.
Ishida’s presentation is the special keynote address of the Interactive Information Processing Systems (IIPS) conference (11 a.m. Monday, 23 January, Room 356). Ishida will talk about how JMA took increased vulnerabilities into account, by

  • changing criteria for heavy rain warnings to account for runoff and landslide vulnerabilties
  • lowering criteria for coastal inundation warnings (the earthquake actually lowered coastal ground levels, changing tidal configurations)
  • introduced extreme temperature warnings to account for reduced electricity capacity
  • enhanced aviation support (in particular due to traffic for relief flights) because of flight dangers including radioactive clouds

11 March Tsunami sweeps through Sendai Airport, where waters reached the second level of buildings, destroying key operations equipment, scattering mud and debris, and stranding more than a thousand people for two days. The airport eventually reopened as a hub of relief work. Photos copyright Japan Meteorological Agency, with thanks to Junichi Ishida, who will deliver the IIPS conference keynote at the 2012 AMS Annual Meeting.

At the same time (11 a.m. Monday, in Room 338) Yukio Masumoto of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology will kick off a session devoted to the March 2011 disaster as part of the Coastal Environment symposium. Masumoto will speak about ocean dispersion of radioactive Caesium-137 and Iodine-131 after the Fukushima releases, including relationships with tides, surface winds and, in one case study, atmospheric fallout. In his abstract, Masumoto reports, “In the near-shore region, the wind forcing is a dominant factor that controls the flow field, while large-scale currents and eddies advect the radionuclides in the off-shore region.”
Several other Monday morning presentations in the Coastal Environment session feature rapid American responses last spring to adapt and construct viable modeling systems to depict Japan’s waterborne radiation hazards–speakers include Ronald Meris of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, William Samuels of Science Applications International Corp (SAIC), and  Matthew Ward of Applied Science Associates.
After lunch, in the same session (2 p.m., Room 338) Gayle Sugiyama of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will talk about how the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center provided analyses and predictions of the radioactive plume, estimating the exposure in both Japan and the United States. Guido Cervone of George Mason University (2:15 p.m., Room 338) will show how dispersion modeling helped reconstruct the otherwise unknown sequence of radioactive releases at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Masayuki Takigawa  (1:45 p.m., Room 338) will discuss results from regional transport modeling of the radioactivity dispersion on land and ocean, while Teddy R. Holt of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will show passive tracer modeling capabilities with the Fukushima events in a coupled ocean-atmosphere mesoscale modeling system (1:30 p.m., Room 338).
In a parallel session of the Coastal Environment Conference next door (1:45 p.m., Room 337) Nathan Becker of NOAA/NWS will discuss calculations of detection times for various configurations of the sensors for the Pacific tsunami warning system, concluding that, “for global tsunami hazard mitigation the installation of about 100 additional carefully-selected coastal sea-level gauges could greatly improve the speed of tsunami detection and characterization.”
Interestingly, Monday’s Space Weather posters (2:30 p.m.-4 p.m., Hall E) include a presentation by Tak Cheung of the ionospheric disruptions caused by the great Japanese earthquake last March. Forecasts of ionospheric disturbances affect yet another service in the wake of the disaster: the communications provided by shortwave radio operators. And that will be a topic for Kent Tobiska (Utah State Univ.) in the Space Weather session at 5 p.m. (Room 252/253

Weather-Ready or Not, Here We Come

The year so far has been expensive when it comes to disasters. Make that record-breaking expensive. According to NOAA, with nine separate big-money disasters, the losses have already reached $35 billion. In response, the NWS—in partnership with other government agencies, researchers, and the private sector—is building a plan to make the country “Weather-ready.”  Earlier this week, officials from various agencies participated in a group discussion with the goal of understanding the threats extreme weather poses today and what can be done about it. Specifically, they want people nationwide to develop plans they can implement quickly to protect themselves when severe weather strikes.
“Building a Weather-ready nation is everyone’s responsibility,” comments Eddie Hicks, U.S. Council of International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM USA) president. “It starts with the NWS and emergency managers, like IAEM USA, but it ends with action by individuals and businesses to reduce their risks. The more prepared communities are for destructive weather, the less of a human and economic toll we’ll experience in the future, and that’s a great thing for the country.”
The discussion resulted in a list of necessities to make a Weather-ready nation. They include improved precision of weather and water forecasts and effective communication of risk to local authorities; improved weather decision support services with new initiatives such as the development of mobile-ready emergency response specialist teams; strengthening joint partnerships to enhance community preparedness; and working with weather enterprise partners and the emergency management community to enhance safety and economic output and effectively manage environmental resources.
John Malay, president of the AMS, took part in the announcement and emphasized that the partnership among the three weather sectors—all represented in the AMS membership—is essential in achieving the vision. “We share the mission of informing and protecting our citizens, which is what this enterprise and initiative are all about,” he comments. “Given the resources to grow our scientific understanding of our complex environment through observations and research and to apply this knowledge in serving society, we can do amazing things together.”
You can download a pdf copy of the NWS Strategic Plan for this initiative from the Weather-ready nation website.

Deadliest Tornado in Modern Era Slashes Missouri

It hasn’t even been a month since violent, history making tornadoes made headlines across the United States, and yet here we are with another grim tornado record. The death toll from the violent tornado that shredded as much as a third of Joplin, Missouri, Sunday evening reached 116 Monday afternoon. That makes it the single deadliest tornado to strike the United States since NOAA began keeping reliable records of tornado fatalities in 1950. It took the top spot from the Flint, Michigan, twister of June 8, 1953, which killed 115.
The number of dead in Joplin jumped from 89 earlier in the day as news of recoveries as well as rescues were reported. While the number of dead is fully anticipated to increase, news outlets reported that at least five missing families were found buried alive in the rubble, which stretches block after unrecognizable block across six miles of the southwestern Missouri city of 50,000. More than 500 people in Joplin were injured, and the damage is eerily familiar, looking so much like the utter carnage witnessed in Tuscaloosa  on April 27, 2011, when 65 died in that day’s twister.
The tornado event attributed to the single highest loss of life on American soil is the “Tri-State” tornado of March 18, 1925, which rampaged across southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, and into southwestern Indiana. It killed 695 people on its seemingly unending 219-mile journey. But that was prior to our knowledge of families of tornadoes and the cyclical nature of long-lived supercell thunderstorms to form, mature, dissipate, and reform tornadoes, keeping damage paths seemingly continuous.
Prior to the effort by the U.S. Weather Bureau, precursor to the National Weather Service and NOAA, to maintain detailed accounts of tornadoes—and 64 years before yesterday’s event in Joplin—the last single-deadliest tornado in a long list of killer U.S. tornadoes was the 1947 Woodward, Oklahoma, tornado, which claimed 181 lives.
Yesterday there was also one fatality from a destructive tornado that hit Minneapolis, and that and Joplin’s toll combined with last month’s back-to-back tornado outbreaks, plus a handful of earlier tornado deaths this year, brings 2011’s death toll from tornadoes to 482—more than eight times the average of the past 50 years and second (in the modern era) only to the 519 recorded deaths from twisters in 1953. Two-thirds of this year’s fatalities occurred during April 27’s epic tornado outbreak across the South.
The Weather Channel has been providing continuing coverage of the rescue and recovery efforts in Joplin, with one of its crews arriving on scene moments after the tornado. The level of destruction in the city was too much to bear even for one of its seasoned on-air meteorologists. TWC also is reporting along with NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center on the possibility of yet another tornado outbreak, this time in the central Plains on Tuesday.

Policy Buzz: Senate Hearing Follows Tornado Outbreak

by Caitlin Buzzas, AMS Policy Program
On May 3, Dr. William Hooke, Director of the AMS Policy Program, testified before Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV) and other members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He was joined by Bob Ryan, Senior Meteorologist at ABC7/WJLA-TV, Dr. Anne Kiremidjian of Stanford University and Dr. Clint Dawson of the University of Texas, together they discussed “America’s Natural Disaster Preparedness: Are Federal Investments Paying Off?”
As the hearing was convened in part as a response to the earthquake in Japan, Dr. Kiremidjian focused her testimony on earthquake and tsunami issues. Dr. Dawson discussed advances in storm surge modeling.
This hearing (full video here) took place soon after one of the worst weather disasters in the U.S. of the last century with tornadoes killing at least 327 in the South East. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this may have been the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. Although this disaster was horrific in terms of the many lives lost and the huge economic toll, the hearing gave our community the needed opportunity to highlight what we do and the importance of accurate weather forecasts and earth observation systems.
Dr. Hooke stated in his testimony that these systems and science play an especially important role in the United States:

Because of its size and location, the United States bears a unique degree of risk from natural hazards. We suffer as many winter storms as Russia or China, and as many hurricanes as China or Japan. Our coasts are exposed not just to storms but to earthquakes and tsunamis. Dust bowls and wildfire have shaped our history. And 70% of the world’s tornadoes, and some 90% of the truly damaging ones, occur on our soil.

Ryan emphasized in his testimony that amidst the many scientific improvements, the whole weather forecast process is a multisector enterprise that depends on the capabilities of, and cooperation with, Federal agencies.  The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is an example of that critical Federal capability. As Congress decides what to cut in the upcoming budget deliberations, programs such as the JPSS will have to get the recognition they deserve to keep functioning. The data and imagery obtained from JPSS will increase the timeliness and accuracy of public warnings and forecasts of climate and weather events, thus reducing the potential loss of life and property. This has a direct effect on the health and stability of our national economy. It is important, even in a time of economic hardship, to keep programs like JPSS fully functional for the long-term health of the country. Both Hooke and Ryan made this point. Said Ryan:

Some may argue that loss of polar orbiting data will not degrade our current weather/climate observing and forecasting skill . . . but, what if they are wrong! Polar and geostationary weather satellites are an integral and critical core element of providing very accurate weather forecasts and life saving planning and decision making for weather and other natural disasters from tornadoes and hurricanes to fires, drought, dangerous air quality and oil spills.

As Dr. Hooke highlighted in his testimony there are several other things that can be done to improve our current disaster preparedness:

  • Maintain our essential warnings system
  • Bring to bear not just meteorology and engineering, but also social science
  • Learn from experience
  • Build public-private partnerships
  • Explore No-Adverse Impact Policies for flood and other hazards
  • Track progress/keep score. (There’s more about this proposal on Dr. Hooke’s blog, Living on the Real World.)

The issues that our community deals with everyday, highlighted through a hearing of this kind, are not just important to the world of science and meteorology, but important to the health and stability of the American economy and public as a whole. I believe that Senator Rockefeller, Senator Nelson, Senator Boxer and others left the hearing with not only a greater understanding of our community and the important role that we play in the health of our country, but with a continued desire to highlight the importance of our work.

Lessons of Sendai: The Need for Community Resilience

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director, adapted from two posts (here and there) for the AMS Project, Living on the Real World
Events unfolding in and around Sendai – indeed, across the whole of Japan – are tragic beyond describing. More than 10,000 are thought to be dead, and the toll continues to rise. Economists estimate the losses at some $180B, or more than 3% of GDP. This figure is climbing as well. The images are profoundly moving. Most of us can only guess at the magnitude of the suffering on the scene. Dozens of aftershocks, each as strong as the recent Christchurch earthquake or stronger, have pounded the region. At least one volcanic eruption is underway nearby.
What are the lessons in Sendai for the rest of us? Many will emerge over the days and weeks ahead. Most of these will deal with particulars: for example, a big piece of the concern is for the nuclear plants we have here. Are they located on or near fault zones or coastlines? Well, yes, in some instances. Are the containment vessels weak or is the facility aging, just as in Japan? Again, yes. So they’re coming under scrutiny. But the effect of the tsunami itself on coastal communities? We’re shrugging our shoulders.
It’s reminiscent of those nature films, You know the ones I’m talking about. We watch fascinated as the wildebeests cross the rivers, where the crocodiles lie in wait to bring down one of the aging or weak. A few minutes of commotion, and then the gnus who’ve made it with their calves to the other side return to business-as-usual. They’ll cross that same river en masse next year, same time, playing Russian roulette with the crocs.
It should be obvious from Sendai, or Katrina, or this past summer’s flooding in Pakistan, or the recent earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, that what we often call recovery isn’t really that at all. Often the people in the directly affected area don’t recover, do they? The dead aren’t revived. The injured don’t always fully mend. Those who suffer loss aren’t really made whole. When we talk about “resilience” we instead must talk at the larger scale of a community that has been struck a glancing blow. Think of resilience as “healing.” A soldier loses a limb in combat. He’s resilient, and recovers. A cancer patient loses one or more organs. She’s resilient, and recovers.
What happens is that the rest of us–the rest of the herd–eventually are able to move on as if nothing as happened. Nonetheless, if we spent as much energy focusing on the lessons from Sendai as we spend on repressing that sense of identification or foreboding, we’d be demonstrably better off.
The reality is that resilience to hazards is at its core a community matter, not a global one. The risks often tend to be locally specific. It’s the local residents who know best the risks and vulnerabilities, who see the fragile state of their regional economy and remember what happened the last time drought destroyed their crops, and on and on.
Similarly, the benefits of building and maintaining resilience are largely local as well, so let’s get real about protecting our communities against future threats. Leaders and residents of every community in the United States, after watching the news coverage of Sendai in the evenings, might be motivated to spend a few hours the morning following building community disaster resilience through private-public collaboration.
What a coincidence! There’s actually a National Academies Natural Research Council report by that same name. It gives a framework for private-public collaborations, and some guidelines for how to make such collaborations effective.
Some years ago, Fran Norris and her colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School wrote a paper that has become something of a classic in hazards literature. The reason? They introduced the notion of community resilience, defining it largely by building upon the value of collaboration:

Community resilience emerges from four primary sets of adaptive capacities–Economic Development, Social Capital, Information and Communication, and Community Competence–that together provide a strategy for disaster readiness. To build collective resilience, communities must reduce risk and resource inequities, engage local people in mitigation, create organizational linkages, boost and protect social supports, and plan for not having a plan, which requires flexibility, decision-making skills, and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns.”

Here’s some more material on the same general idea, taken from a website called learningforsustainability.net:

Resilient communities are capable of bouncing back from adverse situations. They can do this by actively influencing and preparing for economic, social and environmental change. When times are bad they can call upon the myriad of resouces [sic]that make them a healthy community. A high level of social capital means that they have access to good information and communication networks in times of difficulty, and can call upon a wide range of resources.

Taking the texts pretty much at face value, as opposed to a more professional evaluation, do you recognize “resilience” in the events of the past week in this framing?
Maybe yes-and-no. No…if you zoom in and look at the individual small towns and neighborhoods entirely obliterated by the tsunami, or if you look at the Fukushima nuclear plant in isolation. They’re through. Finished. Other communities, and other electrical generating plants may come in and take their place. They may take the same names. But they’ll really be entirely different, won’t they? To call that recovery won’t really honor or fully respect those who lost their lives in the flood and its aftermath.
To see the resilience in community terms, you have to zoom out, step back quite a ways, don’t you? The smallest community you might consider? That might have be the nation of Japan in its entirety. And even at that national scale the picture is mixed. Marcus Noland wrote a nice analytical piece on this in the Washington Post. He notes that after a period of economic ascendancy in the 1980s, Japan has been struggling for the two decades with a stagnating economy, an aging demographic, and dysfunctional political leadership. He notes the opportunity to jump start the country into a much more vigorous 21st century role. We’re not weeks or months from seeing how things play out; it’ll take weeks just to stabilize the nuclear reactors, and decades to sort out the longer-term implications.
In a sense, even with this event, you might have to zoom out still further. Certainly the global financial sector, that same sector that suffered its own version of a reactor meltdown in 2008, is still nervously jangled. A globalized economy is trying to sort out just which bits are sensitive to the disruption of the Japanese supply chain, and how those sensitivities will ripple across the world. Just as the tsunami reached our shores, so have the economic impacts.
This is happening more frequently these days. The most recent Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption, unlike its predecessors, disrupted much of the commerce of Europe and Africa. In prior centuries, news of the eruption would have made its way around the world at the speed of sailing ships, and the impacts would have been confined to Iceland proper. Hurricane Katrina caused gasoline prices to spike throughout the United States, not just the Louisiana region. And international grain markets were unsettled for some time as well, until it was clear that the Port of New Orleans was fully functional. The “recovery” of New Orleans? That’s a twenty-year work-in-progress.
And go back just a little further, to September 11, 2001. In the decade since, would you say that the United States functioned as a resilient community, according to the above criteria? Have we really bounced back? Or have we instead struggled mightily with “build(ing) collective resilience, communities … reduc(ing) risk and resource inequities, engag(ing) local people in mitigation, creat(ing) organizational linkages, boost(ing) and protect(ing) social supports, and plan(ning) for not having a plan, which requires flexibility, decision-making skills, and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns.”
Sometimes it seems that 9-11 either made us brittle, or revealed a pre-existing brittleness we hadn’t yet noticed…and that we’re still, as a nation, undergoing a painful rehab.
All this matters because such events seem to be on the rise – in terms of impact, and in terms of frequency. They’re occurring on nature’s schedule, not ours. They’re not waiting until we’ve recovered from some previous horror, but rather are piling one on top of another. The hazards community used to refer to these as “cascading disasters.”
Somehow the term seems a little tame today.

Want to Reduce Disaster Losses? Keep Score.

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director
from the AMS Project Living on the Real World

In the early 1900’s, my grandfather faced a challenge at work. Though only a teenager, he was foreman in a foundry making cast-iron bathtubs in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His company was struggling. A large number of the bathtubs they produced were defective – so badly flawed they had to scrap them. They were losing money. What to do?
My grandfather was a baseball fan.[1] He solved the problem the way a baseball fan would. He got a big blackboard. He hung it on the foundry wall. He wrote every workman’s name on it. Next to each name he started keeping a tally: how many passable bathtubs had that worker produced that week? And what was his batting average? Of all the workers, who was the best that week? The Top Tubber? The MVP?
The workers reconnected with their competitive side. Almost overnight, the foundry’s output shot up. Defects went down. No one had to be threatened with loss of a job. No one had to be offered any more pay. Morale improved. All that was needed? A scorecard.[2]
Maybe we can scale this up. If we want to reduce disaster losses, why shouldn’t we start by

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