By Kriss Gross
March 9, 2014
Long lines at gas stations and store shelves empty of essential items like water, non-perishables, batteries, ice, candles, and generators are sure signs of an impending hurricane for anyone living on the United States’ (US) eastern and southern coasts. Due to advances made in monitoring and forecasting modeling, hurricanes are one of the few weather phenomena that people are able to make preparations for. Unlike hurricanes, Mother Nature does not always allow for lengthy preparations to be made, especially in cases of tornadoes, where people may only have a few minutes to get to a safe place. Earthquakes give no warning and often times lead to tsunamis, especially the quakes that happen deep in the ocean.
Monitoring the Phenomena
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) website shares impending storm information on the foundation of advisories released by Regional Specialized Meteorological Centers (RSMCs), Tropical Cyclone Warning Centers (TCWCs), and official warnings issued by National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) for their specific countries and areas of origin. Media outlets compile the advisory and warning data when planning their news bulletins that will be released to viewers in the areas of concern (WMO, 2014). These weather centers share maps and tracking data received from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), manned weather research aircraft and coastal and fixed ocean data buoys.
The technological advances of modern communication allow for people to have the chance to survive many of today’s natural disasters. Satellites and some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s
(NASA) Global Hawk, carry a Hurricane Imaging Radiometer (HIRAD) developed by Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) engineers that track and record data from storms. This information is used to continue research into the development of more sensitive tracking devices, which afford more accurate details about developing storm systems (Wallace & Toon, n.d.).
The WMO website allows users worldwide to see developing weather advisories and warnings. Another international site, http://weather.org/stormwatch.htm, lets users type in the area this wish to observe. The sidebar lets users choose from a variety of phenomena, from hurricanes, tornadoes, snow and tides, to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and fires. Weather.org also has a Farmer’s Almanac and a newly added Aurora forecast. The advantage of websites like this, that allow interaction from the user, is people can check weather in any area they may be wanting to travel to or they may have friends or family in a location being affected by bad weather.
US residents can obtain information from www.weather.org, and the National Weather Service at www.nws.noaa.gov/, www.wunderground.com, and many locally supervised sites, such as those connected with local television and radio. In Europe, websites like www.weatherpal.se/, www.meteoalarm.eu/, and www.wunderground.com/severe/europe.asp allow users to click on their country and region to view weather in any area of interest or concern. Animated icons show different alerts, like flooding from snowmelt, high winds, and rising sea levels. The websites offer the option to view the information in various languages as well.
Japan, Taiwan and Mexico have earthquake early warning systems and the US has various seismological networks; while not necessarily focused on early warning, the Advanced National Seismic System, includes approximately 100 seismic monitoring stations. The “Global Seismographic Network” (GSN) is a fixed, digital network of seismological and geophysical sensors of connected telecommunications networks. Together, the US Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, this GSN allows for worldwide monitoring of the Earth, using as many as 150 modern seismic stations distributed globally (Bogue, 2012).
Hurricanes’ destructive forces affect landmasses along the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. With winds exceeding 155 miles per hour (MPH), hurricanes are capable of causing cataclysmic damage to coastlines and several hundred miles inland. Tornadoes and microbursts are common phenomena that coincide with these horrific storms and bring further destruction in the form of flying debris and heavy rainfall, which often leads to flash flooding and land or mudslides, in areas away from the hurricane. Organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) work together to educate citizens of the dire effects of these storms, not just in the US, but in neighboring oceanic communities as well.
Tornadoes, like the one that hit Joplin, MO in. In the late afternoon of May 22, 2011, an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado struck Joplin, Mo. Reaching a maximum width of over one mile and with winds peaking at 250 mph, the tornado destroyed or damaged virtually everything in a six-mile path.
The devastating tornado claimed 161 lives, making it one of the single deadliest U.S. twisters since 1953. The Joplin tornado was only the second EF5 tornado to strike Missouri since 1950. It was the seventh-deadliest tornado in U.S. history and the 27th-deadliest in world history.
To meet NOAA’s “commitment to create a Weather-Ready Nation”, where the US is capable of preparing and responding to situations that affect “the safety, health, environment, economy, and homeland security, NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality financed $1.3 million for seven multi-year proposals in 2013; thus enabling scientists and partnering universities to swiftly and efficiently “transfer new technology, research results, and observational advances through NOAA’s Joint Hurricane Testbed (JHT) to operational hurricane forecasting”. John Cortinas, director of NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality, managers of the U.S. Weather Research Program that fund JHT projects, stated, “These important projects will help improve the information and tools that NOAA forecasters and researchers use to forecast tropical cyclones that impact the U.S. population and economy” (Allen, 2013).
Administrations and policy makers have the arduous task of determining the when, where and the how much of recovery, relief and eventually rebuilding efforts after devastating storms have torn communities apart. In the US, during hurricane Sandy, the 2012 presidential election was drawing near, leaving opponents with the decision to continuing to campaign or attend to their communities. President Obama put campaigning aside only long enough to tour the battered coastal areas, declare states of emergency and authorize the release of disaster relief funds. The American Red Cross, FEMA and other organizations made their way to the various areas to set up aid and relief sites. On November 6, 2012, “Residents in some of the affected areas are allowed to vote in the presidential election via email or fax, and some states allow voters to vote at any polling station” (CNN, 2013).
The ultimate damage from these storms is loss of life; compounding matters, damages from these most recent storms, like those in the past, have left people without homes, without power to homes that survived, with businesses ruined (resulting in joblessness), and vehicles damaged or destroyed. Community infrastructures also felt the impact as businesses have had to make the decision as to whether or not they rebuild, relocate or both.
In the large urban areas, like New York City, public transportation was reduced due to flooding. A 2013 CNN report shared that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) estimates over “$5 billion dollars in losses: $4.75 billion in infrastructure damage and a further $246 million in lost revenue and increased operating costs.” “According to a report released by the National Hurricane Center, Sandy is expected to rank as the second-costliest tropical cyclone on record, after Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and will probably be the sixth-costliest cyclone when adjusting for inflation, population and wealth normalization factors” (CNN, 2013). The arguments ensued, with a very publically speaking New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg saying, “Superstorm Sandy cost the city and local businesses some $20 billion dollars” and Governor Andrew Cuomo stating in an NPR interview that, “The taxpayers of New York cannot shoulder this burden, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask them to shoulder this burden. This state and this region of the country have always been there to support other regions of the country when they needed help. Well, we need help today.” Cuomo made a pint about Congress’ allocation of billions of dollars spent to aid Florida and other Gulf Coast states after hurricanes like Katrina and Andrew. Commentator Joel Rose also noted that New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie stated that New Jersey’s storm damages were an estimated $29 million (Rose, 2012).
“University of North Texas Professor Bernard Weinstein put the total economic loss from Katrina (August 23, 2005) to be as high as $250 billion”, as he also considers the economic impact of the disruption in gas production as well as the damages incurred from the storm. 19% of the US’s oil production was affected by Katrina as well as damage caused by a smaller hurricane, Rita. The combination of the two storms, Rita (September 26, 2005) and Katrina affected 19% of U.S. oil production by destroying 113 offshore oil and gas platforms, damaging 457 oil and gas pipelines, and spilling nearly as much oil as the Exxon Valdez (1989) oil disaster. This caused oil prices to increase by $3 a barrel, and gas prices to nearly reach $5 a gallon. To stop the escalation in gas prices, the U.S. government released oil from its stockpile in the Strategic Petroleum Reserves. The storm also decimated Louisiana’s sugar industry, with the American Sugar Cane League estimating a $500 million in lost annual crop value. This area of Louisiana is also home to 50 chemical plants, responsible for 25% of the nation’s chemical production along with of 12 Mississippi’s coastal casinos, accounting for $1.3 billion annually (Amadeo, 2012).
Being prepared for an impending natural disaster could mean the difference between life and death; while technology can help predict storms, like hurricanes, some phenomena does not give any warning. Tornadoes, often spawned from hurricanes, give little or no leeway, leaving only minutes to get to a safe place. Earthquakes, a naturally occurring phenomenon, happen with no warning; although, some are preceded by smaller tremors. Born from oceanic earthquakes, tsunamis add insult to injury, by quickly developing after the earth stops shaking.
Because of the lessons learned from previous disasters, regions that are in hurricane prone areas, build structures on stilts and composed of materials that can withstand the high winds and survive potential flooding. Evacuation routes are in place along coastal areas and because of the available lead time can secure homes and businesses and in the case of mandatory evacuations, there is time to depart the area. Websites, like www.ready.gov, list preparedness guides, giving users the information and guidance needed to prepare (Ready.gov, 2014).
For residents, in what the US calls “Tornado Alley” many residents have built “safe rooms”. These rooms are generally in a basement, in the centermost past of the ground floor or on a concrete floor in their garage. Many Midwest homes use storm cellars (or fruit cellars) that were built decades ago (personal knowledge). Residents have learned to have a pre-established communication plan and emergency kit (Ready.gov, 2014). Although tornado sirens are commonplace in regions like “Tornado Alley”, they are often not heard inside homes or businesses. Because of this, NOAA also recommends that all residents, especially those in tornado prone areas, should have a NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR).
“NWR numbers 1000 transmitters, covering all 50 states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Pacific Territories. NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal” NWR broadcasts warnings and post-event information for all types of hazards: weather (e.g., tornadoes, floods), natural (e.g., earthquakes, forest fires and volcanic activity), technological (e.g., chemical releases, oil spills, nuclear power plant emergencies, etc.), and national emergencies (e.g., terrorist attacks). Working with other Federal agencies and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Alert System (EAS), NWR is an all-hazards radio network, making it the most comprehensive weather and emergency information available to the public” (NOAA, 2014).
Regions prone to earthquake have modified the way structures are built, with buildings being able to shift with the earth’s movement; thereby minimizing damage. Preparing their homes for possible earthquakes, residents can follow guidelines included at sites like www.ready.gov for information to make their homes safer. Unfortunately, for low-lying area, like those in many regions of Asia, population density has many residents living in communities that sit directly on fault lines, putting them in a direct path for disaster. For those who survive the initial earthquake, moving to higher ground to escape an ensuing tsunami may be their only means of survival (Ready.gov, 2014).
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