Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for May, 2010

May 28 2010

Telling It Like It Is On Killing Power Of Weakest Hurricanes

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

FORT LAUDERDALE—Summer time. Hurricanes. This year, with a very busy hurricane season coming up – according to government and university experts—the National Weather Service wants to set a few things straight.

For nearly 40 years, government forecasters have been describing hurricanes in the dispassionate, clinical terms of engineers and meteorologists.

Now the forecasters have rewritten the guidelines on hurricanes to make the impact of high winds more vivid. And they may end up scaring the daylights out of people.

The forecasters have thrown away terms like minimal, moderate and extensive damage and now starkly warn that even the most modest hurricanes can savagely dismantle mobile homes, shatter windows, rip off roofs, kill and maim. The most severe storms, the new guidelines say, are very likely to leave parts of towns and cities “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

You already knew hurricanes were bad. But you have never heard it so clearly from weather central. Now the forecasters are saying, enough with restraint, enough with ambiguity. Let’s try telling it like it is.

“This might scare people,” said Bill Proenza, the regional director for the southern United States for the National Weather Service. But, most of all, he said, it might motivate them to put up shutters, tie down lawn furniture and show a little respect for even the lowly Category 1 hurricane which, with winds as low as 74 miles an hour, has done its share of killing and wrecking. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a Category 1 when it sliced across Florida in 2005 and it wreaked $1 billion in damage.

This could be a terrible hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that up to 14 hurricanes could develop during the six-six month season from June 1 to Nov. 30 and that as many as seven of them could become major storms. A big hurricane could spread the BP oil spill across a wider swath of the Gulf of Mexico. Federal Emergency Management officials say that as little as several days of heavy rain on the periphery of a hurricane could create a new disaster for the one million Haitians still living in tents after the earthquake in January.

The forecasters worry that the tens of millions of Americans living in the hurricane zone, mostly along the southern coasts, may not be taking hurricanes seriously. One reason more than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, storm experts say, was that many shrugged when they should have been boarding up their homes and heading for higher ground. The awful memories of Hurricane Katrina may be fading, the forecasters say, especially after last hurricane season when not a single powerful storm made landfall in the United States.

“Complacency is always a problem,” Mr. Proenza said in an interview here during a break in the annual Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in late May.

People who are newly arrived in the hurricane zone, those who have been on the fringes of big storms and others who have lived all their lives along the coasts, but never endured a hurricane, are the most likely to ignore storm warnings and end up in trouble, the experts say.  “They really don’t comprehend the full potential impact of a hurricane,” Mr. Proenza said.

So after nearly 40 years of referring to hurricanes in low-key generalities, the weather service has decided to try something new. “We wanted to provide a realistic portrait of what winds can do,” said Chris Landsea, the Science and Operations officer at the National Hurricane Center near Miami. Mr. Landsea led a team of experts who rewrote what used to be known as “The Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale.” The guidelines are published on Internet sites around the world, distributed by emergency managers and referred to by journalists in their reports. The new guidelines were issued without fanfare in March and revisions were being made well into May.

The new name for the government guide that describes the five categories of hurricanes is “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.” Hard to see the difference? One big feature of the new guidelines is what you can’t see.

The whole project got started because complaints had been growing, both among experts and among ordinary Americans, that “The Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale” was misleading on storm surge, the wall of water that often slams ashore in a hurricane with the force of a bulldozer and that over the years has killed many more people than wind.

According to Saffir/Simpson, which was introduced in 1972, A Category 3 hurricane with winds of up to 130 miles an hour should create a storm surge of up to 12 feet. Katrina came ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi as a Category 3 hurricane and was pushing a wall of water nearly 30 feet high. Three years later, Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast as a Category 2 hurricane with a 20-foot-high storm surge, more than three times greater than anticipated by Saffir/Simpson.

The forecasters’ solution was to yank the information on storm surge from Saffir/Simpson. So it is no longer a hurricane scale with guidance on both wind and storm surge. The new Saffir/Simpson deals only with wind, hence the new name, “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.” Now, on storm surge, the forecasters are going to be creating tailor-made estimates for each hurricane as it develops, working with a wide range of variables including one of the most important, the shallowness of offshore waters. The shallower the water, the bigger the storm surge.

Forecasters have routinely warned in commentaries that Category 1 hurricanes should not be disregarded and they have been offering their own calculations on storm surge. But their remarks and calculations have been contradicted by storm descriptions in official documents.

Strictly speaking, hurricane experts say, the descriptions were not wrong. But they were not clear either. “The winds in a Category 1 hurricane are about the same as the winds in a severe thunderstorm, a little higher,’’ Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center told me. So in a sense you could say, as the old Saffir/Simpson did, that the winds might cause minimal damage. “But,” Mr. Read said, “the thunderstorm winds might last for one to 15 minutes. The same winds in a Category 1 hurricane last for hours and can have a tremendous impact.” #

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May 13 2010

On the Road In East Africa: Bang, Bump, Ouch

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KISUMU, Kenya—The roads in a country can tell you a lot about a place.

Some of the roads here in Kenya and in the rest of East Africa are smooth, black ribbons of asphalt. But many are pure torture. They are unpaved or once-paved washboards with crisscrossing ridges and odd-shaped craters. You start running into them just beyond the center of cities and towns.

Even in Nairobi, the capital, lots of streets are dusty, bumpy cultural experiences – until it rains. Then they become slippery bogs and mini-lakes, channels that look like rivers and swallow cars. Open sewers run along side them, right there in the capital of what was once regarded as one of the most pleasant places in Africa – for everyone.

As in just about every country in the world, the leaders of Kenya have dreams, and they can imagine a bright future. But the country has been in decline for some time.

The roads are flat out dangerous. Kenya has one of the world’s highest road accident rates. The bad roads also stifle the economy. They make it hard for farmers and fishermen and furniture-makers and even people who make beaded jewelry for Kenya’s often substantial tourist business to get their goods to market. And they are health hazards. They make trips to clinics and hospital take longer than they should and some sick people don’t survive the journey.

According to the World Bank, Kenya has 38,400 miles of roads; 12 percent of them paved. In a place where more than 40 percent of the nearly 40 million people do not have easy access to clean drinking water, where malaria is worse than almost anywhere else, where more than 70 percent don’t have toilets, 30 percent are not getting enough to eat and perhaps 40 percent are unemployed, lousy roads do not tell the whole story. Of course the roads say nothing about Kenya’s heavy losses from HIV/AIDS.

But the roads are a pretty good metaphor. You see the roads. You feel the roads. You know this is no way to run a country. The roads look to me like very good supporting evidence for the Transparency International report that Kenya is among the most corrupt countries in the world.

With the roads in your face, it’s no big surprise to hear that another fairly simple thing like clean drinking water is not that common. People all over the developing world struggle to get safe drinking water and, in that sense, Kenya is a good example. It is also a good example of the worldwide sanitation problem, which is a cousin of the water problem.

People don’t have as much water as they need so they don’t wash their hands as often as they should. So many people live without toilets in Kenya that it is almost surprising when you find one. A farmer showed me how he digs a hole in his yard just beyond odor-range from his mud-walled, one-room house. The hole becomes the family toilet. No walls. No curtains. No seat. Not even any shrubs. At some point, he said, he covers the hole with a few shovels full of dirt and digs a new one.

In much of East Africa, especially in the slums, they use what they call flying toilets. “You do your business in a piece of paper or a plastic bag,” one health worker told me. “Then you wrap it up and throw it over your shoulder.”

The waste missile can go anywhere. Sometimes it ends up on the rusty tin roof of your neighbor’s house. Maybe it flies on to your own roof. Often it just lands on the grassless, rusty-red clay around the houses.

When it rains everything fuses together, mud, waste, garbage. And the health consequences are sure-fire. In some places, after a rain, you can barely walk the roads, they are so slippery. Diarrhea is so common that most people don’t think much about it until they start to weaken from dehydration. Often, by the time people realize they are really sick, it is too late. Small children, often malnourished, have the least resistance and are the first to die.

One morning here in Kisumu, I went to talk to fishermen at a village just outside town. I was in a bus with stiff springs and stiff seats. We turned off the paved main road and from there on to the shore of Lake Victoria we were creeping over what could have been a test track for manufacturers of off-road vehicles, or maybe army tanks. Bang. Crash. Whomp. It was a short stretch, but it took us forever.

Later, we went out to some farms north of Kisumu. It took us two hours to go 35 miles. The roads tell you a lot about a place. #

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