Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Jun 10 2010

Bracing For Flooding At Hurricane Time In Already Soggy Florida

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Around the clock, from a control room on the edge of the Everglades, technicians track water levels in the canals, lakes and marshes across the southern part of Florida. On their computer screens, they can see changes hundreds of miles away and with a few key strokes they open and shut flood gates.

The flood controls in South Florida are among the most sophisticated in the world and they get a workout most summers. Summer is the wet season here, a time of downpours so dense that you can see no more than 50 or 60 yards. Summer is also the time of hurricanes and tropical storms. And those wind machines can dump a lot of rain.

This summer forecasters are predicting a busier than usual storm season with as many as 14 hurricanes. Floods and storm surge, a kind of tidal wave that hurricanes sometimes push across beaches, kill more people in hurricane season than the wind. The wind gets the headlines, the water brings out the undertakers.

No one knows where the storms will come ashore. But this could be a very bad year for South Florida. The land is soggy from more rain than usual in the months leading up to hurricane season and it would not take much to cause flooding. The biggest flood threat in the region is Lake Okeechobee, the wide, shallow bowl of water about 45 miles west of here. The water in the lake, one of the largest in the United States, is already high and experts worry that the lake’s earthen, 35-foot-high dike might not hold.

Killer-floods are not routinely heavy on the minds of the technicians in the control room of the South Florida Water Management District here. A few feet of water may rise in backyards and parking lots and push into houses and shops and offices and the ground floors of condos. It can make life miserable and expensive for the 7.5 million people packed into South Florida, and for the farmers and ranchers working the land back from the coasts. The costs can quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But deaths are rare. Trouble at Lake Okeechobee, however, could be a nightmare.

Nothing awful has happened at the lake in more than 80 years, but memories are still vivid of the flooding in two hurricanes in the 1920s. Several thousand people died. In the worst Lake Okeechobee flood, in 1928, high water covered a stretch of 75 miles of the flat, Florida landscape. Some of that land is still Everglades swamp. But much of it is now thick with houses and shopping centers.

Since the early 1980s, concerns about another disaster at Lake Okeechobee have been growing. Water has been seeping under the 143-mile- long mud, gravel and rock dike that the United States Army Corps of Engineers began building in the 1930s. A report four years ago by the South Florida Water Management District said the dike posed “a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.” Portions of the dike, the report said, “bear a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese.”

The Corps of Engineers began reinforcing the southeastern wall of the dike, which is considered the most hazardous section, three years ago. But about half of the work in that 22-mile stretch remains to be done.

The water in the lake was at about 14.5 feet in early June or about two feet higher than what the Corps of Engineers and the water district consider prudent. The higher the water gets, engineers say, the higher the probability that the dike will give way and release an avalanche of water. Perhaps 60,000 people live south of Lake Okeechobee where flooding is most likely.

“It would probably kill many, many people,” said Eric Buermann, the chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. “You could have a lot of flooding in downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

Twice in the mid-1990s, water in the lake rose to more than 18 feet. The dike did not yield. But Nanciann Regalado, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said that at 17.5 feet “we get very, very concerned.” At 19 feet, she said, the authorities would be considering evacuation.

Trying to keep the lake from rising further, the Corps of Engineers and the water district have been flushing water from the lake into two main rivers and into huge holding ponds in the Everglades. But it rains almost every day around the lake and the rest of South Florida in June and early July and the pumps struggle to keep up. The engineers say that in the most intense rains, the kind that come with hurricanes and tropical storms, the lake can rise six times faster than the pumps can draw down the water.

“We’re concerned,” Mr. Buermann  said in an interview. “We’re taking measures to address this. But if you have the ultimate storm with wind pushing that water, the force of that water on the dike, anything could happen.”#

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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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Dec 16 2009

One Calm Season And You’re Thinking, No Hurricane Worries

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI — Here’s the bad news about the quiet, almost peaceful hurricane season in 2009: Right away, people start thinking this is the norm. They start to relax and maybe even make fun of hurricanes.

“Unfortunately, people take it that maybe we’re not going to get hit for a while,” said Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center on the edge of Miami.

“But,” Mr. Read said in an interview, “You never know.”

With all the satellites and aircraft and ocean buoys that help hurricane specialists figure out which way the wind is blowing, forecasters cannot confidently predict how storms will develop a year in advance. In fact, they are not entirely sure where a storm is going to go over any given five days. As a hurricane approaches land, they lay out a pretty wide swath of possibilities which they call the cone of uncertainty.

Hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University know very well about the imprecision of long-range estimates on hurricanes. But they are also concerned about complacency. So to keep up interest in hurricanes, they take a stab at what next season might look like. They say they see a busier than average run of tropical storms for 2010, including as many as eight hurricanes, possibly five of them major.

The Colorado forecasters, Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray said in a joint statement in early December that they think the El Nino condition that diminished hurricanes in 2009 will not affect the Atlantic hurricane zone in 2010. They put the odds of a major hurricane hitting somewhere along the coasts of the United States at 64 percent, up from the average probability of 52 percent.

Hurricane experts living near the coasts solve the problem of uncertainty in their own professional and private lives by always being ready for the big blow. They know where the shutters are and how to put them up. They have laid in plenty of bottled water and canned goods and their portable radio and flashlights have fresh batteries. The pros have already reinforced their garage door – which is one of the first things to crumple in a big storm. The garage door caves in and there goes the roof. Pretty soon you’re looking at a skeleton of a house.

But for most people, hurricanes are not a business. They are some kind of nuisance that can turn into a huge dislocation and sometimes can even kill. But you get a couple of quiet years and the killer hurricane begins to look more like a nuisance. That’s what Bill Read and other forecasters worry about after a year like the 2009 season that just ended in November: nine storms that got stronger than 39 miles an hour, three that kept building until they were up to more than 111 miles an hour – the low demarcation for Category Three hurricanes; and one storm, Hurricane Bill, that got up to 135 miles an hour, reaching Category Four status. Not one of the storms hit the United States with much force.

“We got precious little in the way of information” from the 2009 season that could serve as a warning or a lesson on the danger of hurricanes, Mr. Read said. “There was no unusual storm that gave us something that could be used to teach people about preparedness.”

Hurricane experts say that we’re in the midst of a cycle of generally heavier hurricane activity that began in 1995 and may run for a decade or two more. The nine storms in 2009 was a little below the average during the cycle. But the volume is not as critical as the direction. One big hurricane can make for a very bad year.

Emergency management officials around the hurricane zone, from Texas to the Carolinas, caution not to put much stock in hurricane performance in 2009. In Fort Myers, on the west coast of Florida, Gerald Campbell, the emergency planning chief for Lee County, told the naplesnews.com: “It’s just like the disclaimer on stocks–past performance is no indication of future performance.”

Mr. Read at the Hurricane Center near Miami does not wish for hurricanes. He hopes for quiet years. But he does worry that quiet years feed complacency. There is already way too much complacency about hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is an example. New Orleans and the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi had not had much of a blow since Hurricane Camille in 1969 – nearly 40 years earlier. There had been a lot of nears misses and some flooding, but not enough bad stuff to rattle most people. So a lot of them just shrugged as Katrina approached. Nearly 2,000 people ended up dead.

“The further you get from experiencing an event personally– or close enough to watch it go by and learn from it,” Mr. Read said, “the more people return to ‘it’s-not-going-to-happen-to-me mode.”#

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Dec 03 2009

Hostile Winds Clobber Would-Be Hurricanes; But Next Year?

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI — Whatever happened to the 2009 hurricane season? It never amounted to much. And that was kind of a surprise.

As the season started in June, forecasters were expecting about a dozen tropical storms and predicting that perhaps half of them would grow into hurricanes.

It didn’t turn out that way. As the curtain went down on the season at the end of November, there had been nine storms. Three got strong enough to be called hurricanes with winds of more than 74 miles an hour. But not one of them hit the beaches of the United States as a hurricane. The best shots weakened over water and became mainly windy rainstorms.

“Most of the season you had hostile winds aloft over the main development areas over the Atlantic and the Caribbean,” said Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center just outside Miami.

The result, he said in an interview, was that as nascent storms came off the coast of Africa or popped up closer to the United States “they never got past” the stage of being a “cluster of thunderstorms.”

It was the quietest hurricane season in 12 years.

Even quiet seasons can have deadly and costly consequences, though. A dozen people were swept off an outcropping of rocks along the coast of Maine by rough seas accompanying Hurricane Bill and one of them, a seven-year-old girl, drowned. In Florida, the authorities attributed the death of a 54-year-old swimmer to Hurricane Bill. Bill was the first hurricane of the season and it arrived in mid-August. That was 10 weeks into the season. In early November, Hurricane Ida flooded the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, knocked out bridges and flattened dozens of homes. Later, as a weaker tropical storm, Ida dropped a lot of rain on the Alabama coast near Mobile.

But, to the bigger issue: Does the relative quiet of 2009 mean the end of the much-talked-about onslaught of several decades of more and stronger hurricanes? The busy cycle started in 1995. Fourteen years later, is it over?

No. The quiet of 2009, according to Mr. Read, who has been in the hurricane business for more than 30 years, means almost nothing useful. Next year could be a terrible year along the United States Coasts, the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Central America. Or it could be a mild year. Chances are though, it won’t be that mild.

The hostile winds that beat the baby storms to pieces before they could grow into monsters were created by what is known as the El Nino effect. El Nino periodically warms up the Pacific Ocean. Thunderstorms develop. Stronger than usual winds come racing over the Atlantic at 30,000 feet and more. The winds knock the tops off giant updrafts of spinning wind and rain that are on their way to becoming hurricanes. The next thing you know, the storm is falling apart.

What does the 2009 experience tell us about global warming? Again, nothing, Mr. Read said. This is a decades-long phenomenon and, he said, you “can’t take any particular set of weather events in one year and draw” conclusions. Even over the long run, weather experts are not sure of the impact of global warming on hurricanes. On the one hand, warmer oceans should provide fuel for hurricanes. On the other, the experts say, a generally warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans would probably add up to a more stable situation, which is not good for hurricane formation.

A little more on El Nino. These characters usually do not have staying power. “Normally,” Mr. Read said, “you don’t have a second one, two years in a row.” Historically, El Ninos have occurred about every seven years. Without El Nino, Mr. Read said, “the chances of storms developing in the Atlantic increases.” That seems to mean that 2010 could be trouble.

But just so you don’t start feeling like you know what’s coming, some El Ninos have hung around for a second year.

There was no mention of El Nino in the early forecasts for the 2009 season and you might be forgiven if you thought it came out of nowhere. But Mr. Read said the forecasters thought an El Nino might develop and worked it into their predictions.

“It was hard to anticipate how strong it would be,” Mr. Read said. But, he added, that if the experts had not been anticipating El Nino “we probably would have been looking at much higher numbers in the forecast.” And even those numbers, it turned out, were on the high side. #

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Jun 16 2009

Hurricanes: You Can’t Win A Battle with the Wind

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI – When Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast four years ago, the evacuation got started late and many people decided to ride out the storm. Bad decision.

A lot of people had harrowing experiences. About 1,800 others died, most because of flooding.

Hurricane specialists spend much of their time preaching that early planning can save lives.  It’s a nearly full time job for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in the off-season.  They speak at schools, churches, town halls.

The 2009 Hurricane Season started on June 1 and forecasters are predicting half a dozen hurricanes, including two or three major ones. At a recent conference of disaster experts and journalists here in Miami, some examples of the right way and the wrong way to prepare for a storm came forth.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hammered Cancun, the glitzy Mexican resort of spring break fame. Wilma hovered over the city’s high rise hotels and outlying residential areas for 40 hours. Six hundred thousand people huddled under high winds and drenching rain. Yet not one person was reported killed, according to Hugh Gladwin, a hurricane specialist at Florida International University in Miami.

“The government did a really wonderful job,” Professor Gladwin said at the conference, organized by his university. When the hurricane warnings came, people knew exactly what to do, where to go.  “Every household, at the beginning of the hurricane season, was given tickets with instructions on where to go for shelter,” he said. The hotels had also been briefed.

When four storms hit Haiti last year toward the end of summer, it was rather different. At least 800 people died. Help was slow in arriving. Most people were on their own.

Jacqueline Charles reported on the disaster for the Miami Herald.  Haiti seems perennially on the brink. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and it has not been blessed with good leadership.  Just as the hurricane season was beginning this year the Minister of the Interior of Haiti, Antoine Bien-Aime, told the Herald, “I can’t say we’re ready.”  He added: “But we are better prepared than last year.”

In the months before the storms in 2008, there were several changes of government in Haiti. Food and gasoline prices were going through the roof. People had taken to the streets.

“Haiti was so paralyzed when the first of the storms hit, that the country was off guard and unprepared,” Ms.  Charles said.

The deaths kept rising and editors at the Miami Herald asked Ms. Charles what was going wrong.  Why hadn’t people been moved out of places that had flooded previously?

“I asked people why they had not evacuated,” Ms. Charles said. “And they kept saying, ‘We didn’t have anywhere to go.’”

In one of the worst disaster zones, a river rushed over its bank at three in the morning.  “The river just started coming,” Ms. Charles said. “You had mothers taking children and running, just running.”

Some of the same storms that tormented Haiti also raked across Cuba. Cuba did far better. Whatever else you might say about Cuba, the country is organized, block by block.

When the weather becomes dicey, the member of the Committee to Defend the Revolution on your block – the block captain - gives the order to evacuate. And that is exactly what people do.

In Florida and Texas and Louisiana and elsewhere along the hurricane coasts in the United States, police officers sometimes go out knocking on doors as storms approach. They tell people there is a mandatory order to evacuate and urge them to pack up. In the United States, however, mandatory evacuation does not mean mandatory. The police cannot make people move. Often they won’t leave their homes even when the police ask for Social Security numbers in case they need to later identify the bodies.

In Cuba, mandatory is mandatory. And an actual mandatory evacuation in the face of a hurricane does wonders for keeping casualties down. You can’t win a battle with the wind. #

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