This Day in Texas Disaster History – April 16th

16 04 2017

April 16, 1947 – Ammonium Nitrate Explosion, Texas City, TX

The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City. It generally considered the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port), its cargo of approximately 2,300 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department; 27 of the 28 members of Texas City’s volunteer fire department and 3 members of the Texas City Heights Volunteer Fire Department who were on the docks near the burning ship were killed.

One firefighter, Fred Dowdy, who had not responded to the initial call, coordinated other firefighters arriving from communities up to 60 miles (100 km) away. Eventually 200 firefighters arrived, from as far away as Los Angeles. Fires resulting from the cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster, and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. All four fire engines of Texas City were twisted and burned hulks.  It is said that one positive result of the Texas City disaster was widespread disaster response planning to help organize plant, local, and regional responses to emergencies.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed as a result of the disaster.  The disaster triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the then-recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.

 

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This Day in Texas Disaster History – April 16th

16 04 2015

April 16, 1947 – Ammonium Nitrate Explosion, Texas City, TX

The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City. It generally considered the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port), its cargo of approximately 2,300 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department; 27 of the 28 members of Texas City’s volunteer fire department and 3 members of the Texas City Heights Volunteer Fire Department who were on the docks near the burning ship were killed.

One firefighter, Fred Dowdy, who had not responded to the initial call, coordinated other firefighters arriving from communities up to 60 miles (100 km) away. Eventually 200 firefighters arrived, from as far away as Los Angeles. Fires resulting from the cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster, and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. All four fire engines of Texas City were twisted and burned hulks.  It is said that one positive result of the Texas City disaster was widespread disaster response planning to help organize plant, local, and regional responses to emergencies.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed as a result of the disaster.  The disaster triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the then-recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.

 





Disturbing News on the Hurricane Forecasting Front

15 04 2015

Photo-Hurricane KatrinaSo in my last blog entry, I encouraged taking hurricane preparedness activities for those that live in Fort Bend County; it is that time of the year, June 1st is the official start of the 2015 Hurricane Season.  It is important because the last hurricane strike in our region was back in 2008 when Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston County.

People have become apathetic about hurricane preparedness because they don’t really remember Hurricane Ike; and they don’t remember how bad it really was for many living in our region.  How soon we forget.

Then I turned to my latest issue of Disaster Research News published by the University of Colorado at Boulder. From its April 10th edition, Jolie Breeden provides information on some cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget that will reduce hurricane forecasting capabilities in the future.  I find these cuts disturbing.

Sure, examples of major hurricanes making landfall in the United States are not readily available from recent years— but the threat still exists—- and will continue to exist. Perhaps no major hurricanes will make landfall in the United States this year or next year; but it is simply a matter of time.  It is a question of “when” and not “if.”  And, when the next major hurricane makes landfall in the United States (and hopefully not in the Houston Urban Area), there will be questions about why the hurricane forecasting budget was slashed in 2015.  Here is Breeden’s article:

The Most Unkindest Cut: Hurricane Forecasting Takes a Hit

Jolie Breeden

It’s sometimes wise to stop while ahead, although probably not in the area of improving hurricane forecasts. Still, it seems the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has chosen to do just that with a nearly $10 million cut to its Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Program.

The cut, which represents nearly two-thirds of the program budget, was announced this month during a presentation at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin, Texas. According to presentation materials, the dearth of funds will likely result in a focus on more immediate forecasts (as opposed to 7-day forecasting goals), elimination of global modeling efforts, a reduction in funding to academic partners, and fewer real-time experimental products.

While the magnitude of the cut and the program elements affected are alarming, the National Weather Service’s Chris Vaccaro told Slate the outlook wasn’t entirely bleak.

“It’s important to emphasize that there is still funding for HFIP, work is still being done and advancements will continue to be made,” Vaccaro said, pointing to additional $4 million for super-computing that isn’t included in the cut.

Even so, scientists are concerned that hobbling the successful program—in five years the HFIP has made impressive advancements in both hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts—will have a chilling effect.

“It would be a shame to radically reduce this effort when gains seem to be in reach,” Bill Read, former director of the National Hurricane Center told the Washington Post. “While some improvements in the science of intensity forecasting may be attributed to HFIP over the past several years, more work is needed.”

Others point to the defunding as a myopic solution that will cost the United States more than it saves in the long run.

“Undeniably hurricane track improvement translates to lives and dollars saved,” Marshall Shepherd told Slate. “It is shortsighted to stunt this progress and hinder potential improvement in intensity forecasts. We can’t continue to be a culture that cuts progress, then panics only after a horrific tragedy.”

Lack of recent tragedy is perhaps one reason making the cut more palatable. It’s been nearly ten years since a Category 3 or stronger storm made landfall in the United States. Without the momentum of a recent disaster driving need, it can be hard to secure funding and prove program effectiveness.

Regardless of the will to continue funding at adequate levels, the NOAA budget (skip to page 758 for a quick access) clearly states the impacts of decreased support for the HFIP—coastal communities could experience unnecessary evacuations, NOAA’s reputation among the research community is at risk, and lagging improvement in HFIP models could affect a number of forecasting products.

But most of all, as University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Tom Bogdan points out in an editorial that champions forecast funding in general, the biggest risks are those that cascade from not making long-term investments in much-needed science.

“The growing ability to forecast the weather plays a significant role in protecting our homeland, our businesses, our infrastructure and most importantly, our families and communities,” he wrote. “We need to continue to ensure that our society is prepared to meet the challenges and dangers of living inside Earth’s dynamic atmosphere.”





U.S. Satellite Plans Falter, Imperiling Data on Storms

27 06 2013

The article below was published in The New York Times on October 26, 2012.  Though a bit dated it will provide you with a good understanding of the importance of satellite technology to protect citizens from weather related hazards.  The author of the article was John H. Cushman, Jr.  Though the article was written several months ago, the threat of a diminishing satellite system for capturing storm data is still significant.  Effective hazard mitigation does not happen magically; it requires thorough planning efforts based on accurate data.

The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews.

The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts view as almost certain within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the East Coast early next week.

The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the entire planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms about five days ahead.

All this week, forecasters have been relying on such satellites for almost all the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: hit the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

Right on schedule, the five-day models began to agree on the likeliest answer. By Friday afternoon, the storm’s center was predicted to approach Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, with powerful winds, torrential rains and dangerous tides ranging over hundreds of miles.

New York and other states declared emergencies; the Navy ordered ships to sea to avoid damage. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City warned that no matter where or when the storm landed, the city would not escape its effects. And from the Carolinas to New England, public safety officials were urgently advising tens of millions of residents to prepare for the worst, including the possibility of historic flooding, power failures and snow.

Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the huge blizzard that hit Washington in 2010.

“We cannot afford to lose any enhancement that allows us to accurately forecast any weather event coming our way,” said Craig J. Craft, commissioner of emergency management for Nassau County on Long Island, where the great hurricane of 1938 killed hundreds. On Thursday, Mr. Craft was seeking more precise forecasts for Sandy and gearing up for possible evacuations of hospitals and nursing homes, as were ordered before Tropical Storm Irene last year. “Without accurate forecasts it is hard to know when to pull that trigger,” he said.

Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launch of the next replacement, known as J.P.S.S.-1, has slipped to 2017, probably too late to avoid a coverage gap of at least a year.

Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite program’s managers are just beginning to think through alternatives when the gap occurs, but these are unlikely to avoid it.

This summer, three independent reviews of the $13 billion program — by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and a team of outside experts — each questioned the cost estimates for the program, criticized managers for not pinning down the designs and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.

The outside review team, led by A. Thomas Young, an aerospace industry leader, called the management of the program “dysfunctional.”

In response, top Commerce and NOAA officials on Sept. 18 ordered what they called an urgent restructuring — just the latest overhaul of the troubled program. They streamlined the management, said they would fill major vacancies quickly and demanded immediate reports on how the agency planned to cope with the gap. They have moved quickly to nail down the specific designs of the J.P.S.S.-1’s components, many of them already partly built. And they promised to quickly complete a new independent cost estimate to verify the program’s budget.

Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director, said in a statement that the agency’s top priority was to provide timely, accurate forecasts to protect the public, and that it would continue to develop and update plans to cover any potential gap.

The under secretary of commerce responsible for NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, issued the memorandum ordering the changes. In it, she wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix “this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”

“It is a long, sad history,” said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council. The report projected a dismal decline in what has been a crown jewel of modern earth and atmospheric science.

The Joint Polar Satellite System also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk.

But its main satellites are most notable because they put instruments to sense atmospheric moisture, temperature and the like into what is known as the “polar p.m.” orbit, a passage from lower altitude that provides sharp and frequent images of global weather patterns. (Other satellites stare continuously at one part of the globe from farther off, for short-term forecasting.)

Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking Hurricane Sandy.

For years, as the accuracy of this kind of forecasting has steadily improved, NOAA’s p.m. polar satellites have been a crucial factor, like the center on a basketball team.

But all the while, despite many warnings, the coverage gap has grown ever more likely.

The department told Congress this summer that it could not come up with any way to launch J.P.S.S.-1 any sooner. Kathryn D. Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce, said it would “endeavor to maintain the launch date as much as practicable.”

The Government Accountability Office, which views a gap as “almost certain,” has been urging NOAA to come up with alternatives, like leaning on other commercial, military or government satellites for helpful data. But it said it would take a long time and more money to get any such jury-rigged system running.

For now, the agency is running on a stopgap bill that allows it to redirect money from other projects to the polar satellites. In approving it, Congress demanded a plan by next week showing how NOAA intended to stay on schedule and within a strict limit — about $900 million a year.

“NOAA does not have a policy to effect consistent and reliable cost estimates,” the Commerce inspector general said. The outside review team said it could not tell “if the current $12.9 billion is high, low, or exactly correct.”

The program’s problems began a decade ago with an effort to merge military and civilian weather satellites into a single project. After its cost doubled and its schedule slipped five years, that project was sundered by the Obama administration.

As its existing satellites aged and the delays mounted, NOAA finally put a new model named Suomi into orbit a year ago that now helps bridge the gap until the next launchings, in 2017 and in 2022 — two and four years late, respectively.

But there are lingering concerns that technical glitches have shortened Suomi’s useful lifetime, perhaps to just three years. Predicting a satellite’s lifetime is like trying to guess when a light bulb will go out. The most likely timing of a gap in coverage is between 2016 and 2018, according to the best official estimates.

That would “threaten life and property,” the independent review team warned.





New Hurricane App Brings Red Cross Safety Information to Smart Phones

16 08 2012

A new American Red Cross Hurricane App puts help right into the hands of people who live in or visit hurricane prone areas. Best of all, it’s free and available for both iPhones and Android phones. To download the app click on the following link, http://www.redcross.org/hurricaneapp

The Red Cross app gives people real time information for hurricane threats where they are located-whether it’s the community where they live or the places they love to vacation. The app has a number of features that let people share vital information with their Facebook friends and Twitter followers. People who need to get out of harm’s way quickly can tap the “I’m Safe” button to post a message to their social accounts, letting friends and loved ones know they are okay. These features that will help friends and families stay in touch during hurricanes, reducing much of the fear and uncertainly for loved ones and property owners far away.

The Red Cross app also gives people the ability to receive location-based NOAA weather alerts for the United States and its territories and share those on their social networks too. Even if someone doesn’t live full-time in a threatened area, users can receive alerts for vacation spots, places where they winter or where loved ones live. It’s a feature that can give peace of mind to frequent travelers and those with elderly relatives or college students in coastal areas.

Other features include:

• Toolkit with a flashlight, a strobe light and an audible alarm;
• Locations of open Red Cross shelters;
• Simple steps and checklists to create a family emergency plan; and
• Preloaded preparedness content that gives instant access to critical action steps even without mobile connectivity.

National Red Cross experts in health, safety, and preparedness have thoroughly reviewed and field tested the information and advice provided in this app. The Hurricane App comes on the heels of the release of highly successful Red Cross First Aid App, which has had nearly 600,000 downloads in its first six weeks. While apps can prepare you for disasters, downloading the First Aid app is not a substitute for training. To learn more about Red Cross First Aid and CPR/AED courses or to register, visit redcross.org/takeaclass

 





City of Missouri City provides its citizens with information on how to prepare for a hurricane before one threatens the area

22 07 2012

The City of Missouri City recently issued a news release providing good information on how to prepare the trees in your yard for a hurricane.  This is information that all citizens in Fort Bend County should keep in mind when preparing for the 2012 Hurricane Season.  The news release, published on July 13, 2012,  is below:

Don’t forget: It’s still hurricane season! Even though there has been no significant activity yet this year in theGulfCoast, a storm could hit at any time.

While many of you are hustling and bustling to prepare your children for the upcoming school year, we suggest you also focus on the root of one potential hurricane hazard:  Trimming and pruning your trees.

“Proper tree pruning can go a long way in protecting your property from major storms,” said City Forester Paul Wierzbicki.

When pruning your trees, look for: dead or broken branches; crossing or grafting branches; trunks or branches with signs of wood decay or fungus, or large branches or trunks that come together in a sharp “V” crotch. “These are generally the trouble-makers during storms,” Wierzbicki said.

Trimming and pruning your trees is important, but overly doing it can cause more harm than good. Wierzbicki cautions homeowners to not excessively prune trees, as doing so increases the risk of the tree splitting or “heaving out of the ground.”

Maintaining your trees by trimming and pruning them allows wind to easily blow through. During hurricanes, in which wind speeds can reach over 155 mph, limbs can become projectiles, breaking windows and damaging roofs. They also can cause serious bodily injury, even death.

Uprooted trees and downed limbs also can seriously hinder recovery efforts, said Judy Lefevers, the City’s Emergency Management Coordinator. Properly maintained trees make it easier for power crews who often have to work around the sometimes puzzle-like pains to get to power lines. Crews can work more quickly to restore power if tree limbs aren’t in their way.

Since we are on the topic of trees, we’re going to branch out and provide you another important advisory about trees from the City’s Code Enforcement division.

The drought from last year and the rains received this year have presented some challenging issues forMissouri Cityand surrounding areas.  The drought has caused an increase in the number of trees that are dead and have become fire hazards. These types of trees also can easily become home to many unwanted critters. 

The rains received this year have been much needed, but they have directly caused two important issues relating to high grass and weed violations and trees overhanging sidewalks and roadways.  With this in mind the City wants to remind all citizens of the following regulations: 

  1. Dead trees are an “unsanitary matter” violation within the Code of Ordinances and must be removed.
  2. High grass and weeds nine (9) inches or more are a violation of the Code of Ordinances and must be cut.
  3. Tree limbs, brush or other vegetation less than eight (8) feet above the pavement of a sidewalk are a violation of the Code of Ordinances and must be trimmed.
  4. Tree limbs, brush or other vegetation less than thirteen and one half (13’1/2”) feet above the pavement of a roadway are a violation of the Code of Ordinances and must be trimmed.  
  5. Tree limbs, brush or other vegetation that obscures a motorist’s or pedestrian’s view of any street intersection, sign or traffic control device are a violation of the Code of Ordinances and must be trimmed.

For more information about tree ordinances, or any other City ordinances, visit the City’s website, www.missouricitytx.gov. On the homepage, type “ordinances” in the search box.

And, if you’re stumped and need more information about proper trimming and pruning of trees Wierzbicki suggests consulting an ISA Certified Professional Arborist to help you identify tree defects and give you an honest assessment regarding your trees’ structure and health. To find a local ISA Certified Arborist in your area visit www.treesaregood.org.





Some say Oklahoma should plan financially for next disaster

17 05 2012

The article below was published in the Tulsa World on May 7, 2012.  The article was written by Wayne Greene, a Senior Writer for the newspaper.  The key point of the article is that Oklahoma needs to plan for disasters, and as advocated by one Oklahoma city manager, the State should set aside money annually to pay for disaster response bills.

For years, Oklahoma’s Emergency Fund has built up a mounting pile of unpaid bills, leaving local government agencies holding the bag – sometimes for millions of dollars. The emergency fund is used to pay one-eighth of certain government costs for dealing with disasters that have federal approval for assistance. The federal government picks up 75 percent of the cost.

But during recent tough economic years, which coincided with a lot of costly disasters, the Oklahoma Legislature didn’t appropriate enough money to pay off the state’s share. So local government agencies – including cities, towns, counties, public utilities and rural water districts – just had to wait for their reimbursements.

After prodding by Gov. Mary Fallin, the Legislature approved a $34.1 million supplemental appropriation earlier this year, which was enough to pay off all the bills, some of which went all the way back to 2007.

But Bixby City Manager Doug Enevoldsen says the Legislature should be doing more. The state should be thinking ahead because another disaster will occur sooner or later.

“Logic suggests and experience suggests that there’s going to be additional disasters in the future, and wouldn’t it be prudent to prepare for that in advance by beginning to provide for some additional dollars?” said Enevoldsen, who previously worked as a legislative budget aide and a top official in the Office of State Finance.

“I’ve seen it too many times, and my heart goes out to these communities that are suffering these disasters. I feel that there’s got to be a better way,” he said. “It creates immense fiscal stress on a community that’s already under duress.”

His suggestion: either a dedicated state funding source for the emergency fund or a routine annual appropriation to keep the fund liquid. For about $4 million a year, he figures the state can build up a sufficient balance to fund its share of disaster costs.

“The governor this year and the Legislature have shown tremendous leadership in coming together and making that appropriation to catch up,” Enevoldsen said. “The next step is to be proactive in appropriating dollars.”

State Director of Emergency Management Albert Ashwood said that since 1953, only Texas and California have had more presidentially declared disasters than Oklahoma. Since 2007, no state has had as many as Oklahoma. Ashwood said appropriating money to the emergency fund before disasters occur is “absolutely good thinking.” It would allow the state to pay its share of recovery costs as fast as the federal government determines what they are, he said.

The last time the state was current with its share of emergency costs was Jan. 1, 2007, he said. Federal law determines what costs can be reimbursed and restricts payments to only those emergencies with the greatest impact. The recent tornado that struck Woodward, for example, was not sufficiently massive to trigger funding.

In approved disasters, the federal government picks up 75 percent of the approved costs. By decades-long tradition, Oklahoma splits the remaining costs with the local government that incurred the loss – 12.5 percent each.

The smaller the community, the more severe the financial stress of a disaster can be, said Collinsville City Manager Pam Polk. In the 2007 ice storm, the city of 6,000 was essentially blacked out for weeks, she said. The municipal electrical utility’s three-man repair crew wasn’t up to the enormous task, so the city contracted repair work at a huge cost, she said. For a city with an annual budget of about $3.5 million and a utility authority budget of $7 million, it was an enormous financial stress, she said.

“We struggle with the budget and the finances,” she said. “We did not have the money.”

Collinsville borrowed money from a bank to pay off the ice storm recovery. The city got its federal reimbursement of more than $1 million but had to wait another 18 months for the state to come through with its share. She said Enevoldsen’s idea “definitely makes sense,” and adds that she hopes Collinsville never ends up in such dire straits again.

“I hope it never happens on my watch again, anybody’s watch really,” she said.

 ——–

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management is awaiting a $34.1 million supplemental appropriation to pay the state’s share of emergency responses that date back to 2007.

Here’s a sample of some of the biggest total pending bills, shown by the date they were declared disasters:

Feb. 7, 2007 (oldest pending claims): Two winter storms, $4.6 million

Aug. 24, 2007: Severe storms, tornados and flooding, $1 million

Dec. 18, 2007: Severe winter storm, $4 million

May 9, 2008: Severe storms, tornados and flooding, $1.7 million

March 5, 2010: Severe winter storm, $19 million

June 6, 2011: Storms, tornados, winds and flooding, $1.2 million