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.

 





Early Forecast Says Below-Average Hurricane Season

8 04 2016

The 2016 Hurricane Season will soon be here.  Everybody should begin preparing for the annual season which begins on June 1st.  Fort Bend County’s Office of Emergency Management completes approximately 40 preparedness tasks during the Spring to get adequately prepared for the Hurricane Season.  Updating the County’s Traffic Management Plan is a priority.  The Traffic Management Plan guides evacuations through Fort Bend County when our neighbors in Galveston County and Brazoria County need to evacuate.  Even though Fort Bend County citizens do not generally need to evacuate because of a hurricane, but it is critical that our jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies have a plan to keep our evacuation routes open and clear during a large-scale exodus from counties near the coast.

I have copied a recent article from Emergency Management magazine (March 22, 2016).  The article was written by Kimberly Miller from The Palm Beach Post in Florida.  The crux of the article is that a well-known hurricane prediction expert is indicating that hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean may be lessened in 2016 because of cold water.  This is an early prediction; more predictions will be coming out from experts in the coming weeks.  But, don’t let the hint of a “timid” forecast make you procrastinate about taking preparedness actions.  In 1992, there were only seven named storms, but one of them was Hurricane Andrew which, at the time, was the most destructive hurricane to hit the United States.  Even a much smaller hurricane will severely disrupt the lives of our community; so please use this Spring to prepare for the 2016 Hurricane Season.

hurricane

Article from Kimberly Miller:

A below-average hurricane season this year? Floridians will take that, even if it is just an early prediction.

Phil Klotzbach, a leading hurricane expert, made that prediction Monday, based partly on the fact that frigid waters flowing out of the North Atlantic Ocean may limit activity as warm seas that feed energy to storms cool.

“The far north Atlantic is one of the few really cold areas on the globe right now, and those cold anomalies are bleeding down toward the west coast of Africa,” said Klotzbach, a researcher with Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science. “From there, they alter pressure patterns, winds and churn up the sea surface making the Atlantic not as conducive for a super active season.”

Klotzbach, who made his prediction Monday at the week-long National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, won’t deliver his official storm forecast until April.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also weeks away from releasing its official 2016 hurricane forecast, but meteorologists have been buzzing about whether the end of El Nino will leave the U.S. more vulnerable to storms.

El Nino, a global weather phenomenon that begins with a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean, is characterized by strong westerly winds that cut down Atlantic storms.

The 2015-2016 El Nino, one of the strongest on record, is expected to weaken by summer.

But like a pendulum, the mighty trade winds that take a backseat during El Nino, can roar back, awakening La Nina – a more accommodating hurricane host.

The most recent forecast by the Climate Prediction Center says there is a 50 percent chance La Nina will arrive by September. Hurricane season runs June through November.

“The higher the chances of La Nina, the higher the chances for a bigger than usual hurricane season,” said Bob Henson, a meteorologist and blogger for Weather Underground, in an interview earlier this month. “You have less wind shear and more favorable conditions for showers and thunderstorms to develop into hurricanes.”

But Klotzbach stressed Monday that the atmosphere doesn’t always react immediately to change, meaning an El Nino hangover may linger to help thwart storms. Also, other factors, such as an area of low pressure he says has been a predominant factor over the East Coast have acted against storms. Low pressure turns in a counter-clockwise direction, pushing hurricanes away from the U.S. coast and to the north.

“I think the best example of this was 2010 when there were 12 hurricanes in the Atlantic and not one hit the U.S.,” Klotzbach said. “We were extraordinarily lucky that year.”

In fact, while Klotzbach looks at decades worth of data to see what patterns produce weak or active hurricane seasons, he said sometimes a hurricane miss is just providence.

The U.S. has not been hit by a major hurricane – Category 3 or higher – in 10 years. Florida’s last hurricane was 2005’s Wilma.

“There has been a significant luck component,” he said. “There have been 27 major hurricanes in a row with none hitting the U.S. The odds of that are one in several thousand.”

Klotzbach is lead author on the annual hurricane forecasts by Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project. He took over the task in 2006 from noted hurricane researcher William Gray.

Last year, the duo’s April hurricane forecast said there would be seven named storms, three hurricanes and one major hurricane. The season ended in November with 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

“2016 will be a good test since we won’t have El Nino,” said Klotzbach, who believes the Atlantic may have entered a climatic pattern of fewer hurricanes. “It would definitely increase confidence that we are moving out of an active time for storms.”

Klotzbach is among dozens of weather and emergency management experts speaking at this year’s National Hurricane Conference. About 1,500 people are registered for the week-long event.





This Day in Texas Disaster History – September 24th

24 09 2015

Ten years ago, Hurricane Rita crashed ashore in Southeast Texas.  Hitting Texas just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, many do not remember this storm.  However, it was a big storm which caused immense damage and about 150 deaths.  Here is an article that was published yesterday in the USA Today.  The article was written by Alan Gomez.  As the article notes, many lessons were learned from the disaster.  And the lessons were learned.  The State of Texas and its jurisdictions did indeed learn from Hurricane Rita.  The response to citizens in Texas was much improved three years later when Hurricane Ike hit near Galveston.  Here is the article:

Many who live along the Gulf of Mexico refer to Rita as the “forgotten hurricane.”

Hitting the U.S. just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, most Americans paid little attention to Rita, which made landfall Sept. 24, 2005, in a far less populated area along the Texas-Louisiana border. Where Katrina left more than 1,800 dead, Rita killed fewer than 150.

But for emergency managers, Rita was almost more important in terms of the lessons learned following the disaster. In the 10 years since Rita struck as a Category 3 hurricane, Texas emergency management officials have redesigned their evacuation plans, local leaders have started building new shelters and Louisiana legislators have updated their antiquated building codes.

“A major lesson? I would say so,” said Ryan Bourriaque, a lifelong resident of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana who now serves as the parish administrator.

The biggest change came in the way large cities evacuate.

As it approached the coast, Rita’s forecast changed daily. The storm was first expected to strike southern Texas, then the massive Houston metropolitan area before actually making landfall close to the Louisiana border. That meant cities from Brownsville to Corpus Christi to Houston were sending their residents fleeing to points further inland, with 3 million people hitting the road at nearly the same time.

That led to agonizing traffic jams where people waited more than a dozen hours to travel just a few miles. Cars that ran out of gas were stranded by the dozens, several died from heat stroke and a van carrying nursing home evacuees exploded, killing 23 patients.

Madhu Beriwal, founder and president of the disaster management consulting firm IEM, said Texas officials were simply not ready for the size of the evacuation. As the storm approached, they ordered phased evacuations to get people out in manageable groups, and they implemented “contra-flow” traffic on highways, meaning all lanes are used to evacuate people in one direction. The problem, Beriwal said, is the state started those plans far too late, leaving a mess on the roads.

“You have to commend them for trying, but there were some problems with trying to do that in the midst of an evacuation,” she said. “It wasn’t successful because that’s a very complicated thing.”

The state responded by preparing plans for future evacuations and, in 2007, creating the Texas Statewide Mutual Aid System to allow local governments to help each other more easily. Now, all cities have evacuation plans and timelines for when to order them. The state has improved its communication with local officials to coordinate the entire system.

Greg Fountain, the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County, Texas, said that plan includes contracts with fuel distributors and gas stations to ensure that there’s gas available along evacuation routes. He said those new plans were put to the test when Hurricane Ike tore through the same region in 2008. That time, Fountain said traffic moved through the evacuation routes more smoothly and there was plenty of fuel for evacuees.

“Three years later comes Ike and the plans were fantastic,” Fountain said.

Photo: Paul Sancya, AP

Photo: Paul Sancya, AP

Rita also led to other changes throughout the region. Cameron County, Texas, is the southernmost county in the state, but it was in the storm’s path at one point. Given that experience, Tom Hushen, the county emergency management coordinator, said the county began building new, domed shelters to withstand hurricane-force winds.

The county also has contracts with construction firms that can bring heavy equipment, debris-removal operations, companies that provide emergency food and water and others that provide portable bathrooms.

In Louisiana, Rita helped usher in a new era of building codes. Most of the homes in Cameron County, La., a coastal community with just 6,700 people, had been around for generations when the storm tore through. Bourriaque said many of the residents who lost their homes were upset that the Louisiana legislature implemented new building codes that included requirements to elevate homes built in flood zones.

“The feeling was, ‘We’re trying to survive and you’re telling me I can’t build my house back that’s been in the family for six generations?'” he said. “That’s $275,000 for a house that could be built on the ground for $75,000.”

But Bourriaque said Hurricane Ike showed how valuable those new codes were. During Rita, 50% of the county’s homes were destroyed or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be salvaged.

“The homes that were built post-Rita to the elevation standards survived Ike and were minimally impacted,” he said. “Not even losing siding or shingles.”

Despite all the work to improve responses to hurricanes following Rita, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said not enough localities have taken heed.

Fugate said FEMA, the National Hurricane Center and the Army Corps of Engineers work together to constantly update risk assessments for every coastal city from Texas to Maine. They run models to show local officials how to organize their evacuations and provide different strategies to conduct them effectively. He said some communities, like those around Norfolk, Va., have worked hard in recent years to update their plans. The rest?

“Some have done more than others,” he said.





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.”





Time to Start Thinking About the 2015 Hurricane Season

11 04 2015

jpg-HurricaneGetReadyBelow is a short article by Heather Nolan, NOLA.com, The Time-Picayune.  The article was published on April 9th. The forecast, from a very reputable source, indicates a lower than average hurricane season.  I often get asked by citizens— how bad a hurricane season are we going to have this year?  There is never a totally accurate answer.  All predictions of hurricane activity are estimates—- they cannot be viewed as being precise.  I am glad to hear that the forecast is calling for a “mild season.”  But, one must always remember———— it only takes one hurricane making landfall in our region to turn a “mild season” into an “active season.” So please do two things.  First, read the article below.  Second, start getting ready for the upcoming hurricane season by going to the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management website and review the information posted about preparing for a hurricane.  Here is the link:  http://www.fbcoem.org/go/doc/1528/258151/

Colorado State University climatologists are predicting a lower than average Atlantic hurricane season, with three hurricanes and seven named storms in 2015. They predict one of those three will be a major hurricane – a category 3 or higher.  In a forecast released on April 9th,  climatologists Philip Klotzbach and Bill Gray said the combination of a moderate-strength El Nino and a relatively cool tropical Atlantic would keep hurricane activity low.

According to their forecast, the Colorado State University climatologists’ 2015 predictions are below average compared to a 29-year period between 1981 and 2010.  Hurricane seasons in those years averaged 6 ½ hurricanes, two major hurricanes and 12 named storms.  The 2015 forecast follows a relatively quiet 2014 Atlantic hurricane season that saw only six hurricanes – two of them major – and eight named storms.  It was the second consecutive quiet year for the New Orleans area since 2012, when Hurricane Isaac flooded hundreds of homes across parts of the area. Hurricane season begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to release its 2015 hurricane predictions in May.

Remember—- the 2015 Hurricane Season starts on June 1st!

ARE YOU READY??





Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee meeting today to discuss storage of hazardous chemicals

7 04 2015

House Environmental Regulation meets at 8 a.m. with a set of bills up for consideration on the storage and regulation of hazardous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the source of the explosion that devastated West two years ago (E1.026).  Of special interest—HB 239, relating to storage of flammable liquids at retail service stations in unincorporated areas and certain municipalities (Springer);  HB 417, relating to information regarding the storage of certain hazardous chemicals (Pickett);  HB 942, relating to the storage of certain hazardous chemicals, transferring enforcement of certain reporting requirements from the Department of State Health Services to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (Kacal);  HB 2470, relating to liability insurance for ammonium nitrate operations (Rodriguez, Eddie); and HB 3810, relating to an alert system of notification of the release of toxic chemicals by a manufacturing facility (Walle).