April 28, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Super Outbreak of the South

Filed under: Other — PolitiCalypso @ 9:14 pm

I am in a rather turbulent state of simultaneous awe, amazement, appalled shock, and horror at what took place in the South yesterday, and I do not have the slightest compunction in calling it the Super Outbreak of the South, as the title indicates.  As a meteorologist-in-training, I can’t deny the amazement and almost religious awe that I feel at the sheer force of nature.  (In fact, I’m reminded very much of Job 37.)  By themselves, these phenomena are utterly spectacular.  We can read about the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a storm which dwarfs anything on Earth, and feel nothing but awe, because there are no living things there.  I was watching WCBI News out of Columbus, MS on Wednesday, and I doubt I will ever forget the moment that the meteorologist switched to the Tuscaloosa SkyCam and caught the monstrous, violent tornado dead center as it entered that city.  But that, of course, leads in to the dark side of these events.  However awe-inspiring they are in and of themselves, it is when they enter human areas that they become tragic.

Some thoughts, now, on that human tragedy.

Funding the National Weather Service

If there are still any Congressional Representatives out there who want to decimate the National Weather Service or NOAA’s weather-related operations, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.  That goes double for those representing states that were impacted in this event (or in any of the events this month).  As bad as the casualty count is, it would have been far worse 100 years ago when the Weather Service (Weather Bureau at that time) was rudimentary and people depended entirely on whatever local “private sector” warnings were available to them, typically based on whether a tornado or bad storm system was already known to have occurred somewhere upstream.

Don’t get me wrong; the private sector plays a critical role here.  I will guess that most people outside the meteorological community received their information yesterday from private sector sources such as radio and TV broadcasts.  The private sector is the link between the government and the public, and it is a crucial link.  However, the private sector simply cannot do everything that NOAA does in the background.  Yesterday’s event was, in effect, a “perfect” forecast, in forecasting terms.  It was as good as we could possibly do.  And what went into that forecast to make it so good?  Here’s a short list:  satellite data, real-time radar data, radiosonde observations from dozens of sites, weather station observations from dozens of sites across the U.S., numerical weather model predictions run on supercomputers in Maryland, and human forecasters combing through these data at numerous facilities.  For this type of work to be done by private companies, there would either be a single entity owning all the data in a monopoly, or there would be broken, fragmented sets of data that some companies had access to (having gathered it) and others did not, and the weather just doesn’t work in a discrete way like that.  The atmosphere is a fluid.

The government has to run all this in the background for it to work well.  That does not mean that the private sector, even outside of broadcast media, cannot exist. If I wanted to get some NOAA computer model data, repackage it through some graphical post-processing of my own, add commentary of my own, and sell it for a profit, I could do just that.  If I wanted to download a copy of the government- and academia-created WRF model, run it on a machine of my own with my own configuration, and sell that for a profit, I could.  Many sources have done this with public data.  AccuWeather Professional comes to mind, but there are others.  The very fact that this is all public data means that private sources can do other things with it and sell it for a profit entirely legally.  This would not be possible if the backend were all privately owned.  It is in the interest of human life and free enterprise for the data to remain public.

I sincerely hope that this outbreak of severe weather signals the end (at least for several years) of this short-sighted call to go after NOAA in the name of balancing the budget.  There are plenty of government programs that are nonessential that can be cut.  This sector is not one of them.  Wednesday’s tornado outbreak probably would have resulted in ten times as many fatalities 100 years ago.  Anyone who wants to cut funding to the NWS or to any of the branches of NOAA that have operations that go into making a weather forecast, or researching the weather, needs to read a book about the history of weather forecasting in the U.S. and then tell me again what they think.  I have an inkling that, over the past year or so, my political views became rather less liberal than they used to be, as I have become more cynical about the abuse of welfare, the inadvisability of government to support one point of view (by funding nonprofits) over another with respect to solutions to social problems, and the ill effects of federal bureaucracies in some sectors such as education, but this is a case where I firmly come down on the side of government funding for a service, and I do not foresee that changing.

Storm Shelters and the Southeast

I have harped for years on the disasters that will befall the Southeast if something were not done about the lack of proper shelter in this region.  The Plains states and (to a lesser extent) the Midwest learned from their own tragedies, such as the Woodward tornado, the Tri-State Tornado, and the Super Outbreak of 1974, that people simply are not safe above ground in EF4 to EF5 events even in well-built houses.  Those who live in trailers are not safe even in EF2 tornadoes.  There are some communities that have storm shelters; they are to be commended for this.  Tornado sirens are also more common in the Southeast than they used to be; this is also a good thing.  Perhaps there is some recognition that Tornado Alley is far larger than just the Plains, and that the “alley” for long-track violent (4 and 5) tornadoes is, in fact, the Deep South, by a long shot.

And I suspect that the tornado responsible for a plurality of Wednesday’s deaths will be the long-tracked violent (probably EF5, definitely EF4+) tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama.  My local TV meteorologist, Rob Smith, reported that this monster had a velocity couplet on radar of 290 mph over Tuscaloosa.  As far as I am aware, there is no well-established vertical profile of tornadic winds, unlike the winds in hurricanes, where this information is well-known enough that surface winds can be extrapolated reasonably accurately from flight-level winds.  However, velocity couplets of that intensity are not common, to say the least.  Furthermore, Roger Edwards, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center (reputedly where the best forecasters in the U.S. work), said that the swirling horizontal mesovortices that snaked around this thing had never been seen by him except in violent tornadoes.  What do you do when a beast like that is coming at you?

Get out of town?  I did that yesterday, taking only my cat, my computer, and a couple of sentimental items, when it looked like a confirmed large tornado with a debris ball was going to hit my house or my town.  (It shifted its path south.)  But then, I know something about the structure of storms, I knew how fast it was going and could judge how fast I needed to drive to get completely clear of any path shifts it might make, I knew what was in front of me (nothing for at least 50 miles), I knew what was coming the way I was driving (again, nothing), and I live in a rural area where this was a reasonable option.  It is not a reasonable option for people who live in a city and will easily lead to traffic snarls.  I hope this did not happen yesterday.  Being in a car in a violent tornado, or any tornado, is worse than being in a building by far.

Head to an interior room on the first floor?  Staying above ground is not a death sentence in an EF4 or EF5, but survival is a matter of chance and Providence if this is what you do.  Go to a basement?  A copyrighted image on CNN depicted homes in Pleasant Grove, AL (outside Birmingham) that had the basements exposed after the tornado.  This has happened before in the Parkersburg, IA EF5 tornado.  Having an underground shelter directly below the building probably isn’t sufficient either for this exact reason.  The best design is probably the “fallout shelter” type of storm cellar, with the main room somewhat removed horizontally from the entrance to the cellar.

The South needs more of these, and yet I am opposed to making it mandatory under the law.  I am even opposed to it if funding were provided in the form of vouchers.  I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the government to make people take care of themselves.  However, I do think that there should be some financial “reward” for getting a shelter, perhaps in the form of a tax credit or even a tax rebate. Mississippi’s EMA had a program of this general type not long ago, but evidently there was a lack of public awareness, because I don’t know anyone who took advantage of it.

I was horrified in 2008 after the Super Tuesday outbreak, which killed 57 people, mostly in the South.  I had no idea that I would live to see something very similar to a repeat of the Super Outbreak of 1974 in my region, and definitely not the casualty count of that terrible event.  Yesterday’s event was well-forecast, and information was disseminated spectacularly well over the news (live footage of the Alabama beast) and the Internet.  There is plenty that we don’t know about tornadoes and thunderstorms, but these unknowns are not responsible for the tragic outcome of yesterday’s event.  Public awareness and information dissemination may be responsible for some of the fatalities, certainly, especially those in small towns where broadband Internet access may not be available and the tornadoes do not have live TV coverage.  However, these are isolated cases.  The problem was the magnitude of the tornadoes and the insufficiency of shelter options.  Unfortunately, the South will continue to see tragic death tolls as long as proper shelter is not available.

The EF Scale and Urban Tornadoes

Violent tornadoes have struck the outskirts of cities numerous times, such as the “Moore tornado” of 1999 that hit near Oklahoma City.  Tornadoes of various intensities have also struck the downtown areas of cities.  However, I am not aware of an EF4 or EF5 tornado (or their counterparts on the Fujita Scale) that struck the downtown area of a city of 90,000 people or more at the violent intensity. I don’t know what the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado will ultimately be rated.  I have seen enough pictures that I have my own opinion, but I’m not on the survey team, and as this event is either very rare or is without precedent, they will certainly conduct their survey with the utmost care and professionalism.  However, the possibility of a “5”-rated tornado striking a densely populated urban area opens up an interesting question about the EF scale.

The scale is an improvement over the Fujita Scale in that it offers damage criteria for a variety of buildings.  However, the most well-known criterion for distinguishing between an EF4 and an EF5 is the one that relates to “well-constructed frame houses.”  If the house is blown down, it is EF4.  If it’s blown away leaving a clean slab, it’s EF5.  But how can there be a clean slab in the middle of an urban center?  Not to be callous here, but it will be much easier to get empty foundations in a subdivision a few acres across, surrounded by other subdivisions (or rural land) and lacking the structural congestion of urban environments.  I just find it hard to imagine how this type of damage could possibly occur in a city.  There will be much more debris in these situations than in a suburban, small-town, or rural violent tornado, and I would make a guess that it would be much harder to get clean slabs in light of that.  The damage pictures out of downtown Tuscaloosa seem to bear this out.  There are mounds of debris, some identifiable, some not.  There are piles of bricks from buildings that were certainly reduced to their foundations, but I haven’t seen clean slabs in McFarland Boulevard or any of the other downtown areas there, nor do I expect to, given the amount of construction that had been there.  Will the EF scale work for violent tornadoes in highly populated, highly developed urban environments?  We’ll have to see.

February 26, 2009

Landrieu Gets Angry Over FEMA Report

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 9:47 pm

This just gets better and better. Allow me to pat myself on the back for this observation from the previous blog post:

“[T]hese Congresspeople really didn’t listen to their constituents or care that much about their problems. But when the media does its job, it sure can be a pain in the rear for them, can’t it?”

In the wake of the explosive CBS report on management incompetence and possible corruption in the FEMA office in New Orleans, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has shown her fire. This is a stunning change over the course of exactly seven days, which is when it became public that the stimulus didn’t do anything for Katrina-ravaged areas and several members of Congress were quoted rather nonchalantly saying that the money was tied up. Now that CBS has revealed the origin of at least part of this tie-up, it looks like things may—be still my heart—actually be done about it. Thank you, Katie Couric and Armen Keteyian.

As that story link shows, Landrieu has made it no secret that her fiery reaction today is owing specifically to the CBS report. She has called for the resignation of the manager named most prominently in that report, who has been accused by employees several dozen times of varied ethical violations, including racial discrimination, cronyism, intimidation, and sexual harassment. I think that, despite how bad it looks (and probably is), the guy is entitled to an impartial investigation. But Landrieu covers that ground too, calling for exactly what I have been calling for on this blog:

Landrieu said she expected Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano do complete a comprehensive review of FEMA leadership, and fire incompetent employees.

See, this is how it needs to be done. FEMA can’t be trusted to investigate itself in an honest manner. No government agency can, because there is the obvious conflict of interest. But the department it is a part of can do that. The Secretary has a personal interest in doing it correctly, in fact; it reflects badly on her for there to be ongoing corruption and malfeasance in such a prominent agency of her department.

I must admit that I am astounded that this kind of storm has erupted so quickly. It is rapid intensification to rival that which actually occurred in the hurricane itself, and it’s stunning to those of us who live in the Gulf region relatively close to the damaged areas and have witnessed little but delays and slow motion for three and a half years. CBS may have been looking into this FEMA office long before the news broke a week ago that there was no Katrina money in the stimulus, but not necessarily; the type of research that is spoken of could have been done relatively quickly. Interviewing employees and looking into complaint records wouldn’t take that long. Even if it was a long-standing project for CBS, the timeline of all this is amazing.

A few more stories like this, and I might even drop of some my Katrina-related cynicism.

February 25, 2009

CBS Investigates Katrina Money Bog-Down

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 6:55 pm

CBS has a long history of tackling controversial news stories. They seem to regard themselves as an investigative outlet, something that cable news sources (which seem to specialize in stenography, propaganda, and vacuous entertainment) don’t quite get. Evidently the recent news that the stimulus bill does not include money specifically earmarked for Katrina recovery got their attention, as did the (in my opinion) ridiculous and unacceptable explanation that this money was tied up in bureaucracy. Props to them for that. Tonight they ran a story about the particulars of that bureaucratic tie-up. It’s about as ugly as anyone could imagine, including me—and that should say something.

A major part of the problem, as might be predicted, lies in the FEMA office in New Orleans. It has apparently been going on ever since the hurricane, and (again, as might be expected), the George W. Bush administration never saw fit to do anything about it, nor did the Democratic Congress see fit to call for investigations into it. If CBS’s discoveries are to be believed, what is going on is a form of disaster profiteering—in this case, an upper-level manager with a six-figure salary who wants to keep that cushy job for as long as possible and who is taking actions to lock up the recovery process to accomplish that. Almost $4 billion of the New Orleans money that this man was in charge of is still tied up, and in the meantime, the infrastructure decays and turns into a skeleton. His employees allege that he is stonewalling on purpose because he wants to keep looting the federal government for his plush salary, and apparently he has assumed (correctly, so far) that he can get away with it because no one really cares about New Orleans except for New Orleanians and a few others.

This man, Doug Whitmer, was a Bush-era choice. They had a real knack for picking people who existed in their jobs to warm seats and cover for each other when something actually happened, but Whitmer is likely even worse than a mere self-centered lump. You usually don’t get dozens of staff complaints against you over the course of two months unless you are either a very draconian manager but nonetheless very effective at your job, or you actually are the creep that the complaints allege you to be. Considering the outrageous, reprehensible three-plus-year bog-down of the Katrina money, I’d say that the former is probably ruled out. Whitmer has been accused of threatening, bullying, intimidation, racism on the job, and sexual harassment by FEMA-New Orleans employees who work for him. I guess he has “better” ways to spend his time than actually, you know, doing his job.

Naturally, his Washington boss defends him, says that “[he] has lived in New Orleans” (as if that has anything to do with it—plenty of people have lived in New Orleans and not all of them are interested in the well-being of the area), and curtly informs the CBS reporter that if there are problems in the New Orleans office, actions will be taken. Yeah, that sure convinces me. FEMA officials are well-known for the sterling quality of their promises. If positive actions were on FEMA’s agenda, you’d think something might have been done already. The hurricane was three and a half years ago.

But it is not just high-level federal bureaucrats who are to blame for this. The very Congresspeople who, last week, proclaimed to the news media that the reason the Gulf Coast got nothing for recovery was that the existing funds were just “tied up in planning,” must have received some notice of the true situation. I used to work for a U.S. Senator, and the offices constantly get mail from constituents. This little fiasco is more evidence to support my earlier suspicion, which was that most of these Congresspeople really didn’t listen to their constituents or care that much about their problems. But when the media does its job, it sure can be a pain in the rear for them, can’t it?

Since this office is designated “FEMA,” it should be under federal jurisdiction, specifically that of the Department of Homeland Security. This monstrous Big Brother bureaucracy has been widely criticized since its creation, and rightly so. Former Secretary Chertoff should’ve been “asked to resign” (read: fired) in the wake of Katrina, because although former FEMA chief Michael Brown was certainly incompetent, part of the problem was that Chertoff had not authorized FEMA to do all that it needed to do. Now that a new administration is in place, I hope that they will overhaul the chain of command for this bloatfest of a division. I also hope that Secretary Napolitano launches a departmental investigation into these allegations coming out of New Orleans, because if she has the authority to do so and fails to do it, the blood of 2005 (and, unfortunately, some year in the future) is on her hands as well as those of her predecessor. Her boss, the President, seems interested in the Gulf Coast, in contrast to just about everyone else in Washington. Any reforms of the Katrina recovery process will almost certainly need to come directly from the White House.

Update 2:20 A.M.: The Scurrying for Cover Begins!
Looks like some folks got wind of what would be on the news today. This adds an extra layer of meaning to my comment earlier that when the media does its job, Congress tends to act—but that it often takes such things to get lawmakers off their duffs. Some members of Congress are going after FEMA-New Orleans for that office’s incompetence and possible corruption. There’s also talk about an internal investigation in FEMA of this particular office, which is (I suppose) a start, but not a good one—and one that I do not think should be conducted, because it will be a waste of taxpayer money. I still think this will require an independent investigation of FEMA, because agencies in general are notorious for being unable to investigate themselves honestly. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, has said in the last session of Congress that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Again, most likely this will have to be spearheaded by the executive branch, either Obama or Napolitano. But it needs to be done and it needs to be done right. That means independently.

Now if only they would turn their eyes to the Mississippi coast’s “recovery” as well, and consider that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to let insurance companies deny claims to homeowners who had paid in and lost everything they owned in the hurricane. These (ex-)residents were, if they didn’t have money saved elsewhere, then forced to sell their land to Big Industry in order to walk away with something, anything, with which they could start over.

Guess you have to start somewhere, though. We’ll see.

February 21, 2009

Maybe Someone Got the Message?

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 12:03 am

I do not harbor any delusions of grandeur, but I find it highly interesting—maybe even hopeful—that a day after I wrote a long tirade bashing Congressional Democrats for turning their backs on Hurricane Katrina survivors, President Obama steps up and takes some steps toward getting the Gulf Coast back on track. I have not been happy with everything that he has done since being inaugurated (let alone being elected—I do not like Hillary Clinton even now), but if he follows through on this, it will be a good thing.

President Barack Obama said Friday that residents of the U.S. Gulf Coast still are trying to rebuild three years after Hurricane Katrina and have not received the support they deserve from Washington.


“The residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who are helping rebuild are heroes who believe in their communities and they are succeeding despite the fact that they have not always received the support they deserve from the federal government,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “We must ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated.”

Nice talk, certainly. We all know that he has a way with words. But it looks as though this is being followed up with some action, a rarity for a politician:

To provide more support, Mr. Obama said he would extend the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, a position created by Bush that was set to expire at the end of this month, until September.

This is also a good thought. I am unsure exactly what is the chain of command for dispersing the earmarked recovery money that is “tied up” and “bogged down,” but if this Federal Coordinator has any say over it, he or she needs to get the process moving. The fact that the extension was only till September gives me some hope that perhaps this person really will kick some bureaucratic butts; as federal positions go, that’s not much of an extension!

Moreover, the President acknowledges that the Gulf Coast is still in rebuilding mode (something that the general public does/did not realize), and he must understand the point I was trying to make yesterday—namely, that the economic stimulus money will not be especially useful in an area that is still recovering from a catastrophic natural disaster, and that no useful public works projects can be started with this money until the Katrina recovery process is well underway (if not completed) because such projects would depend on what was planned out for the hurricane recovery.

There is a part of me that is skeptical, of course. Gulf state residents have been burned before, which was of course the subject of my last post. I will certainly be keeping a close eye on this, all things considered. But I consider it a good sign that, in a situation where he really has nothing politically to gain from it (the nation as a whole does not care, the MS coast is Republican, and Louisiana is trending GOP because of the migration from New Orleans) and in which the area’s own Congressional representatives were not especially concerned about the situation, he makes a point of speaking about it anyway. Dare I hope that, even though the Congresspeople were not concerned about the bogging down of earmarked funds and the futility of economic stimulus in those conditions, he was given the bad news about the stimulus act and decided it was unacceptable for the Gulf recovery to be left out?

If this process really does get moving quickly and the interminable paper-shuffling with regards to the earmarked Katrina money is ended, then the future of the coast is brighter than it appeared to me yesterday.

February 19, 2009

Waving the Bloody (Muddy) Shirt

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 5:13 pm

I have to say, I am not really that surprised to read this. It confirms a feeling I’ve had for several months now. But lack of surprise does not translate to lack of anger. I wanted to be wrong about this. I wanted this suspicion to be just a product of my own pessimistic nature.

The economic stimulus signed by President Barack Obama will spread billions of dollars across the country to spruce up aging roads and bridges. But there’s not a dime specifically dedicated to fixing leftover damage from Hurricane Katrina.

And there’s no outrage about it.

Democrats who routinely criticized President George W. Bush for not sending more money to the Gulf Coast appear to be giving Obama the benefit of the doubt in his first major spending initiative. Even the Gulf’s fiercest advocates say they’re happy with the stimulus package, and their states have enough money for now to address their needs.

Oh, trust me, MSNBC—there is outrage about it. There may not be any in Congress, but that should come as no surprise whatsoever. It’s all pretty strong evidence that politicians of either party have basically decided that the Gulf Coast is expendable.

I no longer work for a political party or any public officeholder, so I will say exactly what I think now on this matter. It isn’t pretty. (Read more…)

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