Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Days of Warning

Why did Nebraska, Indiana, and Ohio suffer so many fatalities that fateful Easter Sunday, 1913? The violent tornadoes and flooding struck with no warning. Today many warning systems and weather safety awareness days help the public prepare. Here are a few resources.

What a difference a century makes. In 1913, meteorologists had no weather satellites or weather balloons, and did not yet know about high and low pressure areas, weather fronts, and how jet streams steer cyclonic systems across the continent (see “Be Very Afraid…”). Moreover, on Good Friday two days earlier, the commercial wireline communications systems of the era had been downed by a widespread, fierce windstorm, preventing the gathering of data or the distribution of warnings (see “The First Punch”).
To raise public awareness of severe weather akin to what afflicted the nation Easter weekend 1913, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a spring safety resources outreach toolkit for tornadoes and other severe weather. Photo: Brad Goddard
Thus, no warning was relayed to people in tornado- or flood-prone areas. Indeed, fatally incorrect information was distributed in some areas. As a result, residents lacked precious moments to take shelter from tornadoes in cellars (see “‘My Conception of Hell’” and “Service Above Life”) or to clamber to higher ground to escape rivers rising with the speed of flash floods. As a tragic result, fatalities were stunningly high in regions with no warning (see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’). Fatalities were much lower farther down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where cities had days to prepare for the devastating flood crests heading downriver.
Ruins of downtown Dayton, Ohio, immediately after the March 1913 floodwaters receded, while fires from ruptured gas mains were still smoldering. Library of Congress.

Warning systems
Thanks to various 20th- and 21st-century warning systems, if a repeat of the monstrous 1913 storm system struck the same areas, fatalities today due to the tornadoes and flood could well be only a fraction of what people suffered then—despite far higher population density (see “Like a War Zone”). On the other hand, infrastructure devastation could be much greater (see “Benchmarking ‘Extreme’”). 

 The National Weather Service offers any number of free email and SMS weather alert services. Smartphones can be equipped with any number of severe warning alert apps (through NOAA for free or through iTunes for a feesee websites at left). Individuals can purchase inexpensive portable NOAA weather radios (many offered online) capable of receiving the voice of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, whose 24/7 broadcasts are updated every 1 to 6 hours (see NOAA brochure and comprehensive website).
More traditional media include The Weather Channel or other cable TV channels devoted to weather, severe weather, and history of weather disasters. To distribute flood and tornado warnings, emergency alerts also break into standard radio and TV broadcasts. Local municipalities may also sound outdoor civil defense sirens (a/k/a air-raid sirens) to warn of imminently approaching tornadoes, especially to warn farmers, construction workers, or other people outdoors who may be away from any media (see, for example, here).

The why behind the warnings
Even today during natural disasters, despite the urging of meteorologists and first responders, people sometimes elect to stay in their homes regardless of evacuation warnings due to rising floodwaters or risk of a dam break, or delay taking shelter despite tornado warnings. Or they eyeball a flooded road, judge it to be shallow enough to risk driving through what just looks like a giant puddle, and end up in a car swept away by an unseen current (water is massive, and moving water can have terrific momentum: six inches of fast-moving water can knock over an adult, and a foot to 18 inches can sweep away most vehicles, including heavy SUVs). 

Some such dismaying tragedies could be preventable if people could fully understand the deadly force of floodwaters and dangers of severe weather.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 
(FEMA) poster says it all. FEMA also 
offers a Severe Weather Safety Social 
Media Toolkit for public outreach.
To that end, many national, state, regional, and local organizations sponsor free annual public educational events about weather and dam safety, as well as about related topics such as water infrastructure. 

Despite concerning important life-or-death subjects, some awareness days in some locales are run almost like street fairs: open to the entire family, maybe with field trips or visits to laboratories or facilities, public speakers who answer questions, free literature and perhaps emergency kits for adults, and coloring books or other giveaways for kids. Even for someone with some expertise in meteorology or hydrology, these events can offer crucial “aha!” moments useful for folding into future outreach.

Below is a round-up of weather and water awareness events, starting this month (Google or contact local city or county public works departments for details about specific events in your area).

Days of Awareness
The National Weather Service (NWS) used to sponsor national weather safety weeks, but has replaced that approach with a year-found program for a simple reason: different kinds of severe weather can occur anytime, not just one week in March (or another month). The new NWS approach is a National Seasonal Safety Campaign, to prepare the public for hazardous weather year-round; see also this seasonal preparedness calendar at 
Calendar of weather and water preparedness
awareness events is condensed from
 this NOAA page to focus on the 
meteorology and geography of the 1913 flood.

Relevant to severe weather of the type that afflicted the nation Easter weekend 1913, March 1 kicks off with safety awareness of spring tornadoes: see the Weather Ready Nation spring safety resources outreach toolkit for tornadoes and other severe weather, put together by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Individual states offer their own severe weather awareness weeks, tornado drills, and/or flood safety awareness weeks at times of the year appropriate to their regional meteorology (see master calendar of these events by state for 2017) . Check details for each state’s events on that state’s website (such as this for Ohio or this for Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa).

Since the Red Cross was so instrumental in relief and reconstruction in Ohio after the 1913 flood devastated great portions of the state—a story to be detailed in the future—it is relevant to point out that March is also American Red Cross month.

In Albany, New York, and other cities during the 1913 flood, record flood crests on the Hudson or Ohio or other rivers inundated the purification works that filtered (and perhaps also chlorinated) the urban water supplies (see “Rescuing Albany’s Water”), endangering the populations with floodwaters contaminated with human and animal waste and other toxins.
This 2013 article "Angry Waters" recounts how 
sanitation engineers in Albany, New York, rescued 
the city’s water-filtration plant during the 1913 flood 
as well as demonstrated the effectiveness of 
chlorination in combating typhoid fever.

Drinkable tap water is something so easily taken for granted that people often are amazed to discover that tap water is a manufactured product requiring impressive engineering. To highlight the importance of safe drinking water for sanitation and the prevention of devastating water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever, an alliance of organizations spearheaded by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annually sponsor Drinking Water Week in early May. The week also highlights the need for reinvesting in drinking water pipes and other infrastructure for tap water, which in many cities may be a century old. For 2017, Drinking Water Week is May 7–13; sample T-shirt art, a radio public service announcement, social media posts, children’s activity sheets, and other resources can be downloaded from this AWWA page.

Few dams failed in 1913, largely because few dams existed. But memories were fresh of the horrific Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889 as the result of a failure of the South Fork Dam—still the deadliest U.S. dam disaster, claiming more than 2,200 lives. Thus during the 1913 flood, rumors of dam breaks that did not happen flew around Ohio and elsewhere—an incident in Columbus that led to a famous short story by humorist James Thurber (see “The Day the Dam Broke?”).

Newspaper account published in the Columbus Citizen 
 on March 27 during the height of the 1913 flood was almost 
James Thurber's plot for his famous short story “The Day the Dam Broke”
To perpetuate the lessons learned from the Johnstown Flood, since 1999, May 31 has been commemorated as National Dam Safety Awareness Day, spearheaded by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) and recognized by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others. Sample resources for planning a local Dam Safety Awareness Day appear here. For a thoughtful analysis of three dangerous dam safety myths that still persist today, see “An Unnecessary Tragedy” by Indiana Department of Natural Resources engineer Kenneth E. Smith.

Related to water resources in general is National Groundwater Awareness Week, sponsored by the National Groundwater Association; this year it is March 5–11. Globally, groundwater provides 25 to 40 percent of the world’s drinking water, and 60 percent of the water used in agriculture—indeed, it is the world’s most extracted  raw material (who knew?).

If you're an engineering junkie, as I am, you'll love
visiting water works. One year, I joined a tour at
Crown Filtration during Drinking Water Week.

For a global perspective, every March 22 is World Water Day. An international day to celebrate freshwater recommended 25 years ago at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the first World Water Day was held March 22, 1993 and annually since. Each year has a different theme to focus attention on different aspects of the importance of freshwater and the importance of sustainable management of freshwater resources. The theme for the 2017 day is “Wastewater.” Other water awareness events include World Plumbing Day on March 11. Some drinking water and sewage treatment facilities will also provide speakers or give tours at other times; for example, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (ya gotta love its URL) will schedule tours for school groups and others.

And emergency radio first showed its power during the 1913 flood: read the full backstory at “Wireless to the Rescue! Birth of Emergency Radio.” Thus, each April 18, the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) commemorates World Amateur Radio Day; at the centennial of the 1913 flood, the 2013 theme was “Amateur Radio: Entering Its Second Century of Disaster Communications.” 

©2017 Trudy E. Bell
Next time: Forgotten ‘Harvest of Death’

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.

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