Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Benchmarking 'Extreme'

Infrastructure including dams, nuclear power plants, and Superfund sites would lie in harm’s way if the Great Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood recurred in the same areas

Often after a talk on the 1913 storm system and flood, someone will ask: “Aside from historical curiosity, why should we care about this century-old disaster today?”

There is increasing evidence—and growing concern among city leaders, agricultural

What if a 1913-scale storm system and flood recurred in the same geographical region today? Houses in some parts of Dayton were submerged up to their eaves (photograph was taken from the fairgrounds looking northwest to downtown Dayton; Catherine Street is in the foreground).
Credit: Dayton Metro Library
concerns, insurance and reinsurance companies, as well as scientists and a substantial share of the public—that we are likely heading into an era of more intense extremes in the weather: witness Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, mammoth flooding in the U.K. in December 2013 and January 2014, and unprecedented inch-per-hour regional downpours flooding the U.S. east coast from Florida to Philadelphia in late April and in northern Ohio in May.

The natural follow-up question is: If weather phenomena are becoming more extreme, how bad could they—and their consequences—be?
2013 reconstruction from 1913 data of the intensity and distribution of the most intense rainfall March 23-28 over Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and neighboring states. Credit: Midwestern Regional Climate Center

In the U.S., the primary focus of concern about extreme flooding has been on the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf Coast—regions vulnerable to sea level rise and often hit by hurricanes. Much less focus has been devoted to the interior of the country.

As the nation’s most geographically widespread natural disaster, the Great Easter 1913 storm system was centered on the heart of the industrial north in the nation’s interior. It is exceptionally well-documented in geographical extent, intensity, and consequences in both urban and rural areas in photographs, in scientific, engineering, 
The 1913 flood still remains the flood of record across all of Ohio and Indiana more than a century later. Credit: Sarah Jamison, National Weather Service
and financial reports by state, federal, and other official entities, and in hundreds of local newspapers. Therefore, the 1913 catastrophe uniquely offers a well-measured historical benchmark of impacts with readily available data that could prove valuable in assessing realistic potential consequences to populations, infrastructure, and hazards if its twin recurred today.

The analysis and illustrations below are based on a seminar talk I presented on April 22, 2014 at Carnegie Mellon University’s the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at the invitation of the department chair M. Granger Morgan.

This preliminary analysis is not a computational model of scientific probabilities or likelihood. In the spirit of a picture being worth a thousand words, it is purely a comparison of maps at the same scale, showing side by side what infrastructure exists today in the interior eastern half of the U.S., compared to the locations of the
Devastation to roads and bridges in Columbus, Dayton, and Chillicothe in 1913. Credits: Ohio Historical Society, Dayton Metro, Library of Congress
tornadoes and intense rainfall of the 1913 storm system, using the map I compiled in 2008 from various official sources to visualize its scale compared to the size of the nation (see “An Epidemic of Disasters’”). In several instances, this preliminary map comparison focuses on the two states worst hit in 1913—Ohio and Indiana. A more realistic fuller analysis should include Illinois and Kentucky as well for flooding, and Nebraska and Iowa for tornadoes.

Could the 1913 storm system recur?

This 1913 pattern definitely could happen again,” stated Sarah Jamison, senior hydrologist at the Cleveland National Weather Center who has reconstructed the storm system using the Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project supercomputer… (see “Be Very Afraid…”). “In fact, whenever we see a slow-moving winter storm pattern of deep lows and blocking highs, that’s an absolute signal there will be significant flooding somewhere around the Midwest, depending on the details of placement.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has calculated that the odds of that amount of rain being concentrated over the same region in just five days
Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
are less than 1 chance in a thousand. But characterizing it as a thousand-year event does not say anything about when. And it certainly does not mean that it might happen only once a millennium (and thereby assuming, by extension, that we have another 900 years of safety to go). “A thousand-year event could happen two years in a row,” Jamison points out.

Population then and now
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population in 2013 is estimated to be around 316 million, more than triple the 97 million for 1913. The 2013 population for Ohio and Indiana together is about 18 million, more than double their joint 7.5 million in 1913.

Also important is population density and distribution. More than half the U.S. population is concentrated in the water-rich 26 states east of the Mississippi River. To the degree that city lights at night are a good proxy for population density, this famous 2012 image assembled from photographs taken by NASA astronauts from orbit illustrates where most Americans tend to live, with the 1913 storm system map alongside:
A greater concentration of people, of course, means a greater concentration of personal household wealth (automobiles, TVs, computers, cell phones, etc.) as well as greater commercial assets and infrastructure (schools, shopping centers, grocery stores, cell phone towers, internet servers).

Transportation infrastructure
In 1913, the Good Roads movement—first pioneered by bicyclists in the 1870s and 1880s—was picking up steam as automobiles were becoming commercially viable. In 1913, however, most thoroughfares outside of cities were gravel or dirt. Local city
roads and bridges were heavily devastated. Today, however, the big casualty would be the interstate highway system, with all that would mean for automobile travel and cross-long-haul trucking.

1913 flood sweeping away track near Beardstown, Ill.
Credit: Illinois State Museum Collection
In 1913, on the other hand, the railroads were king for both passenger and freight long-distance hauling. The Flooding from the Great Easter storm system was so violent that rails were twisted and railroad cars thrown into rivers. Although scores of lines were crippled, only the Pennsylvania detailed its track breaks and other losses in two major published reports. The U.S. mails were delayed by at least 10 days, and full rail service was not restored until August. 

Today, as surprising as it may seem in the 21st century, Ohio ranks fourth in the nation by mileage with 35 freight rail lines operating some 5,300 miles of track, and Indiana ranks ninth in the nation with 4,200 miles of track. The state ranking second for miles of rail—Illinois, topping 7,000 miles—was also hard hit by the 1913 flood. 

Possibly more importantly today, both Ohio and Indiana are key pass-through states: products moving by rail across the nation between east and west coasts—especially if originating from or destined for Philadelphia, New York City, or Boston (or, depending on route, Chicago or Pittsburgh)—must pass through Ohio and Indiana.

The 1913 natural disaster with its track washouts and derailed train cars not only damaged the railroads themselves, but also crippled the transport of goods and supplies. Food, drinking water, blankets, tents, vaccines, emergency supplies, and volunteer medical personnel dispatched from around the country could not reach Dayton, Columbus, and other heavily flooded districts for several days—indeed, although immediately dispatched by President Woodrow Wilson, not even the Secretary of War, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Navy could defy the laws of physics to make the trains run through high water to get the Signal Corps, vaccines, and health officers on site in southern Ohio until the end of the first flood week. 

Moreover, the rest of the nation suffered from a temporary food famine because milk, beef, and produce could not be shipped from the American heartland to other parts of the country. Even where trains and tracks were not outright destroyed, floodwaters rose fast enough to stall and half-submerge train cars, contaminating and ruining perishable cargo. 

Today, flooded rail lines would impact the automobile industry since newly manufactured cars and trucks are distributed by rail; also, since tanks of oil and other chemical products are transported by rail, derailments and bridge collapses as happened in 1913 could result in major spills of crude oil and chemicals. 

Airports did not exist in 1913. Credit: Federal Aviation
Administration; Ohio Department of Transportation
In addition, today the eastern half of the nation has key transportation infrastructure that did not exist in 1913: not only major national and international airports, but hundreds of smaller regional and county airports, with associated runways, baggage-handling facilities, control towers, and security systems. 

Telecommunications infrastructure
In 1913, the wireline communications were decimated by the mammoth, hurricane-force Good Friday windstorm two days earlier (see “The First Punch”), which swept from Canada to Mexico—and which prevented the weather service either from being able to gather data or distribute warnings.

Today, it is all too easy to become cocky and think “Oh, such a disaster would never be as unexpected or as devastating today with weather satellites, the internet, cell phones, and all devices being wireless.” Think again: as the U.S. Department of Energy has reported, all our infrastructure today is interconnected, largely because it all depends on electric power—whether it be plugged in all the time or only occasionally for recharging. And one of the major casualties in 1913 were outages of electric power plants for lighting. 

Today, if one of the consequences of a 1913-scale flood were a regional power blackout for days, even diesel-powered emergency backup power supplies to internet servers, cell phone towers, and much else might give out. Moreover, to the degree that availability of broadband capacity is a proxy for the concentration of internet servers and other communications assets, the greatest density of today’s communications infrastructure is under the footprint of the 1913 storm system.

Dams, public and private
More than 10 times more dams exist today than existed a century ago—many of them in Ohio downstream of the heaviest rainfall of the entire storm system ( and Ohio State Board of Health).

Not just dams, but ones rated as hazardous dams in the National Inventory of Dams—meaning that if they failed, human lives would be at risk. Ohio alone has 427 such high-hazard dams and Indiana another 279.  As pointed out by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), dam failures have been documented in all 50 
states since 1869 and have claimed upwards of 5,000 lives. Moreover, risk of dam failure is increasing with each passing year, as many dams are more than half a century old and are poorly maintained—indeed, as a class, U.S. dams were given an overall grade of D for their age and condition in the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card of the American Society of Civil Engineers (see “An Unnecessary Tragedy: The Johnstown Flood” by Indiana Department of Natural Resources engineer Kenneth E. Smith). Ohio alone has 2,600 dams—many of which are deficient.

In 1913, only a few dams failed—but many earthen levees catastrophically failed, including ones in Indianapolis, Dayton, Columbus, and down the Mississippi River. When levees collapse, Smith notes, the result is much the same as when a dam fails: it releases a violent, churning flood wave that sweeps along everything in its path, overturning houses and leaving devastation akin to tornado damage. Today the number of levees around the country is unknown, although in a 2012 report the National Academies estimates there may be 160,000 miles of them, most of them non-federal.

Urban downtowns: flood and fire
One of the ironies of major floods is fires, ignited by broken gas mains, electrical shorts, or open ignition sources (pilot lights, wood-burning stoves, fireplaces). After the
After the 1913 flood, downtown Dayton looked like Dresden after the bombing in World War II. For more details,
see "Like a War Zone." Credit: Dayton Metro, Library of Congress
EF-4 tornado roared through downtown Omaha Easter night 1913, many observers recounted seeing multiple fires igniting all around the horizon (see "Like a War Zone"). Fires also raged in flooded Columbus, Ohio, and Troy, New York. In downtown Dayton, entire buildings exploded, and the churning floodwaters left firemen helpless either to extinguish them or to rescue people (many of whom saved themselves by climbing from one rooftop to the next until they could tightrope-walk to safety across telephone lines – see “High-Wire Horror”). When the waters receded, the smoking, mud-strewn remains of the city resembled Dresden after the bombing in World War II. History was repeated in 2005, when fires ignited in New Orleans the day after Hurricane Katrina.
In 1913, the churning floodwaters were contaminated with human and
animal sewage. History was repeated after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Credit: Dayton Metro, Climate Central

Despite the unwanted volumes of roaring floodwaters, sweet drinking water was unavailable during the 1913 flood either because of burst pipes or disabled water purification plants—abetted by the presence of raw sewage, either from combined sewer overflow systems characteristic of older cities, or from dead animals. The same thing happened nearly a century later in New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Farmland: agricultural damage
Ferocious floodwaters both scoured away valuable topsoil of farmland and deposited gravel-sized
river rocks in its place. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Midwest farmland was devastated, not only because of loss of homes and barns, but also because of loss of livestock and seed for the upcoming planting season. Moreover, some land was rendered unfit for planting or grazing, either because of the erosive removal of prime topsoils, or by the depositing of deep layers of gravel and rocks.

Energy infrastructure
Not only would assets be at risk of destruction in disastrous flooding from a redux of a 1913-scale storm system. In some cases, the very destruction of those assets would pose additional risk to human life and property because of the release of environmental toxins. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of today’s energy infrastructure, much of which did not exist a century ago.
Coal ash waste sites, many of which are near major rivers used for
drinking water supplies, contain heavy metals
and other environmental toxins.
Credit: Environmental Protection Agency, Sierra Club

Ohio and Indiana each has some three dozen coal-fired power plants, most on waterways, with Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Illinois having more. Should those waterways flood, the plants could be at risk. Of greater risk, however, would be the effect of unremitting torrential rainfall on the toxic coal ash ponds maintained at those sites, many of which would be structurally unstable under such conditions, as horrifically happened in 2008 when an earthen dam next to the Kingston Fossil Plant gave way and released over 5 mullion cubic yards of tons of muddy coal ash down the Emory River in the Tennessee Ash Flood.  

Moreover, the Midwest is crisscrossed with countless underground pipelines for carrying oil and natural gas, midstream plants for separating the liquids, hydraulic fracturing operations for extracting gas and liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shales, and high-pressure injection wells for storing the highly saline brine wastewater (laced with significant naturally occurring radioactive materials) returned from “fracking” operations.

Also in harm’s way today would be nuclear power plants. An internal 2011 study by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, issued just four months after a tsunami precipitated a major release of radioactivity at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, warned
that 20 of the United States’ 104 nuclear power plants were at risk to flooding from upstream dam breaks. Several of them fall within the the footprint of the 1913 flood. Moreover, nuclear power plants actually have flooded, including the Fort Calhoun  Station on the Missouri River 19 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, during the record
Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, FEMA
2011 rainfall across the Midwest, and the Oyster Creek Station in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

For the historical record, the Fort Calhoun station is also very close to the path of the Yutan tornado, one of the six F4 tornadoes in the devastating family of Easter 1913 tornadoes (and nuclear facilities have indeed been struck by tornadoes, although thankfully with only limited damage).

Toxic waste sites
Last, the Midwest is dotted with numerous chemical manufacturing facilities, as well as hundreds of toxic waste sites for all kinds of chemicals. Some of the latter are designated Superfund sites. Others are ordinary tanks of anhydrous ammonia used
Superfund sites in Ohio and Indiana vs. the regions of heaviest and most devastating rainfall in 1913.
Credits: National Institutes of Health, Midwestern Regional Climate Center
for nitrogen fertilizer on farms, battery acids and other fluids in automobile junkyards, and municipal solid waste disposal sites—that is, town dumps—where the toxic contents are actually unknown (even though people are not supposed to dispose of paints, insecticides, motor oil, or other specified substances).

Although just a first approximation and hardly complete, this preliminary map comparison starkly points out the potential value of using data from well-documented consequences of historical major storm systems to inform engineering assessments today. Not shown is the effect of continued devastation down the Mississippi River throughout the month of 1913 and what infrastructure lies in those areas today. Also
not charted are the effects on the insurance industry and the national economy as a whole from wholesale devastation as extensive as 1913’s.

Even if there should never be a duplication of the 1913 storm system’s full geographical extent, however, localized extreme downpours are quite common. In the wrong place, even a localized extreme rainfall event could be catastrophic to literally millions of American lives, even tens or hundreds of miles downriver or downwind of a potential dam break, coal ash spill, nuclear power plant breach, or other resulting disaster.

I would welcome hearing from any researcher wishing to collaborate on in-depth quantitative analysis.

©2014 Trudy E. Bell

Next time:  From Boys to Heroes in 36 Hours

Selected references
Most references for the maps of assets or hazards are given either in the illustrations or the captions themselves. Background references discussing observed trends toward more extreme weather and downpour events and/or predicting more such extreme events in the Midwest this century include the following:
Climate Change Impacts in the United States is the latest (third) U.S. National Climate Assessment report (2014) of the
U.S. Global Change Research Program (PDFs are accessible from the second link).

Note the darker blue region centered right over the area of principal rainfall in 1913, from a 2012 EPA report.
Other references to recent work projecting extreme weather events, including Midwestern flooding.
Increased likelihood of Midwestern higher precipitation. June 2014 report by the Rhodium Group
examines economic impact.


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