Meteorological Spring began March 1st and with it comes a heightened emphasis on severe weather safety and preparation. 2016 has seen an increased number of tornadoes and other severe weather events over the past few years. Is that a predictor of spring weather? One answer is…it only takes one.
It only takes one tornado or severe storm to change lives forever. It only takes one to cause millions of dollars of damage. It only takes one to impact the economy of a community. It only takes one to destroy infrastructure, schools, churches, parks, public buildings, etc.
As we remind ourselves of safety precautions, we recognize that being prepared can impact survivability reducing deaths and injuries. Damage to property can be mitigated by employing proper construction techniques.
Many states observe Severe Weather Preparedness Weeks in the spring. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Weather Ready Nation efforts consolidate information on best practices.
Beyond that information, now is a good time to review threats that are specific to a given location. Is the area prone to flooding, especially flash floods? Are outdoor sports venues equipped with lightning detectors? Are evacuation and sheltering policies in place?
Another important piece of information is local protocols for operation of outdoor warning sirens. In general, these sirens are NOT necessarily intended to be heard inside homes and businesses. Some communities sound an all clear. In others, a second activation of the sirens means the threat is continuing for an additional period of time. Some locations employ sirens for flash flooding, nuclear power plant issues, tsunamis and other threats. Be aware of local policies. Always have an alternate way of receiving severe weather information…the All-Hazards Weather Radio System, warning apps, web-based warning systems.
Personal preparedness is everyone’s responsibility. Review shelter areas at home and at work. Create appropriate “Go Kits” for each location plus vehicles. Devise a communications plan to aid in reunification of families and co-workers. Be aware of those in the neighborhood or workplace with special needs who may need your assistance. And, always, be extra vigilant when severe weather is a possibility. A community can only be as prepared as its residents.
Early this week, on July 13, a possible derecho, or at least what the National Weather Service is currently calling “a Derecho-like event,” raced across the middle of the country. It began in Minnesota and swept mostly southward through Wisconsin, Illinois, parts of Indiana and into Kentucky.
The Weather Service describes a derecho as “a widespread, long-lived storm. Derechos are associated with bands of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as bow echoes, squall lines or quasi-linear convective systems.”
The “bow echo” refers to the characteristic appearance of a linear storm on weather radar when that storm bows out due to high wind. Storms represented by bow echoes are not always derechos unless they last for a long time which is rarely the case. In fact, large derechos are relatively unusual. Generally there are only one or two a year in most of the country.
Derechos can be extremely damaging. By definition a derecho must travel 240 miles and include wind gusts of at least 58mph along much of its length and several gusts of over 75mph. Many are much stronger. A derecho that crossed Illinois from northwest to southeast in the late 1990’s included winds measured at over 100mph at the Clinton nuclear power plant and caused extensive damage to a marina at the associated cooling lake.
Effects can be long lasting. On July 4th and 5th in 1999 a derecho crossed the Boundary Waters Canoe area in northern Minnesota/southern Ontario. It devastated a forest there. Wildfires in more recent years have been fueled by the debris from that storm.
Because of their length and the intensity of the straight line winds, derechos can be an extremely costly event. Casualties are rare, but do occur, usually caused by falling trees or other debris and occasionally by watercraft caught by the rapidly moving storms.
The Sleepy Hollow fire near the north-central Washington State city of Wenatchee started in the afternoon of June 28, 2015. The cause is unknown but natural causes have been ruled out, leaving intentional or accidental human-origin causes to blame. Unseasonably high temperatures, early drought conditions, and high fuel loads have elevated fire risk in the area much earlier in the summer than normal. The fire started outside the city, but wind drove it into residential areas of this city of 33,000. Hundreds of residents were evacuated. It has burned 2950 acres and has destroyed 29 primary residences. Embers blew into the commercial business district and subsequent fires destroyed four businesses; some were large agricultural processing or storage warehouses, raising concerns about hazardous material involvement. Those areas have been secured and hazardous materials contained.
The Chelan WA County Commissioners have issued an emergency declaration of the area as a high danger area, banning all outdoor burning and the use of fireworks. Some roads are restricted to local resident and emergency use only. The evacuation center has been moved from a high school to a church. The BNSF rail line (a major NW transportation corridor) was closed but has been re-opened.
The number of firefighting personnel involved with this fire is 336; they are primarily volunteers. They have incurred a few injuries including heat exhaustion; no injuries to the public have been reported. With limited numbers of firefighters available, four days of firefighting already, and new fires reported in the area, firefighting personnel is stretched to the limit. With the Sleepy Hollow fire 47% contained as of the evening of June 30 evening, some are being re-deployed to other emerging fire situations.
The majority of efforts have switched from response to recovery, assisting those who have lost their homes and businesses. A local footwear business is offering free shoes to all fire victims. A fruit packing business offered its facilities to a competitor whose fruit packing facility was destroyed, thereby helping the business continue operating during fruit harvest season. These responses demonstrate that even during periods of drought and wildfires, human hearts can contain bottomless wellsprings of compassion and hope.