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.

May 7, 2009

Skinnyism: The Newest Acceptable Prejudice

Filed under: Other — PolitiCalypso @ 7:03 pm

At left, body image movement activists’ rhetoric about most feminine body types. At right, the activists’ rhetoric about thin women.

The term “fattism” is not yet standard usage, I don’t believe, but it is a pop-culture expression that means “discrimination and prejudice against overweight women.” It’s a real phenomenon; numerous studies have shown that overweight women are less likely to get jobs and promotions than their normal and underweight counterparts, and this form of bigotry is unacceptable. Let me say up front that nothing whatsoever in this post should be construed to mean that I disbelieve that fattism is real or that I advocate the practice of it. In fact, the subject of it really isn’t fattism, but rather, its opposite. In keeping with the method of formation for the word, I’m dubbing this new type of bigotry “skinnyism.”

Now that fattism is recognized by most authorities as a real occurrence, there has, perhaps predictably, been a surge of awareness and a strong counter-movement against this type of behavior. That’s fine. What’s not fine is one direction that the movement has taken. Just as a spike in awareness of various forms of prejudice prompted a form of accompanying “political correctness” that many people believe went too far in the opposite direction, the counter-movement to fattism is, in my opinion, going too far in the opposite direction. What’s beginning to happen amounts to blatant, codified prejudice and nonscientific bigotry against thin women. Whatever can be said about fattism—and none of it is good—it usually cannot be said that overweight women were actively discriminated against in organizational policy. The prejudice occurred in practice, not on paper. In sharp contrast, thin women increasingly are discriminated against in policy itself in this counter-movement, and there is a threat of more to come. We also have to deal with the same kinds of demeaning, dehumanizing behavior that overweight women once dealt with over their weight and shape. (Read more…)

March 20, 2009

Our Privacy Wasn’t Taken. We Gave It Away.

Filed under: Other,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 10:08 pm

For several years, the government and private businesses have been increasingly invasive of personal privacy, giving regular people fewer ways to avoid the eye of Big Brother without dropping off the grid entirely and living in a cabin a la the Unabomber and other hardcore Luddites. Things came to a head during the years of the Bush administration, which of course ran an illegal spying operation on the entire American public, conducted through the phone companies and Internet providers, most of which were all too happy to comply. The Democratic Congress later gave this repulsive program the official sanction of the law, effectively rewriting FISA to give the executive branch unparalleled authority to order such spying, and also giving immunity to the companies that broke the law. But at the time that massive domestic spying was being presented openly as anti-terrorism policy, polls revealed some astonishing—and utterly disgusting, in the opinion of this civil libertarian and First and Fourth Amendment near-absolutist—results. Substantial percentages of Americans actually thought that “the First Amendment went too far” and bore revision. A majority would rather have the government tell them they were secure from the terror threat (and such meaningless assurances are all that could ever be provided, of course, unless the government has developed time traveling technology and can see that no attacks occur in the future) than be assured by enforceable law that they could conduct private conversations with other people across any medium. This domestic spying policy was being debated when I was an undergraduate in college, and the college newspaper regularly ran op-eds by students—students!—apparently so terrified of the possibility that terrorists might decide to nuke the appropriately named Starkville, MS, that they said they were willing to let the government see their personal correspondences if it might prevent that. “I have nothing to hide from them, so they can see everything if they want to.” That was the phrase of the day, a statement that also contained a subtext of terrorism accusation towards those civil libertarians who opposed Big Brother.

Although technically among the very oldest members of Generation Y, I went to college mostly with members of Generation X, and that generation is much less libertarian than mine. I recognize that the era of irrational post-terrorism paranoia also influenced how many people thought. However, the seeds for this invasion of privacy were sown for years before, and they continue to be sown now. (Read more…)

January 25, 2009

The Big Surprise: The Blog Has Moved

Filed under: Other,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 9:51 pm

And so this is it. This is the big change to the site. The blog has moved, and its appearance now reflects that of the main page. I am also using a different blogging engine, the excellent WordPress.

There are multiple reasons behind each decision. Why did I move, first of all? Well, the main reason is that the purpose of this blog is going to be somewhat different for the foreseeable future. When I started it, I had a professional reason to be as active as I could in the “blogosphere,” particularly the political sphere. I needed a blog that was separate, visually and technically, from my personal hobby site. I needed my “activist identity” to be separate, at least in name, from my personal diversions. However, things are different now that I don’t work for John Kerry or MASSPIRG. My vision for this blog is a more personal, eccentric, interest-oriented one, a blog that has no need to adhere to a strict update regime. If I don’t need full separation anymore, why have it?

Why the uniformity in design? Mainly because I like the effect, and I’m capable, as a CSS nerd, of pulling it off. It bothers me aesthetically for a website to have pages that look vastly different — for each directory to have a completely different color scheme, layout, font choice, etc. It looks amateurish, in fact, and likely is a sign that the webmaster does not know CSS. No way am I going to be guilty of that. As a developer, I feel it would be laziness on my part not to attempt something I was capable of doing and that appealed to me.

Why the switch in blogging engines? This relates to the first Q & A. My old engine, Serendipity, worked quite well, and I have no major complaints with it. It has scads and scads of plugins, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wanted a big blog with tons of features. My reason for the switch was twofold: I found it personally easier to work with WordPress’s themes, and moreover, Serendipity was much slower than WordPress, for me. Evidently the reason for this is some questionable decisions made in the coding of it. When I have a look at the databases’ schemata for each blogging engine, I realize it’s no wonder that S9Y is slower. But, again, that’s not a slam upon that software. It’s just a recognition of the fact that it no longer served my needs, and WordPress did.

So this is why I’ve made these changes.

Now what’s going to happen going forward? Well, there are still some things I’d like to work on, perhaps. I would like to have some level of synchronization between my main RSS feed and the RSS feed for this blog, and I may write something to accomplish that. I’m also quite likely to write a script to keep my main links page in sync with the links on the blog’s sidebar. And, unfortunately for the would-be squatters, the politicalypso domain will still point to this blog.

Speaking of which, the old links will remain operational until July 6, 2009. At that point the old system will be taken down. If you have specific blog pages bookmarked, I strongly advise you to relocate the pages and change your links. After that date, any old links will simply redirect to the blog’s front page. PolitiCalypso.com already redirects here, and on that date, the “redirect” page will be taken down.

In view of this, I’ve made it easier to find Katrina-related content (I have reason to believe that most bookmarks are for these pages) by creating a category called “Katrina.”

There are still some kinks to be worked out. You’ll notice that the tags from Serendipity have NOT been transferred over yet. They will be, but this is very time-consuming work, and it may take awhile for the tagging to be complete. Bear with me, and thanks for reading.

June 16, 2007

Some Things Should Not Be Political

Filed under: Other — PolitiCalypso @ 2:51 pm

I’ve been following this sorry saga for awhile now, because it’s so utterly typical of bureaucracy, yet thoroughly disgusting. Of all the places where public appearance should be less important than getting it right, the weather agencies should be near the top of the list–yet that seems to be changing. The Weather Service and NOAA seem to be reverting to the pre-1950s era.

In that period, tornadoes were not forecast. The word “tornado” was not used in weather broadcasts, and in fact was banned until 1938. The reasoning for this was that, since the weather agency was unable to forecast tornadoes with much accuracy, false alarms would create panic and make the agency subject to public condemnation. When a military base in Oklahoma, Tinker Air Force Base, began issuing tornado forecasts with a fair amount of accuracy, the Weather Bureau tried to get it to stop, claiming weather forecasting as its own domain. The only result was further public embarrassment, but also, a great advancement in tornado and thunderstorm research, from the necessity of producing a decent forecast.

Here’s what’s been happening a bit more recently.

The Quikscat satellite is a satellite that measures wind patterns, speeds, and directions at the earth’s surface. The satellite often reveals whether a tropical system has developed a closed circulation, which is a requirement for classifying it as a depression rather than an open wave. It also helps reveal wind speeds in tropical storms when they are too far away for the government to send planes to investigate. It’s a highly useful forecasting tool, one that the National Hurricane Center frequently cites in its tropical update products to justify a wind speed. Losing the satellite would result in a 16% decrease in the accuracy of tropical forecasts.

The government has been pushing to decommission the aging satellite without any plans for a replacement. National Hurricane Center director Bill Proenza hasn’t been too happy about this, and he’s made some outspoken comments to the media stating the need for a replacement satellite and his complaints with the appropriation of funds for meteorological research and weather forecasting.

In recent interviews with The Miami Herald and other media, Proenza has strongly criticized leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for spending millions of dollars on a public-relations campaign when hurricane forecasters deal with budget shortfalls.

Within days, he got a letter from the acting director of the National Weather Service reprimanding Proenza for suggesting that the agency was in any way crippled by the loss of the satellite. The letter offered “constructive advice” on “how to go forward.” In a bureaucracy, this sort of “constructive advice” is usually backed with a thinly veiled threat.

The posturing hasn’t affected the other forecasters at the NHC, though:

Several forecasters and other staffers at the hurricane center have told The Miami Herald that they fully support Proenza, and his comments have earned compliments from many emergency managers and others.

Additionally, get a load of this. Two words in this demonstrate that it isn’t likely to be just typical bureaucracy in action:

Proenza said that on April 13, he was told by Louis Uccellini, a high-ranking weather service official: “You better stop these QuikScat [and other] complaints. I’m warning you. You have NOAA, DOC [the U.S. Department of Commerce] and the White House pissed off.”

The White House, huh? The same White House that organized the “Mission Accomplished” stunt? The same White House that botched the Katrina response? The same White House that stacked the Justice Department with political hacks and fired competent attorneys who didn’t pursue bogus cases of election-related fraud?

So let’s get this straight. After Katrina, the government spends “millions” on a P.R. campaign to make itself look good, while decommissioning a satellite that aids hurricane forecasts. When the director cries foul and raises Cain to the press about it, it gets the higher-ups, including the most notoriously political White House in history, angry at him, angry enough to issue warnings.

Bill Proenza had better hang on tight. It’s a good thing that this is being brought to light now, so that any attempts at firing him would prompt outcry and calls of foul play. He can outlast this.

After director Max Mayfield retired, there was concern over whether his replacement could possibly fill his shoes. But it seems that Proenza is exactly the sort of no-nonsense straight talker that past directors have been. Should the bureaucrats who value their own media reputation more than human life and property get their way, he’ll be replaced with yet another yes-man for a corrupt, sleazy administration. The forecasters and staff who supported him may be shown the door as well.

But the real price will be paid by the coasts.

Powered by WordPress. This theme is a heavy modification of the WordPress Classic theme planned to match the layout of ErinThead.com. Because of its very specific and personalized nature, it is not available for public download. Content copyright ©2005-2015.