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The Trump administration brought a climate change policy back from the dead.

Here’s how humanity could all but ensure its own demise: Dig up all the coal we have left and burn it, warming the planet 4 to 6 degrees C.

But that worst-case scenario doesn’t match up with what’s really happening in the world, Justin Ritchie, lead author of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, told Grist.

That’s because money spent on climate change measures goes further than it did 30 years ago. Plus, baseline trends show greenhouse gas emissions are on the decline. Most studies underestimate the effect these factors have on global decarbonization.

The study indicates that the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement are more achievable than previously projected — but that’s not to say humanity isn’t in deep trouble.

It’s not “4 to 6 degrees bad,” Ritchie says. “It’s 3 degrees bad. You can’t say we don’t have to worry about implementing policies, we do. But it’s not going to reach the truly catastrophic scenarios.”

Another recent study published in the same journal shows that if all the coal plants currently planned actually get built, humanity could blow past the Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels.

Ritchie said his research doesn’t counteract that finding. “There’s a whole range of scenarios that can occur,” he says. “What our paper is trying to do is look at that whole range and how can we design policies that are more robust.”

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The Trump administration brought a climate change policy back from the dead.

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The first wintertime megafire in California history is here

Wildfires

The first wintertime megafire in California history is here

By on Dec 8, 2017

In the hills above the Pacific Ocean, the world crossed a terrifying threshold this week.

As holiday music plays on the radio, temperatures in Southern California have soared into the 80s, and bone-dry winds have fanned a summer-like wildfire outbreak. Southern California is under siege.

As the largest of this week’s fires skipped across California’s famed coastal highway 101 toward the beach, rare snowflakes were falling in Houston, all made possible by a truly extreme weather pattern that’s locked the jet stream into a highly amplified state. It’s difficult to find the words to adequately describe how weird this is. It’s rare that the dissonance of climate change is this visceral.

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That one of California’s largest and most destructive wildfires is now burning largely out of control during what should be the peak of the state’s rainy season should shock us into lucidity. It’s December. This shouldn’t be happening.

The Thomas fire is the first wintertime megafire in California history. In a state known for its large fires, this one stands out. At 115,000 acres, it’s already bigger than the city of Atlanta. Hundreds of homes have already been destroyed, and the fire is still just 5 percent contained.

In its first several hours, the Thomas fire grew at a rate of one football field per second, expanding 30-fold, and engulfing entire neighborhoods in the dead of night. Hurricane force winds have produced harrowing conditions for firefighters. Faced with such impossible conditions, in some cases, all they could do is move people to safety, and stand and watch.

“We can’t control it,” firefighter and photographer Stuart Palley told me from a beach in Ventura. “In these situations, you can throw everything you’ve got at it, tanker planes dropping tens of thousands of gallons of flame retardant, thousands of firefighters, hundreds of engines, you can do everything man has in their mechanical toolbox to fight these fires and they’re just going to burn and do whatever the hell they want. We have to learn that.” As we spoke, another wall of flames crested a nearby ridge, reflecting its orange glow off the sea.

The Thomas fire isn’t the only one burning right now. At least six major fires threaten tens of thousands of homes and have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee in recent days. “California fires enter the heart of Los Angeles” read one New York Times headline, a statement so dire it could double as a plot synopsis in a nearby Hollywood movie studio. Million-dollar mansions in Bel Air were evacuated, and the 405 freeway, one of L.A.’s busiest, was transformed into a dystopian hellscape during the morning commute. Ralph Terrazas, the Los Angeles fire chief, called the conditions the worst he’s seen in his entire 31-year career. “There will be no ability to fight fires in these kinds of winds,” said Ken Pimlott, the state fire chief. Shortly after these statements, state officials sent an unprecedented push notification to nearly everyone in Southern California, ominously warning millions of people to “stay alert.”

For years, climate scientists have warned us that California was entering a year-round fire regime. For years, climate campaigners have been wondering what it would take to get people to wake up to the urgency of cutting fossil fuel emissions. For years, we’ve been tip-toeing as a civilization towards a point of no return.

That time is now.

The advent of uncontrollable wintertime megafires in California is a turning point in America’s struggle to contain the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Conditions that led to the Thomas fire won’t happen every year, but the fact that they’re happening at all should shock us.

As California-based scientist Faith Kearns writes in Bay Nature magazine, “The admission that our best efforts may not always be enough opens a small window to shift how we think about disasters.”

The sirens are wailing, the long-feared scenarios are coming true. The era that scientists have warned us about for decades is here. There’s no denying the facts anymore: What’s happening right now in California is a climate emergency.

Historically, the Santa Ana fire season in Southern California peaks in October, at the end of the long summer dry season, just as the first snows of the winter start to appear in the Sierras. With the right conditions, the dense, cold air further inland gets funneled toward the coast, warming and drying as it quickly descends toward the sea, waiting to transform an errant spark into a raging inferno.

These are the Santa Ana winds, and they’ve been happening here for millennia. What’s different now, of course, is there are millions of people living in the area, for all the reasons people want to live in Southern California. The seasons are changing, too. Increasingly, those two facts are becoming incompatible.

There’s a whole series of links between climate change and this week’s fires. Ten years ago, scientists warned of possible lengthening of the Santa Ana fire season, and the data bear that out. Fire season is more than a month longer now, and 13 of the state’s top 20 fires in history have happened since 2000. This year’s “rainy” season has also been suspiciously absent so far, with Los Angeles rainfall 94 percent below normal since October. Right now, the atmosphere over the West Coast is the driest in recorded history. There’s no rain in the forecast for at least the next two weeks – the current fires could last until Christmas. Combine that with more people wanting to live in harm’s way – more than a million more people live in Southern California compared to 2000 – and it’s no wonder wildfire seasons are becoming increasingly catastrophic.

This year was the most expensive wildfire season in U.S. history, but money isn’t really the issue here. It’s the daily terror that fills residents as they look up and see a blood red sky and wonder if their home will make it through the night. It’s the rush on breathing masks as air pollution values spike above the top of the scale. It’s the realization that what you thought was normal, isn’t anymore.

In Houston, Puerto Rico, and Los Angeles, Americans are feeling the urgency of climate change not in weather data and distant news reports, but in their pulse rate.

Climate change is no longer some abstract concept, some line on a graph, some strongly-worded scientific consensus statement. Climate change is terrifying. It’s families fleeing a fire with only a moment’s warning to collect their photo albums. It’s single mothers using an ax to break a hole in the roof of their house as floodwaters rise into the attic of their home in the backyard of the oil industry’s capital city. It’s an entire island destroyed and forgotten, buried in a frenetic news cycle.

A new study this week that examines the recent performance of climate models, provides a hint that the ones showing the quickest rise in global temperatures have generally been the most accurate so far. Increasingly, that rise will accelerate, say the models, unless the world institutes a sharp reduction in emissions. Should we continue on a business as usual pathway, the new findings show a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed what was previously considered a worst-case scenario by 2100.

A baby alive today has a good chance of living to the year 2100. The people of the future are real people, you can already meet them. Their climate futures are increasingly tangible. That climate change is now a California emergency doesn’t necessarily fate the region to uninhabitability, it provides an opportunity for a radical rethink. If we bungle this opportunity, all indications are that things can definitely get a lot worse.

A version of this story originally appeared in Rolling Stone.

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The first wintertime megafire in California history is here

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A town hit hard by Hurricane Harvey may never fully recover.

The mayor of the coastal town of Rockport, Texas, said on Tuesday that the community will likely suffer permanent damage from the Category 4 storm.

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas, leaving behind decimated buildings, torn-up infrastructure, and thousands of displaced people. While most national media attention focused on Houston, Rockport, population 10,645, suffered some of the hurricane’s worst wind and storm surge damage.

During a panel discussion in Victoria, Texas, Mayor Charles Wax said that approximately one-third of the town was destroyed in the hurricane, and a significant portion of that will be impossible to rebuild.

Only 300 of Rockport’s 1,300 businesses have reopened since the storm, 856 of Rockport’s 2,400 students have left the school district, and the town lost most of its trees in the storm. Disaster relief crews have cleared almost 800,000 cubic yards of vegetation felled by hurricane winds and rain. 

Wax, along with three other coastal Texas mayors coping with staggering devastation from the hurricane, said he has received more help from the state government than from FEMA. The agency is definitely spread a bit thin, it seems.

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A town hit hard by Hurricane Harvey may never fully recover.

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Harvey is changing the way we feed people during disasters

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Each hurricane season, Brian Greene calls in reinforcements in the form of tractor-trailers. Long before a particular system is swirling on the horizon, Greene, the president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, dispatches 40-plus hauls of disaster-relief supplies to local shelters so each outfit will have a stockpile of water, granola bars, and cleaning supplies. The idea is to get out ahead of any storm, and then hunker down. “That’s our normal plan,” Greene says. “And it looked pretty good.” But Tropical Storm Harvey wasn’t normal.

Under normal circumstances, hurricanes don’t hold steady overhead. “They’re not supposed to do that. They go 15 or 20 miles an hour. They hit you and move on and then you assess and then begin the follow-up work,” Greene says. But Harvey continued to assail the city for days, throwing a wrench in the food bank’s plans.

In a normal catastrophe — to the extent that any crisis is normal — “you’ve got maybe a 24-hour period where you’re shut down,” Greene says. In this case, the food bank was snarled for days — not because it had flooded, but because nearby roads had turned to rivers with white-capped waves. With the paved arteries clogged by churning water, supplies had to stay where they were.

On Tuesday, for instance, Celia Cole’s hands were tied. As the CEO of Feeding Texas, Cole was fielding calls from places that had run down their supplies. An assisted-living facility reached out: They were swamped by floodwaters and the patients and staff were out of food. Not even the largest vehicles on hand could make it through the water, Cole says. “It’s awful to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’”

Seven of the 21 food banks in the Feeding Texas network were affected by the storm. By Wednesday, water had begun to recede in some areas, and people began streaming to local food banks and pantries. But the work was just beginning.

The immediate aftermath of a storm is often much-publicized and scored with desperation: Picture cameras panning across grocery stores with bare shelves and glass doors fastened shut against the rain; shivering crowds and interminable lines snaking across a parking lot pitted with puddles. In these tellings, a storm’s consequences are like broken bones — clean, complete, emergent. The Washington Post reported that some stores were looking to turn a quick buck on the trauma, gouging prices on basic necessities like water, which was selling for as much as $8.50 a bottle. But across the food system, the impacts may be more like hairline fractures, partial and enduring.

That’s because the busiest time for disaster relief isn’t while winds are howling and rain is pelting down in sheets, Greene says. It’s after. And that’s also when donations might slow from a stream to a trickle, and when the landscape of need is murkiest.

The problem is, in the past, cities’ resilience plans haven’t considered the food system. That’s starting to change, Erin Biehl, the senior program coordinator in the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health program, told me earlier this month. Biehl is the lead author of a new report that surveys the blueprints various cities have laid out to respond to disasters that could shock all aspects of the food system, from warehouses to packaging facilities and bodegas. Now and for the foreseeable future, Houston will be reckoning with the very conditions Biehl and her collaborators outlined.

One of the primary takeaways from the CLF report is the paramount importance of connected networks. In the wake of disasters, the first major food hurdle is “figuring out who’s got what and who needs what,” says Roni Neff, the director of the CLF’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health research program. Greene experienced that challenge while working at food banks in New Orleans when Katrina swept through. “One of the most frustrating parts was how communication utterly, utterly broke down,” he says. Drenched landlines were unreliable, and cell towers were finicky. “It took weeks before we even found our staff,” Greene adds.

Now, in Houston, the team has outsourced and centralized contact information and plans at the state level, and stored it on the cloud. They leverage extensive communication networks to stay in touch with 600 partner organizations, including churches and community centers. “Everything we do is a collaboration,” Greene says. “Everything.” Feeding Texas also has a disaster coordinator on staff, who works out of the state’s department of emergency management.

In Houston, trucks are arriving from all over the state, and from others, too. “North Texas is already sending aid to shelters and at the conference center in Houston. Those were all part of a very coordinated network and everybody is standing by to respond,” Cole says. Corporations are pitching in to boost supply. Greene says Kellogg’s is dedicating 125 truckloads of cereal to the relief squad.

The Houston Press and Chronicle maintained running lists of restaurants and stores that were creaking open their doors amid the risk of flooding, or mobilizing as hubs of relief efforts. Some served free meals to first responders; others solicited donations of blankets, diapers, baby formula, and single-serving, packaged snacks and ferried them to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which is sheltering residents displaced from their homes.

Many families will have long-term needs, too. The melee delayed the start of the school year — and, by extension, the meals that students would have received in the cafeteria. Submerged businesses may be closed for weeks or months, slashing the paychecks of workers who earn hourly wages. In turn, their food budgets may be precariously slim. “If you’re on the margin and you just lost a quarter of the month’s income, you’re in trouble,” Greene notes. Staring down crumbling walls and blooming mold, it’s hard to decide how to allocate thin resources. People will struggle for a toehold as they repair their lives. “We’re anticipating what’s going to be sort of like a refugee crisis once people are actually able to get out of Houston,” Cole says.

On the policy side, one intervention is a temporary stretching of SNAP benefits. In anticipation of the deluge, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission put in a statewide waiver request on Aug. 26. Through Sept. 30, SNAP benefits can be used toward hot, ready-to-eat food items that are usually exempted from the program. The change may be a lifeline in Galveston. The island city was lashed with more than 22 inches of rain, and 37,371 of its residents received SNAP benefits in 2011. In the event that the food system is still shaken a month from now, a USDA official says the department will consider extending the waiver upon request from the state.

Neff wonders whether some repercussions might be even more wide-ranging. Reports of drowned fields and escaped livestock raised questions about the effects on farmers and the meat industry. With some refineries flooded or otherwise damaged, Neff says, fuel prices might rise, cutting into grocery stores’ margins and perhaps leading to mark-ups for consumers.

That all remains to be seen. The next challenge is scaling up, and doing so accurately. Outside of storm season, the Houston Food Bank moves about 350,000 pounds of food a day, six days a week. That number balloons when the bank springs into crisis mode. After Hurricane Ike struck, the food bank shuttled 500,000 pounds a day. This time around, “we just say, ‘OK, this is a lot bigger. Call it a million,’” Greene says. From there, the food bank has to tinker with its regular operations. How many additional forklifts do they need? How many more trucks?

It’s difficult to anticipate the magnitude of a storm — and what will be required to respond to it — before it’s baring its teeth. From a distance, Greene says, it’s tricky to imagine what damage might follow. Afterward, even from the ground, it’s hard to deduce a precise need from a quick survey of wreckage. “We won’t really know how this will pan out until it’s over,” Greene says.

So the best estimate is just that — but, ideally, a generous one. “There’s a big Katrina lesson. Whatever you do, do not fail people now when they need you most,” he adds. “So if you overshoot, you deal with the consequences of that — but the consequences of undershooting are far worse.”

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Harvey is changing the way we feed people during disasters

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The U.S. should go Dutch to avoid building another Houston

Want to design a city to maximize flood damage? Start on very flat land — any kind of slope will help water flow out of town. Next you’d want to create incentives for people to build the city wide and low; by covering a large area with concrete and asphalt, you collect more water whenever it rains. Then, be sure not to build much in the way of a drainage system. Ideally you’d be close to a humid body of water. And if you really wanted to put a cherry on top, you’d devote the city to industry that contributes to the warming of the seas, thereby increasing the likelihood of extreme downpours.

Voilà! You’ve just built Houston.

While America’s fourth-largest city is a poster child for flood vulnerability, much of the United States is built on similar principles. When the Dutch, the experts in flood prevention, look at us, they try to be polite, but really there’s no way around the truth.

“The United States is a little bit lagging behind in flood protection, to be honest,” says Jeroen Aerts, professor of water and climate risk at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

Aerts says that good flood control rests on three pillars: first, fortification to keep water out; second, buildings that can withstand flooding; and third, resources for evacuation and reconstruction.

The United States does fine on the third pillar, but fails on the first two. We build low-slung, widespread exurbs — partly because many American cities grew after the advent of the automobile. Thus, U.S. cities lack density, violating a key tenet advanced by the Dutch for making flood control possible and affordable. To avoid future Harvey-scale events, the U.S. could do well to take a page from Holland and get ahead of flooding, rather than scrambling to recover from it.


It’s hard to keep a city dry if it’s huge. The reverse is also true, says Jeff Carney, director of the Coastal Sustainability Studio at Louisiana State University. When cities stack their housing up, rather than sprawling out, they are easier to defend and are more resilient.

One example of a well-stacked American city is New York, New York — aka the island of Manhattan. It’s compact, with more than 1.5 million people in fewer than 34 square miles of land, so flood-prevention efforts are feasible.

A couple of years ago, the New York City government allocated $100 million to build a flood barrier around the lower part of the borough, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development kicked in nearly twice that last year to ensure it becomes a reality.

“Lower Manhattan has the ability — because of the amount of people and the amount of economic value on the island — to build a wall around itself,” Carney says. “They can do infrastructure that Houston isn’t going be able to do. You’re not going to be able to pump water out of Houston. It’s just too big.”

Houston took a laissez-faire approach to development, essentially allowing people to build whatever — and wherever — they wanted. Aerts thinks the United States would benefit from a baseline urban-planning rule requiring some level of fortification against floods.

If government required a measure of flood protection, a lot of the low-lying development just wouldn’t pencil out economically. If you have to build a levee around a sprawling subdivision, it drives up construction costs, as well as home prices — and not because the neighborhood is suddenly hip. (Strangely, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction: Earlier this month it revoked an Obama-era rule mandating that potential future flooding be taken into account when constructing federally funded buildings.)

From a European perspective, American flood protection is astonishingly fragmented and ad hoc. Some U.S. cities use levees, drains, or pumps; others do nothing. Usually, Aerts says, cities build their protections only after a disaster. That’s the case in lower Manhattan, where the proposed flood-protection system is a direct response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Still, prevention isn’t enough. Even if Houston had state-of-the-art infrastructure, according to Aerts, it would have flooded. “If we had 30 inches of rain in 12 hours, the Netherlands would flood as well,” he says. “And we have the biggest flood-safety system in the world.”

Nature can always overwhelm humanity’s efforts, and so we need backup plans.


When authorities issue a flood warning, people tend to focus on escaping by moving out of the area — getting in cars and driving away. But it’s much easier, and often safer, to go up, rather than out.

“If you can flee to a higher floor and stay there for days, you will be safe,” says Frans van de Ven, an engineer at the Dutch institute Deltares who helped New Orleans design new flood-control plans after Hurricane Katrina.

This works a lot better if the lights stay on, plumbing continues to work, and food in refrigerators stays fresh. So cities need to invest more to keep critical services above the water line, says van de Ven. If power plants and hospitals stay dry, electricity could continue to flow, and patients could be moved upstairs instead of out of town.

Apartment-dwellers like Louise Walker are exceptions to Houston’s single-family-home norm. When the water rose into her first floor apartment, Walker was able to bunk upstairs with her neighbor. This kind of “vertical evacuation” is often a better option than jamming freeways or evacuating people to convention centers, arenas, and megachurches.

“If we really are moving into a time of greater dynamics in the weather — and I think the science is suggesting that we are — we’re going to have to build our cities differently,” says Louisiana State’s Carney. “We really need to rethink our obsession with the single-family house. We need to rethink our obsession with auto-dependent development.”

Deltare’s van de Ven is less prescriptive about designing cities. He says governments have every right to build in floodplains, but they should require those houses to be constructed to withstand and mitigate floods, rather than making them worse by converting landscape that could absorb water into a bigger bathtub.

American cities have started requiring builders to pay for the problems they cause. Even Houston’s in on it. In 2010, it voted to start taxing landowners $3 for every 1,000 square feet of shingles and pavement that sheds water from their properties into the sewers. The tax is providing some money for the city to start beefing up its drainage system.

That’s good, but not good enough, van de Ven says. Because Houston is so flat, there’s nowhere for draining stormwater to go, and even the best system will be overwhelmed unless people can also capture water on their own lots.

Here’s where even the Dutch look elsewhere for inspiration. Singapore requires builders to create water-retention basins when constructing new homes.

“You dig a hole for a retention basin,” van de Ven says. “And you can use the soil from that hole to build a hill so your house is on higher ground.”


Jeroen Aerts says America focuses mostly on flood insurance — futher proof we prioritize recovery over thinking about preventing floods or how best to cope with seeing more of them.

“In general, America depends more on insurance and the self-reliance of individual citizens, which basically reflects the whole American way of thinking,” Aerts says.

That doesn’t mean that the only way to prepare for a future of floods is to go Dutch. If we want to eschew European-style centralized control in favor of free-market systems for flood management, that’s entirely possible, says van de Ven. But we have to lay the groundwork for those systems to work.

Right now, Carney says, the markets are failing because people don’t have enough information to make smart choices. For example, people are buying houses all over America without fully understanding how likely they are to lose them to floods.

“When you build a community on the wrong side of a levee and no one knows it — then people are making decisions with bad information,” he says.

For much of U.S. history, we’ve opted to clean up after floods rather than protect against them. But experts say that as the climate warms, more cities are taking the first steps to enacting the three pillars of Dutch flood protection.

“Of course we from the Netherlands are happy to help,” van de Ven says, when it comes to fortifying American cities for the future. “But it is up to you.”

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The U.S. should go Dutch to avoid building another Houston

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Harvey pummels east Texas oil towns as Houston begins to dry out

At long last, skies are clearing over Houston. Yet the floodwaters have left an exacting mark, and human tragedy abounds. America’s fourth-largest city will never be the same.

After moving on from Houston, Harvey has wrought new devastation further east. The storm made a second landfall in Texas early Wednesday morning, bringing with it a fresh torrent of rain to the oil industry hubs of Port Arthur and Beaumont, 100 miles east of Houston.

Port Arthur and Beaumont are home to some 380,000 people — about the same population as the city of New Orleans — and Harvey dumped more rain on them than it did on Houston. Beaumont received more than 26 inches of rain on Tuesday alone, more than double what the city had ever seen on a single day — and about as much as Houston received during its rainiest 48 hours last weekend. Harvey has left the area’s residents stranded and its oil facilities battered.

In a Facebook post, the mayor of Port Arthur, Derrick Freeman, wrote, “Our whole city is underwater.” The county sheriff said most people couldn’t be reached to be rescued. The so-called “Cajun Navy” of fishing boats sprung into action, with a 60-mile convoy of boats departing Galveston, 100 miles southwest, toward the region. Even the designated evacuation center in Port Arthur flooded, complete with floating Red Cross cots, and residents forced to again flee. A local stretch of Interstate-10 looked like a lake, complete with waves and whitecaps. And north, in Beaumont, Harvey knocked out the municipal water system; local authorities say it will be out indefinitely.

Southeastern Texas is home to massive oil refineries and industry infrastructure — and Harvey has damaged much of it. In Crosby, east of Houston, a flooded chemical plant exploded early Thursday night, sending up plumes of black smoke. An ExxonMobil plant in Baytown, also an eastern suburb of Houston, reported a Harvey-related hazardous spill.

Now add facilities in the Beaumont and Port Arthur region to the list. There was a sulfur-dioxide release at an ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont, which could cause respiratory issues for locals. And the nation’s largest refinery, run by Valero in Port Arthur, went offline on Wednesday.

About 20 percent of the nation’s refining capacity is now offline due to Harvey. Facilities have to file regulatory notices when floodwaters force them to shut down, a process that could result in releases of chemicals beyond what the law normally allows. ExxonMobil did that in association with its two damaged refineries. According to the Texas Tribune, “most of the other facilities belonging to major companies also filed notices with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality,” meaning nearly every industry facility in the path of Harvey has the potential of a hazardous spill.

The scale of Harvey’s disaster across Texas remains nearly incomprehensible. More than 24 trillion gallons of water fell from the sky in five days, enough to cover Washington, D.C., in a 1,400-foot-high wall of water taller than the Empire State Building. Houston-area officials think it will take months to drain two key flood-protection reservoirs.

Meanwhile, it’s still peak hurricane season, and two new storms popped up on forecasters’ radars on Wednesday. (One meteorologist called them a “sick joke,” considering Harvey’s devastation.) Tropical Storm Irma, currently off the coast of West Africa, looks primed to grow into a large hurricane thanks in part to water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic that are currently near all-time highs. It may take nearly two weeks to cross the ocean, and its path is uncertain. It could make landfall anywhere from Texas to Bermuda.

The Gulf of Mexico has also spawned another area of interest to meteorologists. By early next week, it could become Tropical Storm Jose. One of its potential destinations: Texas.

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Harvey pummels east Texas oil towns as Houston begins to dry out

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Introducing Irma, a tropical storm picking up strength.

As floodwaters peak and recede over the coming weeks, there will be lots of standing water for disease-transmitting mosquitoes to breed and multiply, the Atlantic reports.

West Nile virus has plagued Texans since 2002, and there were 22 cases of Zika in the state in 2017. Those numbers could increase sharply if mosquito populations spike. In New Orleans, West Nile cases doubled the year after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city. (Oh, and mosquito populations are already on the rise thanks to climate change.)

There are other dire health effects from the storm. Floodwater often carries untreated sewage, gasoline, and debris, all of which can cause injury and illness when people come into contact with it. Even after water recedes, tainted carpet and drywall can harbor mold and mildew, another serious health threat.

And, in an unfortunate twist, unmonitored emissions and chemical leaks among the refineries and plants in Houston’s extensive industrial district on Monday caused officials to issue a shelter-in-place warning for residents downwind of a breached pipeline.

All of this will take a greater toll on Houston residents sidelined into vulnerable neighborhoods — mostly communities of color who were already suffering before Harvey made headlines. For them, the storm is far, far from over.

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Introducing Irma, a tropical storm picking up strength.

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On Katrina’s 12th anniversary, Harvey pours down on New Orleans.

As floodwaters peak and recede over the coming weeks, there will be lots of standing water for disease-transmitting mosquitoes to breed and multiply, the Atlantic reports.

West Nile virus has plagued Texans since 2002, and there were 22 cases of Zika in the state in 2017. Those numbers could increase sharply if mosquito populations spike. In New Orleans, West Nile cases doubled the year after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city. (Oh, and mosquito populations are already on the rise thanks to climate change.)

There are other dire health effects from the storm. Floodwater often carries untreated sewage, gasoline, and debris, all of which can cause injury and illness when people come into contact with it. Even after water recedes, tainted carpet and drywall can harbor mold and mildew, another serious health threat.

And, in an unfortunate twist, unmonitored emissions and chemical leaks among the refineries and plants in Houston’s extensive industrial district on Monday caused officials to issue a shelter-in-place warning for residents downwind of a breached pipeline.

All of this will take a greater toll on Houston residents sidelined into vulnerable neighborhoods — mostly communities of color who were already suffering before Harvey made headlines. For them, the storm is far, far from over.

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On Katrina’s 12th anniversary, Harvey pours down on New Orleans.

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Houston communities deal with ‘unbearable’ petrochemical smells

This story was originally published by New Republic and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

As historic rainfall and flooding continue to pound America’s fourth-most populated city, residents of Houston’s industrial fence-line communities are reporting strong gas and chemical-like smells coming from the many refineries and chemical plants nearby. “I’ve been smelling them all night and off and on this morning,” said Bryan Parras, an activist at the grassroots environmental justice group TEJAS. Parras, who lives and works in Houston’s East End, on Sunday said some residents are experiencing “headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat and itchy eyes.”

Parras said there are chemical smells in the air all over the East End, but particularly in communities adjacent to Houston’s sweeping petrochemical industry. And residents can’t escape the smell, because flood waters have overtaken the city, and could reach over four feet in some spots. “Fenceline communities can’t leave or evacuate so they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals,” Parras said.

Some Twitter users in Houston also reported concerns about air quality.

It’s still unclear exactly where the smells are coming from, but Parras suspects the source is the many oil refineries, chemical plants, and gas facilities nearby. Several of these plants have shut down or are in the process of shutting down due to Harvey’s historic flooding, and shutdowns are a major cause of “abnormal” emission events, according to a 2012 report from the Environmental Integrity Project. Short-term impacts of these events can be “substantial,” because “upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems.” The communities closest to these sites in Houston are disproportionately low-income and minority.

There are huge public health risks from pollution releases during any hurricane, but the risk is particularly high with Harvey. The plants in the area hit directly by the storm “are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the United States’s petroleum refining, more than 44 percent of its ethylene production, 40 percent of its specialty chemical feed stock and more than half of its jet fuel,” according to the New York Times.

On Sunday, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke — fresh off a bizarrely off-topic mid-hurricane Twitter endorsement from President Donald Trump — hit out at liberals for “politicizing” Hurricane Harvey. But disaster preparedness is always political, and so is environmental justice. As noxious fumes creep over the fence-line communities of the East End, residents there are underwater, and some of them can’t breathe.

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Houston communities deal with ‘unbearable’ petrochemical smells

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Harvey dealt Houston catastrophic flooding, and it’s not over yet.

Over the past two days, the storm — anticipated to hit Texas later Friday — has rapidly strengthened into a Category 3 major hurricane, packing 120 mph winds and a threatening a multi-day rainfall so heavy you’ll need a yardstick to measure it. The storm’s impact could be among the worst in U.S. weather history, rivaling even Hurricane Katrina.

The implications are hard to put into words, so I asked my meteorologist colleagues to describe them using one or two:

“Epic, unprecedented” — Brian McNoldy, hurricane specialist at University of Miami

“Unprecedented danger” — Marshall Shepherd, meteorology professor at University of Georgia

“In a word: life-changing. The question is where, how expansive, and how many people’s lives it will change. If nothing else this should be a big wake-up call to many.” — Anthony Fracasso, forecaster at the NOAA Weather Prediction Center

“Dangerous, scary” — Adam Sobel, hurricane expert, Columbia University

“Epic deluge” — Ryan Maue, hurricane expert, WeatherBELL analytics

“One word, given the storm’s longevity: torturous” — Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel

“Simply: overwhelming” — Taylor Trogdon, National Hurricane Center

“Prolonged misery” — Rick Smith, NWS meteorologist in Norman, Oklahoma

Two answers, not playing by the rules with both. 1.) Forecast challenge of a career. 2.) Enormously challenging.” — Matt Lanza, energy industry meteorologist based in Houston

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Harvey dealt Houston catastrophic flooding, and it’s not over yet.

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