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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

This week, a hurricane broadsided Europe — a rare event considering most of the continent is closer to the North Pole than it is to the tropics. That would have been enough to make worldwide news, but the continent was due for much more.

As the storm, named Ophelia, approached, it was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the eastern Atlantic. Although weather watchers were initially focused most closely on Ireland, where the storm made landfall, its deadliest impact occurred hundreds of miles south in Portugal and Spain.

There, strong winds stoked hundreds of wildfires, killing more than 40 people. The ghastly images from southwestern Europe looked less like real life than illustrations from a cautionary fairy tale about the end of the world. Being there, as one person wrote, was like “a nightmare world of smoke and ash.”

These fires would have been the deadliest in Portugal’s history, were it not for massive blazes in June that killed more than 60 people, trapping many in their cars, as flames advanced too quickly for them to escape.

With its vast forests and typically warm and dry summers, Portugal is already Europe’s wildfire capital. And in recent decades, its profound and unique socioeconomic vulnerability to fire has only grown. Last year, half of the fire acreage burned in all of Europe lay in Portugal — a trend attributed both to haphazard forestry practices and climate change bringing hotter and drier weather.

This year, the sheer scale of the fires has been staggering. On Sunday alone, wildfires burned at least 300,000 acres — more than is normally burned in an entire year. Smoke from the fires quickly spread as far away as London.

Portugal’s wildfires this year have brought sharp focus on the escalating risk of these blazes — and what little officials have done to prevent them. Popular backlash prompted the resignation of a senior government minister and a formal request for a vote of no confidence in the ruling party. But they have also brought a lesson for the rest of the world: As climate change escalates, wildfires are a problem without an easy solution. (Just ask California.)

In a struggling post-recession Portugal, suppliers to its huge paper industry have accelerated a switchover from native species to faster-growing eucalyptus. Since trees consumed by fire can now be replaced more quickly, fire prevention — simple actions like trimming branches and clearing underbrush that could greatly reduce the country’s fire risk — has fallen by the wayside due to cost cutting. Add to that, more and more people are fleeing Portugal’s rural areas — leaving an aging population behind — it’s not clear who will be able to do that work even if resources were available to fund it.

“It really is a textbook example of wildfire as a socio-natural hazard,” José Miguel Pereira, a forest ecologist at the University of Lisbon tells Grist via email. Or to put it another way, human activity is making wildfires worse. These infernos are a product of our disregard for the fact that nature is now almost entirely something we’ve created — these disasters aren’t natural.

And as you know, our influence goes beyond simply neglecting tree management. There’s a growing consensus that the most important reason behind the recent surge in megafires is weather. September was the driest month in Portugal for at least 87 years, and this summer was among the hottest ever measured. All that’s led to a wildfire season that’s 525 percent worse than normal.

Climate models show that a warmer world will mean a drier southern Europe, and increasing ocean temperatures will likely bring more hurricanes further northward. That combination will boost the frequency of massive wildfires in Europe, especially in places like Portugal. On our current warming track, recent research shows the Mediterranean will cross a threshold into megadrought in the next few decades. Many of the trees in the region will likely go up in flames before next century.

This week, with the addition of Ophelia’s winds, weather conditions favorable for fire growth were extreme — and they occurred at a time of the year when farmers routinely set the ground ablaze to clear land. The mix resulted in fires so intense they created their own weather, spawning rare pyrocumulus clouds, literally a fire cloud.

“To the best of my knowledge this is new in Europe,” Paulo Fernandes, a forest ecologist at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, wrote to Grist, adding the weather was far outside what would be expected for mid-October. ”Extreme fires cannot be mitigated by a stronger firefighting force.”

What happened this week in Portugal points toward the scariest aspects of the Anthropocene: We are changing the world around us so fast that, in many cases, adaptation will be near impossible. As a hurricane, Ophelia was literally off the charts, and meteorologists have no doubt that the storm made the fires worse, rapidly transforming the smallest flames into towering infernos.

In my discussions with colleagues this week, not one weather or climate expert could think of an example of a tropical cyclone in the last 90-plus years that has sparked such a series of megafires. The closest corollaries were a 1978 storm in western Australia and a 2011 storm in Texas. Each fanned large fires, but the loss of life was relatively low. In 1923, a typhoon worsened the impact of fires sparked by a massive earthquake in Japan – but again, that required an earthquake.

Like Portugal, California has a Mediterranean climate that features a long summer dry season. In the wake of the state’s record-breaking wildfire season, which occurred under similar weather and climate conditions as the Portuguese fires, there’s a lot the West Coast can learn from what’s going wrong in Portugal. The most important lesson: Once huge fires get going, there’s not much that can stop them. The best hope, instead, is reducing risk in advance by preparing forests for the inevitable.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of Western senators proposed a reform of forestry practices that will do just that. And it’s already getting praise from firefighters, environmentalists, and industry. In 2017, the U.S. spent a record $2 billion on fighting wildfires, and the new bill would support low-cost preparedness efforts — like those shelved in Portugal — to try to prevent future fires.

In a statement accompanying the release of the bill, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, one of its sponsors said the time for action is now: “We can’t sit by and let devastating wildfires become the new normal.”

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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

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New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

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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New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

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California’s out-of-control wildfires are officially the worst in state history.

While we’re all talking about IQ tests, here’s a math problem: Imagine you’re a tree with 56 apples to take care of. One day, a massive storm comes and knocks out about four of those apples. They’re all on the ground now, kind of smushed.

But one of those apples didn’t have the same advantages as the other ones — too many pesticides growing up, let’s say — and it’s extra-smushed. It is also $74 billion in debt. (You may ask: Who loaned an apple $74 billion? Hedge funds have long embraced predatory lending practices, but that’s a math problem for another time.)

Anyway — as the tree, it’s your job to get those apples back in shape. You decide to allocate $36.5 billion in fallen-apple assistance. But only $5 billion specifically goes to that extra-smushed, indebted apple, and then that apple has to pay it back. It has to share about $14 billion with the other less-indebted and -smushed apples.

Surprise! This isn’t really a math problem — it’s an ethics problem. The tree is the United States government, the apples are all of its states and territories, the smushed apples are Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the extra-smushed apple is Puerto Rico. Donald Trump’s self-lauded aid plan for the ailing and indebted territory is a loan.

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California’s out-of-control wildfires are officially the worst in state history.

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Maria has plunged Puerto Rico into a humanitarian emergency

The rain and winds may be over, but Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico is only just beginning.

The storm’s rains fell at a rate exceeding that of Hurricane Harvey in Texas with wind speeds exceeding that of Hurricane Irma in Florida. In the span of 24 hours, Maria knocked out Puerto Rico’s entire power grid, 95 percent of cellphone towers, the bulk of the island’s water infrastructure, as well as roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, airports, and seaports.

Officials warn it may take up to six months to fully restore power. In some communities, 90 percent of homes and businesses have suffered “complete” damage. To make matters worse, more than 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents live below the poverty line, making the uphill climb to recovery even more steep.

All indications are that Hurricane Maria has inflicted one of the most extreme and catastrophic weather events in American history. If the aid response is not swift, the situation in Puerto Rico has all the makings of a major humanitarian crisis.

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“There’s a humanitarian emergency here in Puerto Rico,” Ricardo Rossello, the territory’s governor, said. “This is an event without precedent.”

For now, the grim reality is that many Puerto Ricans are on their own. Over the coming days and weeks, first responders will fan out across the island. But many residents will likely begin their recoveries on their own. And if they sustain seemingly minor injuries while doing so, those could go without proper treatment. The sweltering tropical weather could enhance heat-related illnesses. In addition to removing a lifeline for critical-care patients, like those on dialysis, the lack of electricity also means that banks and ATMs will remain closed until further notice — making it more difficult for people to get the resources they need. Supplies of fresh food may start to dwindle.

But perhaps the biggest impact on human health in Puerto Rico will be the lack of clean water. On Twitter, climate scientist Peter Gleick urged the U.S. government to dispatch an aircraft carrier to Puerto Rico. The primary purpose: Not as a landing strip for bringing in supplies, but for its ability to purify massive amounts of water.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson was able to produce 100,000 gallons of clean water per day near the capital Port-au-Prince. In addition to supplying fresh water by whatever means necessary, Gleick says a massive public education campaign should begin immediately focused on preserving human health, particularly on water and sanitation.

“Everything else is secondary,” Gleick told Grist in an interview.

U.N. peacekeepers who came to aid in Haiti’s recovery ended up jumpstarting a cholera epidemic that killed more than 10,000 people. Puerto Rico has had just a single case of cholera since the mid-1800s, but other water-related illnesses, like dysentery, could become a major problem.

Initial estimates of damage to the island exceed $30 billion. That’s roughly one-third of Puerto Rico’s annual economic output — making Maria the rough equivalent of a $500-billion disaster in New York City or a $700-billion disaster in California. With the Puerto Rican government already saddled with more than $70 billion in debt, help is going to have to come from outside the island.

Puerto Rico, partly because of its unique relationship as a United States territory, faces a long and complicated recovery. The United Nations, which does not typically support recovery efforts in developed countries, has not yet issued an appeal for aid. The U.S. federal government should pick up most of the tab through grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Congress will have to approve. So far, Maria’s impact in Puerto Rico has received only a fraction of the news coverage as Harvey’s landfall in Texas and Irma’s in Florida. That could potentially weaken public support for a multibillion-dollar aid package.

A lingering crisis could motivate a mass exodus to the U.S. mainland. But relocation is expensive, and those without the means to move could risk being left behind to shoulder an even bigger burden by themselves.

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Maria has plunged Puerto Rico into a humanitarian emergency

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While hurricanes struck, Scott Pruitt was up to some interesting activities

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

The devastation from hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the two weeks of catastrophic flooding, and the toxic aftermath should have been opportunities for the head of the EPA to snap into action. Had Scott Pruitt done so, it would have been in stark contrast with his tenure so far, which has mostly consisted of making the case that the regulatory power of the EPA should be undermined and advocating that his agency be made smaller in size and scope, be deprived of a robust budget and enforcement power, and shift focus to what he likes to call “regulatory certainty” for polluting industries.

In the past, the EPA’s job in the aftermath of storms has been to help ensure that victims do not return to homes and neighborhoods that are toxic cesspools. The environmental aftermath of Harvey and Irma has been particularly devastating, with Superfund sites that have flooded, pipelines that have have leaked, forced evacuations because of explosions at the Arkema chemical plant, and a hazardous mix of floodwaters and sewage.

A week ago, George W. Bush’s EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, wrote a scathing assessment in the New York Times of how Pruitt has been performing on the job. “The agency created by a Republican president 47 years ago to protect the environment and public health may end up doing neither under Mr. Pruitt’s direction,” she noted. When reflecting on Pruitt’s performance during Hurricane Harvey, she added that the EPA’s recent actions, including the EPA’s attack on an AP reporter, “are only the latest manifestations of my fears.”

Whitman may have missed some of Pruitt’s other activities. During the two hurricanes, the EPA administrator has appeared in far-right media, blasted the Obama administration and the mainstream media, disparaged discussions about climate change, and rolled back more regulations. Here are some noteworthy Pruitt sightings that took place during the recent weeks when severe weather battered the United States:

Aug. 28: Harvey’s deluge was in its fourth day, the death toll had risen to nine, and parts of Texas had already seen nearly 40 inches of rain when Pruitt had an interview with the right-wing media site Breitbart. At the end, host Alex Marlow pressed Pruitt on his response to coverage that connected the hurricane to climate change. What he didn’t mention was the growing consensus among scientists that climate change will worsen the severity of these storms. A discussion about “a cause and effect isn’t helping the people of Texas right now,” Pruitt replied. “I think for opportunistic media to use events like this to, without basis or support, just to simply engage in a cause-and-effect type of discussion, and not focus upon the needs of people, I think is misplaced.”

Over the course of the two storms, Pruitt would have several opportunities to repeat this observation.

On the same day, Pruitt was also interviewed by another sympathetic conservative radio host, Newsmax’s Joe Pagliarulo.

Pruitt explained what the EPA was doing to respond to Harvey: First, he praised his fast response to Texas’ request to waive gasoline mix requirements to avert shortages. He then mentioned a refinery monitoring center that is working “with industry, private-sector folks to ensure that things are secure.” Finally he added that the EPA is observing drinking-water quality and any potential contamination from landfills.

He even came up with an unusual new definition for what environmentalism means: “Is true environmentalism ‘Do not touch’? Or is it, ‘Hey, we’ve been blessed with natural resources across our country and we should use and cultivate those natural resources with what: environmental sensitivity? Environmental stewardship?””

Aug. 31: The Arkema chemical plant exploded near Houston. The same day, six Senate Democrats sent a letter to Pruitt asking him to respond to a series of accusations about how he’s limited transparency and public information access at the EPA. “At your direction, the political leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking deliberate steps to thwart transparency,” the senators wrote. “It is essential to the functioning of our democracy that our government does its business in the open. Yet according to recent press reports, you are taking measures to conceal your official actions.”

Sept. 3: The Associated Press reported that the EPA was not on the scene to survey the Houston area’s Superfund sites that were underwater and found seven sites flooded. (The EPA later estimated from aerial imagery that there were actually 13.) In response, the EPA put out a statement accusing one of the bylined reporters of inaccurate reporting because he was in Washington, D.C., and not in Houston, despite the fact that the AP had a reporting team on the scene. The EPA went on to link to conservative press to prove its point, and Pruitt’s Twitter account shared the press release.

Sept. 8: Harvey had quieted, but now, eyes were turned to Irma’s growing strength and its unclear path toward Florida. The Arkema explosion occurred just one week before Pruitt appeared on an ABC News podcast to discuss Harvey’s aftermath. In it, he defended delaying a regulation that lays out the specific information chemical companies like Arkema are required to provide first responders in the event of chemical explosions similar to the one in Houston. When asked about the “hype about climate change,” Pruitt answered, “Will there be a time and place to perhaps discuss that and debate that? Sure,” he said. “But not in the midst of the storm, not in the midst of the responses, because there’s enough to say grace over right now.”

Sept. 6: On the day that Hurricane Irma — which was at certain points a Category 5 storm — reached Puerto Rico after leveling some islands in the Caribbean, Pruitt, along with Rick Perry and other Cabinet members, were scheduled to accompany Donald Trump on a visit to an oil refinery in North Dakota, where the president delivered a speech on taxes. Pruitt didn’t attend, an EPA spokesperson confirmed, but Trump still gave the agency a shoutout in the aftermath of Harvey: “We’ve ended the EPA intrusion into your jobs and into your lives. And we’re refocusing the EPA on its core mission: clean air and clean water.”

Sept. 7: Pruitt gave a phone interview to CNN in which he repeated the same line he used with Breitbart when asked about climate change. “To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida,” he said.

The most vulnerable areas of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were busy engaging in the evacuation of nearly 7 million people, but that didn’t stop Miami’s Republican mayor from discussing climate change in relation to the storm.

“If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is,” Mayor Tomás Regalado said two days later, after he declared a Sept. 8 State of Local Emergency in his city.

Sept. 11: On Monday, Pruitt gave a wide-ranging interview to the Washington Examiner from his EPA office in Washington. The stories reported that Pruitt went after Barack Obama’s environmental record and his other adversaries:

“I’ve got to say this to you: what is it about the past administration?” Pruitt said. “Everyone looks at the Obama administration as being the environmental savior. Really? He was the environmental savior? He’s the gold standard, right? Well, he left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in. He had Gold King [the 2015 mine wastewater spill] and Flint, Michigan [drinking water crisis]. He tried to regulate CO2 twice and flunked twice. Struck out. So what’s so great about that record? I don’t know.”

He also took the opportunity to criticize Christine Todd Whitman, Bush’s EPA administrator. Pruitt said he hadn’t read her New York Times op-ed but added:

“Maybe Christine Todd Whitman likes the Obama administration,” Pruitt said. “Go ask her, I don’t know. [Obama] is the gold standard, right?”

Finally, he attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel in anticipation of a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York next week:

“If Chancellor Merkel … really cares about reducing CO2 in this world, why is she going away from nuclear?” Pruitt asked. “It’s so hypocritical for countries to look at the United States and say, ‘You need to do more.’ Really? So, we’ve reduced our pollutants under the Clean Air Act [criteria pollutants and CO2].”

Sept. 12: Irma had already flattened Barbuda, leaving 95 percent of the buildings destroyed and 1 million people in Puerto Rico without power for what could be months. Seventy-five percent of Florida was without power in the aftermath of the weekend’s storm, and the U.S. death toll had risen to 22. That’s when the EPA announced a two-year delay for a 2015 rule that set the first limit on toxic metals that can be discharged into wastewater from power plants. “Today’s final rule resets the clock for certain portions of the agency’s effluent guidelines for power plants, providing relief from the existing regulatory deadlines while the agency revisits some of the rule’s requirements,” Pruitt said in a statement.

This delay only adds to Irma victims’ challenges: Not only do they have to rebuild, but the Trump administration’s EPA isn’t doing much these days to make their water and air safer.

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While hurricanes struck, Scott Pruitt was up to some interesting activities

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Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, keeps getting stronger

Just days after Hurricane Harvey brought historic rainfall to parts of Texas and Louisiana, another potentially catastrophic hurricane looms in the Atlantic.

Hurricane Irma rapidly strengthened over warmer than normal ocean waters on Tuesday into a Category 5 storm with estimated wind speeds of 185 mph — the strongest ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean.

On its projected path through the northern Caribbean, Irma could inflict an almost unimaginable blow. From the National Hurricane Center’s description of Category 5 damage: “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

Quite simply, meteorologists never expected a storm like Irma. The storm appears to have exceeded (or is about to exceed) the maximum theoretical strength for a hurricane in its environment — an estimate based on current water temperature and other conditions.

Irma has grown in size amid nearly ideal circumstances for intensification over the past several days. On social media, hurricane experts pondered whether or not it should be considered a Category 6 — which it would qualify for if the traditional five-tiered Saffir-Simpson scale were extrapolated for wind speeds as strong as Irma’s.

People in Irma’s path have never experienced a storm this strong, and a direct hit could rewrite history for entire islands. The storm packs a punch that’s stronger than Andrew or Katrina, two of the most notorious recent hurricanes. In Antigua, one of the islands in Irma’s direct path, the national meteorological service lapsed into prayer.

As meteorologists marveled at the storm from afar, hurricane hunter aircraft sent back jaw-dropping photos from inside the eye. Earthquake scientists in the Caribbean noticed the hurricane’s winds and waves registering on seismographs as it neared the Leeward Islands, an incredible example of Irma’s strength.

Long-range forecast models have repeatedly projected Irma making landfall in South Florida this weekend, though the hurricane could still veer off on a range of possible paths as it approaches the U.S. mainland.

Preparations are already underway in Florida, a historical hurricane hotspot. Somehow, the state has avoided a Category 3 or higher landfall for more than a decade. The last storm to hit Florida at Irma’s current intensity was the “Labor Day” hurricane of 1935 — the strongest hurricane to ever strike the U.S. coast.

The state has transformed since the most recent Category 5 hurricane, Andrew, hit in 1992. Miami alone has added 600,000 new residents in that time, and the state’s storm-buffering wetlands have degraded amid a push for urbanization. In the past 25 years, 1 in 10 new homes in America were built in Florida, during a slow spell for hurricane landfalls. That lucky streak now appears to be coming to an end.

What’s more, Irma’s projected path up the spine of the peninsular state poses a unique challenge: If hurricane-force winds are wide enough to affect both coastlines simultaneously — which they’re expected to be — where will people evacuate to? It’s nearly inconceivable to think of millions of people traveling northward out of Irma’s path.

So far, the state is preparing in an orderly fashion. The Florida Keys expect to begin a total evacuation on Wednesday. Miami has shifted to an “all hands on deck” preparedness level, and is considering evacuating its most vulnerable residents. Florida Governor Rick Scott announced he will activate the entire Florida National Guard later this week. President Trump approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which will help speed preparations and aid.

But before Irma reaches Florida, it’ll pass over — or dangerously close to — much of the northern Caribbean: Barbuda, Anguilla, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. The northern coasts of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba could also feel significant impacts as Irma passes by.

Wherever it strikes, the hurricane’s impact will be worsened by the rising seas and heavier downpours associated with climate change. There’s still a chance the storm could curve safely out to sea after its trip through the Caribbean, but those odds are quickly slipping.

Should the hurricane make landfall in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, or Florida, it will set a regrettable record — the first-ever back-to-back U.S. landfalls of Category 4 or higher storms.

Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic impact in Texas and Louisiana now ranks as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. (Hurricane Katrina cost an estimated $150 billion in 2017 dollars, and the Texas governor’s office estimates Harvey could cost $180 billion.) A recent study examined the possibility of a Category 5 hurricane strike in downtown Miami. It calculated that damages from that nightmare scenario could cost upward of $300 billion.

As improbable as it may seem, two of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history might hit in the span of just two weeks.

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Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, keeps getting stronger

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Yikes, 13 of Houston’s Superfund sites flooded during Harvey.

On Thursday, explosions and black plumes of smoke were seen coming from a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 15 miles east of Houston’s city center.

Arkema, the company that owns the plant, said there was nothing they could do to prevent further explosions. The volatile chemicals stored onsite need to be refrigerated at all times to prevent breakdown, but flooding from Harvey cut the plant’s power. The “only plausible solution” now is to let the eight containers, containing 500,000 pounds of organic peroxides, explode and burn out, Arkema CEO Rich Rowe said at a press conference on Friday.

That’s bad news for Arkema’s neighbors. On Thursday, 15 public safety officers were taken to the hospital after breathing in acrid smoke from the plant. After local officials took a peek at Arkema’s chemical inventories, they ordered everyone within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant to evacuate. We don’t know precisely what’s in the noxious fumes, as Arkema has refused to release details of the facility’s chemical inventories.

In the worst-case scenario documented in the company’s 2014 risk-management plan, the air pollution coming from the plant could put the 1 million people living within 20 miles radius in danger. That seems unlikely — but then again, Harvey has outdone plenty of worst-case scenario predictions so far.

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Yikes, 13 of Houston’s Superfund sites flooded during Harvey.

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Trump’s Harvey aid donation is a drop in the bucket compared to the storm’s real price tag.

On Thursday, explosions and black plumes of smoke were seen coming from a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 15 miles east of Houston’s city center.

Arkema, the company that owns the plant, said there was nothing they could do to prevent further explosions. The volatile chemicals stored onsite need to be refrigerated at all times to prevent breakdown, but flooding from Harvey cut the plant’s power. The “only plausible solution” now is to let the eight containers, containing 500,000 pounds of organic peroxides, explode and burn out, Arkema CEO Rich Rowe said at a press conference on Friday.

That’s bad news for Arkema’s neighbors. On Thursday, 15 public safety officers were taken to the hospital after breathing in acrid smoke from the plant. After local officials took a peek at Arkema’s chemical inventories, they ordered everyone within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant to evacuate. We don’t know precisely what’s in the noxious fumes, as Arkema has refused to release details of the facility’s chemical inventories.

In the worst-case scenario documented in the company’s 2014 risk-management plan, the air pollution coming from the plant could put the 1 million people living within 20 miles radius in danger. That seems unlikely — but then again, Harvey has outdone plenty of worst-case scenario predictions so far.

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Trump’s Harvey aid donation is a drop in the bucket compared to the storm’s real price tag.

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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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Harvey’s record rains just triggered Houston dams to overflow

In 1935, a storm swept through Houston, turning parts of the city into a lake. It was a wake-up call to city officials; they needed to get serious about flood control. About a decade later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished building two massive reservoirs west and upstream of the city. For the better part of a century, the Addicks and Barker dams have held back water that would have otherwise surged through Buffalo Bayou, the flood-prone waterway that snakes through downtown Houston before dumping into the Ship Channel.

This week, for the second time in as many years, a storm has pushed the Addicks and Barker dams to their limit. Early Monday morning, as Tropical Storm Harvey lingered over Houston and drowned whole swaths of the city, the Army Corps of Engineers began controlled releases from the dams, the first time they’ve done so during a major storm. By Monday afternoon, several neighborhoods near the reservoirs were under voluntary or mandatory evacuation as officials announced that releases from Addicks and Barker would continue for the foreseeable future. By early Tuesday morning, Addicks had topped the dam’s 108-foot spillway, leading to what officials call “uncontrolled releases” from the reservoir. Some homes could be inundated for a month.

Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Linder called the releases the least-worst decision officials could make in light of floodwaters that continue to fill the reservoirs faster than they can safely drain. “If you are upstream of the reservoir, the worst is not over,” Linder said at a Monday afternoon press conference, warning that “water is going to be inundating areas that have currently not been inundated.” When someone asked him, via Twitter, whether the dams could break and trigger a Katrina-like disaster, Linder offered a one-word response: “No.”

That assurance comes despite the Corps of Engineers labeling the dams an “extremely high risk of catastrophic failure” after a 2009 storm that saw only a fraction of the rain Harvey poured on Houston this week. Officials insist that the hair-raising label has more to do with the breathtaking consequences of any major dam failure upstream of the country’s fourth-largest city than the actual likelihood of such a breach. In 2012, they detailed how a dam failure during a major storm would cause a multi-billion dollar disaster that turns the city into Waterworld.

Still, the Corps in recent years has implemented only piecemeal fixes to the earthen dams, including a $75 million upgrade that was underway before Harvey hit this weekend. Officials are barely even discussing how to fund a third reservoir that some experts say the region desperately needs.

This is the second year in a row that severe floodwaters have tested Addicks and Barker. Just last year, during 2016’s so-called Tax Day Flood, for the first time, the reservoirs hit and surpassed the level of a 100-year flood. That happened again this weekend, meaning the dams have seen two extremely rare flood events (at least one-in-a-100-year events) in just as many years. Last year was also the first time the National Weather Service ever issued a flood warning for the Addicks and Barker watersheds.

The dams are in some ways emblematic of how flood planning in the Bayou City hasn’t kept up with the region’s booming population and development, even as experts predict that climate change will dump increasingly severe storms on Houston’s doorstep with greater frequency. They were built in a region of water-absorbing prairie grasses that have in recent years been paved over by water-impermeable parking lots, driveways and suburban streets. The Sierra Club even sued the Corps in a failed attempt to stop construction on a nearby stretch of the Grand Parkway, a major toll road project that some opposed fearing it would coax development in an area that’s critical to the region’s flood control efforts.

Still, as the Texas Tribune and ProPublica pointed out in this 2016 investigation, Houston-area flood officials refuse to connect the region’s flooding problems to poorly planned development. As a result, every year people will keep building hundreds, if not thousands, of additional structures in Harris County’s 100-year floodplains, even as those “rare” storms start to hit year after year.

In a Monday press conference, Edmond Russo, an engineer with the Corps’ Galveston district, said officials wanted to keep high water from building up and going over the Addicks and Barker spillways, “because in that case, we do not have control over the water.” He’d hoped releases would stay low enough so that the already overtaxed Buffalo Bayou stays at the same level in the short term. In the long term, officials say it could take one to three months to totally drain the reservoirs.

Of course, that all depends on what happens in the coming days. Updating reporters on the reservoirs’ status Monday evening, Linder said more heavy rainfall or levee breaches upstream could change how fast the dams must release water downstream.

“Our infrastructure is certainly being tested to its limits,” Linder said.

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Harvey’s record rains just triggered Houston dams to overflow

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