Recap: Twin Cities Severe Weather Event on June 21, 2013

Why was there so much damage throughout the Twin Cities?

While many environmental factors go into a thunderstorm a few characteristics contributed to the intense rainfall and strong winds as a result of the June 21, 2013 event.

1. An Unstable Atmosphere: The atmosphere was unstable which enhanced stronger winds along the surface rather than higher up in the atmosphere resulting in the widespread damaging wind seen throughout the Twin Cities.

2. Saturated Soil & Heavy Rains: Previous heavy rainfall over the last few months in the area had soil throughout the Twin Cities saturated which allowed for trees to be uprooted more easily as well as urban flooding to occur as there were not many places for the water to go as it fell leaving low lying and/or poorly drained roads vulnerable during the downpour. Some area reported two inches of rainfall and had many reports of flash flooding nearby.

3. Radar Loop: The conditions together converged over the Twin Cities (Note: Click the image to see the radar loop in action).

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Loop image of radar showing wind direction from the radar (located in eastern Carver County). Green colors indicate motion towards the radar and red colors indicate motion away from the radar. As the winds move into the Twin Cities you can see how the winds are green coming from the west and red coming from the south converging over the Twin Cities. (Source: NWS, Twin Cities)

Why Didn’t the Sirens Sound?

In Hennepin County sirens sound for winds in excess of 70 mph. While winds were close to the barrier in Hennepin County they did not exceed 70 mph and the sirens did not sound accordingly. I am curious to see if the policy changes based upon the damage and the widespread downed power lines throughout the Twin Cities metro area on June 21st.

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Wind speeds recorded on June 21, 2013 (Source: NWS, Twin Cities)

Just how much damage was there?

In the National Weather Service-Twin Cities report there were so many reports provided that not all of the reports could be shown. A similar storm came into the area the following evening and caused similar damage throughout the Twin Cities area for a second evening.

Across the Twin Cities over 97,000 residents did not have power as a result of the severe weather event. Xcel Energy had the power grid completely restored by 10:00pm the following Wednesday, five days after the storm rolled through the area. Xcel Energy said they had to replace over 100 poles and 37 miles of utility wire throughout the restoration process.

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Tree branch along a utility line in the middle of CR-101 in Plymouth, MN (Source: Kitty Hurley)
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Flash flooding along a road in New Hope MN (Source: Fox 9 News)
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Uprooted trees in the Longfellow neighborhood in Minneapolis, MN (Source: Minnesota Public Radio)

What is in store for future events?

I foresee many changes in the warning program, coordination efforts as well as the public and private relationships in future events from the severe weather event last month. The Twin Cities haven’t seen such a widespread event since the derecho events in 1998 effecting much of the state. While events like the one seen on June 21st are devastating and costly they prove to be beneficial for future events that may have even more costs or disastrous effects.

Sources

1. National Weather Service-Twin Cities Office Recap: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/news/display_cmsstory.php?wfo=mpx&storyid=95623&source=0

2. Pioneer Press News Release: http://www.twincities.com/minnesota/ci_23518101/strong-storms-cut-power-276k-metro-restoration-expected

3. Minnesota Public Radio News Release: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/06/27/power-restored-to-all

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Sinkholes, Meteorites and Tornadoes – Oh My!

One of the latest talking points in the United States are sinkholes as a result of the sinkhole incidents in Seffner, Florida last week and Monday. Sinkholes can be formed in many locations throughout the United States frequently linked to karst topography (Figure 1).

Karst TopographyFigure 1: Karst Topography/Limestone rock throughout the continental United States (United States Geological Survey, 1972)

Sinkholes often take thousands of years to form and can vary in size depending upon the localized conditions. They occur when a layer of rock underneath the ground is dissolved by acidic water (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: The Making of a Sinkhole (Southwest Florida Water Management District)

Normally before a sinkhole splits the ground, the ground begins to slump and we can notice these characteristics. However some areas do not slump before the ground splits so while we can sometimes notice sinkhole characteristics before the ground gives way, that is not necessarily always the case. Characteristics that may indicate a sinkhole is imminent can include:

  • Surface water or stormwater runoff disappears into the hole/depression,
  • The hole/depression appears after a heavy rain event or after the ground thaws from winter, and
  • The hole/depression reappears after being filled.

Just as the meteorite incident in Russia late last month or tornadoes in the spring and summer seasons have sparked human interest, sinkholes have recently entered the radar of many Americans and people around the globe. But it is important to remember that no matter where we live hazards will as well. Whether we reside in California where faults, tsunamis and landslides are the main hazards or we live in Minnesota where tornadoes and blizzards are the main threats. We cannot simply move to an area and expect it to be safe nor can we expect complete devastation. We must understand and educate on the risks in our local area we reside in and prepare ourselves and our families. While we cannot always predict or prevent a disaster from occurring we can respond more effectively if we are educated and prepared of the risks to the community.

Innovation

The wheel, the printing press, refrigeration, the automobile, the printing press, the light bulb, the computer and the internet. Imagine how different our lives would be today without the list above and if their inventors stopped their efforts before arriving at the inventions we continue to use to this day. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.

In the Emergency Management, GIS and Social Media fields innovation is key – finding tricks of the trade that have been used and manipulating them to find solutions that work and increase production. Yet many in each of these fields get lost in the crowd. Why? As Robert Atkinson once said to his son, “When you don’t have to complete for eyeballs, you don’t have an incentive to be innovative. At a real fundamental level, you don’t have to be innovative.” When pressures don’t surround us, many of us don’t see the need to be innovative.

I can definitely relate to Atkinson’s words. In my high school days I was a goalie for my school’s ice hockey team. We were one of the top teams in the state my junior year and were undefeated headed into the playoffs. I was the only goalie on our team and while I did work hard throughout the season I didn’t have another goalie pushing me and if I got injured there was no one there to back me up – I was it. In the section championship against our rival school we headed to overtime, where you guessed it, we ended up losing the game.

Fast forward one year later to my senior season – we had a good backup goalie join our team, who helped push me to be a better goalie. I was a better goalie with her presence at our practices and on the bench watching our games. She made me skate harder in practice, sweat more and, with the hardships of the previous season, push harder than I ever had since she could replace me at any moment if I made a mistake. In the same game against the same opponent we lost to just a year earlier we were down a goal with a minute left in regulation time. In what seemed like a near-repeat of the previous year, my team came back with an equalizer and scored another goal a few minutes into the overtime session to send us to state where we eventually took home the state title for the first time in our school’s history.

Could I, or anyone of my teammates, given up after our section championship that year? Definitely. Just as Emergency Managers or GIS professionals can continue to do the same monotonous work every day but just doing the work will not give you the same results – it is the innovation and entrepreneurship of an individual and/or team that allows for success. The answers may not appear as you hope they will and while it seems all hope is lost – keep going. The greatest moments in life don’t come easy – hard work, dedication and most importantly, YOU will get you there. Keep pushing and never look back.

Change

By nature the human species does not adapt to change well. We are characters of routine and while we can adapt to any changes we can be hesitant to do so.

Think of it this way: What would you do if your boss told you to move to the other side of the building? What about if your mail carrier stopped delivering mail and packages to your dwelling/PO box? What would you do if a tornado destroyed your home and all of your belongings?

While these questions are drastic, even small changes can effect us drastically. The way someone drives in front of us on our daily commute, the way our food was prepared or even the way our hair looks in the morning when we wake up. All of these small changes can drastically change the minutes, hours, days or even weeks to come.

As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Don’t sweat the small changes and don’t be surprised when the big changes happen – most of which are out of your own control. Take a breath, take a step and keep going. Life is full of surprises, some pleasant, others not so pleasant. That is what makes life so interesting.

Whatever it is that you do – expect change and plan to grow as it happens. The power is in your hands – are you ready?

Warnings

Meteorology has always intrigued me; living in a metropolitan area covering 6,365 square miles and 3,615,902 residents (Census 2010) making it the 13th most populous metropolitan area in the United States makes weather prediction very difficult across the viewing area. It wasn’t until a few years ago I realized how difficult such a prediction could be. There are many days throughout the year where the northwestern Twin Cities metro region will receive large amounts of precipitation and the southern cities wouldn’t see a cloud in the sky. Meteorology, in particular severe weather, has always fascinated me and I have always been interested in the formation of severe weather and tornadoes.

Development of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area from 1966-2006. Map published by Metropolitan Council.

I recently read meteorologist, Mike Smith’s books titled, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Time the Weather (2010) and When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community (2012). Both of Smith’s books discuss the evolution in warning the public of weather warnings in the last fifty years to today. If you haven’t already, read both of Smith’s books – you will not be disappointed.

        

One of the reoccurring themes in both of Smith’s books is the Forecaster’s Lament from an anonymous writer (113):

“And now among the fading embers;
These in the main are my regrets,
When I am right no one remembers;
When I am wrong no one forgets.”

It is very much true in Minnesota where weather is dynamic and can change in the matter of hours. Minnesotans have coined the phrase, “if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes and it will change.”  Often time’s meteorologists take the blame for the dynamic weather seen across the Midwest. There are times when I see the variations across the metropolitan region where I wish I could send a direct response to the local meteorologists to show my support of them because they are accurate more than the public gives them credit for and they have saved many lives throughout their careers.

The top three things I took away from Smith’s books were:

1. Time;
2. Communication; and
3. Innovation.

Time

Smith mentions the time it took to perfect the warning system in the United States. “It was only nine years after President Kennedy had committed America to putting a man on the moon that Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps. It took double that amount of time to get a network of Doppler radars running in the United States” (187).

We cannot expect overnight results, no matter the urgency. Some things take time despite their needs today.

Communication

Things have certainly changed in the last 100 years. Tornadoes continue to strike as they always have destroying homes and towns along the way but deaths and injuries are on the decline. Why? The National Weather Service technologies, including NOAA weather radios, as well as broadcast meteorologists have been able to warn residents of danger hours and in some cases prepare days in advance.

For instance, as Smith writes, “The Greensburg (May 4, 2007) and Udall (May 25, 1955) tornadoes were as identical as two tornadoes could possibly be. Both occurred in the same state – Kansas – so there is similarity in the building codes governing the two towns. Both occurred well after dark. The two tornadoes approached from the south, rather than the much more common southwest. And because of the southern approach, the tornadoes themselves were obscured by rain and hail…In both cases, 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed, and the other 5 percent were damaged. Both tornadoes were F5 intensity…The two supercells [from radar] are virtually identical. In the Udall (1955) tornado, eighty-two people were killed and 260 were injured. The casualty rate in the town was 68 percent. In Greensburg (2007), with triple the population, nine people were killed and fifty-nine were injured. The casualty rate in Greensburg was less than one-fourteenth that of Udall’s” (275-6). “Two hundred thirty-two lives saved in a single evening. Meteorology has come a long way since my dad came running into the house shouting ‘Here it comes!’” (279).

There is, unfortunately, the Joplin tragedy. Due to many factors, warnings were not provided in either a timely or accurate fashion to the city of Joplin. There were “too many tornado warnings with no tornado. Too many siren activations. People learn from experience. Sometimes they learn the wrong thing. The citizens of Joplin were unwittingly being trained not to act when the sirens sounded” (14). “[The National Weather Service] were behind the curve. But May 22, 2011, was an extraordinarily busy day. For example, a fatal tornado, EF-2 in intensity, struck Minneapolis two and a half hours before the Joplin tornado…Forecasters were behind events and confused about the location of the threat. Their warnings included incorrect locations of the tornado; incorrect directions of movement, focusing on Galena when the threat had shifted to Joplin; and incorrect threat emphasis, with discussions of golf-ball and then baseball-size hail as the tornado was about to move into and through Joplin. These issues only served to confuse what should have been an urgent and straightforward message: Take cover Joplin” (42-3).

AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions (AES) predicted tornado path at 5:16pm compared to the National Weather Service (NWS) predicted tornado path as the tornado entered Joplin. Image source: Mike Smith Enterprise Blog (http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com)

This is why, to this day, even as technologies have altered the way we can predict the weather – we still need to remember to deliver clear, concise reports to residents. One message delivered a minute earlier could save a life.

Innovation

Both time and communication are key but one of the most important takeaways from Smith’s books is innovation. As Smith writes, “Good  science does not have to take billions of dollars. It requires dedication, outside-the-box thinking, and a willingness to go where the data and experimental results might take you” (284).

I believe this is not only true for science but in everything we do every day. We should never go “through the motions” but rather learn something new every day and apply our knowledge elsewhere in our lives.

Hurricane Sandy “Frankenstorm”

I wanted to write a post to address those effected by Hurricane Sandy. My thoughts and deepest sympathies are with those effected and I hope the recovery efforts and the rebuild of the damaged communities goes well.

No disaster is pleasant and Hurricane Sandy has definitely left its mark on parts the east coast with over 8 million without power, at least 35 confirmed fatalities and subway systems shut down for what appears to be the remainder of the week.

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New York City in the dark
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The New York City subway flooding from Sandy is the “worst in the 108 year history of the system”

As Sandy approached shore on Tuesday, the cloud shield stretched from the Hudson Bay south to the Gulf Coast states.

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Hurricane Sandy Storm Scope
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Hurricane Sandy Storm Size Marker

Let us not forget West Virginia where snowfall accumulations reached nearly two feet.

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West Virginia Snowfall Accumulations
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Photographer: Beau Dodson,
Source: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151298419765309&set=o.101608723270553&type=1&theater

Paper Maps

Day after day GIS staff are known for making maps. Many times we are asked to make a paper map, even during a time when electronic maps can change dynamically daily. Why? Why do we still print e-mails, PDF’s, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets? Sometimes a paper copy is the best way to disseminate the information at stake. Most days, we stare at our computer screens more than we interact with each other.

I know when I attend the ESRI User Conference one of the main events I look forward to most is the map gallery. I can see artistry at work – and yes, critique the thousands of maps freely available to me. But each has its story and the cartographer gets to tell that story to their best ability with a piece of parchment. While the automation process of maps is efficient most days, sometimes a paper map tells a story electronics cannot.