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5.2: Meteorological Hazards

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    3944
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    The principal meteorological hazards of concern to emergency managers are severe storms (including blizzards), severe summer weather, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires.

    Severe Storms

    The National Weather Service (NWS) defines a severe storm as one whose wind speed exceeds 58 mph, that produces a tornado, or that releases hail with a 3/4 inch diameter or greater. The principal threats from these storms are lightning strikes, downbursts and microbursts, hail, and flash floods. Lightning strikes can cause casualties, but these tend to be few in number and widely dispersed so they are easily handled by local emergency medical services units. However, lightning strikes also can initiate wildfires that threaten entire communities—especially during droughts (see the discussion of wildfires below). Downbursts (up to 125 mph) and microbursts (up to 150 mph) are threats to aircraft as they take off or land. This creates a potential for mass casualty incidents. Large hail generally causes few casualties and the associated damage rarely causes significant social or economic disruption. The areas with the greatest thunderstorm hazard are in the desert southwest (northwest Arizona), the plains states (centered on Kansas) and the southeast (Florida), but only the latter two areas have high population densities.

    Severe winter storms pose a greater threat than those at other times of year because freezing temperatures produce substantial amounts of snow—whose volume exceeds that of an equivalent amount of rain by a factor of 7-10. A severe winter storm is classified as a blizzard if its wind speed exceeds 38 mph and its temperature is less than 21°F (degrees Fahrenheit). These conditions can produce significant wind chill effects on the human body. Table 5-1 shows increasing wind speed significantly accelerates the rate at which a low temperature causes frostbite. It is important to recognize that a temperature of 40°F and wind speed of 20 mph will not freeze water, even though the wind chill is 30°F.

    These storms can immobilize travel, isolate residents of remote areas, and deposit enormous loads of snow on buildings—collapsing the long-span roofs of gymnasiums, theaters, and arenas. In addition, the weight of ice deposits can bring down telephone and electric power lines. The hazard of winter storms is most pronounced in the northern tier of states from Minnesota to northern New England, but also can be extremely disruptive farther south where cities have less snow removal equipment.

    Table 5-1. Wind Chill Index.

    Wind Temperature (°F)

    40

    35

    30

    25

    20

    15

    10

    5

    0

    -5

    -10

    -15

    -20

    -25

    -30

    -35

    -40

    -45

    Wind

    speed

    (mph)

    5

    36

    31

    25

    19

    13

    7

    1

    -5

    -11

    -16

    -22

    -28

    -34

    -40

    -46

    -52

    -57

    -63

    10

    34

    27

    21

    15

    9

    3

    -4

    -10

    -16

    -22

    -28

    -35

    -41

    -47

    -53

    -59

    -66

    -72

    15

    32

    25

    19

    13

    6

    0

    -7

    -13

    -19

    -26

    -32

    -39

    -45

    -51

    -58

    -64

    -71

    -77

    20

    30

    24

    17

    11

    4

    -2

    -9

    -15

    -22

    -29

    -35

    -42

    -48

    -55

    -61

    -68

    -74

    -81

    25

    29

    23

    16

    9

    3

    -4

    -11

    -17

    -24

    -31

    -37

    -44

    -51

    -58

    -64

    -71

    -78

    -84

    30

    28

    22

    15

    8

    1

    -5

    -12

    -19

    -26

    -33

    -39

    -46

    -53

    -60

    -67

    -73

    -80

    -87

    35

    28

    21

    14

    7

    0

    -7

    -14

    -21

    -27

    -34

    -41

    -48

    -55

    -62

    -69

    -76

    -82

    -89

    40

    27

    20

    13

    6

    -1

    -8

    -15

    -22

    -29

    -36

    -43

    -50

    -57

    -64

    -71

    -78

    -84

    -91

    45

    26

    19

    12

    5

    -2

    -9

    -16

    -23

    -30

    -37

    -44

    -51

    -58

    -65

    -72

    -79

    -86

    -93

    50

    26

    19

    12

    4

    -3

    -10

    -17

    -24

    -31

    -38

    -45

    -52

    -60

    -67

    -74

    -81

    -88

    -95

    55

    25

    18

    11

    4

    -3

    -11

    -18

    -25

    -32

    -39

    -46

    -54

    -61

    -68

    -75

    -82

    -89

    -97

    60

    25

    17

    10

    3

    -4

    -11

    -19

    -26

    -33

    -40

    -48

    -55

    -62

    -69

    -76

    -84

    -91

    -98

    Source: National Weather Service <www.noaa.nws.gov>

    Note: Wind Chill Temperature is defined only for temperatures less than or equal to 50°F and wind speeds greater than 3 mph. Bright sunshine may increase the wind chill temperature by 10-18°F.

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    Extreme Summer Weather

    Emergency managers should be concerned about extreme heat because this can be a silent killer within the community. The body responds to high heat by using evaporating sweat to cool itself. However, high humidity decreases the efficiency with which perspiration can discharge heat, so the body’s core (internal) temperature rises. When the heat gain exceeds the amount the body can remove, extreme core temperatures can cause a series of heat-related disorders. The least serious condition is heat cramp, which is characterized by mild fluid and electrolyte imbalances. Next in severity is heat syncope, which causes sudden loss of consciousness that disappears when the victim lies down. Heat exhaustion produces symptoms of weakness or dizziness and heat stroke is a condition in which the victim might be delirious or comatose. Unless treated effectively by rapid cooling, heat stroke can produce neurological damage and fatalities in about 15% of those affected.

    Temperature and humidity are combined into a heat index of apparent temperature the National Weather Service uses for weather advisories (see Table 5-2). Apparent temperatures of 80-90°F warrant caution because prolonged exposure and physical activity can cause fatigue. Extreme caution should be taken when apparent temperatures reach 90-105°F because prolonged exposure and physical activity can cause heat cramp and heat exhaustion. Danger exists when apparent temperatures reach 105-130°F because prolonged exposure and physical activity can cause heat stroke. Extreme danger exists when apparent temperatures exceed 130°F because heat stroke is imminent.

    Hazard maps show the most severely exposed areas are in the desert Southwest, Mississippi Valley, and Southeastern states. Demographic groups at greatest risk are outdoor laborers, the very old (particularly those over 75), the very young, and those who have chronic diseases. The problem can be especially severe in the inner cities where city buildings re-radiate sunlight (increasing the ambient temperature) and block the wind (decreasing evaporative cooling). Those who live in residences lacking air conditioning have the greatest exposure when they live in high crime areas where they might even be afraid to open the windows for fans.

    Table 5-2. Heat Index.

    Temperature (° F)

    80

    85

    90

    95

    100

    105

    110

    Relative

    humidity (%)

    40%

    79

    84

    90

    98

    109

    121

    135

    50%

    80

    86

    94

    105

    118

    133

    60%

    81

    90

    99

    113

    129

    148

    70%

    82

    92

    105

    122

    142

    80%

    84

    96

    113

    133

    90%

    85

    101

    121

    Note: This chart is based upon shady, light wind conditions. Exposure to direct sunlight can increase the Heat Index as much as 15°F.)Source: National Weather Service < www.noaa.nws.gov>

    Heat Index

    Possible Heat Disorder

    80°F - 90°F

    Caution: Fatigue possible with prolonged exposure and physical activity.

    90°F - 105°F

    Extreme caution: Sunstroke, heat cramps and heat exhaustion possible.

    105°F - 130°F

    Danger: Sunstroke, heat cramps, heat exhaustion likely; heat stroke possible.

    Greater than 130°F

    Extreme danger: Heat stroke highly likely with continued exposure.

    Tornadoes

    Tornadoes form when cold air from the north overrides a warmer air mass and the cold air descends because of its greater weight. The descending cold air is replaced by rising warm air, a process that initiates rotational flow inside the air mass. As the tornado forms, pressure drops inside the vortex and the wind speed increases. The resulting high wind speed can destroy buildings, vehicles, and large trees. The resulting debris becomes entrained in the wind field, which adds to the tornado’s destructive power.

    There are approximately 900 tornadoes each year in the United States, most of which strike Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. However, there is also significant vulnerability in the North Central states and the Southeast from Louisiana to Florida. Tornadoes are most common during the spring, with the months of April-June accounting for 50% of all tornadoes. There also is predictable diurnal variation, with the hours from 4:00-8:00 pm being the most frequent time of impact. Tornadoes have distinct directional tendencies as well, most frequently traveling toward the northeast (54%), east (22%), and southeast (11%). Only 8% travel north, 2% travel northwest, and 1% travel west, southwest, or south, respectively. There also is a tendency for tornadoes to follow low terrain (e.g., river valleys and to move in a steady path, although they sometimes times skip about—missing some structures and striking others. A tornado’s forward movement speed (i.e., the speed at which the funnel moves forward over the ground) can range 0-60 mph but usually is about 30 mph. Tornadoes can vary substantially in physical intensity and this attribute is characterized by the Fujita scale, which has a low end of F0 (maximum wind speed of 40 mph) and a high end of F5 (maximum wind speed of 315 mph). The Fujita scale has been criticized for neglecting the effects of construction quality, thus overestimating windspeeds for tornadoes that are F3 and higher. Discussion is underway to replace the existing Fujita scale with an Enhanced Fujita scale (for further information, see meted.ucar.edu/resource/wcm/html/230.htm for a powerpoint presentation. For discussion of this change, see www.wind.ttu.edu/F_Scale/default.htm).

    Only about one third of all tornadoes exceed F2 (111 mph). The impact area of a typical tornado is 4 miles (mi) in length but has been as much as 150 mi. The typical width is 300-400 yards (yd) but has been as much as 1 mi. It is important to recognize that 90% of the impact area is affected by a wind speed of less than 112 mph, so many structures in a stricken community will receive only moderate or minor damage. Only about 3% of tornadoes cause deaths and 50% of those deaths are residents of mobile homes—structures that are built substantially less sturdily than site-built homes.

    There has been an increased number of tornadoes reported during recent years, but this is due in part to improved radar and spotter networks. However, tornadoes have been observed in locations where they have not previously been seen, suggesting some long-term changes in climate are also involved. Detection is usually achieved by trained meteorologists observing characteristic clues on Doppler radar. Over the years, warning speed has been improved by NOAA Weather Radio, which provides timely and specific warnings. Those who do not receive a warning can assess their danger from a tornado’s distinct physical cues; dark, heavy cumulonimbus (thunderstorm squall line) clouds with intense lightning, hail and downpour of rain immediately to the left of the tornado path, and noise like a train or jet engine. The most appropriate protective action is to shelter in-place, which is universally recommended to be a specially constructed safe room (Federal Emergency Management Agency, no date, b). If a safe room is not available, building occupants should shelter in an interior room on the lowest floor. Mobile home residents should evacuate to community shelter and those who are outside should seek refuge in a low spot (e.g., a small ditch or depression) if in-place shelter is unavailable.

    Hurricanes

    A hurricane is the most severe type of tropical storm. The earliest stages of hurricane development are marked by thunderstorms that intensify through a series of stages (tropical wave, tropical disturbance, tropical depression, and tropical storm) that result in a sustained surface wind speed exceeding 74 mph. At this point, the storm becomes a hurricane that can intensify to any one of the five Saffir-Simpson categories (see Table 5-3).

    The nature of atmospheric processes is such that few of the minor storms escalate to a major hurricane. In the average year there are 100 tropical disturbances, 10 tropical storms, 6 hurricanes, and only 2 of these hurricanes strike the US coast. Hurricanes in Categories 3–5 account for 20% of landfalls, but over 80% of damage. Category 5 hurricanes are rare in the Atlantic (three during the 20th Century), but are more common in the Pacific. Tropical storms draw their energy from warm sea water, so they form only when there is an increase in sea surface temperature that exceeds 80°F. For most Atlantic hurricanes, this takes place in tropical water off the West African coast. These storms are generated when the surface water absorbs heat and evaporates, and the resulting water vapor rises to higher altitudes. When it condenses there, it releases rain and latent heat of evaporation. An easterly steering wind (which is named for its direction of origin, so an easterly wind blows from east to west) pushes these storms westward across the Atlantic. The hurricane season begins the first of June, reaches its peak during the month September, and then decreases through the end of November.

    Table 5-3. Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Categories.

    Saffir/ Simpson Category

    Wind Speed (mph)

    Velocity Pressure (psf)

    Wind Effects

    1

    74 - 95

    19.0

    • Vegetation: some damage to foliage.

    • Street signs: minimal damage.

    • Mobile homes: some damage to unanchored structures.

    • Other buildings: little or no damage.

    2

    96 - 110

    30.6

    • Vegetation: much damage to foliage; some trees blown down.

    • Street signs: extensive damage to poorly constructed signs.

    • Mobile homes: major damage to unanchored structures.

    • Other buildings: some damage to roof materials, doors, and windows.

    3

    111 - 130

    41.0

    • Vegetation: major damage to foliage; large trees blown down.

    • Street signs: almost all poorly constructed signs blown away.

    • Mobile homes: destroyed.

    • Other buildings: some structural damage to small buildings.

    4

    131 - 155

    57.2

    • Street signs: all down.

    • Other buildings: extensive damage to roof materials, doors, and windows; many residential roof failures.

    5

    >155

    81.3

    • Other buildings: some complete building failures.

    Source: Adapted from National Hurricane Center < www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutsshs.shtml>

    Hurricanes have a definite structure that is very important to understanding their effects. The hurricane eye is an area of calm 10-20 miles in radius that is surrounded by bands of high wind and rain that spiral inward to a ring around the eye, called the eyewall. The entire hurricane, which can be as much as 600 miles in diameter, rotates counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. This produces a storm surge that is located in the right front quadrant relative to the storm track. Hurricanes have a forward movement speed that averages about 12 mph, but any given hurricane can be faster or slower than this. Indeed, each hurricane’s speed can vary over time and the storm can even stall at a given point for an extended period of time. Atlantic hurricanes tend to track toward the west and north, but can loop and change direction. Storm intensity weakens as it reaches the North Atlantic (because it derives less energy from the cooler water at high latitudes) or makes landfall (which cuts the storm off from its source of energy and adds the friction of interaction with the rough land surface).

    Hurricanes produce four specific threats—high wind, tornadoes, inland flooding (from intense rainfall), and storm surge. The strength of the wind can be seen in the third column of Table 5-3, which shows that the pressure of the wind on vegetation and structures is proportional to the square of the wind speed. That is, as the wind speed doubles from 80 mph in a Category 1 hurricane to 160 mph in a Category 5 hurricane, the velocity pressure quadruples from less than 20 pounds per square foot (psf) to over 80 psf. Damage from high wind (and the debris that is entrained in the wind field) is a function of a structure’s exposure. Wind exposure is highest in areas directly downwind from open water or fields. Upwind hills, woodlands, and tall buildings decrease exposure to the direct force of the wind but increase exposure to flying debris such as tree branches and building materials that have been torn from their sources.

    Storm clouds in the outer bands of a hurricane can sometimes produce tornadoes that are mostly small and short-lived. Hurricanes can also produce torrential rain at rates up to four inches/hour for short periods of time and one US hurricane produced 23 inches over 24 hours. Such downpours cause severe local ponding (water that fell and did not move) and inland flooding (water that fell elsewhere and flowed in). Both inland flooding and storm surge are discussed below under hydrological hazards.

    Hurricane disasters resulted in relatively few casualties in the US during the 20th Century. The worst hurricane disaster occurred in Galveston, Texas, in 1900 when over 6000 lives were lost in a community of about 18,000. However, coastal counties have experienced explosive population growth in recent decades, which creates the potential for another catastrophic loss of life—Hurricane Katrina being a notable example. Moreover, economic losses are increasing substantially over time. Inflation makes only a small contribution to the increase; most of the increase is due to increased population in vulnerable areas and increased wealth (per person) in those areas (Pielke & Landsea, 1998). There is extreme variation in losses by decade due to variability in the number of storms. For example, the two decades from 1950-1969 experienced 33 hurricanes whereas the equivalent period from 1970-1988 experienced only six hurricanes.

    Hurricanes are rapidly detected by satellite and continually monitored by specially equipped aircraft. Storm forecast models have been developed that have provided increasing accuracy in the prediction of the storm track. Nonetheless, there are forecast uncertainties about the eventual location of landfall, as well as the storm’s size, intensity, forward movement speed, and rainfall. One of the biggest problems is that the long time required to evacuate some urbanized areas (30 hours or more, see Lindell, Prater, Perry & Wu, 2002) requires warnings to be issued at a time when storm behavior remains uncertain. The strike probability data in Table 5-4 indicate many coastal jurisdictions must be warned to evacuate even though the storm will eventually miss them. Moreover, there is significant uncertainty about the wind speed and, thus, the inland distance that must be evacuated.

    Appropriate protective actions for hurricanes are well understood; within the storm surge/high wind field risk areas, shelter in-place is recommended only for elevated portions (i.e., above the wave crests) of reinforced concrete buildings having foundations anchored well below the scour line (the depth to which wave action erodes the soil on which the building rests). Authorities generally recommend that evacuation be completed before evacuation routes are flooded or high wind can overturn motor homes and other high profile vehicles. Outside storm surge risk areas, shelter in-place is suitable for most permanent buildings with solid construction, but debris sources should be controlled and permanent shutters should be installed on windows (or temporary shutters stored for quick installation). Evacuation is advisable for residents of mobile homes in high wind zones.

    Table 5-4. Uncertainties about Hurricane Conditions as a Function of Time before Landfall.

    Forecast period (hours)

    Absolute landfall error (nautical miles)

    Maximum probability

    Miss/Hit Ratio

    Average wind speed error (mph)

    72

    >200

    10%

    9 to 1

    23

    48

    150

    13-18%

    7 to 1

    18

    36

    100

    20-25%

    4 to 1

    15

    24

    75

    35-50%

    2 to 1

    12

    12

    50

    60-80%

    2/3 to 1

    9

    Source: Adapted from Emergency Management Institute/National Hurricane Center (no date)

    Wildfires

    All fires require the three elements of the fire triangle: fuel, which is any substance that will burn; oxygen that will combine with the fuel; and enough heat to ignite fuel (and sustain combustion if an external source is absent). The resulting combustion yields heat (sustaining the reaction) and combustion products such as toxic gases and unburned particles of fuel that are visible as smoke. Wildfires are distinguished mostly by their fuel. Wildland fires burn areas with nothing but natural vegetation for fuel, whereas interface fires burn into areas containing a mixture of natural vegetation and built structures. Firestorms are distinguished from other wildfires because they burn so intensely that they warrant a special category—in this case, they create their own local weather and are virtually impossible to extinguish. Wildfires can occur almost anywhere in the United States but are most common in the arid West where there are extensive stands of conifer trees and brush that serve as ready fuels. Once a fire starts, the three principal variables determining its severity are fuel, weather, and topography. Fuels differ in a number of characteristics that collectively define fuel type. These include the fuel’s ignition temperature (low is more dangerous), amount of moisture (dry is more dangerous), and the amount of energy (resinous wood is more dangerous). A given geographical area can be defined by its fuel loading, which is the quantity of vegetation in tons per acre, and fuel continuity, which refers to the proximity of individual elements of fuel. Horizontal proximity can be defined, for example, in terms of the distance between trees. Vertical proximity can be defined in terms of the distance between different levels of vegetation (e.g., grasses, brush, and tree branches). Weather affects fire behavior by wind speed and direction as well as temperature and humidity. Wind speed and direction have the most obvious effects on fire behavior, with strong wind pushing the fire front forward and carrying burning embers far in advance of the main front. High temperature and low humidity promote fires by decreasing fuel moisture, but these can vary during the day (cooling and humidifying at sunset) as well as over longer periods of time. Topography affects fire behavior by directing prevailing wind currents and the hot air produced by the fire. Canyons can accelerate the wind by funneling it through narrow openings. Steep slopes (greater than 10°) take advantage of a fuel’s location in the fire’s heated updraft, which allows the advancing fire front to dry nearby fuels through radiant heating and also provide a ready path for igniting these fuels. A fire’s forward movement speed doubles on a 10° slope and quadruples on a 20° slope.

    Wildland fires are a major problem in the US because an average of about 73,000 such fires per year burn over three million acres. Approximately 13% of these wildfires are caused by lightning, but people cause 24% of them accidentally and 26% of them deliberately. The greatest loss of life from a US wildfire occurred in the 1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin wildfire that killed 2200 people (Gess & Lutz, 2002). More recently, the 1991 Oakland Hills California wildfire killed 25 people, injured 150, and damaged or destroyed over 3,000 homes. Major contributors to the severity of this wildland urban interface fire were the housing construction materials (predominantly wood siding and wood shingle roofs), vegetation planted immediately adjacent to the houses, and narrow winding roads that impeded access by fire fighting equipment.

    The US Forest Service maintains a Fire Danger Rating System that monitors changing weather and fuel conditions (e.g., fuel moisture content) throughout the summer fire season. Some of the fuel data are derived from satellite observations and the weather data come from hundreds of weather stations. Appropriate protective actions include evacuation out of the risk area, evacuating to a safe location (e.g., an open space such as a park or baseball field having well-watered grass that will not burn), and sheltering in-place within a fire-resistant structure (e.g., a concrete building with no nearby vegetation).


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