Saturday, April 14, 2012

Adventures In Tornado Alley

Yesterday (Friday), an F1 or F2 tornado hopscotched diagonally across Norman, OK...a town that locals said could never take a direct hit from a twister. Indeed, before very recent years, the last glancing blow we'd had from a tornado was around 60 years ago.

But climate change is changing everything. Now we get blizzards, catastrophic ice and hailstorms, hurricane-strength straight-line winds, hottest-ever-recorded-in-the-nation heatwaves, boat-floating floods, and tree-killing droughts. Sometimes all in one year.

Climate change is creating "weather war zones" all over the country. Yesterday, we had a hair-raising skirmish right here in town.

It began with a bit of grumbling thunder...certainly nothing to get excited about. Then, as "they" say, all hell broke loose.

A tornado dropped out of a rotating cloud near I-35 and Lindsey Street (the main artery to the University of Oklahoma campus). Someone caught this on video--in the background, a woman could be clearly heard exclaiming, "S--t!" The twister proceeded to decapitate an apartment house, then hopped and jigged right on across town.

Some streets are barricaded today, with utility repairmen restoring whole blocks of toppled power poles. The dancing tornado sucked out all the plate-glass windows at Sugar, a custom cake store across from the main post office downtown (the post office lost part of its roof).

One of the old park trees split in half.
Next door to the post office, the library was unscathed (unlike during last year's catastrophic hailstorm), but lost some trees. Sadly...oh, so sadly...some of the worst damage was visited on beloved Andrews Park, just behind the library, where most of the big old shade trees were destroyed. It will take generations for the park to look the same again. (Ironically, this is the same park where actress Helen Hunt walked her dog while in town filming the movie, Twister.)

Fortunately, the park amphitheater was undamaged by the falling trees.

Many, many big trees at the park, along nearby streets, and in a hopscotch pattern across town were toppled. Several of those uprooted trees growing next to the 1930s-era open storm drain on Dawes Street (including at Andrews Park) pulled up part of the drain's stone walls. (I hope a proper stone mason is hired to restore that damage!)

One of several tree uprootings that tore holes in the Depression Era storm drain.
 A block or so from the park, a building was destroyed, and heavy bronze statues on display outside the Crucible foundry were shifted around like chess pieces; a one-ton statue was moved 30 feet!

Farther east, a file storage building on Porter Avenue lost its roof. (We stayed clear of areas where power lines were down and structural damage had occurred, not wanting to add to the incredible traffic congestion along those least, the streets that weren't barricaded.)

One of five uprooted trees just west of Andrews Park.

During the storm, of course, we were glued to ongoing television coverage. At one point, a storm spotter gave the coordinates of "a large rotation" in the storm (from which a tornado could drop at any moment). The coordinates just happened to be directly, smack over our house. Startled, my gaze snapped to the ceiling and I froze, holding my breath (not the brightest response, let me tell you), until the storm spotter announced new coordinates that indicated the rotation had moved on up the road.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, though roofs were caved in, windows blown out, and vehicles turned to scrap.

The National Weather Prediction Center (located here in town, along with a bunch of other National Weather Service entities) is warning of possible "life-threatening" storms tonight. (Indeed, as I write this post, dangerous storms are firing up in the northwest part of the state, moving this way.) There was a time when I would hope severe storms would miss us. But having been through the weather wars more than once, I now realize on a deeper level that a miss here is a hit there.

Now, I simply hope the prediction is wrong, and the storms don't develop at all.

Good luck out there, storm weatherers, wherever you are.

And if you do experience a hit or a miss, I want to hear from you.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Since You Asked...About Greening in the Red Zone

The new year isn't even a month old, and communities from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South have already experienced severe—in some cases, deadly—weather disasters. Besides causing devastation to property, major extreme-weather events can be emotionally traumatizing. I know...I've been there.

In many ways, extreme-weather events, from ice storms to tornadoes to you name it, resemble armed conflicts and other man-made catastrophes: a major disaster of any kind has the capacity to alter lives and leave debilitating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder strewn in its wake. And as 9/11, post-Katrina New Orleans, and post-tornado Joplin so vividly showed up, this can be a community-wide issue.

So I decided to chat with Keith G. Tidball at Cornell University, about his groundbreaking work (with co-editor Marianne E. Krasney)Greening in the Red ZoneDue out this spring, the compilation book draws on the expertise of numerous experts—including Keith himself—to explore the psychological and emotional benefits of greening projects in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.

Courtesy Keith G. Tidball
 Q. Keith, what was the inspiration for Greening in the Red Zone?

A.I spent time as an infantry officer (USAR ) and later in the US Foreign Service (USDA). In my travels throughout the world, I was struck with two things: First, how so much of post-conflict and post-disaster response by institutions and militaries ends up being counter-productive in terms of the host society and their morale, their social and natural capital, and their resilience. Second, how often people recovering from war or disaster gravitate to interactions with "nature" as an important part of their recovery.

So, linking those two things became obvious to me, especially as I watched my friends and neighbors after 9-11 resort to greening and other human-nature interaction as important ways to cope with the disaster, the tragedy, and grieving.

So I hope to stimulate greater efforts by the research community to document through empirical work the phenomena of greening in the red zone. And I hope to influence policy makers and planners to incorporate elements of greening in the red zone in post-conflict and post-disaster response. This is of great importance as we look ahead to the necessity of navigating the hazards of climate change and related disruptions.

Q. Thanks to population growth and climate change, more and more destructive extreme-weather events are striking urban areas. How important is organized re-greening following a major natural disaster such as Joplin or New Orleans?

A. My research in those places indicates that it is very important. Not only does organized re-greening replace lost landscape elements such as trees, but it also replaces lost or damaged "sense of place"—and with that comes further investment in social and natural capital. So organized re-greening is important after major natural disasters for what it represents itself, and for the social and ecological processes and feedbacks it serves to restart and enhance.

Q. How important is the individual in a neighborhood or community-wide re-greening effort?

A. Each individual human is important, just like each individual tree is important in a forest. Yes, in large movements or large populations, individuals can seem to matter less. But that does not make them less important. I like the idea of Ubuntu in this sense, as described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "A person is a person through other persons." This is especially important to understanding our interactions as humans, and as members of social-ecological systems.

Q. Ten years down the road, what do you hope to have accomplished with Greening in the Red Zone?

A. It is my hope that national and international institutions and organizations will include in their post-disaster and post-conflict planning and activities, as well as in more general "development" planning and activities, the idea that persons' relationships with the rest of nature are of fundamental importance to their security, to their recovery, and to their resilience.

I want to see this important notion influence the way we do business, and then to see this idea percolate further into the consciousness of diplomacy, of markets, and therefor humanity.