POSTED ON JUNE 12, 2013:
Weather Monsters & Stupidity
Bankrupt thinking has no place in tornado alley
The monster twister that ravaged Moore and the smaller events last month in the same area should be a wake-up call for Oklahomans. The tragedies call for us to honor the lives of the adults and the children who were killed, and obviously, the events call for giving fevered thanks to the emergency service workers, scores of state civil servants who labor in Oklahoma's disaster agencies and federal officials of every description who are doing essential recovery and rehab efforts.
Included in this, of course, are President Barack Obama and the new wizards he has installed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And it's appropriate to applaud the positive role Gov. Fallin is now playing in responding to these events and securing the federal aid now available. The same can be said of Rep. Tom Cole, who was on the Tinker Air Force Base tarmac with Obama some weeks ago.
Weather Whack and the Fed "Demon"
The wild, even infuriating thing that's afoot: a raft of vapid, anti-aid commentary from key voices in the Republican caucus, including our two newest members of Congress, Reps. Jim Bridenstine and Markwayne Mullin and Sens. James Inhofe and Tom Coburn. As readers may know, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's ravaging pass though America's northeastern rim last October, there was an intense exchange at the Capitol. Sickeningly, it's one that we've heard before. The contretemps goes to the role that the federal government and its various emergency service and related agencies have played in the modern era: the monumental work that our central government -- always executed with abundant advice and participation of state and local officials -- does in the midst of national catastrophes of any kind and catastrophic weather in particularly.
Oklahoma, with our recent tornadic tragedies, will now be the beneficiary of many millions of dollars of federal aid. We need it, it is available, and it will mitigate much misery. But our congressional delegation was against any Sandy aid because "there wasn't money to fund it." Cuts, they insisted, would have to be made to other federal outlays to get the dollars needed to fund a Sandy recovery effort.
Weirdly, this conversation comes in the wake of a nearly $250 billion "extra" -- produced by a surprisingly rapid economic pickup this year that mitigates the current year's federal budget deficit and the long-term accumulations associated with same. Mullin and Bridenstine argue, in company with a whole swath of other "go back" Republican partisans, that there's an epic problem with using federal resources and authority to do disaster recovery work. The camp argues that we need to "return" to the role that churches, charitable operations, and state and local governments carry out in the disaster arena.
For some of us, this is a Neolithic, supremely insensitive bevy of attitudes. It feels a lot like stepping into a time machine -- a revisiting of the Hoover-like notions that paralyzed the federal government as the Great Depression got underway in the late-1920s. President Hoover's ideological hang-ups with a nationally led/fueled economic recovery effort and his refusal to respond to the epic downturn multiplied the misery and greatly amplified the employment and social impacts at the outset of the Great Depression. Hoover's big hesitations fostered follow-on catastrophes for working people everywhere in America.
But an inventive state and local response is also highly material. In sharp contrast to what our new congressional representatives are doing, or rather failing to do, is the kinetic riff that state representative Joe Dorman, from Rush Springs is proposing. Some days ago, Rep. Dorman proposed a state bond initiative that would provide half a billion dollars for a school site and a mobile home communities sheltering project that could hugely complement existing state and federal efforts. I talked briefly with Dorman about his project, and he said that he wants to put a state bond issue referenda or constitutional amendment on our November ballot to ask voters to approve new funding and clear a raft of antique state constitution road blocks that stand in the way.
We've Got the Golden Girl
Storm junkies and longtime observers of Oklahoma weather may know that it's been almost 150 years since the first real scientific efforts were mounted to forecast tornadoes. The pan-disciplinary science associated with this quest is moving along very, very rapidly thanks to the quickening pace of very high-performance computing, new concepts from machine learning, artificial intelligence, and automated pattern recognition. And a wild combination of satellites, blimps, powerful radars, over-the-horizon detection systems, and lightning detection systems, together with these computation and math modeling efforts, have allowed contemporary forecasters to make extraordinary advances in the last half decade.
There is a stupid thread associated with these advances. It comes in the form of threats to cut top-of-the-line weather science and storm analytic work -- threats staged again by the "take me to the '30s" wing of the Republican Party.
And folks, embracing the rogue weather challenge and its connection to climate change is not about some back-to-the-woods, government command/control economic regime: Tulsa's role in this essential, planet-spanning transformation could be an employment-heavy, game-changing one if we can summon the political will and imagination to make the journey.
Whatever we do, it's critical to understand we have a world class asset in our midst. We need to actively employ the fabulous scientific talent at the OU National Weather Center in Norman, a world-class shop in climate analysis and weather systems science.
Last year I wrote in these pages about this nexus: OU could help us craft a robust, hyper-local climate model, providing us with deep insight into how climate change could re-shape land use, our transportation grid, agriculture in the region and our water use, and production efforts.
And as of this month -- thanks to Tulsa venture capitalist Barry Davis and an enlightened cadre of university and business folks, we'll have the computing power to model local climate kinetics via a new Community Supercomputer center. The new super center is a transformational asset essential for modeling mid-run climate scenarios for Green Country and anticipating climate-related community development, planning, and infrastructure work, and counterpunching rogue weather events.
One of the most aggressive and inventive efforts of this kind is happening in Norman. Amy McGovern is a computational maven, mathematician and weather scientist who, with her polymath crew, is developing a powerful short-range predictive model that might allow people to get as much as a half hour of warning before tornados touch down.
Excitingly, McGovern and her team (which is composed of a set of super computer experts, mathematicians, weather science folks, and artificial intelligence researchers) are using the newest techniques from all of these fields to put together these novel computer models. Interestingly, McGovern has said that her crew has made enormous progress over the course of the last two years. As it happens, Tulsa's community supercomputer may be a collateral platform that could conceivably be used to test some of the new techniques.
The new community supercomputer is at One Tech Center at new city hall. McGovern believes that the new approaches will have to withstand a surprising task: it will have to garner the confidence of weather people in the media and in private communities.
Stephanie Pappas, a writer for Live Science, penned a great piece about a week ago on McGovern and their quest, quoting McGovern at the top:
"'The basics of tornado formation are simple enough. When wind and humidity conditions are right, thunderstorm systems can begin to rotate and become what are called supercells.... We're trying to be able to figure out why of two pretty much identical supercells, one will generate a tornado and one won't,' said Amy McGovern, a computer scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. McGovern and her colleagues are among the researchers trying to improve tornado predictions. Using supercomputer simulations, she and her team are working to model tornadoes on a very fine scale, tracking their movements to within 165 to 245 feet (50 to 75 meters). On-the-ground observations can only take researchers so far, McGovern said. Radar can't sense every component of the wind's movement, for example. By using simulations, she and her colleagues want to set up at least 100 storms they can tweak at will, altering one variable such as humidity or temperature to see whether and how each influences tornado formation."
Give Me Shelter
Larry Tanner heads up a fascinating operation at Texas Tech. The unit that he manages is a kind of clearinghouse for storm shelter construction systems and technologies and acts as a kind of post-disaster assessment facility for shelters and other protective assets that people can use in the event of the tornado.
In an Atlantic Magazine article titled "Why Aren't There More Storm Cellars in Oklahoma?" earlier this year, author Megan Garber singled out Tanner and his work as the manager of the Debris Impact Test Facility for the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University.
"In that capacity," she wrote, "he focuses on the (relatively) optimistic side of devastating storms: sheltering people from them. One of Tanner's jobs is to test shelters and their components in his lab, creating several-hundred-mph winds and debris storms -- which can't be mathematically simulated -- to analyze those shelters' ability to withstand a natural storm. Another of his jobs is to work with FEMA to assess the performance of storm shelters after tragedies like the Oklahoma tornadoes of 1999. Or the Missouri tornado of 2011."
I spoke with Tanner some days ago. He told me he was concerned about several things in wake of all of the recent tornado activity in Oklahoma. His first concern was that people were getting the wrong message about shelter options -- specifically, he said that suitably designed and constructed above-ground shelters were capable of withstanding even EF-5 magnitude tornados, and that information to the contrary was simply incorrect. Basically, he told me that the notion that only below-ground facilities could work in a monster storm of the kind that visited Moore recently was off the mark.
I'll take up the weather/science/politics rotation mesocyclone again later this summer.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cityscape to email@example.com
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A61071