POSTED ON JULY 31, 2013:
Dancing With the Derecho
We need to get ready for whacked weather
One of my favorite scenes in all of American film (I'm a movie fanatic), comes from the 1952 classic Singin' in The Rain." Donald O'Connor's wondrous dance with an umbrella while rain streams down on him at a street corner in Gotham City is the most iconic sequences in the show -- maybe in all of American film. For me, the scene is one on unalloyed joy, and a magic conflation of O'Connor's athleticism and dancing skills and Gene Kelly's choreography -- the sequence is pure genius.
I did my own dance in the rain the other day; we might call it "Dancin' To Stay Alive." Our weather anomaly from the other day almost got me killed. I was on foot downtown and got blown into the middle of 6th street near Denver. Meteorologists call the thing we all experienced a derecho -- from the Spanish for "straight ahead."
Here's the definition from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration/Storm Prediction Center web site: "A derecho (pronounced similar to "deh-REY-cho" in English) is a widespread wind storm. Derechos are associated with bands of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as bow echoes, squall lines, or quasi-linear convective systems. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of a tornado, the damage typically occurs in one direction along a relatively straight swath. As a result, the term 'straight-line wind damage' sometimes is used to describe derecho damage. By definition, if the wind damage swath extends more than 240 miles (about 400 kilometers) and includes wind gusts of at least 58 mph (93 km/h) or greater along most of its length, then the event may be classified as a derecho."
I really wish that U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe -- one of America's most prominent climate change deniers, had been at my side during my little adventure. I was walking back to an office I have downtown -- taking a constitutional back from a quick beer break at the fab Cellar Dweller on 7th near Denver, before returning to the grindstone. I was doing a quick stroll back to the Oklahoma Eagle Publishing Company building at Greenwood and Archer to complete some work that had to be posted the next morning. When I stepped out to start my trip across downtown at around 11:15pm, there was a hint of rain in the air, and a good breeze was rolling in. But the mild rain/slight breeze quickly became the monster event that we all experienced.
I was near the County Courthouse just off on 6th and Denver when a calamitous wall of water, seasoned with terrifying high-intensity winds, descended on me. I'm betting that the derecho was amplified in parts of downtown Tulsa as a consequence of what architects and structural engineers called the Venturi effect: accelerated hydro dynamics spawned by the narrow passageways, peculiar geometry of a downtown with tall buildings, narrow intra-building passageways and the extra heat pulsed by massive agglomerations of glass, concrete and steel that is our cityscape.
Some people still believe that global warming and climate change are parts of a nefarious effort by feckless science academics to get grants or a clever gambit to kneecap American capitalism -- but the evidence is mounting by the day, by the week, that something very, very strange and quite dangerous is afoot with our weather. The evidence is becoming unassailable and we've had many visitations here in Oklahoma in just the last few months with the terrible tornado in Moore, the other tornado in the Oklahoma City area and last week's encounter with the derecho.
What are we gonna do about it?
We had a big, recurring flooding problem in the '70s and early '80s in Tulsa. People like planner Ron Flanagan, writer/community activist Ann Patton, Charlie Hart who was later the long-standing city public works chief, but was then a private hydrology consultant, and then Mayor Terry Young, put together an audacious plan to get developers, homebuilders, and others to engage in more responsible behavior to reduce urban storm water runoff -- which precipitated our flooding problems. We haven't had a recurrence of the flooding events of the mid-eighties because we took the problem in hand, used a stout deliberative process that entailed lots of participation from affected homeowners and other stakeholders, used some classic engineering analytics, and put some good public policy in play.
We need to do the same mix of prophylactics to prepare T-town for an onslaught of weather volatility that human beings have simply not experienced before. Climate change and its consequences isn't something that is just gonna ravage polar bears, the laboratory and research colonies in Antarctica or the poor folks who inhabit the coast of Bangladesh and other vulnerable places including the New York/New Jersey coasts -- it's a problem that it will affect every town in the U.S. in various ways.
I don't have any patience at all with people who say, "Well you know, the weather changes over time. We've had all kinds of weather and our current bout with volatility is no different from what we would see if we looked at the historical record." The reality is that there has been a tremendous increase in the heat load in the Earth's atmosphere as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, and it's accelerated mightily over the course of the last 60 to 70 years. We are witness to a catastrophic transformation in weather volatility, storm intensity and a whole bunch of other freakish phenomena. Did global warming cause our big ole flash rain/hyper velocity wind episode the other day? Well it's hard to say, from a statistical or from a simulation and evidence standpoint, but the thing that's unassailable is that the likelihood of such events has risen in an astonishing way over the course of the last two decades. If some of our best earth science, weather/climate gurus and most of the most compelling evidence is embraced, we will see much more of this as the century continues. So the question becomes -- what are we going to do about it? And it's not just national leaders who need to respond. We need to prepare locally for unprecedented changes that are coming our way as a consequence weather whack.
Our electrical distribution system of which is above ground in big parts of Tulsa, is now incredibly vulnerable. Consider the 62,000+ folks in the Metro (including my UTW colleagues at headquarters) who had no power at some point in the past few days. We need to look at underground placement of these systems and local and regional initiatives that go to making the electric grid stouter and more intelligent. Not only did the derecho blow out big chunks of the system because it's above ground, but it spawned a cascade of events that blew out other parts of the system because of overloads and complex feedback effects. So we need to push AEP and the city council to do some of the intelligent grid work that the Feds have demonstrated and scoped out -- and it needs to happen soon.
We can prepare for weather whack -- it is all about augmenting our resilience; putting in place better, more intelligent infrastructure, modifying some of our land use practices, crafting better transportation and development policies and thinking more clearly about what we need to do in order to be everything that Tulsa can be in a century that might become the most challenging in all of human history.
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