Forget Climate, are we Prepared for the Weather?

The debate rages on over climate change and what needs to be done to address it, if anything.  Regardless of your position on that matter, there’s no escaping the certitude of the weather.  The weather!  With all the baked lawns, charred forest, buckling pavement, derechos, unusual tornado patterns, etc., maybe we should consider that we aren’t even prepared for the weather!!

We aren’t prepared to withstand substantial drought.  We aren’t prepared for scorching wildfires.   We aren’t prepared for flash flooding in our cities.   We aren’t prepared for  EF-5 tornadoes.    We aren’t prepared for straight-line winds that tear our tethers to the grid.

What can we do to be prepared?  Well, for one, carry an umbrella.  But what else is there?  Some weather events are so sudden and violent that preparation is almost impossible.  Other events (like the drought) last so long that we are unprepared for their lingering consequences.  But there are things we could do…things that not only protect us, but also provide ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Drought 2012

The drought in the United States this year has been brutal.  July was the warmest month on record for the contiguous United States.  Drought has encroached on over 63% of the lower 48 states.  Severe drought is classified as a natural disaster by the U.S. EPA.Drought-stricken Lawn

The drought has been particularly devastating to agriculture that relies on rain and irrigation from reliable water sources. Well, rain is gold these days and water sources are severely depleted.  Constant use and inefficient watering techniques have already depleted major groundwater resources, like the Ogallala aquifer that underlies much of the plains.  As opposed to some seasons when farmers are PAID TO PLOW CROPS UNDER (to maintain lucrative crop prices), prices this year are being forced higher for low supplies (like Corn).

There are several ways to deal with the drought.  Drought requires efficient watering of gardens and landscaping, if it’s not already banned (see watering tips by Joe Lamp’l, host of PBS “Growing a Greener World”).  Some farmers are watering parts of their land while sacrificing others.

But more importantly, how could we be better prepared for drought in the future?  Well, we shouldn’t be wasting our resources on extracting, filtering, and purifying drinking water just to flush it down the toilet and wash the car. Water conservation is a primary concern today, but it should be habit on a daily basis.  It should be as simple as using greywater or collected rainwater for flushing toilets, watering the lawn, and washing cars.  The plants we add to our landscapes should be native, drought tolerant, and/or deep-rooted.  Irrigation to gardens and ag fields should be extremely efficient.  Drip irrigation and low-level, properly-timed sprayers can effectively provide moisture to the plants while minimizing loss by evaporation, salt-accumulation, and soil erosion.

Drought reduces moisture levels in the soil and leaves dry tinder for rampant wildfires.  Part of the reason for the terrible fires is from intense fire suppression by foresters.  Several years ago, we thought fire was bad in all circumstances.  We are now finding that fire is a natural part most ecosystems.  When fires are allowed to occur naturally and regularly, the understory kindling doesn’t usually build up so much as to scorch everything.  That is why controlled-burns and thinning of vegetation have become accepted practice in forests and prairies all over the world.  Burning reduces wildfire fuel, destroys intolerant invasive plants, and brings back native and natural growth.

Flooding

On the other end of the scale, flooding and especially flash flooding are dangerous occurrences that inundate homes and threaten lives.

What can you do for this?  Well, first, DO NOT build on a flood plain!  Just because you haven’t seen floodwaters reach far beyond its channel in your lifetime doesn’t mean it has happened before or will happen again.  The flat area along water bodies are naturally inundated during 1-in-10, 1-in-100, and 1-in-1000 year rain events.

Next, flooding tends to be exacerbated in urban areas where concrete, asphalt, and compacted soils prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground.  Instead, the water becomes surface runoff.  Most urban areas have sewer systems to carry away stormwater, but sometimes those systems reach capacity.  In cases where stormwater systems have been combined with sewer systems, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) can spew a mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage into waterways.

Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!

To fight flooding in urban areas, stormwater should be minimized or at least slowed down.  That can be done with pervious pavements, larger areas of urban parks and forests, retention ponds, and detention ponds.  We can store it in cisterns or rain barrels for later use.  We can also incorporate green infrastructure including grass swales; constructed, restored, or expanded wetlands; rain gardens, green roofs, green walls (an introduction), and pervious pavement.  These options generally add vegetation that can help store and evapotranspire the water and increasing the area of permanent and temporary water storage.  On top of minimizing stormwater runoff, many of these green technologies provide temperature benefits, air quality improvement, shade, soothing green space, opportunities for using native plants, and habitat for local wildlife.

Native Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve

Whitmire Wildflower Garden

Tornado Alley

You’d think everyone in the center of the country would have proper tornado protection plans.  Best places to be during harsh storms include a reinforced shelter, in a basement, or in a small interior room.  But because of geology, hydrology, and cost, many homes just don’t have protection.  Approximately 82 percent of the homes didn’t have basements in Joplin, Missouri, where the EF-5 Tornado struck last year (my college hometown).  In Oklahoma, it is very difficult and costly to construct a basement (See why).

So what can we do?  Well, we can build stronger homes and remove or secure obstacles outside that could become projectiles.  Also, we can incorporate safe rooms made from recycled plastic materials.  Recent research shows they work very well.  During the rebuilding of Joplin, many are choosing to install safe rooms.  EFJoplin (Originally Project JOMO) offers some of these safe rooms constructed from recycled materials.  This can divert great volumes of plastic from landfills, which are becoming fuller and fewer across the U.S.

On a related note, tornadoes, hurricanes and even violent straight-line winds can damage homes and leave many without power.  Most homes and businesses simply cannot function without electricity.  Some people cannot live without electric-powered medical devices, air conditioning, and heat.  What can we do about this?

Well, aside from building homes stronger and utilizing passive lighting and temperature moderation (skylights, large windows, etc. for natural light and air circulation), we could provide our own power and be semi-independent from the utilities.  Photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, combined with still-improving backup systems, can provide emergency power without fossil-fuel generators.

To be completely independent of the grid, these technologies must be employed with other innovations in sustainable building design.  Earthships (see a previous entry), for example, are completely off-the-grid homes with numerous innovations to make comfortable but efficient living possible.

I could go on and on.  To me, the principles of sustainability appear to align with improving the human need for food, water, and shelter.  If all of these are improved, we may be able to better weather what we receive from Mother Nature.

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Joplin’s Past, America’s Future

I make a lot of nature posts.  But as I said, nature isn’t always flowers and clear skies…

May 22, 2011.  We were enjoying an event at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.  The weather was hot, humid, windy, ominous.   As we headed out for dinner before attending a movie, texts and phone calls began coming in.  Slowly we got the news that Joplin and Duquesne were hit by a tornado.  I used to live there.  I went to college there.  Family and friends lived there and throughout  southwest Missouri.  Where exactly had it hit?  How big was it?   As we began to realize the magnitude of the tornado (later categorized as an EF-5), we frantically called to make sure everyone was OK.  Communication to SW Missouri was difficult without cell phone coverage and jammed lines.  The Internet and Facebook later became venues for finding out about people, donations, volunteering, immediate needs (Joplin Tornado Info was awesome).  But by the grace of God, the folks in my circle of family/friends were OK. I thought about a lot of what-ifs and heard about many close calls.  Dad was driving to Oklahoma from St Louis (the tornado crossed the highway at one point) but he stopped for dinner and missed the storm by maybe 30 minutes.  Mother-in-law, a nurse at St. John’s hospital, wasn’t working that day and was able to come in and work triage.  Brother-in-law had walked down Main Street and hid out in the cooler at Walgreen’s…luckily only minor damage to that building.  My former co-workers at Academy hunkered down in the back hallway and made it OK.  My old neighbors survived under a pile of debris in the bathtub.  My friend and her parents were all OK, despite being in a SUV when it hit.  Another college classmate miraculously made it through in his pickup.

I did not grasp the extent of the devastation until I arrived later that week.   Neighborhoods I knew well were unrecognizable.  Spray paint marked addresses, search/survivor statistics, and insurance companies.  The second floor (and parts of the first floor) of apartment complexes were wiped away.  We came across a dented bowling ball, plastic chairs jammed into walls, trees stripped of their bark, vehicles flung several blocks.  St. John’s hospital was shaken from its original foundation.  Small smoke clouds still lingered throughout the city.  I could hear chainsaws, ambulance sirens, sheet metal creaking in the wind.

We even came across a vehicle that STAYED in its garage as everything around it shattered.  The family in this home miraculously survived.  The high school is in the background.

This was a tragedy.  A volunteer and veteran equated the area to a war zone, knowing full well what that looks like.  So many lives lost.  So many injured.  So many lives changed.  To make things worse, looting put residents on edge.  On the flipside, volunteers came from around Joplin, neighboring towns, the four-state area, and from all over the world.  It was amazing!  Love thy neighbor!  I only had the chance to help out a few days. Some of us went into the tornado zone to help people dig for belongings and sort rubble.   I also helped sort donations (utilizing my old retail skills) and helped a friend clean out her house, which was damaged but salvageable.

This is a group of family, friends, and strangers standing in what I believe was the living room of a home.  We were able to find some valuables for the owners.

A year later, the debris is mostly cleared.  Joplin is rebuilding.  Many homes and businesses have returned.  The sound of construction supplants the sound of chainsaws and ambulances.  The Joplin HS class of 2012 graduated on Monday.  A year later, the community hold a Day of Unity in remembrance of the 161 lost, the healing survivors, and the gracious volunteers.

Obama addressing the Class of 2012.

My brother-in-law sits among his fellow classmates as President Obama praised their and Joplin’s strength and courage.

As Joplin rebuilds and heals, I hope that it will strive to promote sustainability as Greensburg, KS did after an EF-5 tornado ravaged it in 2007.  Stronger, cleaner, healthier buildings will improve lives and provide better shelter if another storm knocks at Joplin’s door.   Replacing the trees and flowers is also important to help provide greenery, shade, wind moderation, temperature moderation, and symbols of new growth.  It’s time to invest in the future, a safe and sustainable future.