Tuesday, July 8, 2008

When the Levee Breaks: Is the Culprit Rain--Or Overdevelopment?

When the Levee Breaks: Is the Culprit Rain--Or Overdevelopment?

At least 19 levees in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri have failed over the past week after heavy rains, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—and workers swarmed to shore up others with sandbags to prevent rising waters in the Mississippi and its tributaries from overflowing and washing away surrounding communities, farmland and soil. Engineers blame overdevelopment—and potentially poor maintenance of the levees—for the flooding.

"Whenever you have development, you are going to increase the runoff, increase how much the rivers and streams have to carry," says civil engineer W. Gene Corley, a senior vice president at CTLGroup, an engineering firm that evaluates infrastructure, such as levees. "The other side of that is that if you don't have development, you don't have housing for people or business or manufacturing."

In addition, by paving over previously open space—or farming previously reserved lands—communities in these watersheds contribute to record high waters through increased runoff.

This extra runoff is why waters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for example, rose to a record 30-plus feet (over nine meters). "The amount of development that has happened in communities up and down the river way creates less opportunity for water to be absorbed back into the earth as opposed to just running off," notes structural engineer Jeffrey Garrett, president and CEO of CTLGroup. "Suddenly, you've got a lot more water that has to flow between the levees."

Efforts to carve a controlled channel for the Missouri, Mississippi and their tributary rivers also contributed to the problem. The reason: the Mississippi now flows through a conduit roughly half the width of its channel that existed before most of the levees were built, which means more water passes faster through a narrower area. "Channeling the river means you are going to have higher crests in the river," Corley notes, that are sometimes higher than the levees built previously to contain them.

Ultimately, levee breaches in places like Gulfport, Ill., help preserve communities farther downriver—by siphoning off some of the raging waters. (When a levee breaks, some water remains and inundates the land behind the breached embankment. This lowered volume reduces the pressure downstream.)

The majority of levees in the Midwest have held so far during the torrential downpours, although those that failed, Corley says, may also have been poorly maintained. But, he adds, "it's too early to tell" the exact reasons the levees failed.

Failure to build strong enough levees—and fix known flaws in them—was blamed for catastrophic flooding in New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed more than 1,800 people and caused more than $81 billion in damage.


US plans storm warning system for East Africa
Associated Press Writer

Cell phone users in East Africa will be able to receive warnings when a storm is brewing thanks to a low-cost alert system U.S. scientists are hoping to set up in the next few years, officials said Tuesday.

The NextStorm system — a computer program that analyzes recent satellite images to predict where thunderstorms are likely to occur in the next hour — should be in place by the end of the decade, said Jacqueline Schafer of USAID told journalists in Geneva.

The U.S. development agency has already set up a similar system set to begin operating this summer in Central America together with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and local partners.

Local officials will use the information to alert the population by radio, television and mobile text message.

The system does not replace longer-term forecasts warning of hurricanes and tropical storms, which can take days to reach full strength.

The weather images cost almost nothing to use, because they are already being gathered routinely by geostationary satellites. The text messages are also especially valuable in developing countries where many people have mobile phones but no fixed-line service.

This makes the alert system comparatively cheap to install compared with the sophisticated weather radars developed countries use.

Exact figures are difficult to come by, but Schafer estimated that the Panama center which covers Central America has so far cost NOAA and USAID about $12 million.

Sometimes even moderate storms can cause millions of dollars in damage that could be reduced if residents get timely warnings to protect their livestock, secure their belongings and go indoors.

The new system in East Africa will also include facilities to map the spread of diseases and other hazards.

So far 14 countries in the region have joined the project, which is being assisted by the Geneva-based Group on Earth Observations, known as GEO.

GEO director Jose Achache said the American system would be compatible with others currently being developed, including one Japan is working on to alert parts of Asia to imminent storms.

Hurricane Chief: Funds, Research Can Improve Hurricane Forecasting

The National Hurricane Center's director says his organization would need tens of millions of dollars over the next decade for research to reduce substantially the errors in forecasting the intensity of hurricanes.

In an interview with The Associated Press on June 24, Bill Read said reducing errors by half would be a costly and time-consuming venture.

Intensity forecasts are much harder for meteorologists than predictions of where the hurricane will track.

Read also talked about the sensitive issue of a link between global warming and hurricanes. Read acknowledged that while people who model storms largely suggest global warming is real and going to get worse, they differ on the possible outcomes for hurricanes.


US Coast Guard responses to false maritime calls cost all parties involved

Friday, 27 June 2008

During the month of June, Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan units have responded to several calls that were heard on VHF channel 16 by people claiming to be in distress on the water.

On June 1, the Coast Guard responded to a radio call made by a child. The subsequent hour and a half search by a 25-foot small boat from Coast Guard Station Milwaukee and a HH-65 helicopter from Coast Guard Air Facility Waukegan for a supposed mariner in distress cost taxpayers an estimated $14,340.

For more than 210 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has responded to distress calls at sea and in local waterways. Usually the callers are truly in distress. But some of those calls are suspected or found to be false distress calls or hoaxes.

This causes concern because hoax calls hurt in the following ways: The Coast Guard by placing our people in danger by operating ships, boats and aircraft, responding to these false distress calls; the taxpayer by wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars annually; and those truly in distress by interfering with legitimate search-and-rescue cases.

It is a federal felony for anyone to knowingly and wilfully communicates a false distress message to the Coast Guard or causes the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help is needed. Penalties include up to six years in prison, $250,000 fine, $5,000 civil penalty, and possible reimbursement to the Coast Guard for costs of the search.

The Coast Guard must remain vigilant and take all distress calls seriously. The maritime environment is too dangerous to do otherwise. The perpetrator of a hoax call is fleecing America and the Coast Guard is working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Department of Justice to prosecute and recover costs for the federal government on behalf of the taxpayer.

If you hear a hoax, or you have information that might lead to the perpetrator of a hoax, call the nearest U.S. Coast Guard unit or contact the FCC.

State reimbursed $1.8m for Pasha Bulker salvage

THE NSW Government will be reimbursed $1.8 million for securing and salvaging the Pasha Bulker after the ship ran aground off Newcastle.

Ports and Waterways Minister Joe Tripodi said the amount was negotiated by Newcastle Port Corporation after a claim was lodged with Britannia Steam Ship Insurance Association in October last year.

The $1.8 million covers all the costs incurred by the State Government during the month-long rescue of the 225-metre bulk carrier, which ran aground off Nobbys Beach in wild weather in June last year.

"The rescue effort combined the skills and expertise of a wide range of agencies and personnel," Mr Tripodi said in a statement.

"The insurance claim was lodged in October and Newcastle Port Corporation worked on behalf of all the NSW agencies involved to reach an agreement."

The claim covered costs for labour, equipment hire, security, vessel and helicopter hire and services for response personnel. The settlement includes resources used as a precaution against an oil spill under the Marine Pollution Act.

The Government initially sought $1.95 million, which covered an administration surcharge and the Newcastle Port Corporation equipment.

However, the port corporation accepted the additional surcharge would not be paid as it was not an expense incurred by the State Government.

"This settlement covers the costs incurred by NSW taxpayers attributable to the Pasha Bulker incident. The settlement is a good outcome," Mr Tripodi said.