Thursday, May 2, 2013

5/2/2013 Namazu Re-do

Editors Note: Hurricane season starts next month. How bad can it get?  Namazu reminds us that Katrina and Sandy notwithstanding, no one alive today has seen the "big one".


 To those of you who haven't been alive these last 3,000 years Frankenstorm Sandy probably seems like the  biggest weather related disaster of all time in the United States. However I'm sure many of you remember Katrina and some of you may recall that like Sandy, Katrina had another storm follow right on her heels , Hurricane Rita.  The one, two punch of Katrina/ Rita spread damage from Biloxi , Mississippi to Beaumont Texas , wiped the Mississippi Gulf Coast off its foundations and drowned the City of New Orleans. Katrina/Rita rivaled Sandy and her trailing rain/snow event in sheer number of square miles devastated  The North East being more densely populated the homelessness and property damage of Sandy may end up exceeding the similar damage of Katrina/ Rita. Katrina' Rita however killed far more people than Frakenstorm Sandy. If you are in your sixties you might remember Hurricanes Betsy and Camille in the 1960s which also devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But none of those named storms were the most destructive event in U.S. history, neither was the Great Chicago Fire or the San Francisco Earth Quake.

File:Galveston Hurricane (1900) SWA.JPG
The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Image from the U.S. Weather Service

 On September 8, 1900 a storm killed approximately 10,000 people on the Texas Gulf Coast. The death toll from that storm was greater than the fatalities from the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined. It is thought  that the storm was a Category 4 hurricane but storms were neither categorized nor named back in 1900 and it roared ashore near Galveston, Texas with no warning. In those days before tropical storm systems were named and their histories closely studied this storm was simply known as "The Great Galveston Hurricane". The truth is that the death toll is the only thing about the Great Galveston Hurricane that we really know with a major degree of accuracy. How it compared in wind speed, rain fall, embedded tornadoes, and sustained gusts, or barometric fall compared to Audrey  Betsy, Camille, Katrina, or Sandy is unknown. In 1900 our weather records were in their infancy as was the science of meteorology.

File:Galveston - 1900 homes.jpg
Destruction at Galveston 1900

 Destruction at Galveston was total except for a very few  solid stone or masonry buildings. By "solid' we mean real weight bearing walls of stone or masonry not brick or stone veneer. Even the solid stone or masonry buildings that did survive had their interiors and contents ruined by flood waters. Had some of these solid stone or masonry building been built upon artificial mounds elevated about 15 to 30 feet depending on location above grade and the buildings and contents may have survived. This is one of the lessons of the Galveston storm, Really solid buildings ("light house standard construction"), built on elevated mounds of sufficient height and water resistance can usually withstand the worst coastal storms known. This type of construction is very expensive, so there were few such buildings on Galveston Island. Today city and county governments in coastal areas should re-examine the location of police and fire stations , hospitals, libraries, schools ( which often double as public shelters), local government offices, court houses, and nursing  homes. One storm in the nineties which caused an evacuation of certain Houston, Texas nursing homes resulted in several deaths of patients due to the stress of evacuation. Such facilities for the frail need to be storm proofed and equipped with self contained generator power of long duration and high enough capacity to support near normal building function, with smaller scale back up. This makes these building very expensive to acquire. But such buildings are "built for the ages" and should not have any near term replacement costs.

File:Galveston Texas Federal Building 1891.jpg

 So how often do these massively destructive weather events happen? Are we seeing increasing frequency based on climate change? This will sound weird to humans with a life expectancy of under 100 years but at 3,000 years of age I'm too young to know. The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. The climate was been warming at about about one half to three quarters of a degree C since 1840. Frankly by 7,000 years after the last ice age when I was formed, the climate was not radically different from what it is now, and living at the bottom of the sea of Japan I wasn't terribly affected. Humans just didn't do much in the way of weather record keeping much before 1840. According to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data in the last 16 years the average world temperature has begun to stabilize and even cool .  This is why the "Namazu School of climate studies doesn't debate on whether of not the climate is changing, it is always changing. We concentrate on how to protect coastal communities , and urban populations from the worst that the range of weather withing existing climate zones has to offer , and from sudden dramatic climate change which the fossil record indicates happens at widely spaced but unpredictable intervals. Was Galveston 1900 the worst the Gulf of Mexico can kick up? Frankly not only do we not know, we don't even know for sure just how bad it was. We just know it was a the major people killer on record so far in the United States.

 The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is worth studying for a number of lessons. Galveston in 1900 was mostly filled with the type of local architecture that we usually recommend. As we predict these structures were completely destroyed, but relatively quickly and inexpensively replaced. In those days when the insurance industry wasn't what it is today, FEMA didn't exist. The Airplane hadn't been invented yet, so the initial Federal Response was by members of the U.S. Revenue Marine, U.S. Light House Service, and U.S. Life Saving service the organizations that would form the U.S. Coast Guard 17 years later that were in actual residence on Galveston Island. These Federal personnel were badly mauled themselves. The Light House Keeper's home, as opposed to the light tower, was destroyed and his wife swept away (her body was later recovered). The surviving Life Saving Service crewmen had to scrounge for equipment. Only the crew of the local Revenue Cutter who rode out the storm on their steel ship had most of their pre-storm resources intact. With the island literally littered in dead bodies and debris, with most homes destroyed, returning local residents and Texas  National Guard and public safety personnel cleared the island rapidly of debris and burned or buried the bodies in mass pits, or towed rafts of the dead out to sea. Galveston which appeared destroyed beyond any hope of recovery the morning after the storm began retaking shape within weeks through mostly local efforts. While Galveston didn't receive the type of massive federal effort that would be launched in the wake of such a disaster today , the timing of the disaster aided the locals in a number of ways that have lessons for coastal residents today.

 First 1900 was a time when the utility and communication  grids were far from mature. Bringing a single telegraph line onto the island after the storm restored "modern communications" almost to pre-storm levels. The housing stock that was destroyed  was mostly self contained for lighting, passive cooling features, and  heat, independent of any grid and was replaced with similar housing. The replacement housing was largely reflective of elements of the "Raised West Indies Cottage ", and were "Carpenter designed and built" at relatively low costs. But this low cost replacement housing was not without architectural interest or charm and structural integrity. Quite a bit of it still stands today. The volunteers and residents swarming back onto Galveston Island after the storm had lived in houses that used oil lamps and candles for lights for much of their lives, and knew how to camp with rather minimal gear. As soon as the dead were removed, people moved in among the ruins and started clearing and rebuilding. While insurance wasn't what it is today mutual benevolent societies flourished and most people had church affiliations and churches played a major role in disaster relief. In 1900 any big federal response required action by Federal office holders 1600 miles away by train. You can bet that by the time the federal government had a bigger presence on Galveston Island than the one ship and few dozen men of the Coast Guard predecessor agencies who were stationed on the island, that the dead were processed (though few identified), the main streets cleared, and rebuilding had begun. The eye of the storm was thought to have gone ashore about 8 miles below Galveston. The Coast was sparsely settled at the time , Galveston being the major urban center in the region. So quite a number of factors worked to limit the width of the destructive path, localizing the damage mostly to Galveston Island, and facilitate a recovery by mostly state and regional resources. Eventually Galveston would raise its sea front atop a rubble mound and seaside retaining wall with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assistance, but this would be years after the Hurricane. The Galveston event , despite the near total destruction of infrastructure and housing , was naturally compartmentalized by the level of development on the Texas Coast at the relevant time and the relative development of the various utility and communication grids in 1900.

 What we can learn from the 1900 Galveston storm is the benefit of compartmentalization, even if by accident of history. What we can't learn from it, or from much of the last 3,000 years, is the real upper limits of wind speed, rain, or gross storm system size. We may have not yet seen the maximum storm system during the period for which we have reliable observations and records. The coast line is much more crowded now with settlements, so compartmentalization must now be deliberate and planned.

To learn more about the Hurricane of 1900 Namazu suggests:
Click on the book cover icons to learn more about each title.

  LOST GALVESTON by Brian M. Davis       

                                                                GALVESTON, A HISTORY OF THE ISLAND
                                                                                       By Gary Cartwright

                              by Ellen Beasley
                                                                                    ISSAC'S STORM by Eric Larson

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