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Can Severe Weather Ever Be Avoided?

April 07, 2014; 4:04 AM

Severe weather can be both fear-inducing and awe-inspiring. The threat to lives and property that occurs during a severe weather event can create panic that lasts well after an event is over, even for people who did not live through the event themselves. People may cope with these fears by trying to find a way to take control of the situation, be it by preparing for an emergency weather event, living in an area where their most-feared weather threat is less likely, or for some, finding a cause of blame when tragedy does strike.

Related: U.S. Tops List of Natural Disaster Losses for 2012

Many times after a dangerous weather event occurs, some will be quick to blame the victims for not doing more to prepare, or even for choosing to live in an area where such events are likely to occur. However, with the United States' widely diverse geography and large population, is there really anywhere a person can live where they can expect to completely stay out of harm's way?

Earthquakes

Most of the most devastating earthquakes in U.S. history have occurred along the West Coast. Hardest hit have been Alaska, Hawaii and California, but Washington state and Oregon are not immune. This coast is part of the Ring of Fire, an area in the Pacific where plate boundaries meet and create numerous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. When the plates move against one another, it creates seismic waves that can topple buildings. Earthquakes are most common along these lines; 81 percent of the largest earthquakes in the world happen in this region. Though more common in this region, they are possible elsewhere. While 81 percent may be a majority, that still leaves 19 percent that have occurred outside of this region.

To prepare for earthquakes, California buildings have different requirements than other parts of the country. The U.S. Geological Survey states that "building codes provide the first line of defense against future earthquake damage and help to ensure public safety." Specifications include the way walls are anchored and the supports in buildings.

Hurricanes

Hurricanes rank high among the the costliest U.S. disasters each year, with Hurricane Katrina still holding the top spot at over $100 billion. Entire towns can be leveled in a hurricane and the rebuilding process often takes a long time. It is no wonder that many may live in fear of hurricanes and the devastation they can bring, but is it enough to say that people who want to avoid a hurricane should just avoid the areas where they are most likely?

Hurricane Katrina spinning in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by NOAA.

While hurricanes have areas they are more likely to target, due both to geographical and meteorological factors, Dr. Chris Landsea, science and operations officer for NOAA/NWS/NCEP/National Hurricane Center, said that any area along the coast is potentially at risk. With over 53 percent of the U.S population living near the coast, the potential for impacts are incredibly high.

One of the areas most likely to be hit by a hurricane is southeastern Florida. Miami has a return period of six years, meaning that the city has an average risk of a hurricane coming within 50 miles of its coast every six years. This is due in part to its location near waters that are likely to have hurricanes form, along with the location of the city on a part of the state that juts out into the sea. Jacksonville, Fla., by comparison, has a return rate of 13 years. Though less than 350 miles away from Miami, Jacksonville's location farther north and slightly more west keeps it safer from a hurricane. Hurricanes will typically move in a more northern line by the time they are at the latitude of Jacksonville, bringing them a greater distance away from the coast.

Louisiana is another area prone to hurricane strikes, with a return period of seven to 14 years for spots along its coast. North Carolina which, thanks to its location farther out to sea than other Southeastern states, has a return period of five to seven years. While the Southeast coast has the highest probability of being hit by hurricanes, Landsea stated that any coastal area is potentially at risk. Though a storm of Sandy's strength hitting so far north was rare, it was by no means an entirely unlikely event. Even Pacific states can be susceptible, especially Hawaii. Though even rarer, hurricanes may also hit the West Coast. One did in 1858, and the chance that one could hit again cannot be ruled out.

Landsea also stressed that return rates are averages used to gauge the frequency of storms and are by no means a guarantee. Hurricanes won't return to Miami like clockwork every six years. They may also occur more frequently than the return period suggests.

"[Hurricanes] don't care what happened last year," Landsea said.

There are ways for people to prepare for hurricanes. One way is to be sure to have emergency plans, including those for pets, set well in advance of a storm. Evacuating before a storm hits is a crucial way to save not only the lives of those living in the threatened area, but also of emergency personnel. Preparing your home with the right building codes ensures the highest level of safety for property. Areas in Florida, for example, are required to have buildings that can withstand higher winds than area required of areas, in say, Ohio.

Tornadoes

Like hurricanes, tornadoes can be incredibly destructive, but have the additional stress of being much more challenging to predict. Storms that are likely to spawn tornadoes can be forecast to some degree. AccuWeather Meteorologist Dale Mohler said, for example, that in a thunderstorm where tornadoes are possible, they will typically come from the southern side of a storm. Stronger tornadoes are also generally associated with high surface relative humidity, making them less likely to carry significant strength in the Southwest. While these storms can be predicted, the exact moment and location of a tornado typically remains unknown until it starts to form. From there, the warning for where it will touch down could be under 20 minutes.

AccuWeather's Mike Smith, expert senior meteorologist and sr. vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, said that the area most likely to get hit by strong tornadoes is central to southwestern Oklahoma. This location is more prone to tornadoes than anywhere else in the world. An area of the U.S. known as Tornado Alley has the overall strongest tornado possibilities. This strip of the country, extending from Texas to South Dakota into Iowa and southern Minnesota, is likely to have severe thunderstorms that will spin up tornadoes because of the clash of air that can occur in this region. Cold, dry air from the Rockies can move east and mix with warm, humid air off of the Gulf Coast. Add in the warm, dry air of the Southwest, and conditions are primed for deadly tornadoes.

Damage from a Lapeer County, Mich., tornado that hit March 15, 2012. Photo by gabes1976

So with the chances of tornadoes being so high, why would people choose to live there?

"I've lived in Tornado Alley my entire life and I love it," said Smith. "A non-weather place like San Diego, in spite of its other attractions, would bore me to tears. I love weather, and I love seeing the constantly changing majesty of Mother Nature."

Smith added that there is an appeal to living in this region even for those who are not as enthusiastic about weather as he is. "The friendly people [and] low cost of living, combined with a wonderful lifestyle."

He also noted that Forbes once said Wichita had the best quality of life for the price of any city in the U.S. It has also been ranked in the top 10 happiest cities to work in.

"[It] more than compensates for having to go to the basement once or twice a year," Smith said.

There have also been advances in technology that have made tornadoes easy to prepare for. Towns in Tornado Alley have tornado sirens and other emergency services that alert people to an incoming threat. People can build their own tornado shelters, and towns will have local emergency shelters for those who do not have their own. Smith noted in his book Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, that an F5 tornado leveled 95 percent of the town of Udall, Kan., and resulted in numerous fatalities. A similarly sized town, Greensburg, Kan., was hit by an eerily similar tornado in 2007, which also leveled 95 percent of the town. But thanks to the advancements that have been made in warning systems, Greensburg, despite its higher population than Udall, saw one-fourteenth of the causalities.

While conditions are more likely to favor tornadoes in the central part of the country, tornadoes have been known to form in states across the U.S.

Fires

Areas to the west of Tornado Alley have threats of their own. The National Interagency Fire Center listed areas in California and the Southwest for having the highest risks for wildfires this summer. Nineteen of the top 20 fires that burned over 100,000 acres occurred in areas west of the Mississippi, most of them in Alaska with others in Oregon, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas. Dry conditions and strong winds in these areas makes fires spark easily, whether from human-caused negligence or natural lightning from dry thunderstorms.

People in more fire-prone areas take precautions against creating and spreading the flames. Fire restrictions tell people when they cannot burn things on their property. Landscape and home care guidelines also help reduce risks. Educating people on how to contain fires, and how to properly dispose of flammable materials can help prevent them.

Photo by the Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons.

Droughts

Fire dangers often coincide with droughts. Droughts cost the U.S. billions of dollars in lost crops and livestock, the residual effects of which can be felt for years. Not only do drought conditions increase the risk of fires, they can also cause dust storms. While drought effects can be felt on a national and even global scale, areas in drought are more likely to feel the impacts, including water restrictions. Lands can feel the devastation of drought to such an extent that soil compositions are changed and nutrients diminished, risking future growing efforts. For those living in drought areas, these conditions can drastically alter their livelihoods.

Drought conditions are strongest in the Southwest and Plains. Graphic by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

There are steps for residents of drought regions to take to help protect themselves from the dry conditions. Water conservation is especially key, from ceasing to wash cars with hoses to fixing leaky faucets. Improved irrigation and rain water collections also make surviving a drought a little easier for those who are prepared for it.

Snow and Ice

While concerns in the West are heavily influenced by dry and warm weather, the North is no stranger to disaster. Each winter, snow and ice storms close schools and businesses from across the northern Plains to New England. Power outages also take their toll, heating costs can be substantial and confined areas with closed windows help spread sickness.

Northerners are equipped to handle the conditions, however. Snow removal services, from sanding and plowing roads to shoveling public walkways, are enforced to help ease travel. Snow tires can also be placed on vehicles to make driving safer. For those used to snowy winters, storms that may bring activity to a halt in other regions are nothing remarkable.

The Psychology of Victim-Blaming

In the 3,794,101 square miles that make up the United States there are over 313.9 million people. To try to live in areas with no severe weather risks is impossible. Even areas that are less likely to see a certain extreme may not be immune. Earthquakes have hit Maryland. New Hampshire has had tornadoes. Snow has fallen in Georgia. Yet when a natural disaster strikes it is common to see comments blaming the victims for "choosing" to live in a location, as if they could have known for sure, as if the decision for where one lives can be entirely determined by an individual, independent of economic factors. Career paths need to be taken into account. With unemployment rates at 7.5 percent with many industries facing higher layoffs than others, not everyone has the option to decline a good job in their field because they are concerned about the weather in an area. Nor is it easy or affordable for people to up and move from a location they may have been born and raised by no choice of their own. So why might people claim to withhold any sympathy from natural disaster victims on the grounds that "it's what they get for living there"?

According to Dr. Rich Carlson, associate head professor of Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, this may be partly contributed to Fundamental Attribution Error. It is a coping mechanism people may default to when they are afraid.

"People can look at what happens to themselves and know all the factors that lead to it," he said. "But they don't know some details for what may have impacted other people. They end up looking at another's situation and filter it through their own experiences instead and judge accordingly."

Essentially, it is a way for people to comfort themselves when they consider situations they may be afraid of. If they can say that there was a human fault that caused someone to be a victim, than they may be able to justify away their fears by assuring themselves that they won't be a victim because they did not or would make that decision. In the example of living in a severe weather location, the "decision" is to live in that particular area.

Similarly, Carlson explains how the Just World View may explain this mentality.

"People may protect themselves by trying to feel in control," he said.

For those thinking through the lens of the Just World View, in order to feel in control, they believe that the world needs to be just, that things happen for a reason and not at random. If tragedies happen at random than they cannot be controlled, and that thought is frightening to many people. In a Just World View, people may try to justify bad things by convincing themselves that victims had brought it on themselves, so that they may then "play by the rules" and stay safe from a similar occurrence. Carlson stated that people with more fear towards a specific event may be more likely to look for a human error to blame when the event happens. A person who finds tornadoes to be the most frightening kind of weather, for example, may be more likely to say that a tornado victim had it coming for living in central Oklahoma.

Sometimes it is the unknown elements of these types of weather that factor into the level of fear a person may have. Residents of North Carolina may scoff at panicked Northerners facing a potential hurricane, because Carolinians are used to hurricanes and are generally prepared to handle them. The idea of a giant blizzard may make them more uneasy, instead, because they do not have the same level of experience with them. It may seem scarier to think of an earthquake for someone who lives in Tornado Alley, because they may not be aware of the architecture codes that help keep buildings and people safe.

Tragedies happen. With the vast, varied landscape of the U.S., there are many different natural disasters that can affect the people who live here. A person may choose not to live near the coast to avoid hurricanes, but they may put them at a greater risk of tornadoes. People may live in mountains to avoid tornadoes, but it increases their risks for snowstorms or mudslides. Unprecedented snow or rain levels can cause houses near streams or rivers to have flooding that they have never seen before, but it may not be feasible for homeowners to relocate as a precaution. With over three million people living in the U.S., the few areas that may be statistically safer cannot possibly fit everyone. Even then, weather cannot be controlled, and areas that are less likely to be faced with a specific type of weather event may still experience one.

People will likely continue to try and find fault in others when a catastrophe occurs, but that only accomplishes a sense of safety for themselves that may often be unrealistic. To actually feel in control of a weather situation, people should have emergency plans for if a disaster does occur. They can also visit certified and reputable organizations such as the Red Cross to donate to those in need following a natural disaster.

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