Friday, December 31, 2010

Weather and Fire Safety

Weather conditions are a big factor in the risk of wildfire.

A good, steady rain soaks into the ground and vegetation. Grass and trees in the ground have plenty to drink, so the stems and trunks are full of water. A stray cigarette butt or lightning strike is less likely to spark a fire. When it's very dry, grass and trees dry out, too. They get brittle, and any stray bit of ash can ignite a fire that will spread quickly through wooded areas.

A lot of wind is also bad news. Have you ever blown on a burning cinder and watched it glow brighter or even flare up? If a breeze hits ash from a campfire or a hot spot from lightning just right, it can keep it burning and ignite dry materials nearby. Wind also spreads fire. It pushes the flames across fields. It picks up burning ash and debris and carries it to new areas. That's one way that fire can cross a road or ditch that would normally act as a barrier.

The National Weather Service has a page on Fire Weather Conditions. Your state's Forestry Service or Fire Marshall's office website may also have information on fire dangers. Before you set off fireworks, burn trash and debris, or start a campfire, check the conditions and make sure it's safe. Check with your local fire department about burn permits. When you are putting out a fire on the ground, stir up the ashes; even if you douse the area with water, hot spots can remain deep inside the ash for days. Those hot spots can reignite and if the fire grows and spreads, it could put homes, human lives, wildlife and firefighters at risk.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Off-Season Safety - Surviving the Holidays

I turned on the radio last night to listen to the news, and I heard a horrible story. A mother and adult son died in their home because of a fire that is still under investigation, but friends say that space heaters used in the home were probably to blame. The family dog probably perished as well.
Right after that story, they reported on another house fire where thankfully, no one was hurt, but the home sustained major fire, smoke and water damage. That one was caused by ash or debris flying out of the fireplace, alighting combustible material nearby.

When I started looking for the details on those two fires, I found a report of another blaze (left) that destroyed a home this morning. The cause is under investigation, but the fire chief believes space heaters are to blame. No one was physically hurt, but the residents are homeless now.
That article contained information on another situation where the house didn't burn, but smoke was backing up in the home because the fireplace flue wasn't opened correctly -- a fire waiting to happen, and certainly if the people who lived there had been asleep with no working alarm, they could have perished from the smoke.

All this reminds of a story from a few years ago, when a woman and her daughter died in a fire. They were on disability, as I recall, and they didn't have electricity in their home. We were in a really cold snap, as we are this week, and they were trying to stay warm by burning a fire in a metal drum.

This is always the most dangerous time of year for house fires in Northwest Florida. We're experiencing the first sustained cold temperatures of the year, and in addition to trying to stay warm, people are distracted with the holidays, they're cooking more, they're adding Christmas trees and holiday lights into the mix, and the risk shoots up.

Here are my safety tips, which I have learned from years in the news business.

The space in "space heater" is the space you need to leave around it. Many fires begin when a heater gets tipped over (newer ones will automatically shut off when knocked over). Other fires start because a blanket or clothes or anything flammable ends up on top of the heater. Make sure your space heater is in a clear area, and check it frequently to make sure a child, pet or the wind doesn't create a fire hazard by putting something flammable near or on the heater.

If you must burn a fire: be sure that your chimney is clean, the flue is functioning correctly and it's open, you have clear space in front of the fireplace, and you have a good fireplace screen to catch ash that might flight out.

Please, never burn a fire indoors in anything other than a fireplace or properly installed wood-burning stove. Properly installed means it has venting to take the smoke outside. A smoky room can kill you, too, plus if it's not venting out, that means the risk of hot ash is higher in the house as well.

Have your heating system serviced and cleaned annually. Carbon monoxide is the silent killer. Whole families die in their sleep from dirty heating systems or leaks.

Read the labels on electronics, appliances and holiday lights. Make sure you're not overloading your outlets. Use surge protectors. Make sure cords are out of the way. Check once in a while to make sure the cords, outlets, and power strips aren't hot to the touch.

Major open flame fire hazard: blowing curtains. When you're lighting candles or building a fire, take a moment to step back and survey the surroundings with an eye to safety. Is there anything flammable nearby? Are there papers, lightweight materials or toys that could get blown or knocked into the flames? Never, ever leave the house with a fire burning or candles lit.

Here are some more links to fire safety tips:

Underwriters Laboratories: Top 10 Tips for Safer Holidays
Underwriters Laboratories: Christmas Tree Fire Video - It only takes a minute
National Fire Protection Association: Put a Freeze on Winter Fires
U.S. Fire Administration: Holiday Fire Safety

My tips are mostly on preventing fires. If the worst happens, are you prepared?
Do you have:

working smoke detectors?
a family escape plan?
copies of important documents, such as identification and insurance records, off site?

Thinking about what you would do -- how you would get out, how you'd make sure your family members are all safe and accounted for -- will ease your mind in the event of an emergency.

It's easier said than done sometimes, but most possessions can be replaced. Sure, if your house
burns, you may lose precious mementos, but as hard as they are to lose, they are just things. The truly important thing is that your family members get out alive.

Underwriters Laboratories is running a promotion with several bloggers right now. I am not one of those bloggers. I receive no compensation from anyone for any part of this post. I only mention it because I did learn about UL's online fire safety tips through one of these blogs, and I don't want there to be any confusion.

Stay safe.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Almost over for another year

The 2010 hurricane is almost over, at least as far as the official dates go. Every now and then we'll see a December storm or even one in January.

They're usually Atlantic storms that don't come close to land.

This year's season wasn't quite a record-breaker. From Alex in June to Tomas, which kicked up in October and fizzled out ten days ago, we saw a total of 19 named storms. Twelve of those storms were hurricanes, and five reached major hurricane strength (category 3 or higher).

2010 is (tied with 1995 and 1887) the third busiest hurricane season in the past 160 years. The busiest, well I don't need to look that one up. It was 2005, the year that Dennis and Katrina hit my area. That season brought 27 named storms - and four of them blew up between November 18 and January 6, 2006. What was I just saying about post-season storms?

I read one article that stated that none of the storms this season hit the United States. While technically true -- none of the storms made landfall on a U.S. coastline -- the storms did impact the United States. Hermine made landfall in Mexico but quickly moved into Texas. Several storms passed close by and/or dissipated right off the Gulf Coast or Eastern Seaboard. Storms in the Gulf put the BP oil spill clean-up on hold a couple of times.

I'm not saying that we weren't lucky. We were very lucky. It seems impossible that in a year with 19 named storms, the U.S. didn't get hit. Not that I'm complaining!

If you'd like to review the 2010 season and learn more about the storms and statistics of 2010, visit Wikipedia. For historical data on storms going back over a hundred years, check out Unisys Weather.

Now, time to start moving those canned goods out of the emergency kit and using them for winter meals.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Be Aware and Prepared

If you live in a coastal community, it's your responsibility to know what's happening in the tropics between June 1 and November 30, the official dates of hurricane season. Of course, hurricanes don't have calendars and can occur at any time of year, but the worst ones typically happen during these months.

The reason I bring this up is that while the American media tends to overhype everything, other interests in the Atlantic and Gulf regions may not.

Consider this:
On September 12, after looking at the National Hurricane Center's track (right) and the computer models for Hurricane Igor, I visited the website for The Royal Gazette, the newspaper for Bermuda. I found no mention of Igor, though the paper does maintain an online "Hurricane Awareness" section.

I tweeted my surprise:
It always amazes me that Bermuda's Royal Gazette doesn't carry advance information on hurricanes that will pass close to or hit the island.
7:33 PM Sep 12th via web

I received this response:
@Auriette We do, but unless it is going to be a direct threat, it does not much of a story
8:15 AM Sep 13th via Seesmic Web

Two or three days later, I didn't note the date, one article about Igor did appear in the online edition. The tone was, to my mind, very non-committal, like the Weather Service and/or the reporter were reluctant to get anyone overly excited, in case the storm didn't affect the island.

Saturday, the front page is full of reports about Igor. The storm's outer bands have already reached Bermuda, with the eye expected to pass very close to the island on Sunday evening. In the satellite image (left) Bermuda is in the yellow box at the top.

The Royal Gazette's handling of the Igor story is the opposite of how U.S. mainstream media operates. The Weather Channel, cable news, and local news outlets focus so much attention on a potential disaster, that viewers get sick of hearing about it or begin disbelieving the "hype."

I don't know if it's because I worked in the news business for seven years or because I've been through a major hurricane or both, but hype or not, I'd rather have as much advance notice as possible. What about you?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Earl is on the Way

If you live in North Carolina or Virginia, there's a good chance you're going to feel the force of Earl later this week. Earl is presently a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 135 miles per hour and higher gusts. The storm is over 400 miles wide!

Even if the eye of the storm stays off shore, hurricane force winds (sustained winds of 70mph or higher) extend outward from the eye up to 70 miles. Tropical storm force winds (39mph or higher) extend up to 200 miles from the eye.

The current track, always subject to change by a few degrees, brings the eye fairly close to the North Carolina coast. East coast residents should expect wind, rain, storm surge, and flooding. Be prepared for power outages. Pick up potential flying objects from your yard. Keep a close eye on the forecast tracks in case anything changes.

Be safe.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Earl Moves West, Where Next?

Earl is a little more south and west today than the National Hurricane Center was predicting on Thursday. That the track is as accurate as it is, is a testament to the knowledge that forecasters have about how storms move and to the computer tools that crunch the data. They're doing a marvelous job.

However, weather forecasting is a system of educated guesses. The fact that the track was a little off is to be expected. That's why they have that big cone of uncertainty around the track. One little wobble, one slight deviation can send the storm hundreds of miles in a different direction.

If you live in the Caribbean Islands you should be ready to feel the storm's effects, and as Earl makes up his mind which way he's going next, I encourage anyone living on the Eastern Seaboard, particularly in the Carolinas or Virginia, to make preliminary preparations for Earl's passing.

Hopefully, you already did some prep work for Danielle and breathed a big sigh of relief when she stayed well east of U.S. shores. Think about the two or three days notice you might get if Earl ends up coming your way. What will you need to do during that time? What can you do now to save yourself time if the hurricane comes your way?

Many of my earlier posts on this blog offer suggestions for things to think about ahead of a natural disaster. You can also visit the links on my sidebar for checklists and tips for preparation.

Here are some ideas:

Before the storm:
Prepare your property for high winds and heavy rains.
Know if you need to evacuate or sandbag your home.
Be ready to prepare meals without electricity or running water.
Care for your family's health, and that includes the family pets.

After the storm:
Make temporary repairs.
File insurance claims.
Notify friends, family and co-workers of your situation.
Will you have to report for work? Or will you be living without a paycheck?

Please don't wait until the last minute to think things through.
You'll need to remain calm and take quick action if the storm turns your way.
Advance planning is the key.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Double Whammy in the Atlantic

If I lived on the island of Bermuda or in a coastal community on the Eastern Seaboard, I would buy some extra water and canned goods, make sure I had fresh batteries for the radio and flashlights, and keep a close eye on Hurricane Danielle.

Danielle is currently a category 2 hurricane and is expected to strengthen over the next couple of days.

The National Hurricane Center shows Danielle continuing to travel north in the Atlantic, with the eye passing to the east of Bermuda, but several computer models show the storm making a sharp turn to the west, which could take it into one of the mid-Atlantic states. And even if the storm's eye misses Bermuda, the island is still likely to get some high winds, heavy surf and flooding.

The effects of a hurricane can reach hundreds of miles from the eye. When Hurricanes Gustav and Ike crossed the Gulf in 2008, they were hundreds of miles from Northwest Florida's Gulf Coast, but low-lying areas and waterfront properties still experienced storm surge-related flooding.

What's the harm of stocking up on a few supplies now? You can still drink the water and eat the food, even if the storm doesn't hit and you don't lose power. You'll still use the batteries in your cameras, toys, or remote controls. If the storm does come your way, you'll be glad you hit the grocery store before the frenzy started, plus you'll gain time to do all the other prep needed before a hurricane strike.

While you're keeping an eye on Danielle, watch Tropical Storm Earl as well. The computer models are showing Earl following a similar track to Danielle, although none of them are showing Earl turning to the west. At least not yet.

I won't rest easy until it actually makes the northerly turn that everyone's predicting. Right now, it's aimed squarely towards the Gulf.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tropical Depression 6 could get a name soon.

The last tropical low that was expected to get a name, never did gain that much strength. Good for us. Tropical depression 6, now swirling in the Atlantic, is expected to strengthen to a Tropical Storm in the next few hours and could be a hurricane by Monday. It's headed toward the general area of Bermuda, and no matter which way it goes, the island nation should be prepared for higher than normal tides and lots of strong waves.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TS Danielle

Tropical Depression 5 has formed in the Gulf and is expected to become Tropical Storm Danielle by morning. The storm is forecast to cross over the Deepwater Horizon oil leak area and make landfall in Louisiana on Thursday. Don't know what this will mean for the capping and clean-up efforts. Folks on the coast can expect heavy waves and strong tides, possible flooding. Be safe, everyone.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Should You Evacuate?

I'll not soon forget the night I was working as a TV news producer, cranking out the 10pm newscast with a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast. I answered the news hotline and a frantic woman was on the other end. She wanted someone to tell her what to do, where to go.

As a news producer, I gave people the facts, information that they could use to make a decision for themselves. It wasn't my place to tell this woman whether to stay or go or whether she should head north, east or west, just as I cannot write here what you should do in the event a hurricane is coming your way. I can tell you what to consider when you're making up your mind what to do.

Where are you?

If you're a few miles inland, not in a flood zone, in a well-built house, you can probably ride out the storm at home. You'll want to have at least three days worth of food and water for the humans and animals that share your life. Flashlights, a radio, and extra batteries. Fill up your car and get an extra can of gas in case it's a few days before you can fill up again. Extra gas if you have a generator. Refill your prescriptions if you need to, stock your first aid kit, and it's not a bad idea to have a couple of tarps and a rope on hand in case you have some damage. Board up your windows and pick up anything in your yard that could become a missile in 150mph winds. Be prepared, and you'll probably be just as safe as you would in the closest school.

Sometimes you have to go

If you live within a mile or two of the coast, you may be at risk of storm surge aka inland flooding. The best way I can describe storm surge is to tell you that it's the highest high tide you will ever experience. It is a wall of water, with waves on top, and it can literally sweep a house off its foundation.

The residents of Grande Lagoon subdivision in Pensacola, Florida, learned that from Hurricane Ivan. About 30 residents stayed in their waterfront homes during the storm, and several died.

Even if you don't live right on the coast, if you live in a flood zone, chances are you'll be dealing with high water. Rivers crest and drainage systems are quickly overtaxed, especially when branches and other debris start blowing around. [Photo: Flooding after Hurricane Floyd]

Rising flood waters not only put you at risk of drowning, it's an unsanitary situation that could lead to infection or disease.

Medical Concerns


Is anyone in your household dependent on electricity? If someone relies on an oxygen machine or other medical equipment, keep in mind that it's very rare not to lose power in a tropical storm. It's not impossible that your power will stay on, but I wouldn't count on it.

If it's really difficult for you to evacuate, call your power company NOW and talk to someone about their priorities in a massive outage. They may be able to put you on a "medically necessary" list, ensuring that your neighborhood is one of the first to be restored. Bear this in mind: power crews can't just rush in. Downed trees have to be cleared. New poles may have to be erected.

Keep in mind, too, that if something happens during the storm, an ambulance cannot get to you. Even after the storm passes, you may not be able to drive your own vehicle out. Can you survive in isolation for hours or days? Are you in physical condition to clear your own road if necessary?

These are the things you should think about now, not when the storm is a few hours away from landfall.

Where should you go?

For information on free public shelters in your area, call your county emergency management or public information office or contact the American Red Cross. Special needs shelters may be equipped to provide electricity when medically necessary, but that's the only thing that's provided. You need to bring with you: food; water; flashlights and radio; batteries; bedding; small toys, games or books; hand sanitizer or wipes; probably even toilet paper.

Websites such as BeReady.gov provide checklists that you can print to make sure you have the essentials. Develop your own list, too: medications and personal comfort items, important documents (insurance, identification, deeds, etc.), and pet supplies.

What about Fluffy?

Bear in mind that most shelters don't accept pets, only trained helper animals. If you don't feel safe in your house, please don't leave your pets there, either locked up or running loose. Arrange to board them with your vet. Ask local emergency officials if there is a pet-friendly shelter in your area and encourage them to support one. If you're traveling out of the area, call ahead to find out which hotels and motels will accept pets. Be sure to explain that you're evacuating; some hotels will make exceptions during emergencies.

The Bottom Line

Only you can decide whether it's safe for you to stay in your home. You know the condition of your house, how well built it is, and whether the neighborhood is prone to flooding. You know the special needs of your family members and your own physical condition. Your decision may also be based on the strength of the approaching storm. As sturdy as our concrete block house is, my husband stayed here through Hurricane Ivan and he doesn't want to do it again!

Consider the factors carefully now and come up with a plan and a check list. You don't want to get 200 miles down the road, in the heavy traffic of an evacuation, and remember you left your medication at home or you forgot to turn off the gas. Your plan should cover every step of preparation:

Secure your home
Cover windows, pick up loose objects and lawn furniture
Unplug electronics that could be susceptible to power surges
If you're at risk of flooding, move items to upper shelves or the 2nd floor


Pack
Food, medicine and supplies
Important documents and photos of your home and belongings
Irreplaceable photographs, computer back-up drive


Don't Forget
Small games or toys to keep children occupied
Pets and supplies
Emergency phone contact list (don't rely on mobiles, in case battery dies)


If you wait until the storm is approaching or some other disaster strikes, you will forget something important. Prepare now, so that the thinking is done when you are calm and have plenty of time. When the storm is imminent, you'll be able to act quickly and efficiently, secure in the knowledge that you are doing what's best for your family.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

TS Bonnie heads straight for the oil slick.

I guess we'll get to see if the National Hurricane Center is right about oil and hurricanes not mixing. Supposedly, the oil on the water will help keep the storm from absorbing water and the storm's activity may help disperse the oil faster. We'll see.

Soon.

The NHC's track, as of July 22 at 11pm ET, shows Tropical Storm Bonnie striking Louisiana on Sunday evening. Forecasters say the storm's movement is being guided by a low pressure system on one side and a ridge on the other. Changes in those weather systems could change the storm's track. I'll be monitoring Bonnie until it makes landfall, as should anyone in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Speaking of the Sunshine State, South Florida and the Keys can expect to feel Bonnie's effects on Friday. Forecasters expect the storm to pass directly over that area as it moves from the Atlantic into the Gulf.

The NHC is not predicting that Bonnie will reach hurricane strength before making final landfall, and that is a good thing.

Still, any bad storm can knock out power, even if it's just for a few hours. If it passes through my area, I will unplug my electronics (a power surge just blasted our desktop computer and it was plugged into a battery back-up surge protector, and the computer was off at the time). I have bottled water to last three days and several cans of tuna and chicken, so if the worst happens, we won't starve. We have working flashlights and batteries for the portable radio.

If you live in a coastal area, you could be hit by a tropical storm or hurricane. Hope for the best, but please be prepared for the worst.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Busy Hurricane Season Begins

The National Hurricane Center, Accuweather, and tropical weather expert Dr. Bill Gray are predicting a busy hurricane season. That means lots of named storms. The busiest year in recent history was in 2005, when we had 27 named storms, so many that the NHC ran out of names and started using Greek letters for the final few.

Adding to the concern this year is the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil is already affecting beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. If the oil is not there yet, the beaches are still emptier than usual and beach businesses are suffering. Fishermen are stuck in port.

The NHC doesn't think that a hurricane will hurt anything and says it might even help the matter. A storm would theoretically break up and disperse the oil, and the slick over the water could keep the storm from sucking up Gulf water for strength. I am skeptical. I fear that a storm would damage the limited containment system now in place, that it will push the oil onto the beaches sooner, and that it will spread the toxic oil farther inland. If you have to wear a hazmat suit to clean it up, how are we going to get it out of our yards and off our houses?

Even if the NHC is right and a hurricane does help clean up the water and it doesn't cause an even bigger mess, a named storm is not going to help improve tourism or the economy of beach communities.

Outside the Gulf, the Pacific has already seen three named storms and Tropical Depression #5 is in the works. Guatemala is still recovering from Tropical Storm Agatha, which killed over 150 people, buried hundreds of homes under mud, and opened a massive sinkhole that swallowed a three-story building.

If you are not prepared for a hurricane, now is the time to start making a checklist for evacuation and stocking up on non-perishable supplies. Trim trees. Look for loose shingles. Repair what you can now, before it gets ripped off in hurricane-force winds and causes more damage. Don't wait until the storm is three days away and try to do it all.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Time flies towards hurricane season.

Can you believe it's March already? Seems like just yesterday we were celebrating the New Year, and now it's almost spring. I'm certain ready for some warmer weather this year!

We've seen quite a few disasters around the world in 2010. Earthquakes, massive winter storms, flooding. Each incident is a reminder that we must always be prepared for the worst. Better to be prepared and not need your supplies than to be caught without the essentials.

Tim and I have been using our canned goods throughout the winter. Soon it will be time to restock for the season. We try to keep canned tuna and chicken, which on its own might get boring after a few days, but at least we won't starve. We always keep a supply of bottled water. In the winter, we recycled all the old empty bottles. When hurricane season comes, we'll start saving the empties again. If a storm heads this way, we can fill them from the tap for washing and flushing the toilet.

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was the first time I remember losing water pressure and not having running water after a storm. It's because a lot of infrastructure damage and the wastewater treatment plant downtown flooded. By summer, I think the new wastewater treatment plant will be operational. It's located inland a few miles, so hopefully that won't be a problem we'll face again, but better to fill up a few gallons on the safe side.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Have you learned from Haiti?

You have seen the images of terrible destruction from Haiti, and perhaps you think no disaster in the United States would ever be that bad. The U.S. has construction standards, after all. That's why so many buildings collapsed in that small island nation.

In my mind, though, the Haiti quake just amplifies the fact that we all need to have a disaster kit in our homes and a plan in case of emergency. Buy supplies before you need them. Canned goods and batteries have a shelf life of a few months to a couple of years. When your camera or TV remote needs fresh batteries, rotate the older ones out of the disaster kit and put in a fresh package. Same with the canned goods in your pantry.

Think you're safe from earthquakes? Most parts of the U.S. have experienced quakes in the past. They may have happened a couple hundred years ago, but then again, this month's quake in Haiti was the strongest to hit the island since 1770.

The U.S. Geological Survey has a lot of great information on historic quakes, maps of faultlines, and preparedness information. Did you know that a quake centered in Charleston, South Carolina was felt clear down to Florida? An earthquake centered in Missouri was felt over 2 million square miles! You can read the stories state-by-state on the USGS site.

At the very least, it's interesting reading, and it's certainly something to think about.