Friday, November 22, 2013

Causes for the weather community to get behind

A never-ending story in the field of tornado hazards is the miserable construction practices that characterize so much of American frame homes.  They're mostly flimsy death traps to anyone experiencing a tornado, and it's shameful just how miserably shabby is the structural integrity of the typical American home, regardless of the price of the home.

In the course of a FEMA-sponsored survey of building performance after the 3 May 1999 tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas, I was made aware of not only the inadequacy of homes built to local building codes, but also the massive large frequency of building code violations in American homes.  Subsequent storm damage surveys have only served to reinforce those first perceptions.  American frame home construction is shamefully weak!

The standard building code in most of the tornado-prone areas of the USA is that the building be designed to have structural resistance to winds of up to 90 mph.  In these areas, such a code is woefully inadequate for what they might experience.  What makes this so egregious is that in hurricane-prone areas along the US coasts, the standard is much higher, and includes requirements for a number of specific enhancements to structural integrity that would be very much appropriate for tornado-prone areas, as well.  Thus, we need only modify the building codes to match those of coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes, and we will see a much greater resistance to tornadoes.

Such enhancements would not make homes tornado-proof, but would certainly make them much more tornado-resistant.  Most of the area along even a violent tornado path experiences less than EF-3 damage, so such an increase in structural integrity obviously would reduce damage along most of a violent tornado's path.  And violent tornadoes are relatively rare.  There would be a reduction in the amount of flying debris, which would in turn reduce the damage done by tornadoes.  Of course, it's impractically expensive to retrofit existing homes to a higher building code standard, but at least we could mandate that new home construction should meet a higher standard.  In time we would see a reduction in the damage done by tornadoes.  This is not some wild dream, but is within our capabilities to afford and accomplish.

The home builders will, of course, lobby to resist such a change, arguing that it would increase their costs, which they would have to pass on to their customers.  Yes, of course, that's true - but what is the real cost of those enhancements to structural integrity?  A few thousand dollars per home - amortized over the typical 30-year mortgage, this is a really small increase in the homeowner's monthly payment.

There are other costs that homeowners might need to consider - for instance, more wind-resistant garage doors, and the installation of safe rooms.  But these are choices that individual homeowners could choose or not.  Everyone would benefit from higher standards of structural integrity over the long range.

Unfortunately, given the low probability of any particular home being hit by the violent winds of a violent tornado, it would seem that investing even that modest amount may not be an economically viable decision.  But if we have a goal of making our communities more hazardous weather-resistant, this is an essential component of that process.  I haven't worked out all the details, but the cost to our nation of this vulnerability to natural weather hazards is not inconsequential - billion dollar tornadoes are not so easy to ignore. 

Why is the weather community not backing up a call for enhancing our building codes to reflect this reality?  The American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation, etc. should be leading this effort!  Weather people need to support this with their words and with their willingness to recommend the appropriate changes to the building codes.

Another issue is the vulnerability of our children in schools.  Recently there has been some effort to get funding to have a purpose-built tornado shelter in every school in Oklahoma.  This strikes me as a bad idea, in part because many schools probably either already have an adequate shelter area or have an area that could be made adequate at relatively low cost.  Putting a purpose-built shelter in every school is probably not a good idea - it makes sense only for those schools that have no possibility of an adequate shelter.  What this requires is that knowledgeable people with appropriate expertise (structural engineers and meteorologists) should be working to do surveys of every local school to evaluate their tornado safety plans and their proposed sheltering locations.  This could be done with volunteers from state and local sources, who would contribute their time and expertise to help schools develop practical solutions to the threat from hazardous weather.  This also would be a process to enhance the weather hazard resistance of our cities and towns. 

The weather and structural engineering "communities" need to support this sort of collaboration to make the resistance of our cities and towns to hazardous weather a practical reality.  I can't speak for the engineers, but I certainly think the whole notion of helping our nation be more "weather-ready" means that our weather professionals need to step up and volunteer to make this a reality!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A failed "slippery slope" argument

Some of my conservative friends, opposed to granting equal rights to the LGBT community, made the prediction that if we give in to homosexuals, then the pedophiles will start campaigning for similar equal rights.  Sadly, that prediction appears to have been correct.  That argument is nonsense, as I'll be attempting to show.  There's just no way to go from granting equality to LGBTs to sanctioning pedophilia.

First of all, the equality of rights to LGBTs harms no one.  They're simply being granted the same rights that heterosexuals have.  A relationship between consenting adults is no one's business but their own and is no basis for denying them the rights they have in this free nation.  There's no rational reason to declare this to be a crime.  The idea that it destroys the so-called "sanctity of marriage" is specious.  It's like saying that allowing Dr. Pepper to be served destroys the sanctity of Coca-Cola.  There's simply no way that homosexual marriage affects heterosexual marriage in any way whatsoever.  Fortunately, in the past several years, the public has finally begun to turn away from reviling and abusing LGBTs and denying them equal rights.  But is this the harbinger of descent down a "slippery slope" (something of a double entendre in this context) - a descent into a world where every criminal act is sanctioned on the basis of an argument similar to that used by LGBTs to gain equal rights?  I think not.

The key flaw in the argument by pedophiles to try to get license for their evil is that pedophilia involves children, not adults.  There's an "age of consent" clause in the legal system because children can be coerced in various ways (including but not limited to threats of violence) to do things they don't really want to do.  Even if the children seem to have granted "consent", this is a crime because they're incapable of giving such consent owing to their age.  We can argue about where the line should be drawn, but such lines are in fact drawn and are on the books.  Sexual acts forced on children below the age of consent do real harm to those children, both physical and mental.  That's why pedophilia is considered a criminal act, and justifiably so.  Pedophilia is so far from being within the confines of consenting adults, there's just no way it can be rationalized as anything other than what it is:  a despicable crime.

Similar arguments prohibit the sanctioning of incest.  There are good reasons not to sanction incest that extend to the obvious problem of inbreeding, even when involving young people over the nominal age of consent.  There's no good reason for society to ignore incest, even in such cases, owing to the powerful influence of adult family members on vulnerable youngsters, even late in their teens.  The "consent" granted is of very doubtful legitimacy.  Incest does real harm to people and so is not something to sanction.

Of course, sexual acts forced on anyone of any age are, and should always be considered violent crimes.  Thus, there can be no extension of the granting of equality to LGBTs to apply to rapists, either.  Sexual acts performed under duress (e.g., the threat of violence) are themselves acts of violence that any rational society would never condone.  Someone is harmed both physically and mentally by acts of violence; i.e., rape.  It's the absence of consent that is the key to this concept remaining a crime - it's a barrier to stop the decline along the putative "slippery slope".

Interestingly, the subject of multiple spouses came up in the predictions by my conservative friends as another part of the "slippery slope" argument.  However, I don't know if such arguments actually have been advanced yet.  Despite the general revulsion that having multiple spouses creates in many people, my perception is that if it involves only consenting adults, then I see no basic problem with it.  It's a choice I wouldn't make, but if my neighbor has two or more spouses, how does that affect me?  Not at all.  In religious cults, having multiple spouses is fairly common (so the cult leaders can have sex with all the partners they might want) - and in many cases, children are involved sexually in these relationships.  When children are involved, participants have stepped over the line.  Further, if one or more of the adults did not consent (or was forced to give "consent" under some threat), then that also steps over the line.  It's my perception that "open marriages" and "swap clubs" often wind up in bad outcomes for one or more of the individuals involved, but that's a risk that consenting adults can choose that doesn't affect me in any way.  I see no reason to define those as criminal acts.  Foolish, perhaps, but not criminal.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another tornado outbreak - Second thoughts about chasing?

The November 17th tornado outbreak, affecting mostly some small towns in Illinois, is an example of several things.  As bad as it was, it could have been much worse - no major population centers were hit, so that particular bullet was dodged.  Despite some pitiful decisions made by the NFL about the Bears-Ravens game in Chicago, this large-venue event was not hit by a tornado.  The choice to wait to suspend the game and evacuate the field more or less at the last minute would have been a disaster if the storm had produced a violent tornado that actually hit the field.  Another bullet dodged.

There's a relentless inevitability about tornadoes, however.  Such escapes can lead people to fail to appreciate how fortunate they were, and how their luck simply can't go on forever.  Eventually, a 'worst case' scenario will happen!  The forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center did a fantastic job, anticipating this event several days in advance and ratcheting up the perceived risk as the day approached.  I hope people understand how far such forecasting has advanced during the course of my professional career, and take their forecasts seriously enough to be prepared for dangerous tornado outbreaks.

There have been some expressions of second thoughts by some thoughtful storm chasers after yesterday's events in Illinois (and elsewhere).  It seems that the events of this past May in Oklahoma, including the 31 May El Reno tornado in which 4 (or possibly 5) storm chasers were killed, have caused thoughtful storm chasers to consider how their hobby of storm chasing has a dark side:  tornadoes can cause massive human suffering that can go on for years afterward.  It's not just a show put on by the atmosphere for the benefit of storm chasers.  I've said many times that tornadoes are not evil or malevolent - rather, they're simply indifferent to their impact on humans.  When we humans are in the path, it's not by any person's design or wish, and certainly the atmosphere is not producing the carnage in any purposeful way.  (see item #32 here)

I think it's entirely appropriate for storm chasers to think over what they're doing out there - to contemplate just what they're out there for, and whether or not that reason justifies their behavior.   I hear a lot of chasers (not all, of course) going on and on about how what they do is saving lives.  I beg to disagree - that's not what you're out there to do, for the most part.  You're deluding yourself if you think so.  Virtually all storm chasers are out there because they love to see storms, myself included.  It's basically a selfish activity unlike, say, storm spotting, which is done to provide protection for communities.  If you say you're out there to save lives, prove it!  Demonstrate by your actions that your primary commitment is to save lives.  Most of the storm chasers who make such claims have done little or nothing to save lives - I've seen this with my own eyes.  In more than one case of 'chaser convergence' involving scores of chasers gathered around a storm, I learned that the call that I made to an NWS office to let them know what we were seeing was the only call from a chaser!  Irresponsible chasers of that sort are the norm, and I've watched how they behave.   What have they actually done to save lives?  Can they honestly say that's why they're out there?  I don't think so.

Irresponsible chasers certainly should take the time to reconsider their chasing!  Is a tornado outbreak just a majestic display put on by the atmosphere for their entertainment?  What price is paid by the victims so chasers can sell their video for top dollar and have their names (and faces) on the TV?  A responsible storm chaser must realize eventually that the atmosphere doesn't produce tornadoes just because chasers want to see them - chasers don't cause tornadoes, obviously.  But responsible chasers should come to understand that they need to give something back to our society that can mitigate the impact of these devastating storms.  If some chasers feel no empathy for the victims of such events, they're a poor excuse for a human being.  And they should set an example of responsible chasing rather than chasing as a trash sport.  They shouldn't be bragging about the 'extreme' risks they're taking and sneering at the notion that they should be responsible.

Tim Samaras was a responsible chaser and his loss is going to be felt for a long time - he was not about pretending to save lives.  And he didn't brag about his exploits.  Rather, he was attempting to do serious science to learn more about tornadoes, which clearly fascinated him (as they do to most chasers).  If that knowledge he was seeking could ever be used to reduce casualties, he would have been ecstatic, I'm sure.  But to be honest, that thought wasn't what drove Tim to do what he did - and there's no shame or irresponsibility to admit that's what you're doing out there.  What matters is he was doing what he could to give something back.