Teen killed in dramatic natural gas explosions laid to rest
Wednesday, September 19
LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of the lone victim of last week’s dramatic series of natural gas explosions and fires north of Boston on Wednesday.
Some 300 people came out to St. Mary the Assumption Church in Lawrence to remember 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, the Eagle-Tribune report ed.
Family members and friends cried and hugged each other tightly as they wore white shirts bearing the words “RIP Leonel” and “It’s Leo’s world, we’re just living in it,” the Boston Globe reported .
Rev. John Dello Russo remembered Rondon, who was a local musician who went by the name DJ Blaze, as a teen with a bright future.
Through the devastation and tragedy that rocked Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, he said, the best of humanity emerged.
“Last Thursday afternoon, all hell broke loose in our city,” Dello Russo said. “But in the midst of it, people helped one another out. In ourselves we found power, compassion, love.”
In her eulogy, Leomary Colon recalled how her cousin had tried to cheer her up at a homecoming dance. He told her, “You got to live it until it’s gone.”
She said she’d miss his advice and support. “He took care of everyone,” Colon said. “You knew you were in good hands with him.”
The high school junior died Sept. 13 after the chimney of an exploding house crashed into his car and crushed him. Rondon had just received his driver’s license hours earlier.
About 25 other people were injured in the three Merrimack Valley communities. Dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed and thousands of residents were forced to evacuate.
Nearly 9,000 homes and businesses may be without gas for weeks as investigators continue to probe what set off the explosions.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is heading the inquiry, has said investigators are partly focused on pressure sensors that were connected to a Columbia Gas pipeline being taken out of service shortly before the blasts.
The gas company, meanwhile, said Wednesday it would withdraw a $33 million rate increase that had been scheduled to take effect in November for its more than 320,000 Massachusetts gas customers.
The rate hike had been approved prior to the explosions, but Columbia Gas of Massachusetts president Steve Bryant said in a statement that the company is instead focused on recovery efforts and “re-establishing trust.”
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey sent a letter to Columbia Gas on Wednesday saying the company needs to “immediately commit whatever financial resources are necessary to ensure that every effected resident in this area has the resources they need to rebuild their lives now and is made economically whole.”
The Massachusetts Democrats said after the San Bruno gas explosion in 2010, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company made up to $100 million available for recovery and community rebuilding. That explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes
Columbia Gas said Tuesday that it’s donating $10 million to an emergency relief fund.
Also Wednesday, Democratic Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo called on National Grid, another utility in the state, to end its lockout of workers because of stalled contract negotiations and resume negotiations, pointing to the gas explosions and the coming of cold weather.
Destructive 2018 hail season a sign of things to come
September 20, 2018
PhD Student in Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University
Disclosure statement: Samuel Childs receives funding from National Science Foundation Grants DGE-1321845 and AGS-1637244. His PhD advisor is Dr. Russ Schumacher.
Partners: Colorado State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
As ominous skies moved overhead just after noon on Aug. 6, the small splash of a hailstone was heard in the pool of the bear exhibit at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. Moments later, a barrage of ice baseballs began falling from the sky, with one or two softball-sized hailstones in the mix. People and animals scrambled for cover.
In the aftermath, the hail storm’s wrath was revealed: at least eight people injured, five animals killed and hundreds of cars severely damaged in the zoo parking lot.
Whether you’re a farmer managing hundreds of acres of corn, a school teacher in care of young children at recess, or an unsuspecting tourist excited to watch the dolphin show, hail storms matter. This summer’s Colorado Springs event is yet another reminder of the destruction that large hail can bring. These large hail events seem to be more and more common, which has prompted atmospheric scientists like me to investigate trends in hail storms, as well as other severe weather phenomena. A better scientific understanding of hail storms can help increase public awareness, including of how best to protect one’s life and property.
A record-setting year
Hail is precipitation that falls in the form of ice. In basic terms, hailstones form as water is lofted into the upper cold regions of a thunderstorm, where it freezes. Supercooled liquid water at these heights can continue to add mass to a small hailstone – eventually it becomes too heavy and falls out of the cloud.
The largest hailstones are found in strong thunderstorms, called supercells, which have sufficiently strong updrafts to allow hailstones to reach the ice region of the cloud, thus acquiring more mass before falling out. Supercells, and thus large hail, are aided by warm and moist conditions that promote strong, juicy updrafts and also a wind field that strengthens and turns with height.
For anyone living in the Great Plains, this year has been a hail season to remember, with many more large hailstones being reported than usual. Neither the total number of severe hail reports – defined by the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC) as hail in excess of 1 inch in diameter – nor the number of days in which severe hail has fallen, were out of the ordinary. But in 2018, the percentage of hail greater than 2 inches in diameter certainly was.
Here in Colorado, over 20 percent of severe hail reports through the beginning of September have been at least 2 inches. Three percent have been at least 3 inches – bigger than a standard 2.75-inch baseball. These are the highest such percentages in state history. Moreover, Colorado saw a new record, with hail greater than 3 inches in diameter reported 10 times, over seven different days.
And these trends hold nationally, too, according to preliminary SPC reports. Across the country, percentages of large hailstones are among the highest seen since the turn of this century. Geographically, very large hail reports for 2018 stretch from Idaho to Florida to Connecticut, with a maximum in the western Great Plains.
So what’s going on? A new normal?
Having an increasingly higher proportion of large hail is not an encouraging trend for home or automobile owners.
The SPC hail database is the country’s primary source of hail reports. They come from a variety of sources including trained spotters, meteorologists, law enforcement and the general public. As such, the database has some inherent reporting biases. For example, reports tend to cluster around places where people live. And people tend to report hail of sizes they associate with common objects, such as golf balls or baseballs.
But it’s hard to believe people are suddenly becoming more excited to report only large hail, while ignoring the quarter-sized hail that can still be a nuisance. In fact, this year may be a hint of what will become commonplace in the future.
Effectively simulating the growth of hail in a model is nearly impossible due to the intricate microphysical processes involved. Imagine the difficulty of trying to account for hail’s erratic wobbling and tumbling within a cloud and the constant addition and loss of water on its surface. As icing on the cake, each hailstone has a unique shape, and it’s hardly ever spherical. Nevertheless, it is possible to look at changes in variables that are important for hail growth.
Recent research assessed the effects of climate change on hail size and frequency using a hail growth model with environmental variables adjusted for climate change. The relatively cool and dry Plains region is expected to become warmer and more moist in a future climate, leading to stronger updrafts and more moisture availability. Under these conditions, scientists found that both average hail diameter and frequency of large hail occurrence are expected to increase across the central part of the country.
Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have found that in a future climate, there will be more strong thunderstorms and fewer weak ones. This result again favors an increase in larger hailstone sizes, since stronger thunderstorms allow the hail to be cycled through the cloud layer for a longer time.
Untangling what drives the trend
Is a changing climate all that’s responsible for what appears to be a shift toward storms with greater hailstone sizes that occur more frequently? What about population dynamics and urbanization? After all, hailstones can only be reported where people are around to measure them.
These questions have prompted my current research that aims to differentiate the relative contributions from climate change and population change to future hail storm risk. I’m combining a weather model that projects future changes in variables that promote hail storms with spatial population projections from NCAR and the EPA. The goal is to assess where and how much the greatest human risk from large hail is expected to be in the future.
Compared to tornadoes and hurricanes, large hail has received relatively little research attention, but that’s starting to change: A major international workshop was held in August 2018 to share research ideas and results. Achieving better understanding of how hail storms might look in the future, and which places might become more at risk, is of great worth for decision-makers, the insurance industry and the general public. Hopefully, such knowledge will spare everyone – including vacationing families at a popular zoo – the nightmare of dealing with destruction by softball-sized hail.
Relaxed environmental regulations heighten risk during natural disasters
September 20, 2018
Brian J. Gerber
Associate Professor of Public Service and Community Solutions and Co-Director, Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security, Arizona State University
College Professor and Co-Director, Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security and College Professor, Arizona State University
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Heavy rains following Hurricane Florence have raised concerns over the release of toxic materials. Ash from coal-fired power plants stored at a landfill has spilled out and the state of North Carolina has said dozens of sites have released hog waste or are at risk of doing so.
These types of events not only highlight the potential of harm to humans and the environment due to this type of uncontrolled pollution, but also the linkage between environmental regulations and the risks communities face when natural disasters occur.
The decisions communities make when managing a range of hazards, including industrial waste siting, are a key factor in a community’s vulnerability during a disaster – a dynamic we’ve seen play out in many ways in our work in disaster policy and management. Such choices also help explain why disaster damage is so costly and disaster recovery so complex.
Pollution and disaster flooding
Heavy rainfall from Hurricane Florence caused the Neuse River to flood and erode three soil-capped coal ash landfills near Goldsboro, North Carolina. At another coal ash landfill near Wilmington, heavy rains exposed its toxic contents, which include lead, arsenic and mercury, washing them into a nearby lake that drains into the Cape Fear River. Duke Energy, operator of the landfill and nearby power plant, estimates about 2,000 cubic yards escaped into the lake but claims contaminated storm waters did not make it into the river.
The problem of managing coal ash storage is a useful illustration of how environmental protection choices, good or bad, affect the degree of community vulnerability during a disaster.
The North Carolina legislature has a recent history of explicit denial of climate change. A bill passed in 2012 banned the use of climate science regarding the effects of sea-level rise and other coastal management issues. This promotes less-than-sound coastal development and increases vulnerability to coastal hazards.
Likewise, the state has a history of allowing coal ash storage in areas that put drinking water at risk for contamination. A plan to remove or clean up these sites has faced criticism from environmentalists that such efforts are inadequate to date.
Easing coal ash disposal rules
Coal ash is the toxic waste product of burning coal for energy production. There are more than 100 coal ash waste sites in the Southeast; 37 are located in North Carolina. Coal ash waste contains a wide range of compounds, most concerning of which are heavy metals. If not contained and monitored, toxic coal ash poses a significant health risk, because it can contaminate drinking water, surface waters, accumulate in fish, and harm other living organisms.
In 2008 a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee, similar to the potential situation in North Carolina, cost more than US$1.2 billion to clean up. This prompted the Obama administration to write new national regulations on coal ash disposal, adopting a final rule in 2015.
The Obama administration’s efforts on coal ash can be understood in the context of its Clean Power Plan, a broad effort at addressing climate change and industrial pollution. The Trump administration has sought to undo that regulatory approach, including rolling back the stringency of coal ash disposal regulation.
But easing regulations of energy production, consumption and waste undermines communities’ efforts to respond to disasters and the broader issue of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
For example, increasing the likelihood of water contamination through poor controls on coal ash disposal is an unnecessary public health risk that can slow response efforts and make recovery more costly and more difficult. In short, lax environmental regulation makes communities less resilient.
Environmental regulation and disasters
In general, systems of emergency management and emergency response are designed to be flexible enough to address any hazard precipitating a crisis, be it natural, such as hurricanes, technological, such as industrial accidents or acts of terrorism. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. embarked on a transformation of how emergencies and disasters are handled.
New national guidelines and standards for preparedness and incident management were adopted to ensure effectiveness across all phases of disaster management. But policy efforts that weaken environmental protections at national, state or local levels in turn make the operations of disaster management more difficult.
Consider hazard mitigation – the use of tools such as building codes or land use planning to reduce the amount of harm that might occur during a disaster – and how it is connected to other phases of disaster management. The strength of risk reduction steps, such as safer local land use practices, directly affects emergency response and long-term recovery phases.
For example, if a community prevents residential development in a floodplain, when flooding occurs, evacuation or rescue operations are not needed, the costs of recovery are reduced, and so on. At the same time, more stringent environmental regulations have the effect of reducing risk around the hazard itself and facilitating the possibility of more effective hazard mitigation.
Increasing disaster risk
Our central point is rather straightforward: Environmental protection actions in a jurisdiction have direct effects on disaster vulnerability. The particular case of North Carolina and the risk of large-scale contamination from coal ash pollution released by the Florence flooding disaster can be viewed in the light of broader trends in the United States and globally.
With sea level rise, coastal communities in the U.S. face huge risks associated with dangerous and more routine flooding. Evidence shows the financial costs of disasters are escalating. Outside the U.S. similar negative trends of increased risk and more severe consequences from national disasters across the globe are well-established.
The coal ash problem in North Carolina can also be seen through the lens of inequitable exposure to environmental harms. Siting of hazardous waste sites is not random – risk exposure tends to be higher for poorer or minority populations. This combined with higher rates of social vulnerability – the inability to prepare for, respond to or recover from a disaster – increases the risks for these residents to suffer long-term health and socioeconomic impacts.
All of these trends – increased vulnerability, inequitable exposure, greater cost of disasters – all underscore the need for viewing environmental regulation as a key component of disaster risk reduction.
EU looks to Egypt, Africa for help with migrant challenge
By LORNE COOK
Thursday, September 20
SALZBURG, Austria (AP) — Austria urged its European Union partners Thursday to enter talks with Egypt to help stem the flow of migrants entering Europe from Africa, amid deep divisions over how to manage the challenge.
Kurz, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and EU Council President Donald Tusk visited Cairo over the weekend for talks with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a top army general who took office in 2014. Both men have praised him for stopping people from leaving its coast bound for Europe.
“Egypt has proven that it can be efficient,” Kurz told reporters at an EU summit in Salzburg, Austria. “Since 2016, it has prevented ships sailing from Egypt to Europe or, when they have sailed, it has taken them back.”
Kurz said Egypt is “now prepared possibly to deepen cooperation with us in talks. We should use that.” He also said EU leaders support the idea of entering into talks with other North African countries as well.
In dealing with the migrants crisis of the past few years, the EU has been creative, willing to part with billions to secure deals around the Mediterranean with leaders with autocratic leanings.
The bloc lauds the deal it struck with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for slowing migrant arrivals to a trickle over the last two years, in exchange for up to 6 billion euros ($7 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees there and other incentives.
Italy alone paid billions to former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to stop African people from leaving his country’s shores. Thousands were transported from Libya’s coast to its southern border.
Beyond keeping tight control over Egypt’s coastline, Sissi could have important influence with the military and militias in lawless, neighboring Libya; a main departure point for migrants trying to enter Europe through Italy. Already, Tusk is lobbying to hold an EU-Arab League summit in Cairo in February.
The call comes after a summer in which Italy’s anti-migrant government closed its ports to NGO ships, and even its own coast guard, carrying people rescued at sea. Hundreds of migrants spent unnecessary days at sea or aboard boats while EU countries bickered over who should take them.
Looking for help from Sissi is a new sign of the EU’s determination to outsource the migrant challenge, even though arrival numbers are barely a trickle compared to 2015, when well over a million people entered Europe, mostly fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.
EU countries are studying plans to create “disembarkation platforms” in northern African countries, where people rescued at sea could be dropped off for screening. No African country has expressed interest in hosting one so far.
The EU’s inability to balance responsibility for the migrants and share the burden of hosting them has been a vote-winner for far-right parties across the 28-nation bloc.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that Africa is not keen at the moment.
“If we take the approach of: ‘we don’t take them, you take them,’ that doesn’t fly,” she said. “But this doesn’t mean that North African countries would not be ready to cooperate with us, and with the UN, to have a reasonable, sustainable solution.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who supports talks with North Africa, believes countries like Italy, Greece and Spain must take responsibility for migrant arrivals, but he also underlines the importance of European solidarity.
“There are rules and they have to be respected. We have to protect our citizens but we must do it while respecting our values. Also, responsibilities cannot be upheld if there is no solidarity,” he said.
Macron and the leaders of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands repeated a similar joint line on the balance between responsibilities and solidarity after talks earlier this month. However, they appeared to suggest that solidarity is best expressed by giving European money to partners who need help. No leader offered to share the refugee burden.
One idea raised in Salzburg has been for countries to pay money to Italy or Greece to take care of migrants themselves.
Asked how much a migrant was worth, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said, in an indignant tone: “We are not at the market. We are speaking about humans. We are not speaking about carpets or goods.”
He said that if Europe starts “to ask: ‘how much is the price of an immigrant?’ it’s a shame for all of us.”
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.
Mexico City’s potent 2017 earthquake was a rare ‘bending’ quake – and it could happen again
Updated September 19, 2018
Assistant Professor of Geophysics, University of Oregon
Professor, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)
Xyoli Pérez-Campos received funding from UNAM-PAPIIT IN105816 project grant. Diego Melgar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Oregon provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
One year has passed since a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico City, toppling 40 buildings and killing over 300, but the memory remains fresh. Condemned structures dot many neighborhoods, their facades crumbling. And after an earthquake 225 miles away in Oaxaca state shook the capital city again on Feb. 16, 2018, the city mayor said hospitals treated dozens of people for panic attacks.
Seismologists, too, are still studying the Sept. 19 earthquake, trying to better understand what’s happening underneath Mexico City. Our recent paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters in March, brings critical findings to light.
After the damaging quake, we analyzed data from the national network of seismological sensors, as well as high-quality GPS stations around the country. Together, these instruments measure shaking across Mexico. We wanted to know what caused this magnitude 7.1 earthquake and whether a future shock could strike even closer to this city of 20 million.
Here’s what our research revealed.
The Earth’s trembling surface
People in central Mexico are accustomed to the ground shaking. Since 1980, 40 perceptible earthquakes have hit this region. The Sept. 19 quake actually occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the magnitude 8.1 earthquake that killed at least 10,000 people in and around Mexico City in 1985.
That catastrophe marked an entire generation of Mexicans, including ourselves, back when we were just kids.
Now, as working seismologists, we have discovered that the 2017 earthquake, called Puebla-Morelos, was fundamentally unlike its 1985 predecessor. In fact, it was different than most big Mexican earthquakes, which typically happen along the country’s Pacific coast, where two tectonic plates collide.
The Puebla-Morelos quake occurred well inland – just 70 miles south of Mexico City, in Puebla state. Since the 1920s, only five other large earthquakes have originated in central Mexico.
How earthquakes happen
Most major earthquakes worldwide happen along the unstable intersections in the Earth’s crust, where two tectonic plates – that is, the underground slabs that make up the planet’s rocky shell – collide, one plate sliding beneath the other.
These are called subduction zones, and continued plate movements in those areas are responsible for the world’s largest earthquakes – the kinds that occasionally rattle Alaska, Japan, Chile and Indonesia.
At most subduction zones, after one tectonic plate slides beneath a neighboring plate, it continues on a diagonal downward dive and sinks deep into the Earth’s mantle.
Not in Mexico. There, the initial contact between the two tectonic plates – which collide off the country’s southern Pacific coast – starts off normally enough, with the subducted plate sinking diagonally downwards.
But then, just as it begins to jut underneath the Mexican mainland, the plate – which is made of dense, heavy rocks – reverses course. It bends upward, sliding itself horizontally beneath the plate Mexico sits on top of. This setup continues for about 125 miles or so.
Then, underneath Puebla state – just south of Mexico City – at a depth of about 30 miles below ground, the subducted plate abruptly changes direction once more. It dives almost vertically downward, plunging itself deep into the Earth’s mantle.
What is a ‘bending’ quake?
When the plate bends downward, some of the rocks in the plate break. Think of a sturdy piece of wood. Flexed lightly, it bends. But when the flexing becomes too strong, it will splinter violently.
This is what causes “bending” earthquakes like Mexico City’s. After the bent tectonic plate snaps, seismic waves emanate outwards from the breaking point, causing the Earth to tremble. The closer you are to the epicenter, the stronger the shaking.
This kind of rare Mexican quake typically has a relatively lower magnitude than the more common Pacific coast variety. But that doesn’t mean the shaking above ground feels weak. Because “bending” quakes strike in Mexico’s densely populated central region, beneath the feet of many millions, the shaking can be very strong indeed.
And when they hit near Mexico City, as September 2017 demonstrated, the consequences can be devastating.
Defining the hazard zones
This same unstable subducted plate runs underneath all central Mexico. And, thanks to previous studies, we know that it is bent across a large, continuous swath of central and southern Mexico.
It is here – from Michoacán state, part way up the Pacific coast, all the way down to southernmost Oaxaca – that bending earthquakes could occur.
But the tectonic plate’s bend, we learned, is only half of the story behind central Mexico’s shaking. The plate’s texture matters, too.
High-resolution images of the ocean bottom off Mexico’s Pacific shore reveal that the seafloor terrain is rugged in a very organized fashion. There, beneath thousands of feet of water, we see high, narrow ridges and deep valleys that run lengthwise in a northwest-to-southeast direction.
This “fabric” was created about 8 million years ago, when the rocks first formed – way before tectonic plates collided to give Mexico its subduction zone. Even so, the plate’s texture – marked by this linear fabric of underground mountains and canyons – turns out to be relevant in determining where these rare, bending earthquakes might occur.
Our research found that because its ridges and valleys are oriented uniformly – think of the grain on a sturdy piece of wood – a tectonic plate is far less likely to snap if the force that bends it is at an angle perpendicular to the direction the fabric runs. Like a sheet of plywood, a tectonic plate is more resistant to pressure when bent against the grain.
In other words, large, damaging “bending” earthquakes are most likely to occur where the subducted plate’s own texture aligns with the direction of its downward bend.
This is good news for cities like Morelia, in Michoacán, where we believe the plate’s fabric runs almost perpendicular to the direction of the plate’s break – the wrong setup for a strong earthquake.
But it is bad news for neighboring Puebla and Oaxaca. There, plate texture and plate bend are almost perfectly aligned – off by less than 10 degrees. Under such circumstances, the bent plate can more easily snap and break from continued tectonic movement.
What’s in store for Mexico City?
The part of the plate bend near Mexico City, where the Sept. 19 quake occurred, falls somewhere in between. The alignment between texture and plate is not perfect – but they’re off angle by just 20 to 30 degrees.
That means the capital could see another large quake. And, based on our analysis, the epicenter could actually be closer to the city: This volatile tectonic band extends as far north as the city of Cuernavaca, 30 miles from Mexico City’s southern edge.
These findings are a step forward in understanding Mexico’s complex geology. But we still don’t know how often “bending” earthquakes might happen – whether once a century or every decade. Seismologists worldwide are still far from being able to predict where, when and how the next big one will strike.
What our new study can do, we hope, is help Mexicans nationwide understand what’s happening beneath their feet.
This article has been updated. It was originally published on March 12, 2018.