Topic: Energy and Environment

Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the Federal Failures

Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast and generated a huge disaster. The storm flooded New Orleans, killed more than 1,800 people, and caused $100 billion in property damage. The storm’s damage was greatly exacerbated by the failures of Congress, the Bush administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Weather forecasters warned government officials about Katrina’s approach, so they should have been ready for it. But they were not, and Katrina exposed major failures in America’s disaster preparedness and response systems.

Here are some of the federal failures:

  • Confusion. Key federal officials were not proactive, they gave faulty information to the public, and they were not adequately trained. The 2006 bipartisan House report on the disaster, A Failure of Initiative, said, “federal agencies … had varying degrees of unfamiliarity with their roles and responsibilities under the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System.” The report found that there was “general confusion over mission assignments, deployments, and command structure.” One reason was that FEMA’s executive suites were full of political appointees with little disaster experience.
  • Failure to Learn. The government was unprepared for Katrina even though it was widely known that such a hurricane was probable, and weather forecasters had accurately predicted the advance of Katrina before landfall. A year prior to Katrina, government agencies had performed a simulation exercise—“Hurricane Pam”—for a hurricane of similar strength hitting New Orleans, but governments “failed to learn important lessons” from the exercise.
  • Communications Breakdown. The House report found that there was “a complete breakdown in communications that paralyzed command and control and made situational awareness murky at best.” Agencies could not communicate with each other due to equipment failures and a lack of system interoperability. These problems occurred despite the fact that FEMA and predecessor agencies have been giving grants to state and local governments for emergency communication systems since the beginning of the Cold War.
  • Supply Failures. Some emergency supplies were prepositioned before the storm, but there was nowhere near enough. In places that desperately needed help, such as the New Orleans Superdome, it took days to deliver medical supplies. FEMA also wasted huge amounts of supplies. It delivered millions of pounds of ice to holding centers in cities far away from the Gulf Coast. FEMA sent truckers carrying ice on wild goose chases across the country. Two years after the storm, the agency ended up throwing out $100 million of unused ice. FEMA also paid for 25,000 mobile homes costing $900 million, but they went virtually unused because of FEMA’s own regulations that such homes cannot be used on flood plains, which is where most Katrina victims lived.
  • Indecision. Indecision plagued government leaders in the deployment of supplies, in medical personnel decisions, and in other areas. Even the grisly task of body recovery after Katrina was slow and confused. Bodies went uncollected for days “as state and federal officials remained indecisive on a body recovery plan.” FEMA waited for Louisiana to make decisions about bodies, but the governor of Louisiana blamed FEMA’s tardiness in making a deal with a contractor. Similar problems of too many bureaucratic cooks in the kitchen hampered decisionmaking in areas, such as organizing evacuations and providing law enforcement resources to Louisiana.

Warming-Assisted Rapid Evolution of a Parasitic Host

In 1980, heated water from a nuclear power plant in Forsmark, Sweden (60.42°N, 18.17°E) began to be discharged into Biotest Lake, an artificial semi-enclosed lake in the Baltic Sea created in 1977 that is adjacent to the power plant and covers an area of 0.9 km2 with a mean depth of 2.5 m. The heated water has raised the temperature of the lake by 6-10°C compared to the surrounding Baltic Sea, but aside from this temperature difference, the physical conditions between the lake and the sea are very similar.

A few years after the power plant began operation, scientists conducted a study to determine the effect of the lake’s increased temperatures on the host-parasite dynamics between a fish parasite, the eyefluke (Diplostomum baeri), and its intermediate host, European perch (Perca fluviatilis). That analysis, performed in 1986 and 1987, revealed that perch in Biotest Lake experienced a higher degree of parasite infection compared to perch living in the cooler confines of the surrounding Baltic Sea (Höglund and Thulin, 1990), which finding is consistent with climate alarmist concerns that rising temperatures may lead to an increase in infectious diseases.

Fast forward to the present, however, and a much different ending to the story is observed.

Nearly three decades later, Mateos-Gonzales et al. (2015) returned to Biotest Lake and reexamined the very same host-parasite dynamic to learn what, if anything, had changed in the intervening time period. According to the team of researchers, Biotest Lake “provides an excellent opportunity to study the effect of a drastically changed environmental factor, water temperature, on the evolution of host-parasite interactions, in a single population recently split into two.” Specifically, it was their aim “to examine if the altered conditions have produced a change in prevalence and/or intensity of infection, and if these potential variations in infection have led to (or might have been caused by) a difference in parasite resistance.”

Spin Cycle: EPA Deflates Climate Impacts, Inflates Significance

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

Well, well, well. The EPA has finally gone and done it. They have actually calculated the climate change impacts projected to result of one of their climate change regulations—in this case, the proposed rules for the efficiency standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles.

What they found was hardly surprising—the climate impacts from the proposed regulations will be vanishingly small.

The EPA calculates that the amount of global temperature rise averted by the end of the 21st century from the proposed regulations to be… wait, this is too good to paraphrase. From the EPA:

The results of the analysis demonstrate that relative to the reference case, by 2100 projected atmospheric CO2 concentrations are estimated to be reduced by 1.1 to 1.2 part per million by volume (ppmv), global mean temperature is estimated to be reduced by 0.0026 to 0.0065 °C, and sea-level rise is projected to be reduced by approximately 0.023 to 0.057 cm.

Did you catch that? According to the EPA’s own calculations, their regulation mandating the fuel economy of medium and light duty trucks avoids somewhere between twenty-six ten-thousandths and sixty-five ten-housandths of a degree of future global warming. In other words, it is a useless measure when it comes to influencing the future course of global temperature. If the EPA wants to regulate the fuel efficiency of trucks, it needs to justify it for reasons that don’t relate to climate change.

Overshoot Day Underestimates Human Ingenuity

Media outlets ranging from Newsweek and Time, to National Geographic and even the Weather Channel, all recently ran articles on the so-called “Overshoot Day,” which is defined by its official website as the day of the year

when humanity’s annual demand for the goods and services that our land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, andcarbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year.

This year, the world allegedly reached the Overshoot Day on August 13th. Overshoot Day’s proponents claim that, having used up our ecological “budget” for the year and entered into “deficit spending,” all consumption after August 13th is unsustainable. Let’s look at the data concerning resources that, according to Overshoot Day’s definition, we are consuming unsustainably. (We’ll leave aside carbon dioxide absorption—as that issue is more complex—and focus on all the other resources).

Lone Star Rail Insanity

Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).

Click image to download a PDF version of this map.

By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.

Lone Star is asking the San Antonio city council for $500,000 to help pay for an environmental impact statement and other studies. Austin has supposedly already agreed to fund its share, though it isn’t in the city’s budget.

Lone Star is promising 32 trains (16 each way) carrying 20,000 riders (10,000 round trips) per day at fares of up to $12. That’s more than 600 riders per train; though some may not go the entire distance, it still seems high. Megabus currently operates three buses a day that take 85 minutes between the two cities at fares of $1.50 to $7.50. It seems likely that if there were 20,000 people per day wanting to pay $12 to take the trip at the same speed, Megabus would find them.

If the goal is to relieve congestion on I-35, two new lanes would probably cost less than a billion dollars and would be capable of moving far more vehicles per day than Lone Star would take off the road. Of course, the highway is probably not congested over the entire route, so two new lanes for the full length probably aren’t necessary. Besides, self-driving cars will probably go on sale and eliminate any need for passenger trains before the first Lone Star train would turn a wheel.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, who famously cancelled the city’s even more backwards streetcar project, says that Lone Star isn’t one of her priorities. “There will be benefits from this alternative transit option, but we have to be good fiscal stewards,” she added. Local taxpayers should hope that she and the San Antonio city council can resist the starry-eyed Lone Star plan.

You Ought to Have a Look: Clean Power Plan Comes Under Fire

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

We’ll start out with one of the best quotes we’ve come across in recent memory. It’s from the inimitable Matt Ridley in his piece, “The Green Scare Problem” from the Wall Street Journal last week:

Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate.

Ridley goes on to describe a growingly familiar list of now-failed environmental apocalypses that had been, at one point in time, predicted to befall us—pesticides, ozone hole, acid rain, GMOs, etc. Climate change calamity, as is being pushed by President Obama and the EPA to justify their ever-expanding restrictions of our carbon dioxide emissions, is the latest addition to Ridley’s list. Ridley’s main point is that the “we’re doomed if we don’t do what the environmental pressure groups tell us, and saved if we do” push “has frequently turned out to be really bad advice.” Ridley foresees more of the same from Obama’s Clean Power. We’re inclined to agree.

Be sure to check out Matt’s full column in which he backs up his opinions. It well worth the time spent reading.

When it comes to selling the Clean Power Plan, President Obama and his EPA go to such extreme lengths that they run up against (and often exceed) the bounds of sound science. We’ve addressed many of these transgressions. Climate impact of the Plan? Zilch. Health impacts from the Plan. Non-existent. Economic stimulus of the Plan? Negative. Validity of calling “carbon dioxide emissions” “carbon pollution”? None.

To expand a bit upon the latter, we tracked the historical usage of the phrases “carbon dioxide emissions” and “carbon pollution” in press releases issued by the EPA since 1994. “Carbon dioxide emissions” is the scientifically appropriate description of well, carbon dioxide emissions, while “carbon pollution” is grossly inaccurate and, well, deceptive. Our figure tracks how the EPA has moved away from science and towards propaganda in recent years, no doubt, in concert with the President and his push for limits to carbon dioxide emissions under his Climate Action Plan announced in 2013 (and telegraphed years earlier).

 

Figure 1. Number of press releases each year since 1994 (through August 11, 2015) issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which contained either the phrase “carbon dioxide emissions” or “carbon pollution.”

Figure 1. Number of press releases each year since 1994 (through August 11, 2015) issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which contained either the phrase “carbon dioxide emissions” or “carbon pollution.”

When a straight up telling of the situation fails to impress, try dressing it up with something a bit scarier-sounding.

And finally, if the Obama Administration isn’t going to have its hands full dealing with challenges by states and industries who are opposed to the Clean Power Plan for myriad reasons, it’ll also have to defend itself against a lawsuit from a group of youths who think that the Clean Power Plan doesn’t go far enough:

They are asking for a court order to force Obama to immediately implement a national plan to decrease atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million – a level many scientists agree is the highest safe concentration permissible – by the end of this century. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already hit 400 parts per million.

“It’s really important that the court step in and do their jobs when there’s such intense violation of constitutional rights happening,” [Julia] Olson [lead council on the case] said.

Nothing like a lawsuit that is suing for the impossible!

Budgets on Fire

It’s fire season again, which means we are once again treated to stories about how the Forest Service is running out of money and about how it all must be due to climate change. Both of these claims overlook fundamental points about fire policy and firefighting.

As of August 16, the BLM had spent $2.2 million controlling the 88,000-acre Cornet Fire on the Vale District in Oregon. The Forest Service has spent two-and-one-half times that much on a fire that was just 515 acres in size. BLM photo.

The Forest Service frets that rapidly rising firefighting costs are hurting the budgets of other Forest Service programs. However, as I’ve pointed out before, Forest Service firefighting costs have risen rapidly mainly because they can: the agency has a virtual blank check to spend on fire. As a result, the agency spends far more fighting fires than Department of the Interior agencies, which have never had a blank check.

For example, as of yesterday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had spent $1.6 million controlling the 55,000-acre County Line 2 fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, while the Bureau of Land Management had spent $2.5 million controlling the 44,000-acre Bendire fire on its Vale District. Meanwhile, the Forest Service had spent $5.5 million on the 515-acre Baldy Fire on the Colville National Forest; $5.9 million on the 4,800-acre National Creek fire on the Rogue River National Forest; and $7.1 million on the 2,600-acre Phillips Creek fire on the Umatilla National Forest. These are selected examples, but on average, the Forest Service spends more than five times as much per acre than the Interior agencies.