Officials are still grappling with a deadly mudslide in Washington State that left at least 14 dead, 176 missing and authorities scrambling to explain why risks were ignored.
Search-and-rescue teams are waiting for the ground to stabilize after a weekend mudslide in Washington State that has killed at least 14 people and left another 176 unaccounted for as of Tuesday morning. Gov. Jay Inslee has instituted a state of emergency
Updated: March 24, 2014, 10:05 pm. E.T.
Fourteen people have been confirmed dead in a devastating mudslide that struck a small riverside neighborhood in Washington State on Saturday morning. Authorities said Monday that 176 people were still missing or unaccounted for, a huge increase of prior estimates that 18 people were missing, though that number may include duplicates.
Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington emphasized that not all of the missing were necessarily injured or killed. The larger number is from a combined list of names reported missing in the wake of the mudslide from various sources.
Screams and cries for help could be heard by rescue teams beneath the wreckage on Saturday evening, but the mud was so thick that the searchers had to turn back. On Sunday, no sounds were heard among the sludge-covered debris.
“We didn’t see or hear any signs of life out there today,” said Snohomish County Fire District 21 chief Travis Hots. Still, Hots said crews were in a “search-and-rescue mode. It has not gone to a recovery mode at this time.”
The operation was discontinued at nightfall because of dangerous conditions. Rescue workers had already sunk down to their armpits into the mud and had to be pulled to safety.
The massive slide, destroying about 30 homes, occurred at about 11 a.m. Saturday.
“In three seconds everything got washed away,” a witness who was driving on a highway when the mudslide happened told the Seattle Times. “Darkness covering the whole roadway and one house right in the middle of the street.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee described the scene as “a square mile of devastation” after flying over the area on Sunday, and declared a state of emergency. Residents have been advised to evacuate the area, as debris from the slide has dammed up the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, threatening severe flooding if the water, rising roughly a foot every half hour, bursts through the blockage.
The article has been updated to include the latest developments on Monday evening.
We're going to need better umbrellas
Pick your favorite creature, and it’s pretty likely it has fallen like rain from the clouds. Fish are a classic choice, of course, but the list goes on, Justin Nobel writes:
Tadpoles over Japan; spiders over Brazil; frogs over Serbia, ancient Egypt and Kansas City; brown worms over Indiana; scarlet worms over Massachusetts; red worms over Sweden; snails over England; a shower of raw meat (thought to be venison or mutton) over Kentucky; blackbirds over Arkansas; eels over Alabama; snakes over Tennessee and fish over Australia, India and Honduras.
In Marksville, Louisiana in 1947, fish even fell out of a clear sky, with various species ranging from two to nine inches in length. But why does this bizarre meteorological phenomenon actually happen?
Modern Farmer tests a variety of hypotheses, including powerful tornados and waterspouts, a vortex that forms over a body of water and sucks up the water along with it, perhaps including any stray fish or frogs. “It seems very reasonable that they could be flung airborne and carried some distance away,” says University of Georgia scientist John Knox.
Sharknados, however, are still completely impossible. Unless, one expert explains, global warming causes heavier rainfall and stronger storms. Uh oh.
Eating right, exercising, work, sense of community, and drinking all help buffer against mental illness
Three years after the earthquake that triggered a tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, new research reveals a high-than-normal incidence of PTSD symptoms among survivors in Hirono, Fukushima. But the study also sheds light on how to buffer oneself from mental illness following such disaster.
Though only two residents of Hirono died in the earthquake and tsunami, more than half of the 241 residents surveyed were found to display “clinically concerning” symptoms of PTSD, and two-thirds reported depression symptoms. Those rates are higher than what has normally been observed following other natural disasters, and researchers point to the fact that the radiation leak forced many residents to relocate to temporary housing, breaking up the residents’ sense of community and the support that comes with it. All participants surveyed were living in government-provided temporary housing, and their average age was 58 (younger residents were more likely to have relocated elsewhere).
Despite the poor mental health scores, the research illuminated factors influencing psychological resilience following a disaster. Unsurprisingly, healthy behaviors like eating right and exercising helped buffer against mental illness. “Those factors are very strongly associated with great physical wellbeing. Having a very good physical wellbeing helps the psyche as well,” says study author Niwako Yamawaki, a professor at Brigham Young University. The positive effects of maintaining a job was also expected, since having a distraction and something to work towards can help people cope and give them a sense of normalcy.
What was unexpected, though, was that drinking alcohol a couple times a week also helped survivors in terms of resilience, though researchers suspect the effect could be cultural. “In the U.S., if people are drinking after a psychologically traumatic event, it is seen as a negative consequence. But what we found was that when people were drinking in Japan, they were interacting with community members–usually over dinner or at meetings,” says Yamawaki. This suggests that for these survivors, the human connection during gatherings where they drank were positive. In general, Yamawaki says the Japanese and residents of Hirono are used to having a community, and group interaction is core to their identity.
Since more natural disasters are expected in Japan’s future, Yamawaki says she hopes her findings will provide insight into how to best prepare for the mental trauma that comes with natural disasters, and how to keep cultural details in mind to ensure that people receive the best care during clean-up and relocation. “These survivors are still suffering,” she says.
The findings are published in the journal, Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.
Tornado barriers 100 miles long and 1,000 feet high could save lives and property by stopping twisters before they begin, says Professor Rongjia Tao of Temple University in Philadelphia -- but critics aren't so sure
Three “Great Walls” built around the United States’ Tornado Alley could eliminate twisters from destroying billions of dollars in property and endangering millions of lives, a physicist has claimed.
Professor Rongjia Tao of Temple University, Philadelphia unveiled a proposal this week calling for the construction of three 1,000-foot barriers up to 100 miles long, which would act like hill ranges and soften winds before tornadoes could form, the BBC reports.
The $16.9 billion plan would call for the faux hill ranges in North Dakota, along the border between Kansas and Oklahoma, and in Texas and Louisiana, ostensibly saving billions of dollars in damage every year, Tao said. The walls would not shelter towns, he said, but instead would soften the streams of hot southern and cold northern air that form twisters when they clash in the first place.
But critics scoffed at Tao’s proposals. Leading tornado experts pointed to areas that are already protected by hill ranges the size of the barriers Tao is proposing, yet still have plenty of tornados, like parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. And even if the plan did work, it would create more problems than it would solve, scientists said, by creating catastrophic weather side effects.
“Everybody I know is of 100% agreement – this is a poorly conceived idea,” Professor Joshua Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research. “From what I can gather his concept of how tornadoes form is fundamentally flawed. Meteorologists cringe when they hear about ‘clashing hot and cold air’. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
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Oklahomans are accustomed to scorching heat, driving thunderstorms and deadly tornadoes. But not earthquakes–until recently. From 1990 to 2008, the state never had more than 11 earthquakes a year that measured 2.0 or greater on the Richter scale. In 2013 there were 291. More than 250 earthquakes of at least that magnitude have struck in February 2014 alone. …
An unusually high number of tremors have shaken the state lately, leading some to point their fingers at the emerging hydraulic fracturing industry, though the real culprit might be a type of wastewater storage system
No strangers to nature’s fury, Oklahomans grow up accustomed scorching heat, blizzards, wrecking-ball thunderstorms and tornadoes. What they don’t see a lot of are earthquakes, which have been rattling the Sooner State with rare frequency of late — at least 115 earthquakes of varying intensities in the last week.
“You hear a loud ‘WAM!’ and you hear this loud rattle-rattle-rattle,” said Tracey Romberger, who lives near the center of this latest swarm of earthquakes between Oklahoma City and the town of Guthrie. She described the sound as “like somebody was dropping a bomb, or a cannon going off.”
The question on everyone’s mind is: why? The area has been seismically active since time immemorial but the latest swarm of earthquakes is unheard of. According to earthquake monitors EQ Charts, between 1990 and 2008 there were between 0 and 11 earthquakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater in Oklahoma every year. In 2009 there were 49. In 2010 there were 180. In 2013 there were 291, and so far in 2014 there have been 59-plus and counting. More than a dozen notable earthquakes have shaken north-central Oklahoma in the past three days.
“It’s incredibly unusual,” said Austin Holland, a research seismologist with the Oklahoma Geologic Survey. “We’ve had swarms that are similar in nature but I don’t think we’ve had one with quite the numbers we’ve had.”
State authorities are now trying to get the bottom of the unusual seismic activity. Holland is amassing resources and data to figure out what might be to blame, and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, has already proposed new testing and monitoring requirements for wells injected with drilling wastewater, which some have blamed for the increase in earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking“, involving explosions being set off underground, has also been blamed by some for the swarm.
Spent drilling water injected back into the ground for storage at high pressure, some scientists believe, may be forcing fault lines under pressure to shift. Katie Keranen, a geophysics professor at Cornell, says “the evidence is strong” that the earthquakes are caused by fracking and wastewater disposal, both of which have become more frequent amid today’s boom in oil and gas drilling.
But others scoff at the notion that fracking might be connected to seismic activity. “I work with geologists and petroleum engineers on a daily basis and they are of the opinion that [fracking] is not causing the earthquakes,” said Eric King, an attorney who works with the oil and gas industry, comparing the earthquake swarm to climate fluctuations. “We didn’t have cold weather in Oklahoma for a lot of years but we’re having it this year,” he said.
It’s true that Oklahoma has a history of earthquake swarms that spike and then die down, but it’s also true that humans have caused earthquakes in the past. And previous swarms have been nowhere near as serious as this latest one. “We do know there have been some earthquakes caused by oil and gas activity in the state,” Holland, the research seismologist, said. “The hard part is figuring out which is which.”
In the meantime, Oklahoma is steeling itself for worse quakes in the future, as each earthquake increases the likelihood that a worse earthquake will follow. That’s a prospect that could put Oklahomans on edge. “It scares you a little bit,” says Romberger. “Makes you jump.”
The major eruption blanketed the island of Java in ash, forcing the evacuation of more than a hundred thousand people
When it comes to weather, 2013 will be remembered primarily for Supertyphoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall, which slammed into the Philippines in early November and killed at least 6,000 people. But the typhoon wasn’t the only incidence of extreme weather this year. From the tornado that tore apart the Oklahoma town of Moore in May to the floods that drowned parts of Colorado in September, 2013 saw more than its share of storms, heat waves and other natural disasters. 2013 may not be as bad as 2012, which was the hottest year in U.S. history and featured 11 weather events that causes losses exceeding $1 billion, including Superstorm Sandy. But as these photos show, the price of extreme weather is still high.
Revisit TIME's 2013 cover story about the devastating tornado that ripped apart Moore, Oklahoma.
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Correction Appended: May 23, 2013
Rick Smith’s job is to save lives, and he knew when he clocked in at 7 a.m. on Monday, May 20, that it was going to be a very dangerous day. More than 40 screens and monitors glowed in the horseshoe-shaped command center, and menace radiated from every one. Data from radar, hovering satellites and surveillance devices covering thousands of square miles all pointed to one conclusion: conditions were perfect for a monster tornado.
As warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., Smith is the meteorologist responsible for triggering alarms across some of the most storm-prone territory on earth. In springtime on the southern Great Plains, warm air drawn from the Gulf of Mexico meets cold air riding the jet stream from Canada to create storm cells of unbelievable power. The power to fling automobiles like toddler’s toys, to vanish houses in an eyeblink, to erase entire neighborhoods. Yet for all their force, tornadoes are the most evanescent of storms. One can grow from a fluffy white cloud into a deadly twister in under 90 minutes, and even then the terrible vortex might not touch ground. It lasts minutes, sometimes just seconds. It scours one block but skips the next. It bulldozes irresistibly ahead until it dissolves in an instant, perhaps to form again later. Perhaps not.
“When I came in the office it became obvious very, very quickly that the conditions were even more volatile than Sunday,” says Smith. Worse than Sunday was bad indeed, for the line of tornadoes that struck Oklahoma and adjacent states on May 19 included one whipping winds of 200 m.p.h. that left two people dead. All of the same ingredients were there on Monday. The screens were unanimous.
Yet saying that the weather will be bad on a May afternoon in Tornado Alley is not enough to grab attention. Smith’s job was to say how bad, and where. He needed to say it as early as possible so that people could get word and take cover. But he had to be right, because every time the storm sirens sound and no wolf appears, people grow a bit more complacent. And when the sirens prove to be warranted, complacent people are likely to become injured people, maimed people, dead people.
As the hours ticked away, Smith and the command-center team sifted the data. “There’s no shouting, no panic. It’s like being aboard an aircraft carrier, though we didn’t have the colored shirts,” Smith says. Local news stations beamed images of ominous clouds from their weather helicopters. Professional and amateur storm chasers radioed reports of deteriorating conditions. The Weather Service forecasters narrowed the danger zone to a bull’s-eye stretching across the metropolis of Oklahoma City and south to the university town of Norman, where Smith and his colleagues could watch the sky grow darker through a wall of west-facing windows.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m. C.T., the team had seen enough. Something big was gathering near the Oklahoma City suburbs south of Interstate 40 and east of I-44. Using preformatted text to save precious seconds, they approved the strongest warning the Weather Service can give: a “tornado emergency.” The designation was created by the man who is now Smith’s boss, meteorologist David Andra Jr., during the May 3, 1999 storm that spun up winds in excess of 300 m.p.h. in the town of Moore, Okla.–the highest winds ever recorded. Andra’s designation means simply, “this is not your usual Oklahoma tornado,” says Smith. “This is different; this is deadly.”
Moore is just south of Interstate 40 and east of I-44.
With the press of a “return” key, the warning was issued at 2:40 p.m. The people of Moore had 16 minutes.
Sirens and Decisions
What can you do with 16 minutes?
Kelly Byrne is the mother of two little girls and owner of a small business called Scribbles and Dribbles, makers of cute stuff for babies. When the warning was issued, she was at home in Moore, a fast-growing suburb of some 56,000 residents. Her girls are 4 and 1, and she tries “really hard not to scare them.” But as a lifelong resident of Tornado Alley, she knows the value of vigilance. “Anytime there’s really severe weather, we start preparing, just in case.” To keep the girls calm, she made a game of getting ready. As the weather soured, she suggested that they collect pillows to build a fort in an interior closet. When they finished, the girls nestled in with a tablet computer, unaware of the danger, as Byrne gathered extra clothing and diapers nearby.
All the while, she kept one eye on the TV. When Smith’s warning reached the news stations, the voice from the box grew more urgent. “They said an inside room wasn’t sufficient for this tornado,” Byrne tells TIME. What to do? Her home, like many on the hard clay plains of Oklahoma, had no basement. “So I grabbed my girls and my phone, and we went across to the street to a neighbor who had a shelter.”
By now it was after 2:50 p.m. Welcomed inside the below-ground shelter with scant time to spare, the little family listened as a deafening roar passed over them, headed northeast. Afterward, Byrne emerged to find a ruined world, scented with fumes of leaking gas. “A car that had been sitting in the driveway is now in front of the house turned sideways,” she says. “All the brick is pulled off from one wall. Attic has fallen in on the garage. We have a recliner in our hot tub.”
For Byrne, 16 minutes meant that her girls were not cowering as their home splintered around them.
Tracy Stephen used her 16 minutes to rush from home to Plaza Towers Elementary School, hoping to retrieve her 6-year-old daughter Abigail. But when she arrived, she found the school locked tight. As the time drained away, she hurried to a neighbor’s house with her two younger daughters and climbed into the cellar with just minutes to spare. The home she left behind was obliterated.
Inside those locked school doors, the teachers and staff at Plaza Towers filled their 16 minutes purposefully executing the plans they had rehearsed again and again. Schools built in Moore after the 1999 tornado include safe rooms, but older schools like Plaza Towers and nearby Briarwood Elementary do not. So the students filed into the innermost part of the school, away from the windows, knelt and covered their heads. As the storm hit, courageous teachers and staff shielded the children with their bodies.
When it subsided, Stephen made for the ruins “like a crazy person, running toward the wreckage, wailing,” she said. A mother of a classmate told her that Abigail had been killed in the collapse–a horrific mistake, it turned out, one of many in the tornado’s chaotic aftermath. She found her daughter in a nearby home, wrapped safely in a blanket. The teacher’s aide who had protected Abigail was injured but alive.
Patrick Smith’s 16 minutes were spent gathering his two kids from school and outracing the twister to his rented house on 19th and Moore. “The tornado seemed to chase me all the way,” he recalls. There was just enough time to load the children into the bathtub and hit the deck beside them with a mattress over his head. “I love you,” he called over the racket of debris battering the walls.
When it was over, he ran the two blocks to Plaza Towers Elementary with neighbors in tow. The scene was a human chain of first responders, working together to dig out children and teachers. As they were freed, recalls Sue Ogrocki, a photographer for the Associated Press, they were passed down the row to safety, a fireman at the end of the line handing each one to a thankful parent.
“I couldn’t hear the children,” Ogrocki says, “and every now and then, police or fire would ask people to stay quiet so they could listen for the kids still trapped.”
The kids were trapped under what had been school walls when the bell rang that morning. Adrenaline surging, Smith felt “like Hercules all of a sudden” as he and his neighbors “picked up an entire wall.” Underneath they found “17 kids in the debris that we dug out.” The children were too frightened to look up, he says.
Other children would never look up. Ten children were among the dead, seven of them at Plaza Towers. Six adults are still missing. In all, searchers had found 24 bodies as of May 22 in the scarred trail of the tornado, which was more than a mile wide in some places and had skidded across the south side of Oklahoma City for some 17 miles. On the Enhanced Fujita scale used to classify the strength of cyclones, the storm rated a 5: as high as it goes, with peak winds topping 200 m.p.h. and some buildings stripped to bare foundations.
The cyclone was arbitrary. Within yards of a house in matchsticks, one could find a china cabinet undisturbed, every fragile plate intact. Sweeping up whole lives and dropping the shreds at random, it reminded thousands of people what really mattered. Sam Riojas found himself hunting through the rubble for an old tin box. “My grandfather died in October, which was pretty tough, and I found out that he used to be in the military in Mexico. He didn’t tell anyone in our family. None of us knew. We’re looking for stuff he had collected.” A precious needle in a vast haystack of other people’s memories. “I can’t find it,” he says wearily.
A day later, Kelly Byrne reflects, “If you’ve never been through one, you don’t realize how quickly it happens. We had enough warning. We had a good 15-minute warning, which is an amazing time for a tornado.” Sixteen, to be exact. “But when there are cars flying through the air, and trees and parts of houses, there’s only so much you can do to hide from it.”
Her brother-in-law Mike was at work in Norman when the storm went through. When he reached the place where his home used to be, “I didn’t even really know it was my street,” he says. What he found, in that dismal chaos, was the bedrock truth of the whole awful story, the one fact that every human response must bend to accommodate. “Tornadoes do whatever the hell they want,” he says.
Vulnerable Safety Net
Two years ago, near suppertime on may 22, 2011, a force-5 tornado dropped suddenly on Joplin, Mo., and left at least 158 people dead–more than six times the number of fatalities in Moore. The most important difference between that disaster and this one was the effectiveness of the advance warning.
In sounding the alarm on Monday, Rick Smith relied on a flood of signals unimaginable when President Ulysses Grant founded the Weather Service in 1870. The U.S. has up to 30 satellites at any given moment that spend at least part of their time gazing down on weather patterns. It has 122 Doppler radar systems scattered across the country to look up from the ground. There are 114 climate-data centers to monitor every region of the country. And the computers that process this information were recently upgraded to increase their data-crunching power thirtyfold, at a cost to taxpayers of $25 million.
But this weather-forecasting infrastructure is much more wobbly than it seems, and without attention the whole thing could start to come undone. Last October, in the run-up to Hurricane Sandy, one of the feds’ two vital weather satellites–known as GOES-East–went briefly off-line, effectively blinding the nation’s forecasters when they needed eyes the most. A patch was rigged using a backup satellite and some data from European governments. It happened again two days after the Moore disaster: GOES-East went on the blink. With GOES-West and other U.S. weather satellites also nearing the end of their lifespan, these failures offer a harrowing glimpse of the price we’ll pay if we don’t invest in the next generation of weather-watching technology.
Ramping up the computer power of the Weather Service by 30 times undoubtedly saved lives in Moore and will save many others from storms to come. But it’s not enough. “What we really need is to be 100 times better than what we were,” says atmospheric-sciences professor Cliff Mass of the University of Washington. “We have to do much better.”
The same can be said of the shortage of safe rooms and shelters in Tornado Alley. A combination of environmental factors–from a close-to-the-surface frost line to the red clay soil–make basements expensive to dig in Oklahoma. And while Moore’s city website recommends that residents have protected storm shelters, the municipal code does not require them in homes, businesses or schools–something Moore’s mayor proposed requiring in all new buildings following the tornado. The absence of safe rooms inside area schools has become a flashpoint for parents.
Carrie Long’s home was among the many lost to the surging winds. Her two children, a 13-year-old in middle school and a 14-year-old in high school, rode out the storm inside their schools. “If I’d gotten my kids out and taken them home, they’d be dead,” she said while clutching a garbage bag full of muddy clothes, her eyes welling up. “There’s just nothing left of our home.”
By the time Smith left the office at 11 p.m., jangled and exhausted by the 16-hour, white-knuckle day, he had seen on television the massive manifestation of the “tornado emergency” he had pictured hours earlier. The dark and swirling column flinging debris as it slowly chewed through Moore could just as easily have come through Norman and wrecked his life instead of theirs. Even a weatherman can’t stop or steer a twister. But his team had done the next best thing. They had given the people of Moore 16 precious minutes, and that made it a good day’s work.
Maybe someday it can be 30.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that one child had died at Briarwood Elementary.