July 02, 2012

Deadly Derecho Storm Leaves Many Parts of East Coast Powerless

A deadly stretch of thunderstorms known as a derecho pummeled the Washington area Friday night and other parts of the mid-West and East Coast, leaving more than a dozen dead and millions without power amid a record heat wave. 

The storms struck the Washington metropolitan area shortly before midnight on Friday. Gusts of wind topping 70 miles per hour toppled trees and power lines. Some areas of northern Virginia measured wind gusts in excess of 80 miles per hour. Abnormal streaks of purple and green lightening lit up the sky. Tornado warnings were issued for parts of northern Virginia. Power flickered on and off before going down in northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland. 

The damage was most severe in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia and Maryland, where some residents huddled in their basements as the storm ripped through the area, blowing down trees, upending lawn furniture and tearing off roof shingles,” The New York Times reported on Sunday. “President Obama telephoned the governors of Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, all of whom declared states of emergency. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia said his state had suffered the largest ‘non-hurricane power outage’ in its history.”

The impacts of the storm have been far reaching. By Saturday, more than 3 million people were affected by power outages. Emergency 911 call centers were offline in parts of Virginia and elsewhere. Officials urged residents to conserve water as utility crews worked to restore access to critical services, including water-pumping stations. Many gas stations remained closed. Residents endured near-record temperatures without air conditioning. Some super markets exhausted their supplies of bottled water and ice packs. In some states, national guard troops have been deployed to help direct traffic and check on residents in areas where first responders were over stretched. Officials estimated that it could take up to a week to restore power to all those affected by the storms.

The effects of the storm are a not-so-gentle reminder of how important reliable access to electricity is, especially during the hot summer months. In countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, sustainable access to electricity is a perennial challenge that undermines economic and social development. And even in Japan, a concern about reliance access to electricity is at the crux of the debate about the use of nuclear energy. Japanese officials just restarted two nuclear reactors to stave off electricity shortages in parts of Japan. The impacts of this weekend’s storm help put in perspective the kinds of tradeoffs that Japanese officials are grappling with.     

For this author, the recent storm also raises some important questions about the potential effects of climate change. Derecho storms, for example, are not atypical for areas affected by stifling heat waves. According to The Washington Post, “During summer, the jet stream atop a sprawling heat dome is sometimes called a 'ring of fire' due to the tendency for explosive thunderstorms to form along this weather front separating hot, humid air to the south and cooler, drier air to the north.”

One cannot help but wonder then, is Friday night’s storm the kind of event that could become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change? The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang appeared to wonder the same question: 

As the intensity of the heat wave, without reservation, was a key factor in the destructiveness of this derecho event - it raises the question about the possible role of manmade climate warming (from elevated greenhouse concentrations). It’s a complicated, controversial question, but one that scientists will surely grapple with in case studies of this rare, extraordinary event.

The answer to that question – as difficult as it is to address – has important implications for national preparedness and community resilience to climate change. And for those that experienced this weekend’s events firsthand, it is a thought that will fester.

Photo: A thunderstorm lights up the Washington sky. Courtesy of flickr user Endless Simmer.