Thursday, September 01, 2011

Acts of God..and Man

Happy September.

Over the last week or so I've followed, and in one case been affected by, natural occurrences in or near to our area that fall under the legal definition of an Act of God:
An event that directly and exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution; an inevitable accident.1
I thought about the reaction of the general public and the media to the events that occurred, and what the factors might be that influence those reactions. I tried illustrating this on a graph:

In short, this graph illustrates a type of event, how long the event lasted, and how much "human actionability" is perceived to be directly involved in the duration or severity of that event. This is very rough and rudimentary; no demographic research went into this other than an hour or so in my own head.

It should also be noted that the graph refers to the duration of the event itself, not the lasting effects or the human response to mitigate those effects. For example, a hurricane may take a couple of hours to blow through an area; however, if you took into account the response to Hurricane Katrina, for example, the result would be on the opposite end of the graph. "Heckuva job, Brownie".

I included the 1889 Johnstown Flood on the graph to provide a local example of a contrast to events of short duration with no human actionablilty, and events with similar duration but with questionable contributions to its severity on the part of mankind.

An act of God, in this case torrential rainfall, was the root cause of the Johnstown Flood. The rain's impact on a structurally compromised and poorly maintained earthen dam contributed greatly to the event's duration, severity, and loss of life.

Here is a quick look at those three recent events with this thought process in mind:

Washington Boulevard Flash Flooding

During the Friday rush hour of August 19, a slow-moving thunderstorm filled the Negley Run basin in Pittsburgh to the tune of 9 feet of water. The storm sewers that carry this stream beneath Washington Boulevard were overwhelmed, and 4 people in vehicles on that roadway lost their lives.

There is an eerie coincidence in the circumstances of this incident, given the tragic flash flood that I wrote about in May; the locations of this flood and the Little Pine Creek tragedy of 1986 are but a mile so so from each other as the crow flies.

There is also historical perspective surrounding the Washington Boulevard flood that has many questioning the stewardship role of the government agencies involved.

The initial response from officials of ALCOSAN, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) and PennDOT was something akin to "well, we should talk about that". This angered a lot of people, including Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers. He painted a rather unflattering portrait of these stakeholders in the August 22 edition.

P-G columnist Brian O'Neill spoke with city officials and some private citizens with considerable expertise, and also did some nice detective work in his paper's archives, including a reference to the 1986 Pine Creek Flood that painted some North Hills municipalities in a not-so-nice light. Mr. O'Neill's August 25 and August 28 columns reflect both unconventional wisdom and common sense. A couple of his paragraphs sum it up:

I've often thought that Pittsburgh is luckier than the Sun Belt. Some of those cities are going dry. Our problem is too much water getting into the wrong places, which seems an easier problem to manage -- most of the time.

Then we get a flash flood and it becomes clear we're not managing our water. A crumbling, ill-designed system is kept out of sight and out of mind. When the all-too predictable catastrophe occurs, we look back to the precedents that were more than fair warning. Then we scramble to do something about it right up until the moment we don't.

I agree with Mr. O'Neill's assumption that the Washington Boulevard flood, while brought about by an act of God, was exacerbated by the inaction of man to adequately heed the warning signs. A new line was forming on my graph:

In terms of the severity of the events, there is a point at which the amount of human involvement in either the event itself, or its exacerbation, will bring about demands for redress and responsibility. This could take the form of lawsuits, or by other means available to citizens, such as the ballot box.

In the case of Washington Boulevard, aside from the planning and commitment that will be required on the part of all stakeholders to respond to this latest calamity, I'm wondering why ALCOSAN and PWSA exist as separate entities, when their missions appear to dovetail with each other. Maybe I'm uninformed, but if economic and political factors continue the push for more streamlined, regional governance, why not start with authorities like these?

Earthquake (!)

After 16 years in the mountain west, I had to come back east to feel one of these. I was having lunch at a favorite place in Oakland when the building began to pulsate at about three times a second. I looked up from my lunch, and felt the second floor dining room begin to sway slightly. It was over in about 10 seconds, and I was initially unsure as to what had happened. I did have the distinct impression that if the vibration had lasted longer or intensified, the building would have folded down like a house of cards.

It made big news in the media, especially given the broad area that the quake was felt and its relative proximity to Washington DC. Most people that I spoke with seemed to take it in stride, in keeping with the theory on the graph. Nothing could be done, it wasn't anyone's fault, so let's get on with things.

I get the feeling that even if the quake had been much worse, with significant structural damage or casualties, the attitude would have been about the same, so long as those charged with a duty to act in response to these types of events fulfilled their duties with a level of due diligence.

Some went as far as to try to pin the quake on fracking. In some areas, this is a possibility. Many of the earthquakes that occur in Mesa County are sourced to a federal desalination project for the Dolores River southwest of Grand Junction. Brine that is extracted from the river is pumped down a 3-mile deep well. This water can cause fractures in the rock strata, resulting in small earthquakes.

This was NOT the case with the Virginia quake - there is no fracking going on anywhere near the area of the epicenter. However, as with all other risk factors associated with drilling, this is one to be mindful of in areas of drilling activity. If such a quake did occur, its place on the graph would be further to the right, perhaps considerably.

Hurricane Irene

The hurricane had a nicer effect on the Pittsburgh area, at least for me. This past Sunday morning I took the dog out, and was greeted with a pleasant breeze from an unlikely direction. Low clouds were moving rapidly from the northeast to the southwest. A raptor, perhaps a hawk, hovered about 100 feet above my street, wings extended, just relaxing and riding the wind.

Irene was not so nice to some familiar and unexpected places. The preparatory hype and protestations of impending doom along the east coast, especially New York, didn't pan out as expected. This can be attributed to what one group of political writers called The Katrina Effect (the "Brownie" effect?).

In some places, protection against large-scale flooding and erosion may be better than others, but I believe it is all dependent on the "angle of attack", for lack of a better term. This comes from aviation, describing how the angle of a wing affects the flow of air above and below it, and thus its ability to create lift. With large-scale storms, I'm guessing it all depends on the direction, amount of moisture, and wind as to what will happen to a particular area in the storm's path.

To those affected in eastern Pennsylvania, the Outer Banks, and especially Vermont, my prayers go out to you and all others impacted by what may not have been an impressive storm by media standards, but wreaked havoc nonetheless.

This made me think of another line for my graph - one that illustrates what happens when uncontrollable events of increasing duration impact humanity:

Let's hope this isn't the beginning of a trend.

Have a great month ahead.

1 - West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc.

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