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Can we predict earthquakes?

BBC News – Can we predict when and where quakes will strike?.

l'Aquila earthquake Seismologists try to manage the risk of building damage and loss of life

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This week, six seismologists go on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people, who died as a result of the 2009 earthquake in l’Aquila, Italy.

The prosecution holds that the scientists should have advised the population of l’Aquila of the impending earthquake risk.

But is it possible to pinpoint the time and location of an earthquake with enough accuracy to guide an effective evacuation?

There are continuing calls for seismologists to predict where and when a large earthquake will occur, to allow complete evacuation of threatened areas.

What causes an earthquake?

An earthquake is caused when rocks in the Earth’s crust fracture suddenly, releasing energy in the form of shaking and rolling, radiating out from the epicentre.

The rocks are put under stress mostly by friction during the slow, 1-10 cm per year shuffling of tectonic plates.

The release of this friction can happen at any time, either through small frequent fractures, or rarer breaks that release a lot more energy, causing larger earthquakes.

It is these large earthquakes that have devastating consequences when they strike in heavily populated areas.

Attempts to limit the destruction of buildings and the loss of life mostly focus on preventative measures and well-communicated emergency plans.

Predicting an earthquake with this level of precision is extremely difficult, because of the variation in geology and other factors that are unique to each location.

Attempts have been made, however, to look for signals that indicate a large earthquake is about to happen, with variable success.

Historically, animals have been thought to be able to sense impending earthquakes.

Noticeably erratic behaviour of pets, and mass movement of wild animals like rats, snakes and toads have been observed prior to several large earthquakes in the past.

Following the l’Aquila quake, researchers published a study in the Journal of Zoology documenting the unusual movement of toads away from their breeding colony.

But scientists have been unable to use this anecdotal evidence to predict events.

The behaviour of animals is affected by too many factors, including hunger, territory and weather, and so their erratic movements can only be attributed to earthquakes in hindsight.

Precursor events

When a large amount of stress is built up in the Earth’s crust, it will mostly be released in a single large earthquake, but some smaller-scale cracking in the build-up to the break will result in precursor earthquakes.

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There is no scientific basis for making a prediction”

Richard Walker University of Oxford

These small quakes precede around half of all large earthquakes, and can continue for days to months before the big break.

Some scientists have even gone so far as to try to predict the location of the large earthquake by mapping the small tremors.

The “Mogi Doughnut Hypothesis” suggests that a circular pattern of small precursor quakes will precede a large earthquake emanating from the centre of that circle.

While half of the large earthquakes have precursor tremors, only around 5% of small earthquakes are associated with a large quake.

So even if small tremors are felt, this cannot be a reliable prediction that a large, devastating earthquake will follow.

“There is no scientific basis for making a prediction”, said Dr Richard Walker of the University of Oxford.

In several cases, increased levels of radon gas have been observed in association with rock cracking that causes earthquakes.

Leaning building Small ground movements sometimes precede a large quake

Radon is a natural and relatively harmless gas in the Earth’s crust that is released to dissolve into groundwater when the rock breaks.

Similarly, when rock cracks, it can create new spaces in the crust, into which groundwater can flow.

Measurements of groundwater levels around earthquake-prone areas see sudden changes in the level of the water table as a result of this invisible cracking.

Unfortunately for earthquake prediction, both the radon emissions and water level changes can occur before, during, or after an earthquake, or not at all, depending on the particular stresses a rock is put under.

Advance warning systems

The minute changes in the movement, tilt, and the water, gas and chemical content of the ground associated with earthquake activity can be monitored on a long term scale.

Measuring devices have been integrated into early warning systems that can trigger an alarm when a certain amount of activity is recorded.

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Prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible”

Dr Dan Faulkner University of Liverpool

Such early warning systems have been installed in Japan, Mexico and Taiwan, where the population density and high earthquake risk pose a huge threat to people’s lives.

But because of the nature of all of these precursor reactions, the systems may only be able to provide up to 30 seconds’ advance warning.

“In the history of earthquake study, only one prediction has been successful”, explains Dr Walker.

The magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 1975 in Haicheng, North China was predicted one day before it struck, allowing authorities to order evacuation of the city, saving many lives.

But the pattern of seismic activity that this prediction was based on has not resulted in a large earthquake since, and just a year later in 1976 a completely unanticipated magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck nearby Tangshan causing the death of over a quarter of a million people.

The “prediction” of the Haicheng quake was therefore just a lucky unrepeatable coincidence.

A major problem in the prediction of earthquake events that will require evacuation is the threat of issuing false alarms.

Scientists could warn of a large earthquake every time a potential precursor event is observed, however this would result in huge numbers of false alarms which put a strain on public resources and might ultimately reduce the public’s trust in scientists.

“Earthquakes are complex natural processes with thousands of interacting factors, which makes accurate prediction of them virtually impossible,” said Dr Walker.

Seismologists agree that the best way to limit the damage and loss of life resulting from a large earthquake is to predict and manage the longer-term risks in an earthquake-prone area. These include the likelihood of building collapsing and implementing emergency plans.

“Detailed scientific research has told us that each earthquake displays almost unique characteristics, preceded by foreshocks or small tremors, whereas others occur without warning. There simply are no rules to utilise in order to predict earthquakes,” said Dr Dan Faulkner, senior lecturer in rock mechanics at the University of Liverpool.

“Earthquake prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible.”

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Mega space storm would kill satellites for a decade

Mega space storm would kill satellites for a decade – space – 13 September 2011 – New Scientist.

A MAJOR solar storm would not only damage Earth’s infrastructure, it could also leave a legacy of radiation that keeps killing satellites for years.

When the sun belches a massive cloud of charged particles at Earth, it can damageMovie Camera our power grids and fry satellites’ electronics. But that’s not all. New calculations suggest that a solar megastorm could create a persistent radiation problem in low-Earth orbit, disabling satellites for up to a decade after the storm first hit.

It would do this by destroying a natural buffer against radiation – a cloud of charged particles, or plasma, that normally surrounds Earth out to a distance of four times the planet’s radius.

The relatively high density of plasma in the cloud prevents the formation of electromagnetic waves that would otherwise accelerate electrons to high speeds, turning them into a form of radiation. This limits the amount of radiation in the innermost of two radiation belts that surround Earth.

But solar outbursts can erode the cloud. In October 2003, a major outburst whittled the cloud down so that it only extended to two Earth radii. A repeat of a huge outburst that occurred in 1859 – which is expected – would erode the cloud to almost nothing.

Yuri Shprits of the University of California in Los Angeles led a team that simulated how such a large storm would affect the radiation around Earth.

They found that in the absence of the cloud, electromagnetic waves accelerated large numbers of electrons to high speed in Earth’s inner radiation belt, causing a huge increase in radiation there. The inner radiation belt is densest at about 3000 kilometres above Earth’s equator, which is higher than low-Earth orbit. But the belt hugs Earth more tightly above high latitude regions, overlapping with satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Speeding electrons cause electric charge to accumulate on satellite electronics, prompting sparks and damage. Increasing the number of speeding electrons would drastically shorten the lifetime of a typical satellite, the team calculates (Space Weather, DOI: 10.1029/2011sw000662).

The researchers say that the destructive radiation could hang about for a long time, spiralling around Earth’s magnetic field lines. In 1962, a US nuclear test carried out in space flooded low-Earth orbit with radiation that lasted a decade and probably ruined several satellites.

“When you get this radiation that far in, it tends to be quite long-lived and very persistent,” says Ian Mann of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who was not involved in the study.

Thicker metal shielding around satellite electronics would help, says Shprits. The persistent radiation would also be hazardous for astronauts and electronics on the International Space Station.

Lee's remnants brings fresh flood worries to East Coast

Lee’s remnants brings fresh flood worries to East – Yahoo! News.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – As the leftovers from Tropical Storm Lee brought welcome wet weather to farmers in the Southeast, many areas of the East Coast were getting soaked Wednesday, bringing new concerns about flooding.

Tornadoes spawned by Lee damaged hundreds of homes, and flooding knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people. Trees were uprooted and roads were flooded. Winds from the storm fanned wildfires in Louisiana and Texas. Lee even kicked up tar balls on the Gulf Coast.

At least four people died in the storm.

Lee was moving north, bringing heavy rain along with it. Flood warnings were in effect Wednesday and Thursday for much of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Flood watches have been issued for water-logged eastern New York.

Rising waters of a rain-swollen creek forced the evacuation of residents in the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Wilkes-Barre early Wednesday morning.

Officials ordered the mandatory evacuation of about 3,000 residents. Rain from Irene also prompted evacuations there two Sundays ago.

In New Jersey, major flooding was forecast for the Passaic River, which breached its banks during Irene and caused serious damage in some communities.

Lee formed just off the Louisiana coast late last week and gained strength as it lingered in the Gulf for a couple of days. It dumped more than a foot of rain in New Orleans, testing the city’s pump system for the first time in years. The storm then trudged across Mississippi and Alabama. By Tuesday, it had collided with a cold front leaving much of the East Coast wet, with unseasonably cool temperatures.

At one point, flood watches and warnings were in effect from northeast Alabama through West Virginia to New England.

In southeast Louisiana, Red Eubanks used a floor squeegee to clean up his restaurant and bar. His parking lot had been dry — and the headquarters for Livingston Parish sheriff’s deputies and their rescue boat — but the nearby Amite River slowly rose and overflowed its banks.

Water crept into the dining hall and back of Red’s Restaurant and Bar. Eubanks’ son and several friends put the refrigerator, freezers and salad display boxes on cinder blocks to protect them.

“This makes the fifth time I’ve had water in this building in 31 1/2 years,” he said.

In New Jersey, where many residents were still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, the remnants of Lee were expected to drop anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of rain. Major flooding was forecast on Wednesday for the Passaic River, which breached its banks during Irene and caused serious damage in some communities.

On New York’s Long Island, heavy rain and winds knocked out power to more than 9,000 utility customers for several hours on Tuesday. But Lee’s damage paled in comparison with Irene. At least 46 deaths were blamed on that storm, millions lost power and the damage was estimated in the billions of dollars.

Still, Lee was an unprecedented storm in some places. In Chattanooga, a 24-hour record for rainfall was set with 9.69 inches, eclipsing the previous record of 7.61 inches in March of 1886. By Tuesday, more than 10 inches of rain had fallen in the state’s fourth-largest city, which had its driest August ever with barely a drop of rain.

The soggy ground meant even modest winds were toppling trees onto homes and cars. A tree fell on a Chattanooga woman while she was moving her car, killing her, said police Sgt. Jerri Weary.

In suburban Atlanta, a man died after trying to cross a swollen creek near a dam. Authorities in Alabama called off the search for a missing swimmer presumed dead in the rough Gulf waters and in Mississippi, another man drowned while trying to cross a swollen creek in a car. Two people in the car with him were saved when an alert motorist nearby tossed them a rope.

There were other rescue stories, too. At a flooded apartment complex in Fort Oglethorpe in northwest Georgia, 33 people were saved by boat, Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ken Davis said.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for them and other residents displaced in Mississippi, where damage was reported in at least 22 counties.

In Gulf Shores, Ala., black and brown chunks of tar ranging in size from marbles to baseballs washed up on the beach. Brandon Franklin, the city’s coastal claims manager, said samples would be sent to Auburn University for chemical testing to determine if the tar is from last year’s BP oil spill.

Oil from the spill had soiled Gulf Coast beaches during the summer tourist season a year ago, though officials said the tar balls found so far didn’t compare with the thick oil found on beaches then.

BP has sent survey teams to conduct post-storm assessments along coastal beaches to determine what may have developed on the beaches and barrier islands as a result of Lee. The oil giant is prepared to mobilize response crews to affected areas if necessary, spokesman Tom Mueller said.

In Cherokee County in northern Georgia, National Weather Service meteorologists confirmed that it was a tornado that damaged or destroyed about 400 homes. The twister was about a quarter-mile wide, with winds of around 90 mph. It traveled 24 miles on the ground, meteorologist Jessica Fieux said.

One man received minor injuries from flying debris, but otherwise no one was hurt.

Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens toured a speedway and other neighborhoods damaged by the tornado.

“Sometimes a house would be hit, and a lot of damage,” Hudgens said. “And then the next door neighbor, nothing.”

The rain was a blessing for some farmers who had been forced to cut hay early and had seen their corn crop stunted by a summer drought.

“Obviously we would like to have this a while earlier,” said Brant Crowder, who manages 600 acres of the McDonald Farm in the Sale Creek community north of Chattanooga. “It’s been hot and dry the last two months.”

As many as 200,000 had lost power across Alabama at the height of the storm, with most of the outages in the Birmingham area, Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe said. Outages were also reported in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, in the open Atlantic, Hurricane Katia threatened to bring large swells to the East Coast but was not expected to make landfall in the U.S.

___

Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Ala.; Bob Johnson in Montgomery; Ray Henry in Atlanta; Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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Remnants of Tropical Storm Lee could flood Atlantic states, Northeast

The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee could bring new floods to the Northeast.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee could bring new floods to the Northeast.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Up to 10 inches of rain are expected in Mid-Atlantic states
  • Rainfall amounts of up to 4 inches are forecast for the Northeast
  • Lee is blamed for at least four deaths in the South
  • What remained of Lee was located southwest of Knoxville, Tennessee

Read more about the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee from CNN affiliate WCBS.

Atlanta (CNN) — The remnants of former Tropical Storm Lee were forecast to bring heavy rainfall and flooding along the Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic states as they move up the East Coast on Wednesday.

The system also was expected to dump additional rain on the Northeast, which has yet to dry out after Hurricane Irene last week.

Flood and flash flood watches and warnings were posted from the South through the Appalachians and up into the Northeast as the remnants of Lee tracked north.

Rainfall amounts of up to 4 to 8 inches were expected, with up to 10 inches possible in isolated areas, the National Weather Service’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center said late Tuesday.

“These rains may cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the center said.

Lee’s remains spawn tornadoes in Georgia

As of 11 p.m. ET, the center of what remained of Lee was about 95 miles southwest of Knoxville, Tennessee, and was nearly stationary, the center said. The system had maximum sustained winds of 25 mph, with higher gusts.

To the north, the forecast was unwelcome news for waterlogged Vermont and northern New York, which could receive another 1 to 3 inches of rain with up to 4 inches possible in some spots by Wednesday night.

“We could get flooded again,” Robin Stewart of Paterson, New Jersey, told CNN affiliate WCBS. “We’re real concerned about that.”

Garbage remained piled outside Stewart’s home after flooding from Irene wrecked the first story of her house, WCBS said. Stewart hasn’t had power for more than a week, and she is afraid more rain will flood her home again and keep her in the dark even longer.

“When everybody else is on their way to recovery, we’re getting flooded again,” Stewart said.

Lee left at least four people dead as it crossed Southern states.

In Gwinnett County, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, firefighters said Tuesday they found the body of a man who drowned in a rain-swollen creek near Norcross.

In Baldwin County, Alabama, police said they no longer believe a missing 16-year-old boy is alive. The teen was last seen on a beach near Gulf Shores on Sunday.

A flooding death was also reported in rural northeast Mississippi, where one person drowned after floodwaters swept away a vehicle in Tishomingo County, emergency officials said.

And a woman was struck by a tree and killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, early Tuesday.

Rainfall totals from Lee included 11.74 inches in Tillman’s Corner, Alabama; 10 inches in Mobile, Alabama; 10 inches in Milton, Florida; 10 inches in LaFayette, Georgia; 15 inches in Holden, Louisiana; and 14 inches in Waveland, Mississippi.

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Texas wildfires destroy 700+ homes in two days

Texas wildfires destroy more than 700 homes in two days – CNN.com.

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) — Wildfires continued to rage Tuesday in Texas, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes near Austin and Houston as firefighters struggled to gain the upper hand against flames, winds and fatigue.

“Texas is in a difficult situation right now and our priorities are pretty simple. No. 1 is to protect life at all costs,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the state Division of Emergency Management.

The Texas Forest Service said it has responded to 181 fires that have burned more than 118,400 acres over the last week.

The fires have killed two people and, according to the forest service, destroyed more than 700 homes since Sunday. More than 1,000 homes have burned in the state since fire season began in November, Gov. Rick Perry’s office said.

The largest fire, near Austin, has spread across 30,000 acres, destroying more than 600 homes and forcing the evacuations of at least 5,000 people, officials said Tuesday. Known as the Bastrop County Complex, the fire has burned largely uncontrolled since it began Sunday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s registered in our brains that our house is gone and that, really, half of Bastrop is gone,” said evacuee Claire Johnson.

The danger from a fire near Houston — called the Magnolia fire — appeared to be lessening for the most populated areas. Harris County, which includes Houston, said the fire was no longer a threat there. Also, many residents were being allowed back into their homes Tuesday in neighboring Montgomery County.

Perry: Wildfires trump politics
Wildfire prompts evacuations in Texas
Wall of smoke dominates Texas skyline
Wildfires continue to plague Texas

About 4,000 homes in Montgomery had been evacuated, according to Lt. Dan Norris of the county’s emergency management office. Firefighters continued to battle hot spots in Montgomery, but the bulk of the problems from the Magnolia fire now appear to be centered in Waller and Grimes counties, Norris said.

Another blaze in Grimes County, the Riley Road fire, has destroyed 20 homes and has hundreds more in its path, the forest service said. It had burned 3,000 acres as of Tuesday, according to the forest service.

Two major fires in Travis County destroyed 44 structures and damaged 74 others, Roger Wade, a spokesman for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday.

Authorities planned to allow residents of the Steiner Ranch area, burned by one of those Travis fires, to return to their homes Tuesday afternoon.

“We have made progress, but there are smoldering islands here, and we will be working day and night,” said Jim Linardos, the fire incident commander.

While most of the damage has been to homes and other structures, a wildfire killed a woman and her 18-month-old child Sunday when flames engulfed their home near Gladewater, officials said.

Four firefighters working the Magnolia fire were taken to the hospital for treatment of heat exhaustion, according to the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management. One also had an ankle injury. All injuries were minor, the agency said.

The Bastrop County fire started Sunday and spread quickly though Monday on winds fueled by Tropical Storm Lee. It chased at least 2,500 people who registered with evacuation centers from their homes, and likely more.

Firefighters accustomed to attack a fire head-on could do little more than pick around the edges, trying to protect whatever they could, said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service.

“We’ve been very defensive. It’s all we could do until now,” he said. “By the end of the day we hope to gain a lot of ground on this.”

Winds that had peaked at nearly 30 mph had calmed to little more than half that Tuesday, giving firefighters a chance to move to the fire’s front and try to slow its advance, Boggus said.

Still, the damage is staggering, said officials who have toured the area.

“Bastrop County is not the same,” county Judge Ronnie McDonald told CNN affiliate KXAN-TV in Austin.

Historic drought in Texas has created ideal conditions for the rapid spread of wildfire.

So far in 2011, 7.2 million acres of grass, scrub and forest have burned in wildfires nationwide. Of those, 3.5 million — nearly half — have been in Texas, according to Inciweb, a fire-tracking website maintained by state and federal agencies.

Tuesday marks the 294th consecutive day of wildfires in Texas, according to Inciweb.

More than 2,000 firefighters are working fires across the state, Boggus said.

Fatigue is a major issue, Boggus said, especially for volunteer firefighters from local departments who form the backbone of the response. Boggus said Texas officials are seeking additional resources from around the country to help battle the fires.

Read more about the Texas fires from CNN affiliates KXAN and KVUE. Are you there? Share photos, video, but stay safe.

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) — Firefighters southeast of Austin, Texas, battled strong winds Monday as they struggled to gain ground against a fast-moving wildfire that has so far scorched some 25,000 acres and destroyed close to 500 homes.

Another fire in eastern Texas killed a mother and her 18-month-old child when flames engulfed their mobile home Sunday near Gladewater, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Department said.

“We got a long way to go to get this thing contained,” Gov. Rick Perry said about the fire raging near Austin. “I have seen a number of big fires in my life. This one is as mean looking as I’ve ever seen.”

Dozens of fires are burning across the parched state, the Texas Forest Service said Monday.

Earlier, the governor issued a statement in which he called the wildfire situation in Texas “severe” and said that all state resources were being made available to protect lives and property.

“We will pick up the pieces. We always do,” he told reporters.

Wall of smoke dominates Texas skyline
Waiting for the wind to die in Texas
Wildfires continue to plague Texas

Texas is battling its worst fire season in state history. A record 3.5 million acres — an area roughly the size of Connecticut, Perry said — have burned since the start of the season in November as hot and dry weather, coupled with a historic drought, made conditions ripe for rapid fire growth.

“It’s a very serious, scary situation,” said Jan Amen, a Texas Forest Service spokeswoman. “The drought has gone on so long — it’s just bone dry. Anything that catches fire takes off.”

Over the weekend, officials said low relative humidity and strong winds from Lee, which made landfall as a tropical storm but then weakened, further fanned the flames.

A red flag warning was in effect for much of east, south and central Texas on Monday, with wind gusts of up to 35 mph in places, according to the National Weather Service.

A fire broke out about 45 miles north of Houston Monday afternoon. It was moving between 15 and 20 mph and threatening homes, said Rhonda Reinholz with the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department.

Another fire burned in the Steiner Ranch subdivision in Travis County, forcing families out of their homes. Justin Allen evacuated from there with his five kids. Though he does not think the flames will reach their house, which is tucked near the back of the development, they are close enough to worry about, he said.

“It’s pretty scary,” said Allen. “And it’s really sad for everyone that’s in that path.”

The outbreak of wildfires prompted Perry to return to Texas from South Carolina, where he was scheduled to participate in a forum for Republican presidential candidates.

The massive, uncontained fire in Bastrop County, near Austin, was the state’s largest Monday. It destroyed 476 homes, according to Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, and threatened about 1,000 others, officials with the forest service’s incident management team reported. About 5,000 residents evacuated as flames approached, officials said.

‘There’s nothing left of these houses’
Perry: Wildfires trump politics
Winds whip up Texas wildfires
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Lisa Ross learned she needed to leave her Bastrop home when her husband called 911 after realizing a looming fire had darkened the skies above.

“You learn what is valuable in life, and it isn’t the stuff,” she said. “It’s people in your life, and what means something to you.”

Cars crammed with belongings and pets packed a gas station on a highway near Austin, attorney Jonathon A. Zendeh Del said. “I’ve lived in Texas almost all my life, and I’ve never seen a fire that big in central Texas,” he said.

Officials issued a boil water notice for parts of Bastrop Monday. Dark clouds of smoke billowing across the sky could be seen miles from the fire.

Satellite images Monday showed the fire stretching over about 25,000 acres, jumping the Colorado River and a highway, the Texas Forest Service said.

More evacuations are likely as the fire spreads, officials said. Already, hundreds of people are in shelters as dangerous flames keep them from finding out whether their homes survived.

“We have been told already from three people that live in that area that our house has been burnt. I had a gut feeling that it did not, but now it’s looking worse and worse,” said Gisele Vocal, an evacuee. “We just have to wait now.”

Firefighters used Black Hawk helicopters to douse flames with a mixture of water and fire retardant Monday, officials said.

The fire forced parts of state highways 71 and 21 to shut and additional road closures were expected.

At least 63 new fires across Texas on Sunday burned nearly 33,000 acres, the state’s fire service said. Fires were reported in at least 17 counties.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/09/06/earlyshow/main20101919.shtml

September 6, 2011 8:08 AM

“No containment” of Texas wildfire

(CBS/AP)

Last Updated 9:52 a.m. ET

BASTROP, Texas – Firefighters trying to control a wind-fueled wildfire that has destroyed nearly 600 homes in Central Texas were looking for a few overnight hours of diminished winds as thousands of evacuees spent the night away from their threatened homes.

There’s been no significant rainfall over central Texas for a year, said CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, and today the consequences of that are being seen in Bastrop and other areas.

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas – an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, “This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions.”

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, told CBS’ “The Early Show” that as of this morning “There’s no containment right now.”

“We’ve been in a defensive mode for a couple of days now, and really all you can do is get people out of the way, protect homes where you can, and make sure our firefighters are safe,” Boggus told anchor Erica Hill. “But today, the winds have died down so we can probably be much more aggressive, and we hopefully can get some containment on all these fires in the Austin area.”

Texas wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes
Winds whip up Texas wildfires

 

Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the campaign trail Monday and returned to Texas for the latest outbreak of blazes. He told “The Early Show” Tuesday that he doesn’t know whether he will participate in the first Republican debate since he entered the raced for president while his state continues to battle persistent wildfires.

Perry mum on GOP debate as Texas wildfires rage

Boggus said 90 percent of wildfires are caused by people – directly, or through the electricity used by us. Texans are aware of the fire dangers. “People get it, they understand it,” he said. “Especially now it’s heightened with the news media … people understand to be very, very careful. And with the high winds people understood how dangerous and how volatile this state is.

“It’s historic. We’ve never seen fire seasons like this. We’ve never seen drought like this. This is an historic time that we’re living in, and so people know and understand they’ve got to be extremely careful,” Boggus said. (To watch the interview click on the video player below.)

East Coast Quake Rattled Nuclear Plants' Waste Casks

East Coast Quake Rattled Nuclear Plant’s Waste Casks: Scientific American.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The earthquake that shook the East Coast last week rattled casks holding radioactive nuclear waste at a Virginia plant, moving them as much as 4.5 inches from their original position, the plant’s operator said.

The 5.8-magnitude quake shifted 25 casks, each 16 feet tall and weighing 115 tons, on a concrete pad at Dominion Resources Inc?‘s North Anna nuclear plant.

“There was no damage to the casks and no damage to the fuel,” Dominion spokesman Rick Zuercher said.

“They were designed to withstand earthquakes.”

The movement of the casks will be part of a special review under way by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?, an NRC spokesman said.

The plant, located about 10 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter near Mineral, Virginia, has been shut down since the August 23 quake as inspectors check for damage.

The NRC is conducting a special review because of preliminary data showing that shaking from the quake exceeded the plant’s design rating.

The regulator already was scrutinizing how well the U.S. fleet of 104 reactors could withstand earthquakes, floods and other disasters after a quake and tsunami wrecked Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in March, the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

The United States, which has the world’s largest nuclear power industry, has deliberated for decades over how to store waste permanently, and the U.S. government is considering a proposal for a network of centralized “dry cask” storage sites where plants could take their used fuel.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Paul Simao and Dale Hudson)

Infrastructure bank could be part of jobs package

Infrastructure bank could be part of jobs package – Yahoo! News.

WASHINGTON – A national infrastructure bank that would entice private investors into road and rail projects could be a major part of the jobs package that President Barack Obama hopes will finally bring relief to the unemployed.

The White House hasn’t divulged the contents of the package that Obama is to unveil in an address to a joint session of Congress next week. But the president has pushed the idea of an infrastructure bank in recent speeches and has praised Senate and House bills that create such a government-sponsored lending institution.

Whether the bank, which would need time to organize, could have any real impact on the jobs situation in the coming year — and particularly before the November 2012 elections — is in dispute.

Obama seems to think it would.

“We’ve got the potential to create an infrastructure bank that could put construction workers to work right now, rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our vital infrastructure all across the country,” he said at a news conference in July.

But Janet Kavinoky, director of infrastructure issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that “even in the next two years I don’t believe the bank is going to be that kind of job creator.”

The best way to spur job growth in the short term is for Congress to pass long-stalled bills to fund aviation and highway programs, she said.

The Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the infrastructure bank. Kavinoky said the United States is one of the few large countries that lack a central source of low-cost financing for construction projects. But she said it’s going to take time to get it running and come up with a pipeline of projects where funds can be invested.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who’s sponsoring an infrastructure bank bill, argued that “we have projects all across America that are ready to go tomorrow.” He said the bank “could have money flowing in the next year easily.”

Michael Likosky, senior fellow at the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge and author of “Obama’s Bank: Financing a Durable New Deal,” says he is working with transportation agencies in California and New York that “are waiting for the federal government to say they are going to support these projects.”

A commitment to a national infrastructure bank could also provide a positive spark to financial markets and encourage investment, he said.

The bank would supplement federal spending on infrastructure by promoting private-sector investment in projects of national or regional significance. The private sector currently provides only about 6 percent of infrastructure spending.

Supporters, which range from the Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, say pension funds, private equity funds and sovereign wealth funds have hundreds of billions of dollars ready to be invested in low-risk infrastructure projects.

It’s better than having pension fund money go to Treasury bonds, Likosky said. “It’s really about changing our approach; we’re in tough economic times and we will be for a while. We have to make sure the money we have goes further.”

The Kerry bill would require $10 billion in start-up money from the government to get the first loans going and cover administrative costs. The bank would be government owned, run by a board of directors, independent of any federal agency and self-sustaining after the initial expense. Public-private partnerships, corporations and state and local governments would be eligible for the loans.

The bank’s directors would pick which projects to finance based on an analysis of costs, benefits and revenue streams, such as from tolls or fees, for repaying the loan. Once the terms of the loan, including interest rates and fees to cover risk, are set, the Treasury Department would disburse the loan.

Urban projects would have to be at least $100 million in size, rural ones $25 million. The infrastructure bank’s loan could cover no more than 50 percent of a project’s costs.

“There is going to be a revenue stream for payback and therefore the project is going to stand on its own because it will be a good enough project to attract private-sector funding,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, one of several Republican co-sponsors of the Kerry plan.

Supporters estimate the bank could set up as much as $160 billion in government loans over a decade and anchor as much as $650 billion in projects.

In the House, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has a similar bill that relies on $25 billion in start-up money and makes use of bonds as well as loans to stimulate construction projects. Both Kerry and DeLauro would cover transportation, water and energy projects.

DeLauro would also include communications projects. She says her bill is modeled after the European Investment Bank, which has been financing infrastructure projects for 50 years and last year invested more than $100 billion.

Obama, in his 2012 budget proposal, envisioned spending $30 billion to start an infrastructure bank within the Transportation Department that would provide grants as well as loans to transportation projects.

That idea drew opposition from the House Transportation Committee chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. He said in a recent article in the congressional newspaper Roll Call that it would be better to increase help for existing state infrastructure banks “rather than increasing the size of the bloated federal bureaucracy, as some advocate, by creating a national infrastructure bank.”

Kerry pointed to a 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers report that said $2.2 trillion needs to be spent over five years to bring the nation’s roads, bridges and water systems up to an adequate level. He said Congress needs to both pass a new highway bill and agree on alternatives like the bank.

“If we can leverage $650 billion and get money going in the transportation bill, we can begin to nibble away at the problem,” Kerry said.

FEMA funding faces now familiar congressional wrangling

FEMA funding faces now familiar congressional wrangling – CNN.com.

Washington (CNN) — As rescuers raced Tuesday to free people trapped by floodwaters caused by Hurricane Irene, Washington politicians bickered over how to pay for it.

The same budget arguments that nearly brought the first government default in history earlier this month now raise questions about whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have enough money to deal with Irene’s aftermath.

FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund has less than $800 million remaining, and given the pace of operations in the wake of Irene, could run out before the end of the current fiscal year on September 30.

With conservative House Republicans calling for spending cuts to offset any increase in emergency funds — a condition opposed by many Democrats — the ability of Congress to act quickly on the issue remains uncertain.

“The notion that we would hold this up until Republicans can prompt another budget fight and figure out what they want to cut, what they want to offset in the budget, and to pit one section of the country against the other and to delay this and create this uncertainty, it’s just the latest chapter and I think one of the most unsavory ones of our budget wars,” said Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina.

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Irene first made landfall on the U.S. mainland in North Carolina, devastating some coastal areas. Price said GOP efforts led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of neighboring Virginia to offset additional emergency funds amount to “an untenable position and one that simply is unresponsive and insensitive to the kind of situation we face.”

Cantor’s spokesman, however, noted that an appropriations bill already passed by the House and awaiting action in the Democratic-controlled Senate includes additional money to replenish the FEMA disaster fund.

“That funding was offset,” said the spokesman, Brad Dayspring. “The Senate has thus far failed to act on that legislation.”

While the appropriations bill is for fiscal year 2012, which begins October 1, the money could be used for disasters that occurred in fiscal 2011.

“People and families affected by these disasters will certainly get what they need from their federal government,” Dayspring said. “The goal should be to find ways to pay for what is needed whenever possible. That is the responsible thing to do. ”

States can request FEMA Disaster Relief Fund assistance once the president declares a federal disaster within their borders. Most of the Eastern and Northeast states hit by Irene already have that designation.

Federal officials say they don’t yet know how much money will be needed for all the emergency operations associated with Irene. After a series of destructive tornadoes earlier this year, including one that leveled a large swath of Joplin, Missouri, FEMA announced Monday that it was not approving new long-term reconstruction projects in order to ensure it has enough money for immediate emergency funding needs.

“Historically, when the balance in our Disaster Relief Fund has been under the range of $1 billion, we have employed this strategy,” a FEMA statement said.

Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokesperson, said in a statement that the revised funding strategy “prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster.”

“This strategy will not affect the availability of aid that any disaster survivors are receiving for recent disasters, such as tornadoes or flooding, or our response operations for Hurricane Irene or any event in the coming weeks or months,” Racusen said.

Missouri legislators worried that FEMA was shifting priority from Joplin’s recovery to focus on Irene because of the funding crunch.

“Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri’s rebuilding efforts,” Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said in a statement Monday. “If FEMA can’t fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that’s unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented.”

To Price, the problem is the Republican demand for spending offsets, which he said ended up pitting regions against each other for needed emergency funding.

“I’m just very impatient and I think the American people are going to be impatient with any attempt to hold these funds hostage to political objectives,” he said.

A Democratic Senate appropriations aide told CNN on condition of not being identified that the FEMA disaster fund was at $772 million on Tuesday morning, and that it would be about a week before the agency can estimate the costs associated with Hurricane Irene.

The House appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, will come up in the Senate Appropriations Committee on September 6, according to the Senate aide.

It doubled the original $1.8 billion requested by President Barack Obama for fiscal 2012, adding $850 million for emergency funding that was offset by cuts in other DHS programs including the Coast Guard, first responders and FEMA, the aide said.

In addition, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama, added another $1 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund that was offset by cutting funds for a fuel-efficient vehicles program, according to the aide.

Democrats take issue with cuts to Homeland Security funding to offset additional emergency funding, the aide noted. In July, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, who chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee, criticized the House appropriations bill as “short-sighted.”

Even the White House got involved in the fracas, with Press Secretary Jay Carney telling reporters Tuesday that he wished Cantor and other conservative Republicans had the same commitment to spending offsets “when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them” during the administration of President George W. Bush.

That prompted a quick response from Cantor’s office, which said: “The goal should be to find ways to pay for what is needed when possible. In the face of a $14 trillion national debt, that is the responsible thing to do.”

Conservatives' attack FEMA

Another disaster: Conservatives’ attack on FEMA – CNN.com.

Editor’s note: Sally Kohn is a strategist and political commentator. She is the founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank. This piece was written in association with The Op-Ed Project, an organization seeking to expand the range of opinion voices to include more women.

(CNN) — Three months ago, Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to slash 2012 spending for the Federal Emergency Management Agency by 55% compared with 2011 spending levels, 70% compared with the 2010 budget. Thankfully, Senate Democrats avoided the most extreme cuts to FEMA. But since then, the United States has been pelted by several major disasters and FEMA is almost out of money.

Nonetheless, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia — whose own district was the much-damaged epicenter of a severe earthquake last week — said he would not increase FEMA’s funding until spending is cut elsewhere.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Republicans also said they wouldn’t do anything to help the economy and the middle class unless spending was cut from the very poor and elderly: proposing cuts to food stamps and Medicare. It’s as if millions of Americans are drowning while Republicans stand on the shore, hoarding life preservers by the armfuls. You can have one in a natural disaster or get one later if you’re old or unemployed — but you can’t have both.

Of course, many conservatives want to get rid of life preservers altogether. This weekend, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul made waves by saying FEMA should be destroyed. In its policy manifesto for members of Congress, the libertarian Cato Institute urged that FEMA “should be abolished,” saying that “by using taxpayer dollars to provide disaster relief and subsidized insurance, FEMA itself encourages Americans to build in disaster-prone areas and makes the rest of us pick up the tab for those risky decisions.” Indeed, when the small town of Mineral, Virginia, built itself over a fault line in 1890, it should have foreseen last week’s earthquake. And don’t even get me started on New York City brazenly popping up in the path of a hurricane.

Conservatives hate FEMA precisely because it represents the ideals of government at its best. Not always the implementation — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed the dire need for reforms in FEMA’s chain of command. But the spirit — that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, through our government, we “unite in common efforts for the common good.”

Just as up and down the East Coast this weekend, good neighbors helped those who couldn’t help themselves, in these crisis moments, good government helps entire neighborhoods, towns and even cities that can’t help themselves.

Hurricane Irene tragically claimed at least 21 lives, but fortunately the damage overall was less than anticipated. Still, according to the Los Angeles Times, total uninsured losses could be as high as $4 billion. At a time when cities and states are already strapped and our fragile economy needs every small business and working family at full speed, it’s the job of our federal government to help. Yes, even if that means taxing the very rich or borrowing more money to do so.

Funnily enough, now some Republicans in Congress are demanding FEMA’s budget be increased. The very same party that tried to slash FEMA’s budget by more than half is now accusing President Obama of “purposefully and irresponsibly underfunding” disaster relief and “putting families and communities who have suffered from terrible disasters on the back burner.”

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee which earlier this year gouged FEMA’s budget has issued a press release trying to blame Democrats and the president for cuts to disaster relief aid. Someone had better call the congressional doctor and check the Capitol building for chunks of falling debris.

This dramatic about-face perfectly captures conservative opportunism against government: Beat it to the ground and then, when government is obviously needed, blame liberals for not helping it get up. Coming from a political party that has vowed to shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub, we should be skeptical when Republicans pretend they’re the ones resuscitating our common good.

Governors from both sides of the aisle are praising FEMA in the wake of Irene. “FEMA has been very responsive,” said New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Maryland’s Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, also praised FEMA and drew contrasts with a few years ago when, under President George W. Bush, FEMA was undermined and ineffective.

The fact is, government works. FEMA, when it’s adequately funded and staffed by competent professionals, is not an exception but the rule. It’s one of millions of examples of how, through government, we unite in common efforts for the common good.

As Irene approached my neighborhood in New York, people were helping evacuees get safely to shelters, carrying gallons of water up each other’s stairs and generally keeping each other entertained in the insanely long lines at grocery stores. In our national community, government was standing by to offer its helping hand if needed — a hand conservatives are trying to sever, when they’re not busy ceremoniously shaking it.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

Roadwork Can Spread Invasive Species

Roadwork Can Spread Invasive Species: Scientific American Podcast.

Invasive species get a bad rap—but we humans are usually to blame for their spread. Take Japanese stiltgrass, an invasive that arrived from Asia nearly 100 years ago as a packing material for porcelain. When it creeps into forests, it forms dense carpets that can choke out native tree seedlings. And in the last 15 years, the grass has infested rural roads throughout Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest—much faster than foresters expected.

Researchers thought the cause could be another human activity—road maintenance. They spray-painted 320,000 dead safflower seeds, and placed them along state forest roads. After routine road grading, they combed through the gravel to recover them. And they found that some seeds had been carried hundreds of feet down the road. Much farther than the few feet seeds can travel on their own—perhaps explaining the grass’ rapid spread.

They presented those results at a meeting of the Ecological Society of America. [Emily Rauschert and David Mortensen, Human-mediated spread of invasive plants across a landscape]

Still, roads need to be safe for drivers. So the researchers propose smoothing shorter segments at a time, or doing it less frequently. Because where humans go, invasives often follow—whether by sea or on land.

—Christopher Intagliata