Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night. ... The people who try to keep the nation ready for these doomsday scenarios call them the Maximums of Maximums, or the MOMs. You might call them the mothers of all disasters. The term comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and for the feds, it generally includes a small universe of possibilities: a major hurricane, a major earthquake, or an improvised nuclear device. ... In a rebuke to a techno-utopian age, natural disasters remain a greater threat than almost anything humans can produce. ... natural disasters are often abetted by humans. Construction in floodplains, lax building codes, lack of preparation, the malign effects of climate change, and even underinsurance exacerbate the impact of the disasters. The number of weather-related disasters that cost more than $1 billion has been gradually increasing over the last few decades ... The challenge of preparedness is convincing people who are not movie directors or emergency managers to do the same.
Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane. Why isn’t Texas ready? ... Such a storm would devastate the Houston Ship Channel, shuttering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Flanked by 10 major refineries — including the nation’s largest — and dozens of chemical manufacturing plants, the Ship Channel is a crucial transportation route for crude oil and other key products, such as plastics and pesticides. A shutdown could lead to a spike in gasoline prices and many consumer goods — everything from car tires to cell phone parts to prescription pills. ... After decades of inaction, they hoped that a plan to build a storm surge protection system could finally move forward. ... Several proposals have been discussed. One, dubbed the “Ike Dike,” calls for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering the region. That has since evolved into a more expansive concept called the “coastal spine.” Another proposal, called the “mid-bay” gate, would place a floodgate closer to Houston’s industrial complex. ... The 10 refineries that line the Ship Channel produce about 27 percent of the nation’s gasoline and about 60 percent of its aviation fuel ... Flooding is the most disruptive type of damage an industrial plant can experience from a hurricane. Salty ocean water swiftly corrodes critical metal and electrical components and contaminates nearby freshwater sources used for operations.
Mass, who is 64, has become the most widely recognized critic of weather forecasting in the United States — and specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the National Weather Service and its underling agencies, including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, where the nation’s weather models are run. Mass argues that these models are significantly flawed in comparison with commercial and European alternatives. American forecasting also does poorly at data assimilation, the process of integrating information about atmospheric conditions into modeling programs; in the meantime, a lack of available computing power precludes the use of more advanced systems already operating at places like the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, based in Reading, England. And there are persistent management challenges, perhaps best represented by the legions of NOAA scientists whose innovations remain stranded in research labs and out of the hands of the National Weather Service operational forecasters who make the day-to-day predictions in 122 regional offices around the country. ... accuracy is everything, often the difference between life and death, given that extreme weather ... Industries like shipping, energy, agriculture and utilities lose money when predictions fail. Even slightly more precise wind-speed projections would help airlines greatly reduce fuel costs. ... the Weather Service interface was so primitive — the protocol was originally designed for the telegraph — it could only accommodate uppercase type.