A Storm to Remember
CHAPTER 28 - Sandy
Last month I mentioned the trial and sentencing of a group of four scientists, two engineers and a public official to six years in prison for their roles in not predicting an earthquake in 2009 that killed over 300 people in the town of L'Aquila. Actually, the group was not on trial for not predicting the earthquake but for the comments on and the way they handled the risk assessment of the likelihood of an earthquake in the wake of a sizeable number of tremors that preceded the killer quake. The verdict generated major concerns in the scientific community worldwide about the effects of the verdict on those who might be involved in future considerations of the risks involved in earthquakes or perhaps weather-related storms or events.
An article by Edwin Cartlidge in the November 2 issue of Science describes additional fallout from the decision. The president and several members of Italy's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks have resigned and two-thirds of the 60-member commission announced their intentions to also resign. The article notes that earlier this year there were a couple of tremors in the north of Italy that prompted Italy's Civil Protection Department to take emergency measures. This time, no third quake happened and, ironically, the mayor of the town Finale Emilia threatened to sue the commission because the emergency measures hampered local business! You can't win in Italy.
One thing for sure - our weather forecasters and news media were spot on in their coverage and predictions of the path and destructive potential of Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey and New York. Warnings began a week before Sandy hit. Our Star-Ledger headlined "Catastrophe" as Sandy bore down on our state, while our Governor Christie certainly did his best to try to get coastal residents out before the storm hit. I began last month's column with the following: "I'm starting to write this column on the Saturday before Halloween, with Hurricane Sandy threatening to hit New Jersey head on in a day or so. Hopefully, I'll finish in time to post the column before our power goes out. Of course, we hope a power outage will not happen but, after last year's pre-Halloween snowstorm that left most of our town without power for some 8 days, I'm not optimistic. Already, I stopped this morning to get gas and the station was closed - no gas!" I'm sure that you can guess what happened.
My wife and I were watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Sandy that Monday evening and it was like magic. The news media had just announced that the eye of the hurricane had come on shore down near Atlantic City when, only minutes later, our power went out. It was about 6:30 PM and, with the aid of our flashlights, we made our way to bed and the most frightening night of our life with the most severe winds we've ever experienced. Hurricane Irene and our pre-Halloween snowstorm last year were scary but paled in comparison to Sandy. However, we were very lucky, getting up the next day to find no damage to our house and only a few tree limbs down in our yard. We listened to WOR on our battery-powered radio; the station was broadcasting the audio feed from the NBC TV coverage and we could only imagine the horrible conditions along the New Jersey coast and in New York that the TV reporters were describing.
While we escaped damage, neighbors around the corner did not. Within a few hundred feet of our house, there were three major trees down on houses and, in the backyard bordering ours, four or five smaller trees had fallen. Last month I talked about how matter is made up of quarks and electrons. It was a distressingly huge shortage of flowing electrons that garnered most of the attention and concern of Jersey residents in our area. Ninety percent of our town's JCP&L customers were without power. Our power was out for 12 days. We were most fortunate that our son Brian, the editor of StocksandNews, lives in a part of our town that never lost power. He graciously afforded us shelter in his apartment for 10 of those 12 days. His building also houses a Dunkin' Donuts and just up the street was a powered Chinese restaurant. My wife and I were sustained for much of our stay by glazed and pumpkin donuts in the morning, Dunkin's chicken salad sandwiches on croissants at lunch and fried rice and spring rolls for dinner.
On our second day with Brian, I got in our car to drive over to see how our house was faring, hoping the power might have returned. Brian lives on a main avenue through our town and my normal route home is to take this avenue up to a traffic light less than a mile away, at which point I turn off onto more local streets. Well, traffic was so backed up that it took 40 minutes to reach that point! I assumed the delay was caused by traffic lights not working but found the light was actually functioning. After not moving for 10 minutes only a few cars from the intersection, I managed to turn around and return to Brian's building. There, Brian provided the reason for the delay - I was in a gas line for a station that was not even visible from my vantage point. Those huge lines you saw on TV were also present in our town. Thanks to our Governor Christie's gas rationing, things got better and on about our 10th powerless day I got a full tank with no line.
One effect of the stresses accompanying such major storm events, at least in my case, seems to be a dulling of the senses of one's brain, especially when it comes to safety. Last year, I wrote about driving under a power line on which was perched what resembled an upside down Christmas tree, thinking how stupid I was after going under it. It was on that very same street this year that I came upon a large tree that was down across the street but somehow suspended perhaps 20 or 30 feet above the surface. There were no roadblocks and it was only after I drove under the tree that I thought, "You idiot! You could have been killed if it had come down on you." A couple days later, the tree was still there but there was a roadblock! Sometime later, after our power was restored and that tree had been cleared, I came up that street again. This time I found myself driving past a huge crane holding what must have been at least a 50 or 60-foot tree hanging vertically from the top of the crane! Had the tree slipped from the grasp of the crane, I would have been toast! There should have been a roadblock!
After moving back into our house, with power restored, our backyard neighbor asked if we would allow her tree guys to use our driveway to take down some very large hanging branches. I agreed and the job was done. The reason I mention this is that these branches were not from Sandy but had been hanging there, broken, from the Halloween snowstorm a year ago! With all the damage from Sandy, I'm sure there will be reminders of its effects for years to come. I certainly hope our next door neighbor doesn't have to wait much longer for the large branch resting on his power line to be removed. The branch is so large, I wonder how the power line hasn't snapped and I was surprised they turned on his power. Yesterday, the day before I'm posting this column I noticed that the branch was finally removed.
We were indeed very lucky. With Sandy resulting in around 40 deaths in New Jersey, some from carbon monoxide emitted by generators wrongly positioned, others from trying to ride out the storm in shore habitats, going without power is relatively trivial. This past week, I had lunch in a restaurant in the nearby town of Millburn, where the initial power outages were an estimated 99 percent of the town's customers. I asked the owner of the restaurant how she made out. She replied that she had lost her house at the shore and hadn't been down to the site yet. She also said that a relative of hers had lost three shore houses, all in different locations! One was the house she lived in, another she was renting and the third one she was building! Even this past week, Sandy continues to take its toll. I read about a fellow being killed while cutting up a tree resting on his house. At our Old Guard meeting this week, a member told me about a neighbor, only 56, who died of a heart attack while working on a tree that fell in his yard.
Having spent many pleasant weeks at the Jersey shore in different locations and having lived in Atlantic City for a few months as a child, it is quite distressing to see the damage done to familiar sites. The arguments for and against the monumental jobs of rebuilding and restoration of the beaches are many, with the situation made even more complex due to the foreboding effects of global warming. Oh for the good old days when I would ride the waves and play in the sand.
Which provides a segue of sorts into a bit of science. I remember those midsummer days at the shore when it was quite hot and walking barefoot on the hot sand would be most uncomfortable. A news article in the November 2 issue of Science tells about studies by researchers from Sweden and South Africa on dung beetles on sandy venues in the African savanna where midday temperatures can reach 60 degrees Centigrade (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Occasionally, as the beetles gathered their dung and rolled the dung balls on the sand, they would stop periodically and climb aboard the dung ball. The researchers found that this happened more frequently, the higher the temperature.
Those dung beetles aren't dumb - the dung balls are about 30 degrees cooler than the sand below. The beetles' legs would cool off by about 10 degrees Centigrade on top of the dung balls. One might wonder how researchers become attracted to the study of such things as dung beetles but I was even more intrigued by what they did next. They dipped some dung beetles' front legs in silicone to form little silicone boots! Sure enough, with the little booties on, the beetles were able to stand the heat of the sand better and didn't climb up on the dung balls as frequently.
On the same page in that issue of Science there's another sandy news item concerning the findings of scientists from the Université Paris Diderot on singing sands in Morocco. It seems that when the wind blows over sand dunes the dunes respond with haunting moans consisting of single notes or a chorus of notes. The researchers collected sand grains from dunes in Morocco and Oman, where the dunes emitted moans of different frequencies (G-sharp, two octaves below middle C and F-sharp to D, respectively). With their sand collections in hand, they reproduced the dunes moans by sliding sand down inclines in the lab. By sieving the sand to produce batches of the same grain size, they showed that the grain size determines the pitch of the moans. The mystery of the singing sands is apparently resolved.
Oh, were it so easy to replace the sands, and the homes, lost to Sandy. Yesterday, my wife and I attended our monthly pizza get-together with members and spouses associated with our old Bell Labs battery group. The main topic of conversation was, of course, our various experiences with trees falling and lack of power after Sandy. En route home there were roads blocked or single-lane passages where tree workers are still removing large trees or debris caused by fallen trees.
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about January1.
Allen F. Bortrum