We’ve seen this tragedy before. Storms bearing hail and a spawning a dozen tornadoes tore through the Dallas-Fort Worth area on April 3.
First, the good news.
No…it’s not just good news. It’s great news.
No fatalities reported as of yesterday.
The bad news? Dozens of injuries. More than 200 homes destroyed. Some 600 homes damaged. A nursing home hit. As many as 200 people spending the night in shelters. More than 10,000 homes and businesses without electrical power.
And it wasn’t a good day at the airport.
At DFW, more than hundred planes suffered hail damage and 400 flights were cancelled. Airlines officials expected more delays and cancellations Wednesday.
This isn’t the first time that hailstorms have struck DFW airport and its environs. On April 28, 1995, hail there caused $640M damage. The May 5-6, 1995 storm did $1.6B worth of damage in the area. A May 24, 2011 storm triggered over 300 flight cancellations and delays over a two-day period.
Normally we think of repetitive loss as a subject affecting homes…and more specifically, homes built in the floodplain. FEMA and its National Flood Insurance Program define severe repetitive loss properties in this context as any properties that have experienced four or more losses of $5000 or more, or two claims whose sum exceeds the nominal value of the property. Thousands of homes meet this mark. According to some estimates, some 2% of NFIP-insured homes are producing some 30% of the claims. The agency has available some $10M to assist states and communities in their efforts to reduce such repetitive loss. It’s to everyone’s benefit to relocate these structures and/or rebuild more resiliently.
But the DFW history shows that it’s not just residences that suffer repetitive hazard loss. Businesses and commercial activities can be vulnerable as well. And when the commercial activities are highly concentrated, as they are in aviation hubs, the property loss and business disruption can mount rapidly. [Note that it’s not just that airports are generically vulnerable to hail, though they are; we are discussing the vulnerability of a single airport here.] Such vulnerability will grow more evident with the passage of time.
As weather-vulnerable economic sectors, go, the aviation community has a good track record when it comes to avoiding weather extremes, particularly with respect to planes in the air. Want a sample? You might be interested in this YouTube video from a few years back, showing Fed Ex aircraft coming in to land at their Memphis hub, avoiding a line of thunderstorms. As the action shows, the pilots and air traffic controllers do a good job of getting aircraft in ahead of the storm to start, and then as the storms pass over the airport, vectoring planes in behind the front. And, as discussed in earlier blog posts here, thanks to the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation culture which stresses learning from experience, we have suffered no commercial aircraft losses to hail here in the United States since the crash of Southern Airways Flight 242, which suffered hail damage and the loss of thrust in both engines on April 4, 1977, 35 years prior almost to the day [over seventy people died; another 20 passengers and the two flight attendants survived.]
But there’s room for improvement, especially when it comes to not putting those same aircraft in harm’s way while they’re idle on the ground. It’s tempting to contemplate a future in which forecasts improve to the point where it might be possible to distinguish hail-producing storms from their more benign (yet still severe counterparts) far enough in advance with sufficiently high accuracy to make it possible and cost-effective to keep those planes out of harm’s way…to land and park them at nearby airports until the danger has passed, and then fly the remaining leg. Such unscheduled diversions are themselves costly, but far cheaper than being forced to take equipment out of service for inspection and repair.
While we can’t expect such a level of skill anytime soon, there are two reasons for optimism. The first is that meteorological observations, scientific understanding, and science-based services are improving rapidly on local and regional scales for short time periods. Second, the aviation weather challenge differs from the public-safety/residential-warning problem. In the latter, people of every economic circumstance face a wide range of preoccupations, speak multiple languages, and vary widely with respect to their emergency options. Here, pushing the warning that last mile to those in harm’s way has proven problematic time and again. Starting just this past Monday, the National Weather Service began testing new warning content and format emphasizing severe weather impacts and the need for action.
By contrast, the high stakes and the single-minded focus on flight safety and on communicating and responding to risk in the aviation arena make it likely that technical improvements will translate quickly into more effective operations.
Just one of many benefits we can expect as NOAA’s National Weather Service, the FAA, and their federal and private-sector partners move us toward a Weather-Ready Nation.
The cloud on this future horizon? It’s not hailstorm or a tornado. It’s not a scientific or technical problem. It’s a failure of vision and will. If we succumb to the current political temptation to cut the budgets of these agencies and their private-sector partners and their work to warn against and mitigate weather hazards, we hardwire in far larger repetitive losses.
Not just a bad trade.
A dangerous trade.