Even before the track of Hurricane Florence was completely certain, we knew there would be disasters within the disaster.
Dire forecasts made it clear that Florence's storm surge and torrential rains would threaten communities not only with flooding, but also with toxic chemicals from coal ash sites and biological dangers from industrialized farm waste lagoons.
Sure enough, the wall of a coal ash landfill near Lake Sutton "failed in several places, washing away more than 2,000 cubic yards of toxic waste, enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks," according to more than one news report.
Meanwhile, more than 100 hog and chicken farms reported seeping and overflowing manure waste, along with more than 3.4 million dead chickens and turkeys and at least 5,500 dead pigs. The North Carolina Pork Council says that the state's more than 3,000 lagoons holding hog feces and urine are supposed to safely absorb at least 19 inches of rain and that, ahead of Florence, many were prepared for more than 25 inches. But the storm dumped at least that much in many areas, sending foul black rivers coursing down streets and into communities.
But that's not all. An Environmental Protection Agency official told CNN last week that the agency before the hurricane hit was monitoring nine superfund sites in the track of Florence.
Government officials say they are still monitoring, and widespread mandates to boil drinking water have been issued. But that's not very practical advice when hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses don't have power.
They don't have power, in part, because two Duke Energy nuclear reactors were deliberately shut down as floodwaters closed in, and workers couldn't reach the plants.
None of these disasters within a disaster was ever out of the realm of possibility. Indeed, we've seen some of this same kind of thing much closer to home.
The April tornado outbreak of 2011 turned miles of TVA's North Alabama electric grid into multi-ton bow ties. When Browns Ferry Nuclear plant could no longer offload electricity, the reactors tripped and went into emergency shutdown. TVA initially said the shutdown was "automatic" and everything "functioned as it should." But documents the utility is required to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later showed that reactor operators became distracted while manually operating cooling water flow to the Unit 1 reactor, and water began boiling off faster than it was being replaced. Additionally, a valve failed, a diesel-driven fire pump failed, the diesel-driven generator for the security station failed, the warning sirens were lost, power to the chemical lab was lost, and an emergency diesel generator that keeps cool water flowing to one of three reactors shut down because of voltage fluctuations caused by a fluid leak after a brass fitting broke. Browns Ferry ran on diesel generators' power for five days after the shutdown.
Our own ash spill near Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008 cost about $1.2 billion to clean up, and that was after just a normal winter's routine of freeze, thaw, rain, repeat — hardly what we'd think of these days as a weather disaster.
But as extreme weather becomes more the norm than the extreme, we'll see more of these disasters within disasters unless we stop acting as though climate change is a hoax. It doesn't help that our responses to disasters — especially the ones within other disasters — are described by our government leaders as "great" successes. Yes, President Donald Trump tosses out the "best" paper towels. Everyone says so.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, unlike our president and Congress, is largely an organization of scientists and engineers, and it has made — thanks in part to Fukushima — some adaptations for potential and future mothers-of-all-floods. In 2009, TVA announced it would spend about $8 million on temporary sand and gravel baskets to raise the embankments around four dams above Chattanooga by 3 to 4 feet. Some months later, TVA also said it was spending at least $17 million on retrofits at Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants — all in order to prepare for higher flood threats.
Lessons from Hurricane Sandy led FEMA and city officials to raise the Brainerd levee, which was designed decades ago with no modeling inputs for Spring Creek.
A University of Tennessee at Knoxville researcher in 2012 completed a first-of-its-kind study to predict heat waves for the top 20 cities in the eastern United States. His findings put the Tennessee Valley in the crosshairs of climate craziness with a likelihood of more intense heat waves and — more to the point here — drastically wetter weather.
For this region he predicted as much as 17 inches of extra annual rainfall.
In 2013, that's just what we got: Our normal 52.5 inches of rain plus another 16.29 inches totalled nearly 69 inches of rain for 2013, according to the National Weather Service. Fortunately, it didn't all fall in a short period — that time.
Houston, Texas, in 2017 wasn't so lucky when Harvey offered a slow-motion dress rehearsal for Florence. Scientists estimate the rains from stalled Harvey and Florence were 50 percent higher because of warmer oceans and more moisture in the atmosphere brought by global warming. We can walk as quickly as those storms advanced, but their rains didn't slow. Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston in less than four days. Fallout from the flooding caused 8.3 million pounds of toxic pollution to fill the air from refinery and chemical plants "caught off guard when power went out."
We mustn't ignore the lessons of disasters within disasters.