Last week, Arizona experienced a few days of winter storms. While typical for January, these types of storms have been rare in Arizona the past few years. Indeed, Phoenix received over 2 inches of rain during the week, and the mountains and plateaus saw impressive snowfall. Media outlets ran stores with headlines such as:
“Strongest winter storm in 17 years”
“Third highest weekly snowfall total”
This series of storms were definitely significant, but as the headlines suggest, there have been worse. The governor declared a state of emergency, as the following damages were reported:
– Roofs collapsing due to the weight of several feet of snow;
– A house whose foundation was washed away by a nearby stream;
– Cars swept away in flooded streams;
– Road and highway closures due to snow or standing water;
– A temporary tent at a car auction blowing away, damaging many irreplaceable autos;
– Other wind damage.
Big storms bring damage. Trees lose limbs. There is some flooding. Roofs leak and icy roads cause wrecks. Considering this type of storm has happened before, and that 2-3 inches of rain in a week is no issue for most of the USA, a storm like this should be manageable. As usual, many human errors contributed to the chaos:
– People deciding to drive in the bad weather instead of heeding warnings and staying home;
– Designing a flat or insufficient roof in a snow-prone area;
– Building a house on unconsolidated sediment less than 100 feet from a stream bed;
– Expecting a tent to survive 60mph wind gusts.
Let’s consider the roofs that collapsed due to snow. These weren’t historic buildings built in the days before modern materials and engineering. These were newer buildings constructed after the 1967 all-time record snowfall. Shouldn’t the roof have been designed to at least handle the weight of the historical record snowfall? Since this snowfall was less than the historical record, why did the roofs collapse? Did building engineers believe such a snowfall could not happen again?
The dynamic nature of alluvial streambeds has been studied and understood for more than a century. Yet people still place structures and bridge abutments on the outside of meander bends, eventually leading to collapse. The house that collapsed last week should never have been placed in its location, and the insurance company is a sucker for insuring such a house. Did the builders of the house fail to recognize the danger of the nearby stream, or did they refuse to believe the danger?
The storms also flooded the entire town of Wenden, Arizona – AGAIN! This town floods almost every time there is a major storm, as a nearby arroyo overflows its banks. If this happens frequently, why do people still live there? Or, why can’t something be done to mitigate the flood hazard of the nearby arroyo?
If the dangers are known, why do people continue to ignore warnings when the odds of the inevitable outcome are significant? This is similar to the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina. The warnings existed for years before that hurricane. Scientists predicted almost exactly how damage would occur, and the public did not listen. The government had the option of spending money to prevent the disaster, yet did nothing during the decades since the danger was known. Perhaps the Ben Franklin saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is not true.
Is there a disbelief or resentment towards science? What encourages someone to trust their gut feeling that everything will be okay rather than listen to the people who spend their career studying such issues?