As I write this, Tropical Storm Isaac is churning up the Gulf of Mexico and preparing to pack a punch on the Gulf Coast, but no matter where you are, you’ve probably been walloped by some pretty severe weather this summer. Parts of the country have suffered some of the most devastating drought conditions in decades, while other areas have dealt with flash floods, tornadoes, and even other natural disasters like widespread wildfires and the earthquake swarm occurring over the past few days in southern California. And if your experience has been like mine, you may not have always seen the trouble coming.
I was at a friend’s home in northern Virginia about two months back when what turned out to be a “derecho” storm with hurricane-force winds suddenly slammed into the house, and less than a minute later, the power blinked out and didn’t come back on for two days. Lightning illuminated the house with constant, unceasing flashes for at least 20 minutes, and huge trees snapped outside, blocking roads and totaling cars. It was over as quickly as it had come, and once we felt we could safely venture back outside, we found the curbside trashcan had blown two blocks down the street. This storm came completely out of left field—I had actually just checked the weather forecast 15 minutes before the storm hit and had no indication that we were in for anything aside from a partly cloudy night.
It’s not always easy to expect the unexpected when it comes to weather, and park and recreation professionals probably know this better than most. Many agency-organized events are held outdoors, and it’s usually impossible to know in advance exactly what sort of conditions you can anticipate. However, some agencies are taking strides to be as prepared as possible for any severe weather that comes their way. The National Weather Service has developed a StormReady program (www.stormready.noaa.gov) and certifies counties, communities, universities, and government agencies (including parks) that have:
- Established a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center
- Adopted more than one way to receive severe weather warnings and forecasts and to alert the public
- Created a system that monitors weather conditions locally
- Promoted the importance of public readiness through community seminars
- Developed a formal hazardous weather plan, which includes training severe weather spotters and holding emergency exercises.
Unfortunately, that June derecho storm that swept the country killed two young boys at a state park in New Jersey, when a tree crashed into the tent where their families huddled together to ride out the unexpected maelstrom. Although we’re never going to be able to eliminate all risk, especially with the unpredictable nature of weather, we owe it to our communities and our field to protect the public in our parks as much as possible. This week, as Tropical Storm Isaac follows in Hurricane Katrina’s devastating footsteps from seven years ago, I hope some lessons learned from that eye-opening disaster means that communities in the path of the storm will be prepared for what’s coming. We can do our part to lead by example.
Written by: Danielle Taylor, Associate Editor, Parks & Recreation