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Science and steely nerves spared Houston from a nightmare hurricane evacuation



Enlarge / In parts of the city, traffic moved during the Rita evacuation.

F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images

HOUSTON—Jeffry Evans’ mobile phone rang shortly before 3am, local time, instantly waking him from a deep slumber.

Not good, he instinctively knew.

The Houston meteorologist had crashed late on Monday, August 24. Before hitting the mattress around midnight, he left instructions to be awakened if the forecast for Hurricane Laura took a turn for the worse. And now it had. By early Tuesday, the overnight model guidance indicated a high probability the storm may take a more westerly track across the Gulf of Mexico and strike the fourth largest US city.

Evans serves as “meteorologist in charge” of the National Weather Service office that covers the Houston-Galveston region, which has a population well north of 7 million. One of the forecasters at his office had just been briefed by the National Hurricane Center. Concerns were rising about a strike near Houston.

So Evans rubbed his eyes as he checked the forecast models for himself, at home, in the middle of the night. As he reviewed the latest data, the outlook appeared pretty grim. The world’s best forecast model, run by a Europe-based organization, projected a landfall near Houston. Moreover, its ensemble suite, which provides broader perspective, showed a landfall further south. This represented pretty much the worst-case scenario for the largest city on the Gulf of Mexico.

Houston would lay to the right of such a landfalling hurricane, taking the full force of its screaming winds and watching neighborhoods flatten. Massive waves would roll into Galveston Bay and, from there, funnel into the Houston Ship Channel. There, barely a dozen feet above sea level, large refineries process about 15 percent of the nation’s petroleum. Countless other chemical companies also have facilities along the waterway. The economic and environmental catastrophe would be almost beyond calculation.

Evans also thought about his own situation. He lived near the National Weather Service office, which is located a few miles from Galveston Bay. Evans spared a few minutes to consider how best to prepare his home for the worst, and whether his wife and their 40- and 80-pound dogs should evacuate.

After quickly assessing the forecast, Evans picked up his cell phone and texted Jeff Lindner, the lead forecaster at Harris County Flood Control District. Evans wanted to make sure officials at Harris County knew what was happening and understood the heightened threat faced by the community.

Houston is located in Harris County, and its chief executive, the “County Judge,” has the final say on local evacuations. A 29-year-old politician named Lina Hidalgo had surprisingly been elected to the position in 2018 after the formerly Republican county turned Democratic. This was her first hurricane. Now, the untested leader would be called upon to make the final evacuation decision.

Until Tuesday morning, it seemed that Houston probably would be spared the worst from Laura, but now Evans was not so sure. The hurricane would make landfall in less than 48 hours, cutting it close for the time needed to get hundreds of thousands of people away from the coast. Worse, Houston has a bad history with evacuations. Were an evacuation called, inland residents who did not need to flee might do so anyway, clogging roads for those who really needed to go. That had happened before. And if the National Hurricane Center was going to predict a landfall near Houston, that very well might precipitate an exodus.

Hidalgo had important decisions to make, and so Evans sent his text to Lindner. It was short and sweet: “You up?”

The Rita nightmare

Houston experienced the nation’s worst hurricane evacuation 15 years ago, when a storm named Rita menaced the state in late September. In some ways, this was the perfect storm to terrify a city built dozens of miles inland and dozens of feet above sea level.

That’s because Rita was an alarming storm. Late on the evening of September 21, 2005, Rita intensified to 175mph over the central Gulf of Mexico, and it was forecast to make landfall a little more than two days later just below Houston on the Texas coast.

“This was the worst-case scenario for Houston,” said Bill Read, then the meteorologist-in-charge of the Houston/Galveston Office. He would go on to lead the National Hurricane Center for several years before retiring.

Hurricane Rita forecast for Sept 21, 2005, about 30 hours before landfall.

Hurricane Rita forecast for Sept 21, 2005, about 30 hours before landfall.

National Hurricane Center

Another factor that contributed to the mass evacuation was Hurricane Katrina, which had made landfall three weeks earlier near New Orleans. The storm killed more than 1,000 people and produced dramatic images of flood-stricken residents pleading for rescue from their homes. A quarter of a million people had evacuated from the region to Houston, and nearly all were still here.

Finally, local officials did a poor job of messaging the need to “run from the water, and hide from the wind.” This basically means that residents of coastal areas need priority to evacuate first, due to their vulnerability to life-threatening storm surge. But this was not what then-Houston Mayor Bill White said a little less than three days before Rita made landfall. Instead, White urged his city to run for the hills, saying, “Don’t wait. The time for waiting is over.”

Houston didn’t wait. More than 3 million people got into their cars or onto hastily arranged school buses. These vehicles took to the roads. And then the region’s freeways and highways, for more than 100 miles on the routes to Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and elsewhere, came to a standstill. As they baked in their cars, beneath 100-degree heat, desperate drivers eventually turned off their AC to conserve fuel. Many ran out of gas anyway and roadside stations were quickly depleted.

The roads turned deadly. Normal three- or four-hour drives from Houston to other major Texas cities took 20 hours or more. A total of 67 people died due to heat stress, and 23 nursing home evacuees were killed in a bus fire. All told, an estimated 107 people died during this nightmare evacuation.

Rita ended up weakening more than forecasters intended after its inner core disintegrated. And much like Hurricane Laura, it approached the Texas coast and then turned north, making landfall near the state’s border with Louisiana. Houston ended up with a glancing blow and memories of the worst hurricane evacuation of all time

Since then, the region has learned some lessons. Its leaders understand the difference between evacuating coastal areas and regions well inland. However, local residents also remember Hurricane Ike, which came ashore in 2008 just east of Houston. It knocked out power for weeks. The threat of lost power, alone, would impel many inland residents to evacuate again, said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University.

Finally, Houston has grown substantially since Rita. The Houston metro area population at the time was about 5 million, with the vast majority living in Harris County. By the time Hurricane Laura threatened the city, the metro population had grown by 40 percent. Houston’s freeway lanes have not grown nearly as fast. Trying to get as many people out of the area, in less time, would be an unmitigated disaster.

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NASA delays flight of Boeing’s Starliner again, this time for parachutes



Enlarge / Starliner touches down in December 2019 for the first time.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and Boeing announced Wednesday that the first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft will now take place no earlier than July 21. This moves the vehicle’s flight, carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, from the previously announced timeframe of April.

The manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, Steve Stich, said the delay was attributable to the extra time needed to close out the pre-flight review process of Starliner and also due to traffic from other vehicles visiting the space station in June and the first half of July.

“When we look at all the different pieces, most of the work will be complete in April for the flight,” Stich said during a teleconference with reporters. “But there’s one area that’s extending out into the May time frame, and this really has to do with the certification products for the parachute system.”

Boeing has conducted more than 20 tests of its parachute system, including dropping the vehicle from different altitudes to test their deployment sequence and how the parachutes perform in different environments to simulate returning from space. Stich said there are no issues with the parachutes, which are installed on Starliner already. Mostly, it is about reviewing all the tests Boeing has done to ensure the parachutes performed as intended.

“It’s just a matter of going through all that data and looking at the data and making sure we’re really ready to go fly safely,” Stich said.

There is one final test to be completed on the ground, he said, of a parachute subsystem that pulls Starliner’s forward heat shield away and sets up deployment of the drogue and then main parachutes. That test is targeted for May.

The additional time needed to complete the review process of Starliner and its parachute system delayed the vehicle’s launch into June. However, at that time, NASA plans to launch SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo resupply mission, which will tie up one of the lab’s docking hatches. This supply mission is bringing solar arrays to the station that NASA does not want to delay because it would delay planned spacewalks to install them. The lack of a docking port, therefore, pushed the Starliner flight into the second half of July.

NASA and Boeing must also balance schedules with United Launch Alliance, which is boosting the mission to orbit with its Atlas V rocket. The company presently has the USSF-51 mission scheduled for the Space Force this summer and also needs the Space Launch Complex-41 pad for the debut of its Vulcan rocket in May or later this summer.

This will be the third flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The vehicle’s debut in December 2019 failed to rendezvous with the International Space Station after multiple issues, including software problems. After fixing these issues, Boeing flew the vehicle on a second test flight in May 2022. Although there were some propulsion issues with this flight, Starliner docked with the space station, setting the stage for a crewed flight test.

After Boeing completes this critical test flight and NASA certifies the vehicle as ready for operational missions, the company will fly approximately once a year to the space station for regular crew rotations. The first of these operational missions is planned for no earlier than the spring of 2024.

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California wants to build more solar farms but needs more power lines



Enlarge / Westlands Solar Park, near the town of Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley of California, is the largest solar power plant in the United States and could become one of the largest in the world.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty

California’s San Joaquin Valley, a strip of land between the Diablo Range and the Sierra Nevada, accounts for a significant portion of the state’s crop production and agricultural revenues. But with the state facing uncertain and uneven water supply due to climate change, some local governments and clean energy advocates hope solar energy installations could provide economic reliability where agriculture falters due to possible water shortages.

In the next two decades, the Valley could accommodate the majority of the state’s estimated buildout of solar energy under a state plan forecasting transmission needs [PDF], adding enough capacity to power 10 million homes as California strives to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The influx of solar development would come at a time when the historically agriculture-rich valley is coping with new restrictions on groundwater pumping. Growers may need to fallow land. And some clean energy boosters see solar as an ideal alternative land use.

But a significant technological hurdle stands in the way: California needs to plan and build more long-distance power lines to carry all the electricity produced there to different parts of the state, and development can take nearly a decade. Transmission has become a significant tension point for clean energy developers across the US, as the number of project proposals balloons and lines to connect to the grid grow ever longer.

Existing lines are not enough to accommodate the spike in large clean energy installations, planning new transmission has lagged, and regulators have struggled to keep up with studying and processing all the projects looking to hook up to the grid.

“It’s undeniable that we do need major funding for transmission buildout in California, and frankly, the West, to meet our clean energy goals,” said Dian Grueneich, a former commissioner on the California public utility commission. “The issue is where, how much, when, et cetera, … It’s probably the most complex area there is.”

Compared to other regions, California has been relatively proactive in assessing the grid needs of a decarbonized future, said Rob Gramlich, founder of consulting firm Grid Strategies LLC. But there’s still much work to do.

“It’s a systemic problem across the country. We have interconnection queue process problems in most regions,” said Gramlich. “The problem is more acutely felt in any region that is going faster on the energy transition. And California is second to no one on the pace and ambition of its clean energy transition.”

That challenge could cause particular difficulties in regions of California expecting a big scale-up in renewable energy, like the North Coast, where offshore wind developers are planning projects, or areas of the Central Valley eyed by solar companies and facing a potential downturn in the water available for crops.

“Short of water”

In coming years, more land in California once used for agriculture could host solar. In 2014, the state approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, an effort to reduce over-pumping from aquifers that had caused land in certain parts of the state to sink. The law requires local water managers to submit plans to the state that demonstrate how they’ll keep industries and people from pulling water out of underground stores more quickly than it can be replenished.

California farmers get water for their crops via a combination of underground supplies and diversions from reservoirs, lakes, and other stores managed by the state and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The new groundwater regulations, combined with climate change and other environmental regulations, could lead to a 20 percent drop in annual average water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley by 2040, according to a February analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

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Healthy adults don’t need annual COVID boosters, WHO advisors say



Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

A vaccine advisory group for the World Health Organization said Tuesday that, at this point, it does not recommend additional, let alone annual COVID-19 booster shots for people at low to medium risk of severe disease. It advised countries to focus on boosting those at high risk—including older people, pregnant people, and those with underlying medical conditions—every six to 12 months for the near- to mid-term.

The new advice contrasts with proposed plans by US Food and Drug Administration, which has suggested treating COVID-19 boosters like annual flu shots for the foreseeable future. That is, agency officials have floated the idea of offering updated formulations each fall, possibly to everyone, including the young and healthy.

In a viewpoint published last May in JAMA, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, Peter Marks, along with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock, argued that annual COVID booster campaigns in the fall, ahead of winter waves of respiratory infections—such as flu, COVID-19, and RSV—would protect health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. And they specifically addressed the possibility of vaccinating those at low risk.

“The benefit of giving additional COVID-19 booster vaccines to otherwise healthy individuals 18 to 50 years of age who have already received primary vaccination and a first booster dose is not likely to have as marked an effect on hospitalization or death as in the other populations at higher risk,” the FDA officials wrote. “However, booster vaccinations could be associated with a reduction in health care utilization (e.g., emergency department or urgent care center visits).”

In a press briefing Tuesday, WHO advisors called the benefit of boosting those at low or even medium risk “actually quite marginal” and suggested that countries could roll back offering primary COVID-19 vaccination series to low-risk healthy children and teens based on country-specific conditions and resources.

Context and limits

These updated recommendations “reflect that much of the population is either vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19, or both,” said Hanna Nohynek, chair of the WHO’s advisory groups, called SAGE for the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. But the advisor’s updated guidance “reemphasizes the importance of vaccinating those still at risk of severe disease, mostly older adults and those with underlying conditions, including with additional boosters,” she added.

Specifically, the WHO’s SAGE considered high-risk groups: older adults; younger adults with significant comorbidities, such as diabetes and heart disease; people 6 months and older with immunocompromising conditions, such as people living with HIV and transplant recipients; pregnant people; and frontline health workers.

For these high-risk groups, SAGE recommended an additional booster six to 12 months after their last, given the current epidemiological conditions. The advisors noted that the advice is “time-limited” for the current situation, not one for annual or biannual shots to be offered in perpetuity. The scenario and overall recommendations could change depending on new, more virulent variants or future declines in COVID-19 spread, for instance.

Already, the United Kingdom and Canada have offered spring COVID-19 boosters to high-risk groups, including older people and those who have immunocompromising conditions. So far, the FDA has not indicated that it will do the same.

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