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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Firefighters aided by easing winds in Reno fire (AP)

RENO, Nev. – Kristina Wright fell asleep listening to the TV weatherman's forecast for possible snow on the valley floor where she lives on edge of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

"I thought I'd wake up to scrape my windshield not be told to evacuate because there was a fire behind my house," she said.

Wright was among the thousands of evacuees anxious to get back to their homes on Saturday after a series of wind-fueled fires blew across a stretch of about four miles of southwest Reno the day before.

The unusual mid-November blaze burned 25 homes, sent 16 residents to the hospital plus a firefighter with serious burns and contributed to the death of a 74-year-old man who went into cardiac arrest packing his essentials as he prepared to flee.

More than 2 miles separated some of the damaged homes as the winds with gusts in excess of 70 mph spread burning embers down the Sierra front and through a patchwork of canyons and ravines on the city's southwest side.

"I watched a house catch on fire on the ridge," said Wright, 22, who lives in a neighborhood just below the aptly named Windy Hill about five miles south of the downtown casino district.

"It was like a tornado," she told The Associated Press in an interview on Saturday. "I couldn't stand up. I couldn't even open my car door without it slamming me."

"The deputy said `Go get your animals and call into work. Your neighborhood is next. With the way the winds are an ember could hit your roof and spark at any time," Wright said.

More than 100 police officers and National Guard members were patrolling streets in the fire area to protect homes from vandals, Assistant Police Chief Mike Whan said.

The wind carried embers up to a mile, attacking upscale homes in random spurts. Police went house-to-house, pounding on doors and urging residents to evacuate in the dark of the night. Flames at times reached 50-feet high.

The cause of the blaze wasn't known, but a downed power line or homeless encampments in the area might be to blame, Hernandez said. He said the region is also a popular area for teenagers who might have started the fire to stay warm.

At least 400 firefighters from as far as 260 miles away flocked to Reno early Friday as multiple fires roared from the Sierra Nevada foothills in northwestern Nevada and spread to the valley floor.

The wind grounded firefighting helicopters and made it difficult for firefighters to approach Caughlin Ranch, the affluent subdivision bordering pine-forested hills where the fire likely began after 12:30 a.m. It also helped the fire spread from 400 acres to more than 3 square miles.

The gusts were comparable to the Santa Ana winds that often aggravate and spread wildfires in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, officials said.

"The wind is horrific," said Reno spokeswoman Michele Anderson. "We just watched a semi nearly blow over on the freeway."

Hernandez said residents ran from their homes dressed in pajamas, frantically trying to grab as many possessions as possible. One elderly man dressed in his underwear ran out with a blanket wrapped around his body.

Dick Hecht said that when he escaped from his home with his wife, "the whole mountain was on fire," and it was so windy he could barely stand.

"It was like a tornado," he said.

The couple tried to return to their home before morning, but they were turned back by high winds and erupting flames. As they made their way back down the mountain roads, flames burned less than 40 yards from their vehicle.

Evacuees could return to their homes at noon Saturday, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said. A number of local hotel-casinos were also offering discounted rooms to displaced residents.

More than 150 people had filled two shelters set up at area high schools by midmorning.

John and Maggie Givlin were among those watching a television at Reno High School, scanning the screen for details on whether the home they left behind was safe. They already were preparing to flee when a police officer knocked on their door at about 1:30 a.m.

"I looked out the front window and saw the glow over the hill before us," John Givlin said.

He and his wife made their way out of their home with a flashlight. Outside, flames billowed in every direction.

A number of local hotel-casinos offered discounted rooms to displaced residents and at least 90 schools were closed for the day to clear the roads of school traffic and make way for emergency workers.

More than 4,000 NV Energy customers lost power as poles and electrical wires were scorched and knocked down, said spokeswoman Faye Andersen. Utility workers were not allowed into the fire area.

The U.S. Postal Service suspended delivery to the area for the day, and the state high school athletic association moved its football playoffs from Friday night to Monday.

___

Associated Press writers Martin Griffith in Reno; a and Michelle Rindels, Cristina Silva and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.


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Massive storm that tore through Alaska moves into Rockies (Reuters)

(Reuters) – The hurricane-like storm that tore through Alaska earlier this week moved into the Rocky Mountains on Saturday, triggering winter storm and high wind warnings across the region.

Corey Mead, a meteorologist at the National Storm Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said the system, which was likened to a Category 3 hurricane when it hit Alaska on Thursday, had weakened as it moved south.

But he said it still remained "fairly strong" and was already causing isolated blizzard-like conditions in some parts of the northern Rockies.

Otherwise, weather conditions across the continental United States were relatively quiet.

The only exception was in the southern high plains, especially eastern New Mexico, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, where Mead said high winds and low humidity were raising the risk of wildfires.

Over the past year, firefighters in Texas have responded to more than 20,000 fires that have burned a record 3.5 million acres, prompting the Texas Forest Service to declare this the worst fire season in the state's history.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher)


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Vt. experts: Some post-Irene river repairs harmful (AP)

MONTPELIER, Vt. – In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene's flooding, Vermont became what one lawmaker called a "lawless state" in restoring its rivers, with crews digging gravel from stream beds and piling boulders on river banks to strengthen them.

Environmentalists and some state officials told Vermont lawmakers Tuesday that the result is serious environmental damage, especially to fish habitats, as well as a possible worsening of future floods.

Vermont has the expertise to care for its rivers in ways that minimize the threat and impact of future floods, said David Mears, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But state regulations were relaxed on an emergency basis following the Aug. 28 storm. In some instances, the result sometimes was shoddy river restoration work, Mears and others said.

Lawmakers heard testimony that efforts to put rivers back in the courses they ran before Irene may have done more harm than good in some cases.

"Spending money to do work without consideration for how river dynamics work is just money down the hole," Mears said. "We're just going to replace the same culverts, the same bridges, the same homes, the same roads over and over and over again if we don't do it right."

Ron Rhodes, a river steward with the Connecticut River Watershed Council, told lawmakers Vermont must avoid "more unchecked, unregulated emergency dredging, graveling and channelizing in an attempt to `fix' the rivers. This is a failed practice of our past."

The day began with a talk from Mary Watzin, dean of the University of Vermont's environmental school, who gave the assembled members of three legislative committees a primer in fluvial geomorphology — the science of how rivers change their courses over land. The upshot, Watzin, state officials and environmentalists said, was that rivers need room to run with the least interference possible.

Rivers are speeded up and floods made worse by a range of human activities, they said. Straightening and channeling rivers means they can't meander around bends and dissipate energy. Replacing the soil and vegetation along river banks with boulders or other materials also denies the river a chance to lose some of its power and slow down. Impervious surfaces like streets, roofs and parking lots send storm water into rivers much faster than an absorptive marsh or forest floor.

Some of those involved in Irene recovery efforts used steam shovels and other construction equipment to dig in rivers for gravel to rebuild washed out roads. Patrick Berry, commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said this practice could hurt populations of brook and brown trout for years to come.

Mears said his department was investigating reports that some people were illegally extracting gravel for sale.

Rep. David Deen, chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said later that some of this work was done during prime fish spawning season and that the results won't be known until fish eggs hatch in the spring.

Sen. Richard McCormack, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said many of his constituents have resented a state law, passed in 1988, that bars removing gravel from rivers.

"You have a culture that to this day has never accepted that they can't," McCormack said. Following Irene, Vermont became a "lawless state" when it came to protecting its rivers, he said, with the prevailing ethic being, "Do what you have to do."


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Storms cause damage, deaths, injuries in South (Reuters)

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) – Severe storms and suspected tornadoes across the South have resulted in structural damage, power outages, injuries and at least six deaths in three states, officials said on Thursday.

Officials confirmed deaths in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia from the extreme weather that swept the region on Wednesday.

A 50-year-old woman and 3-year-old girl died in Davidson County in central North Carolina when an apparent twister destroyed the home they were in, said Major Larry James of Davidson County Emergency Services.

"The house was completely gone," he told Reuters. "The only thing left is the block foundation."

James said 11 other people were injured, and 35 to 50 residences and businesses were damaged.

In a statement, North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue said there also were more than a dozen structures damaged in Randolph County from a reported tornado there.

Severe weather, including a possible tornado, was being blamed for three deaths in a rural area near the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina, said York County Sheriff's Office Lieutenant Mike Baker.

Five people were taken to hospitals with injuries that were not life-threatening after the Wednesday evening storm, and seven homes were severely damaged or destroyed, Baker said.

"Everyone's been accounted for, but we're continuing to search for personal items," Baker said. "This is very significant damage, and a November tornado, it's an unusual weather occurrence for us."

In suburban Atlanta, a man died Wednesday afternoon when a large pine tree fell on top of the sport utility vehicle he was driving in heavy wind and rain, said Captain Tim House, spokesman for the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office.

"The driver was trapped and mortally wounded," House said.

COLD FRONT ARRIVES

Conditions were favorable for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes on Wednesday, with a cold front hitting unusually warm air and significant moisture existing at lower levels of the atmosphere, weather experts said.

"Typically we see our severe weather season during the spring months, but we also have a secondary peak in November," said Neil Dixon, meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Greenville/Spartanburg in South Carolina.

"In November, we see strong cold fronts," he said. "These strong cold fronts move along from the western Carolinas, and the strong wind shear moves ahead of that."

A series of deadly tornadoes battered the Southeast in April, killing an estimated 364 people. With the latest deaths, the number of tornado fatalities for 2011 will likely top 550, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.

This year already ranks as the deadliest from tornadoes since the National Weather Service began its database in 1950, he said.

"The number of fatalities this year directly due to tornadoes is 100 times greater than the recent decades' annual average," Carbin said.

Preliminary reports indicate at least 25 twisters hit Southern states between Tuesday and Wednesday, Carbin said. Reports came from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

On Wednesday, at least 15 people were injured in southern Mississippi as storms passed through Jones County, just north of Laurel. Only one of those was transported to an area hospital for treatment, said Don McKinnon, the county's emergency management director.

The American Red Cross said an initial damage assessment in Alabama indicated about 230 homes were affected by severe weather throughout the state, including 16 homes that were destroyed.

(Additional reporting by Verna Gates in Birmingham, Ala, Kelli Dugan in Mobile, Ala, David Beasley in Atlanta and Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C.; Editing by Jerry Norton)


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Aerial view of tsunami zone: cleaner but barren (AP)

SENDAI, Japan – From 1,000 feet (300 meters) up, the view of the tsunami-battered Japanese seaside communities shows striking progress: much of the rubble, crumpled cars and other debris are gone.

Yet seen from a helicopter Friday carrying Associated Press journalists, there are few signs of rebuilding eight months after the March 11 disaster, triggered by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake off the tsunami-prone coast.

What remains — the brown, barren, emptiness where bustling towns once stood — is a sobering reminder of how much work still lies ahead.

On the ground, people living in the tidy rows of temporary houses that dot the surrounding areas say they are frustrated that authorities aren't moving ahead more quickly with reconstruction plans. They are anxious to rebuild their lives, yet remain uncertain of how to proceed.

"I want to leave this place as soon as possible and move into our own house, but the feeling I'm getting from the banks and government is that's going to be hard," said Yuki Numakura, 36, from Natori, near Sendai, who shares a unit with her mother, brother, grandmother and pet dog Seven.

"The future looks really murky," she said.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government plans to spend at least 18 trillion yen ($234 billion) over the next five years to fund the reconstruction, 6 trillion yen of which has been approved by parliament. So far, the government has built 51,886 temporary houses — almost all of the 52,500 needed — in seven prefectures (states) affected by the disaster.

Ultimately, decisions about reconstruction of each town fall to local town leaders, but uncertainty about the extent and speed of aid from the central government has caused some towns to move cautiously.

The towns have just begun to come out with longer-term reconstruction plans, which include input from residents and seek ways to better protect their communities from future tsunamis. Many are also reluctant to rebuild in low-lying areas for fear that another massive wave may strike again sooner or later, given that four have hit the coastline in the last 120 years.

The fishing town of Minamisanriku, which lost 70 percent of its buildings in the disaster, calls for building residential areas on higher ground, even cutting into the surrounding hills, and possibly raising the town's commercial district slightly from the fishing docks, a key hub of activity. To help people better escape from future tsunamis, the town plans to widen evacuation routes and increase the number of elevated shelters.

Minamisanriku's reconstruction plan extends 10 years into the future. Facing a shrinking and aging population, it seeks to revive its local economy through promoting tourism and drawing new business.

The biggest challenge facing town leaders at this point is balancing residents' demands to restore homes and jobs quickly while coming up with a viable long-term plan, said Tsuneaki Fukui, a civil engineering professor at the University of Tokyo who is helping the major fishing port of Kesennuma, further up the coast, draw up its reconstruction plans.

"The scale of this — the entire coastline — makes it all so overwhelming," he said. "It's something even we professionals haven't ever encountered."

The disaster left 15,839 dead and 3,647 missing, according to the official toll. The high number of missing is because the dead are only counted when a body is identified.

Further south, the tsunami also touched off a nuclear crisis when it slammed into the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, forcing about 100,000 people to flee their homes. They still have no idea when they can return.

Disposing of all the debris — an estimated 23 million tons — is another huge headache. While most has been removed from town centers, completely disposing of it will likely take another 2 1/2 years, the government estimates.

A large amount of debris has wound up in Natori, a flat area near the Sendai airport, where it has been carefully divided into huge mountains of wood, metal, hazardous waste and other materials. On Friday, dozens of cranes and backhoes picked away at the stuff, dumping it into waiting trucks to be hauled off.

Some of it is recycled. Concrete, for example, is sent to cement factories for reprocessing into small pebbles for use in road construction, the Environment Ministry says. The rest is to be incinerated and used as landfill — although incinerators in the prefecture are overwhelmed by the volume and have asked for help from elsewhere.

Just a few miles (kilometers) away from the whirring construction vehicles, 75-year-old Yaeko Sai, who lost her Natori home in the tsunami, thinks anxiously about the future in the shadow of her temporary housing block.

"My friends have scattered everywhere," she said. "I'm really not sure how I could make it if I had to leave this place."

___

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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Japan bans rice grown near crippled nuke plant (AP)

TOKYO – Japan has banned shipments of rice grown near a tsunami-hit nuclear power plant for the first time after detecting radiation exceeding the legal limit.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Thursday that a sample of rice from a farm contained 630 becquerels of cesium per kilogram. Cesium is among the radioactive materials that leaked from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant after it was damaged by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Under Japanese regulations, rice with more than 500 becquerels of cesium per kilogram is not allowed to be consumed.

Officials have tested rice at hundreds of spots in Fukushima, and none had previously exceeded the limit. Fukushima only last month declared that rice grown in the prefecture was safe.


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Tornadoes in Southeast kill 6, flatten houses (AP)

By MITCH WEISS and MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press Mitch Weiss And Michael Biesecker, Associated Press – Thu Nov 17, 5:19 pm ET

LEXINGTON, N.C. – A day after deadly tornadoes struck the Southeast, survivors looked for what they could salvage, huddled in loved ones' hospital rooms and shared stories of how they made it through the furious storms.

Some were also mourning. People in a hard-hit North Carolina neighborhood marked the spot where a 3-year-old girl's body was found with an American flag. The little girl and her grandmother were among six killed in three states Wednesday.

The two were alone in the small house in a rural area south of Lexington when the storm hit, leaving behind only the foundation. The house's splintered remains were scattered hundreds of feet. The family's Dodge minivan ended up propped against a nearby tree, its windows smashed and roof caved in.

Firefighters and volunteers searched for the girl, whose name wasn't immediately released, for more than two hours before finding her buried in a pile of shattered lumber and furniture.

"She was just beautiful — big blue eyes and so sweet," said Maegan Chriscoe, whose daughter played with the young victim.

Elsewhere, the storms killed three people in South Carolina, and a Georgia motorist was died when a tree crushed his SUV north of Atlanta.

Dozens more were injured across the region, scores of buildings were damaged and thousands were without power. Meteorologists confirmed Thursday that tornadoes had struck Louisiana and Alabama a day earlier and twisters were suspected in Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas.

"It looked like the `Wizard of Oz,'" Henry Taylor said, describing a funnel cloud outside his home near Rock Hill, S.C. "It was surreal, and for a moment, a split second, you say to yourself `This ain't real,' then reality sets in, and you know it is."

The 50-year-old Taylor said he and his wife sought refuge in a closet as the storm roared. Part of his roof was torn off, windows were blown out and trees had been snapped in two. But he and his wife escaped injury.

"I held my wife closely in the closet and I prayed. I said, `Oh my God, this is it. I'm going to be buried in the debris. We're going to die,'" Taylor said Thursday, wiping back tears.

Jerry Neely said his wife, Janet, was home alone and fled to the bathroom for safety. The tornado lifted the bathtub, pinning her underneath, Jerry Neely said by phone from his wife's hospital room Thursday.

"It's going to be hard to overcome this. I don't know what we're going to do. It's just so hard," Jerry Neely said, adding that his wife will recover from her injuries.

The sheriff for surrounding York County asked South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for state assistance in cleaning up the debris. Authorities blocked roads leading into the area and only allowed emergency workers and power crews in.

Ideal conditions for severe weather were created when a cold front stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northeast collided with unseasonably warm air, forecasters said. Temperatures dropped in some areas from the low 70s to the 50s as the front passed.

Still, it's not unusual for the region to have severe storms in November because temperatures can fluctuate wildly, said National Weather Service meteorologist Neil Dixon.

In Alabama, the National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes hit communities in the western and central parts of the state and continued to assess a suspected twister that demolished mobile homes at a pair of housing parks near Auburn University. The campus was spared major damage.

It was the worst bout of weather for the state since about 250 people were killed during a tornado outbreak in April the state.

Back in Lexington, Marshall Chriscoe described running for cover in his house, which is across the street from where the little girl and her grandmother died. When he got a text message from his girlfriend that a tornado was headed his way, he grabbed her 4-year-old daughter and they huddled under a heavy roll-top desk.

"The house started shaking and things were falling," said Chriscoe, 24, who's Maegan Chriscoe's brother. "It only lasted 15, maybe 30 seconds. I stood up and realized I was standing on an incline."

The small house he rents had been lifted off its foundation. After finding his girlfriend's Chihuahua hiding under a bed, he went outside to find a scene of devastation.

Chriscoe said he and other neighbors quickly found the gravely injured grandmother in the debris of her home.

"She was talking and moving her arms," he said. "She just kept yelling, `Get me up!' But we were afraid to move her before the rescue squad got there."

About a quarter mile away, Richard Hedrick worked to salvage what he could from his ruined childhood home. He said his parents sought shelter in their basement and suffered minor injuries when their brick house was lifted up and dropped back in place.

Still, Hedrick felt lucky that they were OK.

"Mama always said she wanted a sunroom," he said jokingly when asked if they planned to rebuild. "This was the home place, lots of memories here. But next week, we'll have Thanksgiving dinner somewhere else and we'll be truly thankful."

___

Biesecker reported from Lexington, N.C. Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Rock Hill, S.C., and Bob Johnson and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.


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As Glaciers Melt, Bhutan Faces Risk of 'Mountain Tsunamis' (Time.com)

By JULIEN BOUISSOU / LE MONDE / WORLDCRUNCH Julien Bouissou / Le Monde / Worldcrunch – Thu Nov 17, 5:15 am ET

Correction Appended Nov. 16, 2011

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

(THIMPU) — The Kingdom of Bhutan, tucked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range, is paying the price for global industrialization. Climate change is causing many Himalayan glaciers to melt in increasingly unstable ways, and there are concerns about the long term viability of the ice in a warmer world.

Water flows from these melting glaciers until it breaks the natural ice dams that hold it in place. That, in turn, can result in devastating floods like the one that occurred in 1994, when a torrent of mud killed dozens of people in Bhutan and wiped out entire villages. Western scientists call this phenomenon a glacial-lake-outburst flood, or GLOF. With 24 of its 2,674 glacial lakes considered unstable, Bhutan is preparing in the coming years for even deadlier "mountain tsunamis," as the phenomenon is sometimes referred to.

Bhutan is one of the first countries in the world to make GLOF prevention a national priority. In 2005, the government received environmental-protection funds financed in part by the U.N. Development Programme. The money was earmarked in part to help Bhutan drain water from Thorthormi Glacial Lake and reinforce its natural dams. But at that high altitude, the work is difficult, dangerous and ultimately costly. (See photos of Himalayan Glaciers Under Threat.)

The air is too thin for helicopters to be of much use. Instead, a group of some 350 residents had to hike 10 days in order to set up a base camp at 5,000-m elevation. From there, volunteer students, retired soldiers and traditionally clothed villagers work knee-deep in glacial water, using the few tools they have to try to open a drain canal and build stone walls to reinforce the lake. Every year their efforts are interrupted by the arrival of winter.

"Thanks to satellite imagery, it's possible to identify the most dangerous glaciers. But it's impossible to say when or where a catastrophe will happen," says Pradeep Mool, an engineer with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Researchers take various factors into account when assessing GLOF risk: topography, the likelihood of avalanches that could cause a lake to overflow, how solid a glacial lake's natural dikes are and the volume of water the lake contains. (See more TIME environmental news in Going Green)

The causes of glacial floods are various and difficult to evaluate. And at high altitude, in extreme-climate conditions, collecting such information can be extremely dangerous. Dowchu Dukpa, an engineer with Bhutan's Ministry of the Environment, recalls how scientists struggled to measure water levels on Thorthormi Lake. "The winds were extremely strong and almost capsized [the researchers'] boat," he says.

Authorities have identified certain high-risk zones and, in an effort to save lives, prohibited construction in those areas. They now plan to set up an electronic alert system. Sensors placed in the glacial lakes will keep track of water levels. If the level quickly drops, a message will be relayed by SMS so that residents — alerted via cell phones — will know to seek shelter.

Water Woes for 750 Million?
Although these "tsunamis from above" may be the most immediate danger, they are not the only threat facing the people of Bhutan. As the Himalayan glaciers disappear, so too will the rivers on which the kingdom depends. Water, after all, is the country's most precious resource. Bhutan depends on it to irrigate its fields, which support thousands of farmers, and to feed its hydroelectric plants, which generate about 40% of the country's wealth each year. Water is to Bhutan what oil is to Kuwait. (See photos of Bhutan's new king.)

Decreasing water levels in the rivers will also have an impact on countries farther downstream, potentially affecting the entire region. Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculate that the melting of the Himalayan glaciers will cause water supply problems for some 750 million people.

Even though Bhutan is hardly responsible for climate change, it nevertheless wants to be a world leader in sustainable development. Thanks to the forests that cover 82% of its territory, it is one of the few countries on the planet to absorb more greenhouse gasses that it emits. Written into the constitution, in fact, is a commitment to keep at least 60% of its territory forested.

Says Ugyen Tshewang, who directs Bhutan's national environmental commission: "We're threatened by the melting glaciers, yet we cannot exert any pressure on the industrialized countries." See pictures of the effects of global warming.

The original version of this article, first published in the French newspaper Le Monde, cited a 2007 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which stated that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. In 2010 the IPCC retracted that report, calling it inaccurate; there is no known date by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to disappear.

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After fire and tornado, Miss. church is rebuilt (AP)

YAZOO CITY, Miss. – In this quiet little town where the hill country rises up from the pancake-flat Delta farmlands, reminders of the killer tornado are all around. The bent flag poles and broken crosses, snapped trees and abandoned houses, all claim a spot in the landscape now.

Among the vestiges of destruction, a resurrection of sorts has taken shape in Yazoo City since the 2010 storm. The Hillcrest Baptist Church, destroyed first by fire, then by nature, has been rebuilt on a hillside at the edge of town. The members of this small congregation are a determined and faithful lot who consider it nothing short of a miracle.

"A church encompasses a community," Pastor Rayburn Freeman said on a recent morning. "You're not talking about one little building up on a hill; you're talking about a whole community."

The church is planning a dedication ceremony Sunday to celebrate its new building, and perhaps nobody is more thankful to be here for it than longtime member Dale Thrasher.

Thrasher, 61, was the only person in the church on April 24, 2010, a Saturday, when it was hit by a tornado that killed at least 10 people. Thrasher dove under a communion table just moments before the twister ripped the church apart.

He survived with barely a scratch. A hymnal found later in the debris nearby was turned to the song, "Till The Storm Passes By."

"`Mid the crash of the thunder, Precious Lord, hear my cry," the lyrics say. "Keep me safe, till the storm passes by."

You'd be hard pressed to convince Thrasher that was a coincidence, and there's no use saying the small, wood communion table saved his life.

"It wasn't the table that saved me. It was the Lord who saved me," Thrasher said recently while showing off the new brick building. "When I seen those windows busting, I just bowed my head and prayed, `Lord save me.' It was like he put his arms around me."

Hillcrest Baptist Church was founded in 1992 with a congregation of about two dozen people in a town known for blues, catfish and cotton. It was burned in 1999 by an arsonist who was never charged. The church was rebuilt bigger and better.

It stood for years on the hill just off Highway 49, where it was one of the first things people saw when driving into Yazoo City from the south. Then the tornado wiped it away, and like in the passages in the Bible, the believers and doubters came forward.

"Some people around here thought they wouldn't build back, but they were determined," said Yazoo City Mayor McArthur Straughter, who is not a member of the church.

"When something like that happens it makes you wonder how long before your community will be back the way it was. But we have managed to weather the storm, as they say," Straughter said.

The tornado that hit the church left a path of devastation from the Louisiana line to east-central Mississippi, damaging dozens of homes and businesses. At the time, Gov. Haley Barbour, who grew up in Yazoo City, called the scene "utter obliteration."

The congregation has been meeting in a temporary location lent by another church, and attendance fell from the 100 or so who used to show up on Sundays. But there have been a couple of services in the new church while the finishing touches have been put on, and it appears the congregation will reach the levels it was before the storm.

"The Lord has blessed us from the time we started on this building," said longtime member Alton Rivers, a 71-year-old retiree. "One of the greatest blessings my wife and I had was watching them raise the steeple. That was the crowning moment."

The congregation was able to rebuild and are debt free thanks to donations that poured in, including cash sent from Australia and money from a Jewish children's school.

"Just depend on God for everything. He'll take you through the storm and bring you back," Thrasher said. "Now just pray that the Lord is going to fill this building up."


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Extreme weather to worsen with climate change: IPCC (Reuters)

KAMPALA (Reuters) – An increase in heat waves is almost certain, while heavier rainfall, more floods, stronger cyclones, landslides and more intense droughts are likely across the globe this century as the Earth's climate warms, U.N. scientists said on Friday.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urged countries to come up with disaster management plans to adapt to the growing risk of extreme weather events linked to human-induced climate change, in a report released in Uganda on Friday.

The report gives differing probabilities for extreme weather events based on future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, but the thrust is that extreme weather is likely to increase.

"It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes ... will occur in the 21st century on the global scale," the IPCC report said.

"It is very likely that the length, frequency and/or intensity of warm spells, or heat waves, will increase," it added.

"A 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions," under one emissions scenario.

An exception is in very high latitudes, it said. Heat waves would likely get hotter by "1 degrees C to 3 degrees C by mid-21st century and by about 2 degrees C to 5 degrees C by late-21st century, depending on region and emissions scenario."

Delegates from nearly 200 countries will meet in South Africa from November 28 for climate talks with the most likely outcome modest steps toward a broader deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.

CARBON EMISSIONS UP

The United Nations, the International Energy Agency and others say global pledges to curb emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are not enough to prevent the planet heating up beyond 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold scientists say risks an unstable climate in which weather extremes become more common and food production more difficult.

Global carbon emissions rose by a record amount last year, rebounding on the heels of recession.

"It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of heavy rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe," especially in "high latitudes and tropical regions."

For the IPCC, "likely" means a two-thirds chance or more.

It said there was "medium confidence" that this would lead to "increases in local flooding in some regions", but that this could not be determined for river floods, whose causes are complicated.

The report said tropical cyclones were likely to become less frequent or stay the same, but the ones that do form are expected to be nastier.

"Heavy rainfalls associated with tropical cyclones are likely to increase with continued warming. Average tropical cyclone maximum wind speed is likely," the report said.

That, coupled with rising sea levels were a concern for small island states, the report said.

Droughts, perhaps the biggest worry for a world with a surging population to feed, were also expected to worsen.

The global population reached 7 billion last month and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, according to U.N. figures.

"There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century ... due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration," including in "southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, central Europe, central North America, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil and southern Africa."

There is a high chance that landslides would be triggered by shrinking glaciers and permafrost linked to climate change, it said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Janet Lawrence)


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Monday, November 21, 2011

House says no to mandating balanced federal budget (AP)

WASHINGTON – Rejecting the idea Congress can't control its spending impulses, the House turned back a Republican proposal Friday to amend the Constitution to dam the rising flood of federal red ink. Democrats — and a few GOP lawmakers — said damage from the balanced-budget mandate would outweigh any benefits.

The first House vote in 16 years on making federal deficits unconstitutional came as the separate bipartisan "supercommittee" appeared to be sputtering in its attempt to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions to head off major automatic cuts. The lead Republican on that panel said members were "painfully, painfully aware" of its Wednesday deadline for action and would work through the weekend.

The House voted 261-165 in favor of the measure to require annual balanced budgets, but that was 23 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment.

Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the proposal, arguing that such a requirement would force Congress to make devastating cuts to social programs.

Most Republicans favored the measure, but there were prominent exceptions.

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's point man on budgetary matters, agreed with GOP colleagues that "spending is the problem." But he added that "this version of the balanced budget amendment makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow and economic freedom will be diminished."

Likewise, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said lawmakers should be able to find common ground without changing the Constitution, and he expressed concern that lawsuits filed if Congress failed to balance the budget could result in courts making decisions on cutting spending or raising taxes.

In all, 235 Republicans and 25 Democrats voted for the amendment, four Republicans and 161 Democrats opposed it. The other two Republicans voting no were Justin Amash of Michigan and Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Later in the day, the top Republican on the deficit-reduction supercommittee indicated no deal was near but efforts would continue through the last weekend before Wednesday's deadline.

"We are painfully, painfully aware of the deadline that is staring us in the face," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. "When we have something more to report, we will report."

With the national debt now topping $15 trillion and the deficit for the just-ended fiscal year passing $1 trillion, supporters of the constitutional amendment declared it the only way to stop out-of-control spending. The government now must borrow 36 cents for every dollar it spends.

"It is our last line of defense against Congress' unending desire to overspend and overtax," Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said as the House debated the measure.

But Democratic leaders worked aggressively to defeat it, saying that such a requirement could force Congress to cut billions from social programs during times of economic downturn and that disputes over what to cut could result in Congress ceding its power of the purse to the courts.

Even had it passed, the measure would have faced an uphill fight in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The House passed a similar measure in 1995, with the help of 72 Democrats. That year, the measure fell one vote short of passing the Senate.

Constitutional amendments must get two-thirds majorities in both houses and be ratified by three-fourths of the states to take effect. The last constitutional amendment ratified, in 1992, concerned lawmaker pay increases.

The second-ranking Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, voted for the amendment in 1995 but said the situation has vastly changed since then. "Republicans have been fiscally reckless," he asserted, saying the George W. Bush administration would not cut spending elsewhere to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, major tax cuts and a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

"A constitutional amendment is not a path to a balanced budget," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. "It is only an excuse for members of this body failing to cast votes to achieve one."

The measure on the floor Friday, sponsored by Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., mirrored the 1995 resolution in stating that federal spending could not exceed revenues in any one year. It would have required a three-fifths majority to raise the debt ceiling or waive the balanced budget requirement in any year. But Congress would be able to let the budget go into deficit with a simple majority if there was a serious military conflict.

The Republicans' hope was that the Goodlatte version would attract more Democratic supporters, and the "Blue Dogs," a group of fiscally conservative Democrats, said they were on board. But there are now only 25 Blue Dogs, half the number of several years ago when there were more moderate Democrats, mainly from rural areas, in the House.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who is not a Blue Dog member, said he was supporting the amendment because "there's an infinite capacity in this Congress to kick the can down the road. ... We are going to have to force people to make tough decisions."

But other Democrats pointed to a letter from some 275 labor and other mostly liberal groups saying that forcing spending cuts or higher taxes to balance the budget when the economy was slow "would risk tipping a faltering economy into recession or worsening an ongoing downturn, costing large numbers of jobs."

Democrats also cited a report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimating that, if there is not an increase in revenues, the amendment could force Congress to cut all programs by an average of 17.3 percent by 2018.

The amendment would not have gone into effect until 2017, or two years after it was ratified, and supporters said that would give Congress time to avoid dramatic spending cuts.

Forty-nine states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, although opponents note that states do not have national security and defense costs. States also can still borrow for their capital-spending budgets for long-term infrastructure projects.

The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.


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Climate Change Panel Predicts More Intense Weather Events (ContributorNetwork)

According to NPR, a recent meeting of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which included more than 200 scientists, concluded with a report stating it expects climate change to bring more intense weather events. The panel specifically noted more rainfall, heat waves and other natural disasters are in the forecast as a result of climate change.

The IPCC notes the frequency of heavy rainfall will likely increase this century in many different regions. Additionally, more powerful hurricanes and typhoons are likely to occur, but these events will see a gradual, small increase instead of a steep one. With the debut of this report, here are some facts about climate change:

* Since the industrial revolution, the burning of fuel and constant deforestation has led to the release of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

* These greenhouse gases prevent heat from re-entering space and create a warming effect, also known as global warming or climate change, on the earth.

* The Washington State Department of Ecology notes while climate change can impact weather events, it also has the potential to impact agriculture, human health, water resources, and energy use.

* Despite the fact there is a warming trend, different regions will experience changes differently as well and there is the possibility that a few areas could see temperatures drop instead of increasing.

* In the late 1990s, numerous nations attempted to join together to establish the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty designed to ensure countries would commit to combating climate change.

* The U.S. failed to ratify the treaty over concerns that China and India would not have to follow the outlined changes or commit to reducing their own emissions.

* Nearly a decade later in Copenhagen, Denmark, world leaders met again to discuss and reach agreements on the growing concern of global warming.

* The 2009 summit focused on the dispute between the U.S. and China and if the nations couldn't agree it could have potentially killed any further international agreements at the summit.

* President Barack Obama also attended and spoke at the summit to help work out disagreements over China joining the pledge and although they fell short of expectations, agreements were finally reached.

Rachel Bogart provides an in-depth look at current environmental issues and local Chicago news stories. As a college student from the Chicago suburbs pursuing two science degrees, she applies her knowledge and passion to both topics to garner further public awareness.


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Quake off east Indonesia panics many; no tsunami (AP)

JAKARTA, Indonesia – A strong earthquake hit waters off eastern Indonesia on Monday, sending people on nearby islands fleeing from their homes in panic. Fearing a tsunami that never came, villagers living along coastlines ran to high ground.

The 6.3-magnitude quake was centered 12 miles (20 kilometers) beneath the Molucca Sea, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Many people in Ternate, the town in North Maluku province that was closest to the epicenter, scurried from shaking buildings, said George Rajaloa, a resident.

"I ran with everyone else," he said.

Suhardjono, from the Indonesian meteorological and geophysics agency, said at that magnitude and depth there was no danger of tsunami.

But residents fled beaches all the same.

Indonesia straddles a series of fault lines that make the vast island nation prone to volcanic and seismic activity.

A giant quake off the country on Dec. 26, 2004, triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 230,000 people, half of them in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh.


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1st look at Japan nuke plant: rubble amid progress (AP)

By DAVID GUTTENFELDER and ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press David Guttenfelder And Eric Talmadge, Associated Press – Sat Nov 12, 7:07 am ET

OKUMA, Japan – Two reactor buildings once painted in a cheery sky blue loom over the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Their roofs are blasted away, their crumbled concrete walls reduced to steel frames.

In their shadow, plumbers, electricians and truck drivers, sometimes numbering in the thousands, go dutifully about their work, all clad from head to toe in white hazmat suits. Their job — cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl — will take decades to complete.

Reporters, also in radiation suits, visited the ravaged facility Saturday for the first time since Japan's worst tsunami in centuries swamped the plant March 11, causing reactor explosions and meltdowns and turning hundreds of square miles (kilometers) of countryside into a no man's land.

Eight months later, the plant remains a shambles. Mangled trucks, flipped over by the power of the wave, still clutter its access roads. Rubble remains strewn where it fell. Pools of water cover parts of the once immaculate campus.

Tens of thousands of the plant's former neighbors may never be able to go home. And just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki become icons of the horrors of nuclear weapons, Fukushima has become the new rallying cry of the global anti-nuclear energy movement.

Yet this picture is one of progress, Japanese officials say. It has taken this long to make the plant stable enough to allow Saturday's tour, which included representatives of the Japanese and international media — including The Associated Press. Officials expect to complete an early but important step toward cleaning up the accident by the end of the year.

"I think it's remarkable that we've come this far," Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, Japan's chief nuclear crisis response official, said before leading the tour. "The situation at the beginning was extremely severe. At least we can say we have overcome the worst."

The group was taken through the center of the facility, a once-neat row of reactor buildings that are now shells of shattered walls and steel frames. Journalists were then briefed inside the plant's emergency operations center, a spacious, bunker-like structure where it is safe to remove the heavy protective gear required outdoors.

Woefully unprepared for the wave that swept over its breakwater, the plant just 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo was doomed almost from the start.

"During the first week of the accident, I thought several times that we were all going to die," plant chief Masao Yoshida said.

At the height of the crisis, all but a few dozen workers — dubbed the "Fukushima 50" — were evacuated. Officials boast that number is now up to as many as 3,000 a day, compared with the pre-crisis work force of 6,400.

Evidence of the tremendous man-hours already invested in the cleanup is piling up in the workers' staging area, on the edge of the 12-mile (20-kilometer) no-go zone around the plant. More than 480,000 sets of used protective gear — which can be worn only once — lie in crates or plastic bags at the complex, which before the tsunami was a training facility for national-level soccer teams.

Kazuo Okawa, 56, who worked at Fukushima for 20 years, was called back to join an emergency crew for several days in April. His team wore three layers of gloves, full-face masks, double-layer Tyvek protective coveralls, rubber boots with plastic covers and plastic head covers. They carried personal Geiger counters.

"Obviously, it was very dangerous at that time," he recalled during a recent visit to Tokyo. "Luckily, we got out without experiencing any life-threatening situations."

Workers like Okawa — in Chernobyl they were called "liquidators" — have restored the plant's supply of electricity, set up elaborate cooling and drainage systems, rebuilt crumbled walls and erected a huge tent to cover one of the worst-hit reactors, cutting the amount of radioactivity leaking into the surrounding environment.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, says it will achieve a "cold shutdown" by the end of the year — a first step toward creating a stable enough environment for work to proceed on removing the reactors' nuclear fuel and closing the plant altogether.

But that is by no means the end of the story.

A preliminary government report released this month predicted it will take 30 years or more to safely decommission Fukushima Dai-ichi. Like Chernobyl, it will probably be encased in a concrete and steel "sarcophagus."

Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear physicist at Kyoto University, said he doubts the decommissioning process will go as smoothly as the government hopes. He said pools for spent fuel remain highly volatile, and cleaning up the three reactor cores that melted through their innermost chambers will be a massive challenge.

"Nobody knows where exactly the fuel is, or in what condition," he said. "The reactors will have to be entombed in a sarcophagus, with metal plates inserted underneath to keep it watertight. But within 25 to 30 years, when the cement starts decaying, that will have to be entombed in another layer of cement. It's just like Russian Matryoshka dolls, one inside the other."

The no-go zone around the plant will likely be in effect for years, if not decades, to come. Officials reluctantly admit that tens of thousands of evacuated residents may never be able to return home.

Recent studies suggest that Japan continues to significantly underestimate the scale of the disaster — which could have health and safety implications far into the future.

According to a study led by Andreas Stohl the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, twice as much radioactive cesium-137 — a cancer-causing agent — was pumped into the atmosphere than Japan had announced, reaching 40 percent of the total from Chernobyl. The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety found that 30 times more cesium-137 was released into the Pacific than the plant's owner has owned up to.

"We have not studied the content of their research, and are not in a position to respond," said Hiroki Kawamata, a TEPCO spokesman. "We have no plans at this point to modify our estimates."

Before the crisis, resource-poor Japan relied on nuclear power for about one-third of its electricity. It was planning to boost that share to 50 percent by 2030.

Without nuclear, Japan will have to import more fossil fuels, cutting its potential GDP by 1.2 percent and costing 7.2 trillion yen ($94 billion) annually, according to an estimate by the Japan Center for Economic Research.

But public support for nuclear power — and the trust that the industry is built on — has plummeted.

Tens of thousands of Japanese have turned out in protest. Suspicious of government and TEPCO reassurances, grassroots groups are scouring the country with radiation detectors. Several "hot spots" in and around Tokyo are now being investigated by the authorities.

Because of the outcry, Japan has essentially abandoned its long-term goal of expanding nuclear energy production. The status of even its existing plants is murky.

Currently, 43 of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are shut down, either because of mechanical problems or routine inspections, which must be conducted every 13 months. Local approval is required to restart nuclear power plants, even after routine inspections, and local leaders fearing repercussions at the polls have been loath to provide it.

TEPCO announced two weeks ago there will be enough power to see the country through the winter, but after that, the effect of the nuclear crisis on electricity production could become even more acute. If political resistance remains as high as it is now, every nuclear reactor in Japan could be offline by May.

___

Talmadge reported from Hirono. APTN producer Miki Toda, at the plant, and writer Mari Yamaguchi, in Tokyo, contributed to this story.


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Joplin tornado death toll revised down to 161 (Reuters)

KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) – The death toll from the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Missouri has been revised down to 161 with the discovery that one assumed victim died of other causes.

The city said in a statement that Kenneth J. Henson, a resident of Ottawa County, Oklahoma, did not die in the tornado. Jasper County Coroner Rob Chappel discovered the error while he was helping other officials compile a list of tornado victims for a six-month memorial service, the city said.

"Through this recent review, we are confident that the current list of 161 is accurate," the city said. The city gave no explanation for the Henson mix-up, and Chappel could not be immediately reached for comment Saturday.

The tornado, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, destroyed some 900 homes and other buildings. The death toll grew over several months as people died of their lingering injuries.

(Editing by Greg McCune)


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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surviving Tornado Storms of the Southeast (ContributorNetwork)

LAGRANGE, Ga. -- A series of tornados blasted through the Southeast yesterday afternoon, killing several people, destroying hundreds of homes and buildings throughout Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. As my fellow professors and college students huddled in the hallway, a similar event happened at the school my wife teaches at and daughter attends, and another where my son goes to pre-kindergarten.

The wisdom of such emergency procedures became clear, as a tornado slammed through the high school in the county immediately south of us, shutting down the place for at least the rest of the week.

As disruptive as yesterday's twisters were, they were nothing compared to the horrific storms of April 28, 2011, where hundreds died across the Southeast in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Calculations I did for Southern Political Report found that if that storm system was classified as a "land hurricane," it would be the third deadliest storm in the U.S. since World War II.

A few weeks earlier than that, I was presenting a paper in Birmingham when the tornado sirens went off. I was flattered that folks moved away from the windows, but stayed to listen to me finish the talk. We later found out that dozens of people died in that Southeast storm system.

Now folks down here are taking things more seriously, like having a plan for where to go. Our kids know to run to the hallway, where we huddled throughout the night of April 28.

But are these plans enough? In the film "Twister," the problem is treated as one of needing an "earlier warning," as if 15 more minutes would make a different. But most Southerners knew the storm was going to hit, hours before it arrived.

Having an emergency plan is nice, but folks down here know where to go to in the house when a warning siren or Weather Channel issues an alert. Yet when a mile-wide tornado slams into Tuscaloosa homes, or the giant twisters reduces homes and hotels to a pile of rubble, there's nowhere to hide.

How is it that what was once called "Tornado Alley," (the Midwest) are seeing just as many tornados, but "Dixie Alley" is seeing twister deaths skyrocket? Grady Dixon of Mississippi State University found that tornados in the Southeast stay on the ground longer. USA Today ran Dixon's story two days before devastating tornado storm system.

There's another problem "Dixie Alley" residents face. Hardly any have storm shelters, while Tornado Alley is rife with them. If the U.S. government wants to help the region, and the economy, they need to get homebuilders to switch to building storm shelters. Otherwise, the region will see more deaths from these powerful twisters.


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Thailand flooding damages its ancient capital (AP)

By DENIS D. GRAY, Associated Press Denis D. Gray, Associated Press – Sun Nov 13, 9:34 am ET

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Water fowl, monitor lizards and stray dogs have replaced the throngs of tourists at one of Thailand's greatest historical sites. Record flooding has turned Ayutthaya's ancient temples into islands, and a giant statue of the reclining Buddha appears to float miraculously on the lapping water.

Experts fear that at least half of the more than 200 waterlogged monasteries, fortresses and other monuments in the one-time royal capital have been damaged.

"Imagine a thousand tons of brick and stone resting on soft foundations, with no modern-style pilings. We are very worried," said Chaiyanand Busayarat, director of the Ayutthaya Historic Park.

And as floodwaters recede, some experts are proposing a radical change to prevent similar disasters in the future: Turn back the clock about four centuries to emulate the city's urban planners and engineers of that time.

"We can't prevent flooding so we have to learn to live with water again, like those who created Ayutthaya. Let's take out the old city maps," said Anek Sihamat, deputy director-general of the Thai government's Fine Arts Department.

He recommended digging up old canals that have been paved over for roads and curbing the urban sprawl and industrial parks that block the natural runoff of water.

Capital of a powerful state for 417 years, seat of 33 kings, Ayutthaya has been described as one of the greatest cities on water ever, with a canal network that measured more than 85 miles (140 kilometers). Built on the flood plain of central Thailand at the confluence of three rivers, it was inundated annually, but its citizens lived in stilt-raised houses and used boats for transport.

Water also defended Ayutthaya, which once held as many as 1 million residents, until a brutal sacking by the Burmese in 1767 forced relocation of the capital to Bangkok, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south — where the same floodwaters that inundated Ayutthaya are now nearing the inner city.

The surge of water from the northern highlands, which began in late July and has killed more than 520 people, is the worst since the 1940s, although Ayutthaya experiences flooding almost every monsoon season.

In coming weeks, experts will assess damage and determine what will be needed to revive and protect the city, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991.

Advisers from Venice and the Netherlands, two places that have grappled with the challenges of watery environments, are prepared to come, while several countries, including Germany and Japan, have provided or promised funds. Anek, the Fine Arts official, estimated that some $20 million will be needed.

"Clearly what we hope for from this experience will be a more solid, more thorough flood mitigation plan," said Tim Curtis, head of the culture unit at UNESCO's regional office in Bangkok.

He said that Amsterdam's 19th-century water-based defense line — another World Heritage site — and Venice may be used as models.

Witthaya Pewpong, the Ayutthaya provincial governor, said a dam has been proposed to shield the historic area while flooding would be eased by setting aside a large, construction-free area of the nearby countryside to absorb excess water.

Nevertheless, authorities "know that they will have to learn to live with water because it will always be there," said UNESCO cultural expert Montira Horayangura Unakul. As such, urban planning should be consistent with Ayutthaya's design as a city of water, she said.

To date, Ayutthaya has not scored well on the urban management front. The city of 82,000 people is mushrooming helter-skelter and has bid to host World Expo 2020. Four years ago, amid concern in Thailand that UNESCO might take the city off its list, one Bangkok newspaper wrote that the city was destroyed twice, "first by invading Burmese, and now by greedy and insensitive Thais."

Adding to its watery woes, said Curtis, are problems common to heritage sites: the looting of artifacts, inadequate waste disposal, corrosive vehicle fumes, ugly and inappropriate new construction and mass tourism.

There's also a running battle between heritage and municipal authorities, often allied with business interests.

The Fine Arts Department controls development in the core historic area of some 1.2 square miles (3 square kilometers), where no structures more than 26 feet (8 meters) are permitted. However, it exercises little power in outlying zones, which include numerous important monuments and where modern buildings have sprouted next to graceful relics of the past.

Most immediately, however, heritage authorities are focused on the floods.

With water up to 10 feet (3 meters) high flooding the area for weeks, there is concern that the foundations of larger structures may have been undermined, and bricks, plasterwork and murals damaged. Visitor facilities and once grassy areas emerging as a sea of mud will need to be restored at what is one of the country's top tourist destinations.

Also worrisome is salt residue that seeps up with the groundwater, causing damage to monuments.

Park director Chaiyanand said the stupas, or Buddhist reliquary, in Ayutthaya were built with an outer core of brick. The hollow portions inside were filled with sand. When the floods came, the water was absorbed upward into this inner chamber of sand, which became heavier. He fears the weight could cause cracks of the outer brick shell.

Water that is hard to detect and remove may also remain within walls after the floodwaters recede. Chaiyanand said he was particularly concerned about the bricks that were the key building blocks of old Ayutthaya.

"They're like crackers," he said, noting the mossy, water-stained bricks at the base of a stupa at the 15th-century Phra Srisanphet monastery. "When soaked they become easy to break."


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The nation's weather (AP)

By WEATHER UNDERGROUND, For The Associated Press Weather Underground, For The Associated Press – Sun Nov 20, 4:51 am ET

A cold front will bring rain and snow to the Great Lakes and Midwest, with showers and thunderstorms developing across the South.

A low pressure area and associated cold front will move quickly eastward from the upper Midwest into the Great Lakes and the Northeast. The system will continue to push a cold front eastward, spreading down the Ohio River Valley and the Tennessee Valley into the lower Mississippi River region Sunday.

This system will draw ample moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, allowing scattered showers and thunderstorms to develop from the Tennessee Valley to the lower Mississippi River. Some storms may turn severe with strong winds, hail and heavy rains. In the North, most of the Midwest, Northeast, and Great Lakes will see rain showers. Downwind shores of the Great Lakes may see some lake effect snow showers.

Out West, a low pressure system heading down the West Coast will turn southeastward, pushing a cold front onshore. This moisture-laden system will be capable of producing some heavy rains with heavy snow in the Sierras. Rainfall totals will range from a half of an inch to an inch, while snowfall totals will range from 2 to 4 inches and up to 8 inches at the highest elevations. Elsewhere, the Pacific Northwest as well as the northern and central Rockies will dry out as a higher pressure area sets in.

Temperatures in the lower 48 states ranged Saturday from a morning low of -9 degrees at Lewistown, Mont., to a high of 93 degrees at Alice, Texas.

___

Online:

Weather Underground: http://www.wunderground.com

National Weather Service: http://iwin.nws.noaa.gov

Intellicast: http://www.intellicast.com


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Death toll from Joplin tornado reduced to 161 (AP)

JOPLIN, Mo. – Officials say the death toll from Joplin's May 22 tornado has fallen to 161, with the discovery that an Oklahoma man was included by mistake.

The city of Joplin said Friday the Jasper County coroner has determined that 56-year-old Kenneth James Henson did not die of tornado-related causes. Coroner Rob Chappel (CHAP'-uhl) told The Joplin Globe that Henson, initially listed as a Joplin resident, was from the northeastern Oklahoma city of Miami and died there May 28 of natural causes.

Chappel said the mistake was discovered during a review of names for a six-month memorial service being held Nov. 22.

Chappel was the sole designated official in charge of compiling the victims list following the tornado. He did not know how Henson's name had been included.

___

Information from: The Joplin Globe, http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/ap/ap_on_re_us/storytext/us_joplin_tornado_death_toll/43576828/SIG=10s8q01al/*http://www.joplinglobe.com


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Japan allows partial glimpse inside crippled nuclear plant (Reuters)

TOKYO (Reuters) – Conditions at Japan's wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant, devastated by a tsunami in March, were slowly improving to the point where a "cold shutdown" would be possible as planned, officials said on Saturday during a tour of the facility.

Officials shepherded a group of about 30 mainly Japanese journalists through the plant for the first time since the meltdown of the plant's reactors, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

Cooling systems at the plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, were knocked out by the powerful tsunami and evidence of the devastation was clear to see.

The nuclear reactor buildings were still surrounded by crumpled trucks, twisted metal fences, and large, dented water tanks. Smaller office buildings around the reactors were left as they were abandoned on March 11, when the tsunami hit.

Cranes filled the skyline in testimony to recovery efforts.

Journalists on the tour mainly stayed on a bus as they were driven around the plant and were not allowed near the reactor buildings. Still, they all had to wear protective suits, double layers of gloves and plastic boot covers and hair nets.

All carried respiration masks and radiation detectors.

"From the data at the plant that I have seen, there is no doubt that the reactors have been stabilized," Masao Yoshida, chief of the Daiichi plant, told the group.

The compound may still be littered with rubble, but Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the utility operating the plant, has succeeded in bringing down the temperatures at the three damaged reactors from levels considered dangerous.

They are confident they will be able to declare a "cold shutdown" -- when temperatures are stable below boiling point -- as scheduled by the end of this year.

While Tepco had managed to stabilize conditions so workers could enter the reactor buildings, Yoshida said there was still danger involved for those working there.

The disaster prompted the government to declare a 20 km (12 miles) no-entry zone around the plant, forcing the evacuation of about 80,000 residents.

A cold shutdown is one of the conditions that must be met before the government considers lifting its entry ban.

As an emergency measure early in the crisis, Tepco tried to cool the damaged reactors by pumping in huge volumes of water, much of it from the sea, only to leave a vast amount of tainted runoff that threatened to leak out into the ocean.

It solved the problem by building a cooling system to clean the radioactive runoff, using some of the water to cool the reactors.

A group of white tents houses the cleaning facility. In front were hoisted the flags of the United States, France and Japan -- the countries that provided the technology for the decontamination system.

"Every time I come back, I feel conditions have improved. This is due to your hard work ," Japan's environment and nuclear crisis minister Goshi Hosono told workers at the plant.

However, Hosono warned it would still take about 30 years to dismantle the reactors after a cold shutdown was achieved.

Workers engaged in the recovery effort are stationed at J-Village, a national soccer training center near Daiichi that has been converted into an operational base.

Tepco says up to 3,300 workers a day arrive from J-Village, located on the edge of the 20 km no-entry zone.

At J-Village, workers on their way to the plant lined up at a white tent to change into protective gear. Every day when they return, the workers discard their protective clothing, which is treated as radioactive waste and stored.

A Tepco guide said every piece of discarded clothing has been kept there since March 17, about 480,000 sets heaped in large piles or put in bed-sized containers and stacked in rows.

(Reporting by a pool reporter representing foreign media in Japan; Writing by Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Paul Tait)


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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Barry Manilow gives $300,000 in instruments to Joplin (Reuters)

KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) – Students and staff Friday were unpacking three truckloads of new musical instruments that singer Barry Manilow donated to tornado-ravaged schools in Joplin, Missouri.

Manilow presented the instruments, valued at $300,000, to a gathering of Joplin music students on Thursday. The instruments will help replenish ones lost on May 22 when an EF-5 tornado swept through Joplin, destroying the high school and several other school buildings.

"We are just thrilled, he is such a nice person," Rick Castor, director of the Joplin High School band, said Friday. "It was just like Christmas. We opened a few of the things last night and today."

The donation includes a concert grand piano that will be placed on the stage of the temporary, and then the new auditorium, Castor said. The schools also got six new upright pianos, along with brass, string and other instruments, to replace ones that were destroyed, he said.

The instruments come from the Manilow Music Project, which for six years has helped schools that suffered cuts to music programs. Manilow is also helping with a local drive to get used instruments donated to the Joplin schools and to raise money to replace sheet music lost in the tornado.

The tornado killed 162 people.

"I know first-hand how invaluable music can be to get you through life's tough times," Manilow said in a statement. "It is an honor and a privilege to help these kids after such a disaster."

Manilow, 68, had his biggest success in the 1970s but has remained a popular touring artist for years. Castor said his students had not heard of Manilow and were surprised when he told them he is among the top-selling singer-songwriters of all time.

In speaking to the students Thursday, Manilow quipped that "back in the 1970s, I was Justin Bieber," according to The Joplin Globe.

(Writing and reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)


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Pope offers prayers to flood victims (AP)

MILAN – Pope Benedict XVI called Genoa's cardinal on Saturday to express his solidarity with the people of the port city where torrential floods have killed at least six people.

A state of alarm was in effect in several areas of Italy's western coastal region of Liguria, a day after rains lashed it and Genoa, causing flash floods that broke the banks of at least two rivers. Four women and two children were killed.

The pope shared his "prayers for the victims, and all the people hit by the disaster," in a telephone call to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the news agency ANSA reported.

Bagnasco visited the quarter hardest hit by the foods, telling residents: "The pain is great, but now it is time to roll up the sleeves."

Earlier, Premier Silvio Berlusconi blamed improper construction for preventing proper runoff for the rapid devastation.

"It is evident that there was construction where there shouldn't have been, but perhaps there can be interventions to prevent a repeat of these disasters," Berlusconi said in a statement. "It is terrible to watch helplessly on TV the drama in Genoa, that has involved so many people."

Genoa's mayor, Marta Vicenzi, has been criticized for allowing schools to be open on Friday. An 18-year-old girl died with her brother when she went to pick him up from school for her mother, who was at work, according to Italian news reports.

Vicenzi defended her decision in an interview with the Rome daily La Repubblica, saying she did not want to create chaos and that open schools gave parents the possibility to identify shelter.

Another round of flooding in the Cinque Terre region of Liguria and neighboring Tuscany left at least nine dead in late October.


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The nation's weather (AP)

New York's weirdest weather: 2011 and through history (ContributorNetwork)

Anything can happen in New York and usually does. We don't just have strange people - even our weather is strange. We have had earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and heat waves in New York City in 2011, and the year isn't over yet.

Earthquakes

Forget California, we have earthquakes, too. This summer, an earthquake that traveled the length and breadth of the East Coast and damaged the Washington Monument in D.C. But that wasn't the first time NYC experienced tremors. There have also been rumblings from time to time along a fault line that runs down 125th Street in Harlem. By the way, our Indian Point nuclear plant is sited not far from the Ramapo Fault. Earthquake junkies can observe real-time reports on a map in the New York Museum of Natural History.

Hurricanes in the city

Then, there are the hurricanes. Remember Irene? Probably the most well-covered storm in New York City history, it left a swath of destruction in its path, uprooting venerable trees and flooding roadways and rivers throughout the area, but as storms go, it was far from the worst. That honor probably belongs to the Long Island Express of 1938, which carved out Shinnecock Inlet in Long Island and widened Moriches Inlet. This one storm permanently altered the shape of Long Island.

A Christmas blizzard

Have a holly, jolly Christmas. And don't forget to bring a shovel when you visit our fair city. An stealth blizzard blanketed the New York City last Christmas. With the mayor out of town and city officials caught flat-footed, the Christmas storm dumped 20 inches of snow in Central Park over 17 hours. Snow drifts as high as 5 feet covered cars, and traffic came to a standstill. Who was dreaming of a white Christmas? Maybe the lawyers. There were hearings galore and lots of finger-pointing. If you want to get a jump on the next blizzard, consult the good folks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A year with no summer

After 2011's notoriously brutal summer featuring 106-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures, a year without a summer has a certain appeal. Thanks to Tamboro Volcano that erupted east of Java in 1815, the summer of 1816 never arrived. Dust from the massive volcano blackened the skies and brought on a chill that killed crops throughout the entire northeastern United States. The corn crop was ruined and orchards devastated. Food prices in New York City markets skyrocketed.

Absolute Astronomy says that temperatures of 26 below zero Fahrenheit in the winter of 1817 froze the waters of New York's Upper Bay and made it possible for horses to travel across the ice from Brooklyn's Buttermilk Channel to Governor's Island. It's enough to make this year's mind-numbing heat look good by comparison.

Clouds of cicadas

So, what's still to come after the harrowing weather of 2011, which featured blizzards, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and heat waves? Why, plagues of locusts, of course. The New York City area hosts massive broods of "locusts" - actually periodical cicadas - that show up en masse every 13 or 17 years, depending on the variety. According to Cicada Mania, the next outbreak of 17-year "locusts" will be brood VII dropping by in 2018.

There you have it, folks: earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, heat waves, and an upcoming plague of locusts. Welcome to the Big Apple!

Mary Finn, a native New Yorker, offers a unique perspective on the city of New York.


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NASA launches latest Earth-observing satellite (AP)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – After a years-long delay, an Earth-observing satellite blasted into space early Friday on a dual mission to improve weather forecasts and monitor climate change.

A Delta 2 rocket carrying the NASA satellite lifted off shortly before 3 a.m. from the central California coast. The satellite separated from the rocket about an hour after launching, unfurled its solar panels and headed toward an orbit 500 miles above Earth.

NASA invited a small group of Twitter followers to watch the pre-dawn launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where weather conditions were ideal. Skies were clear and there was little wind.

"It was a thrill to watch the bird go up this morning in the beautiful clear night sky with the stars out there," Mary Glackin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said at a post-launch news conference.

The satellite joins a fleet already circling the planet, collecting information about the atmosphere, oceans and land. The latest — about the size of a small SUV — is more advanced and carries four new instruments capable of making more precise observations.

Mission project scientist Jim Gleason said he could not wait for the data to "start flowing." NOAA meteorologists planned to use the information to improve their forecasts of hurricanes and other extreme weather while climate researchers hope to gain a better understanding of long-term climate shifts.

Besides collecting weather information, the satellite will track changes in the ozone, volcanic ash, wildfires and Arctic sea ice.

Many satellites currently in orbit are aging and will need to be replaced. The newest satellite is intended to be a bridge between the current fleet and a new generation that NASA is developing for NOAA.

The $1.5 billion mission's path to the launch pad has been rocky. It was part of a bigger civilian-military satellite program that the White House axed last year because of cost overruns. The satellite was originally scheduled to fly in 2006, but problems during development of several instruments led to a delay.

Engineers will spend some time checking out the satellite's instruments before science operations begin. Built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., the satellite is expected to orbit the Earth for five years.


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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thousands remain without power week after October snowstorm (Reuters)

BOSTON (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of homes remained in the dark on Sunday a week after a historic snowstorm paralyzed the Northeast and cut power to more than three million customers.

In Connecticut, more than 112,000 Connecticut Light & Power customers were still in the dark.

Governor Dannel Malloy said the power company was not going to meet its goal of 99 percent restoration in each city and town by midnight on Sunday.

Malloy has called for an investigation into the massive and lengthy power outages that peaked at more than 830,000 customers statewide without heat and electricity during the monster October snowstorm.

"As soon as everyone's lights are back on, we need to have a very timely, thorough review of the power companies' performances, to identify what went wrong, why it went wrong, and most importantly identify solutions for the short-term before the next winter storm impacts Connecticut," said Malloy in a statement.

The deadly snowstorm that barreled through the Northeast last weekend and dumped more than two feet of snow in parts of the region has been blamed for well over a dozen deaths.

In Masssachusetts, where about 11,000 customers remained in the dark, Attorney General Martha Coakley has also called for a formal investigation of the power companies' restoration efforts.

A couple thousand customers were still without power in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Power restoration crews were aided by dry and sunny weather over the weekend expected to continue into the upcoming week.

Temperatures across the Northeast were forecast to climb into the 60s by Tuesday, according to AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Tom Kines.

Some areas may reach 70 degrees on Tuesday or Wednesday, possibly challenging record highs, he said.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)


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Does October Snow Signal A Wild Winter Ahead? (LiveScience.com)

Between a second impending snowstorm in Denver and last weekend's 'Snowtober' storm in the Northeast, there's been a lot of early show across the United States. With so much snow so soon, it may seem like we're in for a long, snowy winter. But don't panic yet, weather forecasters say.

"There's no correlation or patterns that we're aware of that correlate October snow storms and how brutal a winter will be," said Carl Erickson, meteorologist with AccuWeather.

Erickson said this winter's forecast shows the main storm track focusing more to the west than last season. The big cities along the I-95 corridor should see a fairly typical winter, with a few big snow events, but nothing like two years ago where the East Coast had big snowstorms every few weeks. This year the Great Lakes region, including Chicago and much of Indiana will see the heavy snows.

Unfortunately, the Southwest and Southern Plains aren't likely to see any relief from the extreme drought conditions they have experienced this year, with warmer and drier than normal conditions expected to continue through the winter.

As a result of the Snowtober storm, more than 2 million people lost power and the storm has been blamed for at least 13 deaths. New York City set an October snow record with 2.9 inches (7.4 centimeters) accumulating, and towns in western Massachusetts piled up more than 30 inches (76 cm) of snow.

The historic nor'easter was the remnants of a storm that brought an October snow oddity to Denver earlier last week. The city went from a record daily high of 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) to several inches of snow in 24 hours.

For the Frontal Range, the October snow, as wild of a weather swing as it was, isn't all that unusual, said Matthew Kelsch, a hydrometeorologist at the University Corp. of Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo.

And that wild weather swing that is repeating today.

"Now we're seeing much of the east quieting down and more activity firing up across the Rockies," Erickson told OurAmazingPlanet.

The latest storm is already moving through the region today (Nov. 1). Snow is starting to accumulate in Wyoming and a blizzard warning has been issued for the south side of Denver tonight. The temperature was 74 F (23 C) yesterday and now the region is expecting 10 inches (25 cm)of snow. [The Snowiest Places on Earth]

"That's the continental climate for you," Kelsch said.

You can follow OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel on Twitter: @btisrael. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.


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Extreme weather in the Bay Area through the years (ContributorNetwork)

On the West Coast, San Francisco Bay Area residents enjoy mild days with temperatures in the 60s and 70s. We aren't always this lucky, however. Records show more than 60 years of bad weather for Bay Area residents, including droughts, floods, tornadoes, and snowstorms.

Bay Area drought

Many remember a few short years ago when the Bay Area had one of the worst single drought years on record. The 2009 drought caused unprecedented water rationing with reservoir levels at all-time lows.

Other drought years include:

- 1975-1977: 1976 was recorded by the California Department of Water Resources as "one of the driest years on record." The drought then continued into 1977. This drought had significant impacts on agriculture, recreation, and rangeland herds.

- 1987-1993: This longest-running drought was the most severe in California history. The drought actually began breaking in December of 1992. It was officially declared "over" when flooding from December 1992 to February 1993 brought almost 200 percnet of annual rainfall, according to a 1993 report by the California Department of Water Resources.

Bay Area floods

The California Office of Emergency Services recorded many significant years of heavy rainfall and flooding between 1950 and 2010. Two of the most deadly were reported in 1955 and 1969, when a combined total of 121 lives were lost.

Other significant floods reported:

- 1982-1983: This was the year of El Nino. The flood caused levee failure in several northern counties.

- 1992-1993: Severe flooding preceded a drought.

- 1995 to 1996: These years brought heavy winter storms and unprecedented damages. 1995 alone cost nearly $2 billion in damage.

- 1997: Another El Nino year. This flood year cost $1.8 billion.

- 1998: Flooding continues, costing $550 million.

Tornadoes hit the Bay Area

Of the 379 California tornadoes recorded by The Tornado History Project between 1951 and 2010, 17 appeared in seven of the nine counties in the Bay Area. During that time, Napa and San Francisco County remained unaffected until 2011. San Francisco County's historic tornado clocked in as No. 18 in the Bay Area.

Other tornadoes recorded:

- 1958: The California tornado with the longest path during 1951-2010 started near Bodega Bay and ran 15 miles towards Santa Rosa.

- 1998: An F-2 tornado in Sunnyvale "was the first anticyclonic supercell and anticyclonic tornado to be documented with the WSR-88D NEXRAD radar," according to USA Today.

- 2011: An EF 1 tornado touched down in Santa Rosa, leaving a block-long debris trail and demolishing the roof of a local business. That same day, a waterspout was recorded off Ocean Beach.

Snowstorms in the Bay Area

While snow is a rare event at sea level in the Bay Area, we've had a few decent storms over the years. Snowstorms in the Bay Area have been recorded as early as 1882.

Other snowstorms include:

- 1951: Based on photos, this snowstorm appeared to be the "heaviest of the 20th century in San Francisco," according to SFGate.

- 1962: A snowstorm closed local schools and roads. "I remember we got out of school and spent the day playing in the snow," recalled Brian Wrede, a student in 1962 at Noddin Elementary in San Jose.

- 1976: A freak snowstorm hits the Bay Area, closing local roads and schools.

- 2011: We all remember last year when freezing temperatures and a light sprinkling of snow fell in the Bay Area, including Morgan Hill and Gilroy. It melted quickly, however, and wasn't enough to make a snowball.


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Possible new "fission" found at Japan's wrecked nuclear plant (Reuters)

TOKYO (Reuters) – The operator of tsunami-hit nuclear power plant in Japan said on Wednesday it had found substances in a reactor which could be a result of nuclear fission, a possible setback in efforts to bring the plant to a safe, cold shutdown this year.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March and has released radiation into the atmosphere ever since.

Tokyo Electric Power said that it discovered xenon, a substance produced as a byproduct of fission from the No 2 reactor, and had poured in a mixture of water and boric acid, an agent that helps prevent nuclear reactions, as a precaution.

"It can be assumed that isolated criticality took place for a short period of time judging from the presence of xenon," Tepco spokesman Junichi Matsumoto told reporters.

Criticality is a state when controlled nuclear reactions take place and nuclear power plants harness the resulting heat to produce electricity.

The amount of detected xenon was small and the nuclear fuel in the No 2 reactor is unlikely to have melted down again, Tepco said. The fuel in the No 2 reactor, along with two other reactors, had melted down early in the crisis after the tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling system triggering the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

Analysts said there was minimal risk of further radiation.

Kazuhiko Kudo, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu University, suggested two possibilities.

"Some of the lumps of fuel that melted off early in the accident may have caused the nuclear fission. I would not rule it out completely but this possibility is highly unlikely as many elements, like temperature and the amount water, have to be at a right balance for fission to occur."

The other possibility, Kudo said, was tiny radioactive elements produced by the nuclear reaction early in the crisis colliding and moving neutrons inside the reactor, in turn causing the neutrons to collide and split uranium, causing tiny nuclear fissions.

"The initiating amount in this case is so small that any nuclear fissions would not leave a significant impact," Kudo said.

Tepco said temperature and pressure at the No 2 reactor remained stable.

Through various cooling efforts the utility has succeeded in bringing down the temperatures at the three damaged reactors from levels considered dangerous and hopes to declare a cold shutdown -- when temperatures are stable below boiling point -- this year.

Tepco said in October that the amount of radiation being emitted from the complex had halved from a month earlier, in the latest sign that efforts to bring the facility under control are progressing.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Nick Macfie)


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