NATURE'S FURY Topic Experts

FLL Expert Panel

Thank you for participating in our online expert panel. Posted below are a selection of questions from teams with answers from our experts. The last update of this page has been on November 5, 2013.

  • Be sure to browse through all the experts as some questions have been re-assigned. Duplicate questions have been omitted, so even if your exact question is not listed here, you still might be able to find the answer.
  • Please know that although the experts are knowledgable we expect teams to use multiple sources. This resource (the expert panel) is no way related to or has an influence on the judging at the tournaments.
  • Unfortunally we can not take any new questions. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact 

Meet the experts!
Expert Topics Expert Topics
Faith Faith Borden
Warning Coordination Meteorologist
National Weather Service Charleston, WV
Weather forecast
Public information
Severe weather
Mike Mike Callahan
Senior Service Hydrologist
NOAA National Weather Service,  Louisville, KY
Flood prediction
Flood safety
Tina Tina Comes
Associate Professor Centre for Integrated Emergency Management
Department of ICT, University of Agder, Norway
Logistics and Distrubution
Decision making
Critical Infrastructures
Tanja Tanja Fransen
Warning Coordination Meteorologist
NOAA National Weather Service, Glasgow Weather Forecast Office
Severe Storms
Winter Weather
John John Jensenius (Dr. Lightning)
Warning Coordination Meteorologist/Lightning Safety Specialist
NOAA National Weather Service, Gray/Portland Weather Forecast Office
Severe Storms
Vera Vera Kreuwels
Humanitarian response team, Technical Advisor Shelter and Settlements,
CRS, based out of The Hague, the Netherlands, working all over the world
Community planning
(Temporary) housing
Safe construction
Rocky Rocky Lopes
Manager, NOAA Tsunami Mitigation and Education
Syneren Technologies Corporation (NOAA/NWS Contractor)
Community Emergency Planning
Community Disaster Education
Patrick Patrick Meier
Director of Social Innovation for Next generation humantarian technologies
Qatar Foundiation's Computing Research Institute (QRCI), 
Crisis Information Technology
Digital Volunteers
Early warning systems
Robert Robert Molleda
Warning Coordination Meteorologist
NOAA National Weather Service, Miami Weather Forecast Office
Coastal Storm Surge
Sjaak Sjaak Seen
Teamleader United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC)
Rotterdam, Netherlands (base), working all over the world
Search & Rescue
(Damage) Assesment
Thomas Thomas W. Richardson
Deputy Director, Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence
Department of Homeland Security, Jackson State University
Coastal hazards
Hydraulic Engeering
Chris Chris Weeks
Director of Humanitarian Affairs
DHL/DPWN, Brussels, Belgium (base), working all over the world
(Airport) Logistics
Relief supplies
Early response
Jan-Willem Jan-Willem Wegdam
Shelter Expert, Disaster Response and Disaster Risk Reduction Department
CORDAID. The Hague, The Netherlands
Community reconstruction
Craig Craig Williams
Information Manager and Early responder

United Nation's OCHA, Geneva, Switzerland (base), working all over the world
(Large) Disaster Management

Faith Borden
Warning Coordination MeteorologistFaith
National Weather Service Charleston, WV

As a WCM at a local NWS forecast office, I act as the liaison between external and internal NWS core partners, the general public, and the forecast office. My duties include working closely with key partners such as: Emergency Management, First responders, Educators, and the General Public to spread the word about weather, and weather safety. When not filling in for a forecast shift, I spends time working and visiting with partners, preparing and presenting weather and safety presentations, and manning booths at local, state, and national events and fairs relating to the National Weather’s Mission of Protecting Life and Property. I have a wealth of knowledge about weather disasters, preparedness, and recovery. I have worked in six different offices over my career ranging from Miami, FL to Anchorage, AK. This has allowed me the opportunity to experience and forecast multiple weather phenomena including: hurricanes, river/flash flood, winter weather, fire weather, and all types of severe weather.

Topic: Weather forecast, Public information, Severe weather


Do you think that stand by or back up generators might be a good solution to the problem of getting electricity back up and running during mass power outages after a storm?

Generators are always a good idea, as long as they are used safely.  Even though generators are a good solution, you will have to remember depending upon how long of a power outage occurs generators will need to be refueled at some point in time.  If the power outage is long enough, getting fuels for the generator, and getting the fuel to generator could be an issue.  Generators can also be costly, so a person or organization will have to decide if the benefit will out way the cost in the long run.

Is there such thing as tornado proof.  This would mean a tornado could do no damage to a structure or a building.

As I am not a structural engineer this question is not 100% in my area of expertise.  I did talk with a structural engineer that I know, and he said it is possible to take precautions, but there are no 100% guarantees for a building or structure.  Scientists and engineering have shown that building underground is the safest option.  That is not always possible based on where a person lives.  They could live in a place where the water table is high, or in a place where the bedrock is such that building into it is not really possible.  The next option would be to build a reinforced concrete type bunker.  Most likely this structure would not have any windows and limited door access.  FEMA provides information on safe rooms,  It is always a good idea to have a tornado safety plan, and to understand the difference between a tornado watch and tornado warning.  When a tornado watch is issued, this is the time to make preparations and to pay close attention to the weather.  If you live in a place that is not really safe consider going somewhere else.  Some communities even have community safe rooms.  When a warning is issued that means a tornado has been spotted, or a NWS meteorologist has used Doppler radar signatures to determine a tornado is very possible in that particular thunderstorm.  You should be someplace safe!  Here are some safety tips from the Storm Prediction Center

In the faults in Nevada, which would be most likely to cause the most damage?

Since I am a meteorologist and not a geologist or seismologist, I went to The Nevada Seismological Laboratory for help.  Nevada can experience anywhere from tens to hundreds of earthquakes each year.  Most are not strong enough to be felt.  There are several faults running through Nevada; there are two most likely faults that could cause the most damage in Nevada.  The first one is the Genoa Fault which is in Northern Nevada and runs along the west side up towards Carson City.  Experts have determined that a 7 to 71/4 magnitude earthquake could result from this fault.  This would cause damage based on the size alone, along with the population affected.  Another fault that could cause damage to Nevada is the Death Valley fault.  This fault puts the Las Vegas area at risk, and due to the number of people that live in the area this could cause great damage.  The Seismological Laboratory has a great brochure on their website that provides information on “Living with Earthquakes in Nevada.”

Where has there been a recent volcano eruption?

The USGS has a volcano activity map on their webpage,  You can see any eruptions, or potential eruptions there.

Hello, Our problem is people going missing or being buried as a cause of a tornado.  We would like to know if you have or could direct us to someone who would know the statistics regarding how many people go missing or are buried during a typical tornado in Oklahoma.

This is an interesting question, as I suppose you would get different answers depending upon to whom you asked the question.  This is not really a statistic that is tracked.  As with any natural disaster, immediately following the disaster the number of people presumed missing or dead is often quite high.  What seems to be the case, the people that were presumed to be missing most likely were not in the area during the event, or they have gone somewhere else and did not check in.  This would lead to false high missing numbers.  If you need a more in-depth answer I would suggest contacting the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management or a local Emergency Manager in the state.
Back to the overview

Mike Callahan
Senior Service HydrologistMike
NOAA National Weather Service
Louisville, KY

Mike Callahan, the service hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Louisville, is the National Weather Service's hydrologic expert for central Kentucky and south central Indiana. In addition to monitoring stream levels and issuing flood warnings, he works with communities to help mitigate losses from flooding. Mike also participates in storm survey teams assessing damage from storms to help improve future forecasting. Over a career that spans more than 33 years, Mike also has served as a hydrologist in Harrisburg, PA and a meteorologist in Charleston, WV. He has taught meteorology and geography at the University of Louisville since 1989. His own education includes a B.S. in physics from Indiana University and graduate work in meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and computer science at Marshall University.

Topic: Floods and Flood Prediction


We are looking to design a device that can be set on top of earthen levees and dams. The device may monitor water height, pressure inside the levee / dam, movement inside the levee / dam, and movement above the dam (ground hogs, terrorists, four-wheelers, etc.). First, is there something like this already created? Second, would it be useful to monitor the four above-mentioned items? We specifically don't know if water pressure and internal levee movement are viable conditions to measure?
The Thinkinators | Peoria, IL

Thinkalators, monitoring earthen dams and levees for both potential failure and overflow is an important aspect of considering the vulnerability of downstream communities to flooding. The variables you are proposing to monitor while useful pose a few problems in measurement. Let's look at each parameter:

Water height: I assume you are speaking of water height outside the levee/dam. This device is called a stream gauge and is common. The most popular for quick deployment is a microwave or radar stream gauge. This device shoots a microwave beam to the surface of the water and records the distance to the water surface. Since it shoots a vertical beam, it works well if there is a bridge nearby. If not, a structure would have to be built that hold the gauge over the water.Other methods are in use as well: Monitoring stream height is critical during a flood since it is assumed a levee or earthen dam will fail if overtopped.

Pressure inside: Your correct here as well, the inside water pressure can help evaluate the stability of an earth filled dam. Installation of a monitoring device called a piezometer and are used whenever a dam or levee is questionable for this purpose.

Movement inside: Another great parameter to consider but measurement is not as simple as it sounds because the device must be accurate to a millimeter. Standard GPS is only accurate to around a meter: Thus, these devices are quite expensive since they must communicate with a ground standard to determine their precise location. Using piezometers and inclinometers might be a better use of resources.

Movement outside: It is possible to detect changes in slope on the surface of the levee/dam, using an inclinometer. Any change in slope is a major indicator of a possible failure. Vibrations on the top of the dam are not as useful since many times paths and even roads are found on top of dams/levees.

You're on the right track but to be unique you would need to consider a lower cost instrument with high accuracy that could perhaps communicate by cellular transmission. Earth filled levees and dams seldom fail if maintained properly. Education of downstream communities on the potential for failure and potential conditions to watch for would be useful. Creating a monitoring table of stream levels in your watershed sensors that might lead to a dam or levee failure, or a tool to do this automatically from field instruments, would be helpful as well.

We are looking at a flash flooding solution and wondered how wide spread sensors are in areas prone to flooding and if they can be linked to a GPS (much like accident traffic congestion is) to divert drivers away from flash floods?
Upper Perk Robotics | Red Hill, PA 

This is highly dependent on the area. Some metro areas that have had flooding problems in the past have dense networks of stream height and rainfall gauges. GPS is not needed in these cases since the location of the gauge is well known. These gauges are telemetered using satellite, cell, or phone communications to a central location. The more advanced systems attempt to forecast crests at critical stream crossings. This information is then disseminated to emergency personnel who inform the public of any dangers using various means. I know of no system that can inform the driver of a flooded road in real-time, but I think it could be possible for a metro area to create such an app. It is possible to receive alerts from the USGS on critical stream levels, but most of these gauges report only once an hour.

Is it possible to build a vacuum like machine that would take in and evaporate flood water to assist in cleanup. Would this idea be useful to cleaning up after a flood if it is feasible to make. Do you think a solar powered vacuum can suck up a flood?
Lego Leaders | Las Vegas, NV 

This is a common way of dealing with the aftermath of a flood. First, powerful pumps are brought in to remove large volumes of water in order to get access to flooded regions. This is especially true if the flood occurs behind a levee, since the floodwaters are trapped on the wrong side. Once the water level drops to the point of a few inches, then cleanup crews will use wet vacuums to remove as much as the remaining water in buildings as possible. Many times, heaters will be used to dry out structures as well.

These pumps, wet vacuums, and heaters are usually powered using some form of generator that runs with diesel, propane, etc., since commercial power is non-existent. I don't know that solar power has been used, but it is possible. One would have to use batteries since the work cannot stop at night. However, the electric load to power one of these devices is great, so the engineering of the solar cells/battery combination would have to be on a large scale.
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Tina Comes
Associate Professor Centre for Integrated Emergency ManagementTina
Department of ICT, University of Agder,
Kristiansand . Norway

Tina Comes is Associate Professor at the Centre for Integrated Emergency Management at the Department of ICT, University of Agder, Norway. She studied Mathematics, literature and philosophy. After receiving her Ph.D. from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), she was head of a research group on Risk Management. Tina’s specializes in how people make decisions and manage the risk in crisis and disaster situations. For example when experts and decision-makers with different backgrounds have to work together to find solutions that help everyone. She develops new ways and tools designed to bridge the gap between experts, decision makers, the affected community and many other people involved . She focuses on the development of collaborative and distributed decision support tools, which are designed to enhance under- standing, communication and compliance.  Tina’s main research areas include supply chains &  logistics (how and when will people recieve supplies), critical infrastructures and how these work in crisises and disasters. In her research she combines many different fields: mathematics, programming, economics, psychology and other social sciences.

Topic: Logistics and Distrubution, Decision making, Critical Infrastructures
Back to the overview

Tanja Fransen
Warning Coordination MeteorologistTanja
NOAA National Weather Service, Glasgow Weather Forecast Office
Glasgow, MT

Tanja has been a meteorologist with the National Weather Service for 19 years, having lived in the high plains through her career.   In high school and college (University of Northern Colorado) she volunteered as a fire fighter and medical first responder, giving her first-hand experience with disasters.  Tanja has been educating and preparing the public and partners about weather disasters for the past 12 years, including severe weather, winter storms, wildfires and floods and she does investigative damage surveys during and after disastrous weather events.  She is also the co-lead for the NWS Skywarn weather spotter program, a program that includes nearly 400,000 volunteer observers across the United States. Tanja is a recipient of the NWS Isaac Cline Award for Leadership, and the NOAA Administrators Award for the development of a cold weather warning system for newborn livestock.  Tanja is involved with the American Meteorological Society, and is the Chairperson for the Major Weather Impacts program at the annual meeting, and has served on the Board of Societal Impacts for the past 6 years.   Tanja is familiar with FLL, both of her sons have participated when they were younger, and she has mentored two FLL groups in northeastern Montana on their projects.

Topics: Wildfire, Severe Storms, Winter Weather


What is the percentage of people that can actually hear their city's warning sirens while inside their home, awake or asleep?
The Thinkinators | Peoria, IL 

Great question! Warning Sirens in cities are meant only to be outdoor sirens, and are not generally useful for people who are in their homes. Whether or not someone can hear the siren in their home depends on how close they live to a siren, and the quality of the materials used to build their home (insulation, double paned windows etc). And, not all communities even have sirens to warn people. So, the number you are asking for varies greatly across the US.

Instead of warning sirens, the National Weather Service recommends a few options for getting warnings in your home:

  • Being aware early on that thunderstorms are in the forecast. This means looking at the weather forecast daily. If severe thunderstorms are in the forecast, learn more about what time it may be, check out weather radar on local TV, the web or phone apps and if it's expected late at night, have a way to get warnings that will wake you up. We recommend using the National Weather Service website at to see the latest forecasts for your area. Your local media pages are another good resource as well.
  • NOAA Weather Radio: This is a special radio that broadcasts weather information 24 hours a day. When a tornado watch/warning, severe thunderstorm watch/warning or a flash flood watch/warning is issued, it will automatically turn on with a loud siren noise, and hopefully wake up residents if they are sleeping (although I know a few who sleep soundly enough to have slept through them, even when it was in their room!). Every school in the US was sent a NOAA Weather Radio a few years ago, it may be good to check that it is up and running somewhere in the school where it can be monitored during normal hours. To learn more about NOAA Weather Radio, locations around the US, and how to get a radio, visit:
  • Phone apps. There are many phone apps out there. Find one that will broadcast severe weather alerts on your phone. The American Red Cross has free apps for that, there are free apps from the private weather sector such as TV stations. There are also paid apps that cost up to $10 that give you weather related watches and warnings and other weather information.
  • Phone call subscription service: There are private companies that offer subscriptions for less than $20/year that will call your home phone or cell phone when a tornado warning, severe thunderstorm warning or flash flood warning is issued.
  • WEA: Wireless Emergency Alerts: In 2011, FEMA, in partnership with the FCC and NOAA, started sending emergency alerts to newer cell phones. These alerts even alert if the phone is in vibrate or silent mode. There is a way to disable the alerts, which some people have done, but we do not recommend people do that, as they may miss out on a lifesaving alert.

To learn more about these alerts, and which mobile devices it works with, go to:

How do people respond to wildfires?
Wizard Stormers | Trinity, FL

Wildfires are generally reported by the public through 911. The local fire department responds. If the fire becomes too large, or it is in tough terrain and too much for the local department to handle on their own, they reach out to neighboring fire departments for help. Because major forest fires tend to be in sparsely populated areas, many of the fire departments are all volunteer, not paid fire fighters like you would find in a city putting out house fires.

The wildfire eventually is reported by the fire chief or fire wardens to the state and federal firefighting agencies serving a particular area. Agencies like the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs all have wildland firefighting programs. They will send the local area state/federal resources first, and if the fire is really serious, they will bring in what is called an Incident Management Team. This team arrives with lots of resources in personnel, equipment, aircraft and technologies. Personnel include those who manage the logistics of hundreds to thousands of fire fighters, fire behavior analysts who predict fire growth and spread, meteorologists who forecast the weather at the scene (which has a huge impact on fires), to the the crews battling the fire on the ground and from the air. There are three levels of incident management teams, from Type 1 to Type 3. Type 1 teams are the ones sent to the biggest fires with the largest impacts in wildland urban interface areas (towns/cities that have homes that are in forested areas).

In some areas where there isn't much human population, there are fire lookout towers in forests. Forest Service Rangers live near the towers, and climb them to watch for smoke coming up. Fires can be started by careless hikers/campers, by off road vehicles, or by lightning. Some areas are so remote, the only way we find the fires is by seeing smoke plumes on weather radar, or satellite imagery. Airplanes may also call in smoke over remote areas. (^)

Is there any way to get the tornado watch notification to an app at the same time you get the watch notification to the news stations And how long does it take to get a notification to the news stations?
Roborots | Uvalade, TX

Hello! There are dozens of weather apps for tablets and smart phones that alert when a tornado watch or warning is issued. They also alert for Severe Thunderstorm Watches/Warnings, and Flash Flood Watches/Warnings. The American Red Cross has free apps for severe weather and tornadoes, as well as flooding that you can download. There are many other free apps, as well as some that cost a few dollars. It just depends on what you prefer to see. In my personal experience, the apps I use alert within about 30 seconds of the National Weather Service office sending the alert out. Oftentimes it's within 10-15 seconds. The TV stations get the alerts in multiple ways, but the Emergency Alert System is what you see when the warnings come across the TV screen. That may take up to 60 seconds to hit the EAS system from the NWS office, and then work into the TV stations broadcast.

What do you do if you accidently set off an avalanche hiking?
Old Orchard School | Santa Clara, CA

Hi there Old Orchard School! I've seen avalanches from a distance while at ski resorts riding up the mountain, but thankfully have never dealt with one close up. In general, if you are going into avalanche country, the best thing to do is let people know where you are going, ALWAYS go in a group and NEVER alone, and wear a locator beacon so that if you do get caught in an avalanche, the beacon can let people know where you are and get to you quickly through the "mountain" of snow. If you get caught in one, you want to try and clear an area around your face so that you can have some breathing room and not suffocate.

There are a few great websites out there on avalanche safety including:

Can you predict by the way a tornado moves, where it will strike?
Blue M | Chattanooga, TN

Hello Blue M! Yes, sorta, maybe! We can predict a few days in advance the type of environment of the atmosphere that is favorable for tornadic storms, but it's generally over a few hundred to several thousand square miles, not specific to a town, or a street. In the hours before tornadic storms develop, we can narrow in on regions where storms could be, but still not down to the town or street level. We can also predict which way thunderstorms are going to move based on the wind speeds and direction from the ground up to 25,000 feet and higher in the atmosphere. Once storms actually form during the day, and we see them on the weather radar, we generally have an idea which direction and speed they will move. But that isn't always the case! Supercell thunderstorms, the ones that produce the majority of the major tornado events, have what is called a rotating updraft of air. That rotation can be very strong and intense, even before a tornado forms, and can cause the storm to move left or right of the main flow of air that we anticipate. Imagine spinning a weeble-wooble toy. You can't get it to go the same way twice right, each time there is a different direction and speed based on how you flicked your wrist and spun it across a smooth surface. The El Reno, OK tornado this year was one that did not move in a way that could have been predicted. It was one the widest tornado ever recorded, spanning 2.6 miles across. There were multiple sub-vortices tornadoes spinning around the larger tornado and all that rotation can cause the tornado to move in unpredictable ways. The tornado took a sharp turn to the left, and tragically, that cost several storm chasers and people from the general public their lives.

What challenge is the biggest in stopping wildfires? Here are some of our solutions Using cloud seeding to stop wildfires Using sky jello to stop wildfires (sky jello is a fire retardant) Using concussion bombs to stop wildfires Also, please give us some suggestions, and what do you think of our ideas?
Hackerbots | Ashburn, VA

Hey there Hackerbots! The biggest challenge in stopping wildfires depends on each fire's environment. Sometimes it's accessibility; there may be not roads to the fire. Sometimes it's the terrain, and fighting fire on a steep slope that is 1,000 to 3,000 foot tall makes it hard to get resources to it. Sometimes it's the weather. Super low humidities and strong winds are nightmare scenarios for firefighters, especially if the winds are related to dry thunderstorms, which mean they have erratic wind speeds and directions. Sometimes the fires are in what we call the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) which means there are a lot of homes and businesses that reach right into the forest, and so there is a tremendous threat to life and property. Sometimes it's all of that combined (Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado in 2012).

In 1988, the fires in Yellowstone National Park were so large and intense that they burned on for months. It wasn't until the first snowstorm of the year that they finally could get a handle on it all.

Cloud seeding would not work for putting out fires, because you need moisture in the atmosphere to produce the clouds and get updrafts to actually seed. There is generally very hot and dry atmospheric conditions where wildfires are burning. To better understand cloud seeding, you can find information with the North Dakota State Water Commission.

Your next solution was "sky jello" and it would be very expensive to do it across a large (thousands of square miles) area. They do use it in the wildland urban interface area to coat homes with if they have time before fire rages through an area. The attached photo shows my childhood home during the 2002 Hayman Fire in Colorado. Volunteer firefighters (my brother included) were getting ready to "foam" the house when the fire "blew" up and drastically increased in speed. They ended up evacuating the area immediately for their own safety and watched helplessly as the fire tore through the community.


Click photo to enlarge.


Click photo to enlarge.


Click photo to enlarge.

If you look close, you can see the ladder on the left side of the photo leading up to the roof where they were going to start foaming. The house actually survived the fire, but one just 50 yards away did not. Mountain Communities Volunteer Fire Fighters watch on as the fire "blows" up over Westcreek, CO in June 2002. Several of the volunteer fire fighters lost their homes in the Hayman Fire, which was the largest wildfire in Colorado history until the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 and the Black Forest Fire in 2013. The fire was hot enough to melt the glass windows and porcelain and ceramic tiles in this home across the street from my childhood home.

house4Lastly, you ask about concussion bombs. I'm not real familiar with them. But fire needs three things to thrive: Fuel, Oxygen and Heat. If you remove one of those three from the equation, you will be heading towards success for stopping the fire. A concussion bomb may work in a small fire, where it could rapidly deplete the oxygen in the air, but logistically doing that for wildfires covering thousands of square miles is going to be nearly impossible. At night, fires generally will "lie down" a bit and not be as active, because they do not have the heating they have in the daytime, and generally the humidity goes up at night as well.

I love the creative and out of the box thinking you all have come up with. Now that you know oxygen, heat and fuel are what cause a fire to keep going, think about some ways, on a smaller scale, that you could reduce or remove one of those ingredients. (ie. Removing fuels from an overgrown lot that is near a neighborhood?) For tips on preventing and reducing the impacts of wildfires, visit:

What are the pros and cons of fire stopping methods? What advantages do wildfires have? How is the world are affected by Wildfires?
Teenage Mutant Ninja...Iguanas? | Sioux Falls, SD

Wow, great questions, and this may take a while to answer! Wildfires do have pros and cons. I'll start with some of the pro's that come to mind immediately:

  • Removes dead litter on the ground, sort of like "cleaning the floors"
  • Exposes minerals in the ground which are nutrients for a forest or prairie
  • Heat from wildfires causes pinecone seeds to open up and plant themselves
  • Allows room for growth of new trees and plants to keep regenerating a forest - Some plants and trees need fire every 3-25 years to maintain a healthy ecosystem
  • Allows for new nesting area for wildland birds, and better shelter for animals
  • Increases the water supply in an area to have less dense shrubbery and plants
  • Kills disease trees, shrubs and plants. It also kills insects that attack and kill trees
  • If we had more frequent fires through forests and prairies as occurred prior to a growing human population, they would be less intense in heat and scale - decades of fire suppression have led to some forests not seeing a fire in over 50 years, and they are overgrown.

These pro's are why some areas do prescribed burning, meaning they intentionally set a fire and "control" it with enough resources to rehabilitate an overgrown area.

Con's of wildland fires:

  • Loss of wildlife, insects and organisms who can't get out in time
  • Loss of habitat areas for wildlife
  • Loss of food for wildlife
  • With an increased population living in or at the edges of forests and prairies, we see loss of life and property in the wildland urban interface (WUI)
  • Fighting fire is expensive. One fire can cost tens of millions of dollars in labor/overtime, equipment, fuel costs, sheltering, communications etc. You can see the costs of fires in 2013 by going to, ie the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park started on August 17th, and as of Oct 17th was 95% contained, costing $127.2 million dollars to fight
  • Loss of income to businesses. For example, the Yellowstone National Park Fires in 1988 basically shut down the tourism industry in and around the Park, costing businesses a lot of lost income during the months they usually make enough money to get them through the winter.
  • Smoke from fires produces carbon monoxide and it can be a toxic pollutant. Smoke from large forest fires can cover thousands of miles and cause health issues for people downstream, especially those with lung programs to start with.

You asked how the world is impacted by wildfires, and this answer could go on and on. Smoke from wildfires causes pollution globally. Areas with massive wildfires are already likely battling drought conditions, and with drought comes reduced ability to produce food. If you have less food production to start with, and then a wildfire comes through an area and wipes out what remaining crop you have, it causes larger economic impacts and human suffering. We need wildfires, but the large massive ones that take months to control are a partially a result of policies around the world to suppress fires to protect property.

Back to the overview

John Jensenius (Dr. Lightning)
Warning Coordination Meteorologist/Lightning Safety SpecialistJohn
NOAA National Weather Service, Gray/Portland Weather Forecast Office
Gray, ME

John is NOAA's specialist on lightning safety and serves as the national spokesperson on issues related to lightning and lightning safety. He has written brochures and developed a considerable amount of educational materials on lightning and lightning safety, many of which are available on NOAA’s Lightning Safety Web Site.  John tracks lightning incidents across the United States, documents lightning fatalities, and provides this information to national media.  Since John started the national Lightning Safety Awareness Week in 2001, John has been interviewed for numerous articles, has appeared on many radio and television shows, and has worked with various organizations to promote lightning safety among their participants. John is also the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Gray, Maine, where he works with emergency managers to help educate and prepare the public for dangerous weather conditions.  He has worked for the National Weather Service for more than 36 years, first near Washington D.C., and more recently, near Portland, Maine.  For his work, John has received both the Department of Commerce’s Bronze and Silver Medals.

Topics: Lightning, Severe Storms, Awareness


My FLL team is working around lightning storms. I was wondering if you could tell us if the problem of people going camping and getting caught in a lightning storm is a good idea for a project.
Crossroads Academy | Lyme, New Hampshire

Getting caught outside in a thunderstorm is a mistake that many people make. Unfortunately, that mistake sometimes results in deaths and serious injuries. If you look at the analysis I did on recent lightning deaths in the United States, You'll find that camping ranks quite high:

We're always looking for new and innovative ideas to keep people safe from lightning (and other weather hazards), so if you've got some ideas, it would be a great topic for you!

Do meterologists specialize in tornados?
Sparrowbots | Dacula, Georgia

Yes, within the National Weather Service, meteorologists specialize in many different areas related to the weather. Personally, I specialize more on the topic of lightning and lightning safety, however, all forecasters in the National Weather Service need to understand the development of tornadoes so that they can warn people when tornadoes threaten. I personally survey and document any damage caused by tornadoes and other severe weather in my area. Within NOAA, the primary group that is involved in research on tornadoes and the thunderstorms that produce them is the National Severe Storm Laboratory: You can learn more about their tornado research at the following link:

In terms of day-to-day operations, the National Severe Storms Prediction Center is responsible for monitoring conditions nationally and issuing tornado watches. Their web site is:

Within the National Weather Service, each local office is responsible for monitoring local conditions and issuing any tornado warnings that are needed. Although every forecaster needs to understand the signs of developing tornadoes and be able to issue the warnings, each office typically has a focal point (or two) that is (are) in charge of making sure everyone understands tornados and are prepared to issue the warnings.

How does dry lightning form and they happen a lot in Merlin, Oregon?
| Merlin, Oregon

Lightning is a discharge of electricity that builds up in the thunderstorm cloud due to air motions and precipitation. In the case of dry lightning, the precipitation evaporates into dry air on its way to the ground. So, although there is lightning and thunder, there is no rain that makes it to the ground. For more information on how lightning forms, please see:

In general, there is a lot less lightning along the west coast of the United States than in other areas. See: I'm not sure how much of the lightning in Merlin comes from dry thunderstorms.

What happens to most dry lightning and how can can dry lightning be helpful?

Like all lightning, the discharge is mainly along the ground surface. After the flash, there are no lingering charges. If lightning strikes dry materials on the ground, the heat produces by the lightning can start a fire. Fires produced by lightning are a natural occurrence. After fires, there is new regrowth of plants in the area. Some trees need fires in order to promote the growth of new trees. Many animals thrive in regrowth areas as there is abundant food.

What percentage of dry lightning made Oregon's wildfires?

I don't know the answer to this question. In addition to whether rain is falling, it is important to know if the lightning contains continuing current. Continuing current will produce much more heat than the more common return strokes. The combination of continuing current and dry ground is probably responsible for most of the fires. Lightning with return strokes tends to ficker; lightning with continuing current tends to pulsate. See the following link for a discussion of continuing current:

Does it have to be cloudy to have dry lightning or can it be a clear day?

In order to produce lightning, you need to have a thunderstorm cloud. However, that cloud does not need to be overhead as lightning can strike outward 10 miles from the thunderstorm cloud. It's possible that you may not be able to see the cloud and the skies overhead may be clear, but a cloud is responsible for producing the lightning.

What are the chances that lightning will strike a really tall building with a tall needle on the top?
Robonauts | Acton, Massachusetts

Lightning is not attracted to tall objects, however, because of their height, tall objects are more likely to be struck. The stepped leader which precedes the bright flash of lightning moves downward from the cloud somewhat randomly. If the top of the tower/needles is the first object encountered within about 150 feet of the tip of the stepped leader, it likely will be struck. However, the stepped leader may be approaching the ground diagonally and could actually hit the building in the middle, near the bottom, or not at all. Below is a link to a picture showing lightning that struck the space shuttle launch pad. The white pointy object that you can see near the top was designed to intercept a stepped leader and provide a path to the ground. In this case the stepped leader did not get within 150 feet of the pointed tower structure and only came within 150 feet as it approached the base pad.

Is it possible to tap the lightning power and use it as an energy source, and power homes?

This is a question that many people ask. Since the stepped leader comes down randomly from the sky, you can't predict where the lightning will strike. That would make it very difficult to intercept. In addition, the enormous (and damaging) power discharged in a small fraction of a second would be difficult to capture. Also, because of the very short duration of the typical discharge, the overall amount of electricity is only enough to light a 100 watt light bulb for about 3 months. If you look at this website, you'll see the number of flashes per square mile in a typical year. This could also be interpreted as the number of 100 watt light bulbs in a square mile that you could power for three months if you could capture all the lightning that occurs in your area. Even though a lightning discharge is of short duration, it can easily kill a person.

Can you suggest a use of lightning?

Because of the amount of energy discharged in a very short period of time, lightning is something that we need to protect ourselves and equipment from. However, during the discharge, lightning "fixes" nitrogen which is carried down to the ground on raindrops and naturally fertilizes the ground.

How do the lightening (SIC) alert systems work such as found on a golf course?
Vulcan A | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

There are various types of lightning detection and alerting devices and systems. I don't know what type of detection equipment the golf coursenear you has so I'll explain the various types.

Field mills - This equipment detects changes in the electric field on the ground and uses this information to estimate the likelihood of a lightning strike. Questions have been raised concerning the accuracy and usefulness of the field mills and whether they provide adequate time for people to get to safety.

Lightning strike detectors - This equipment listens for the radio static produced by a lightning strike. If it detects a lightning strike, the equipment uses built-in software to determine how far away the lightning was based on the static it hears (signal processing). There are many types of detectors available at widely varying prices. Although we don't test any of the equipment, the more expensive detectors likely have better listening antennas and better signal processing algorithms. The one drawback with lightning detectors is that they do not give you any advance warning of the first strike from a developing thunderstorm.

Lightning detection networks - There are several networks of lightning detection equipment across the United States. By using the signals received by several detectors in the network, the location of the strike can be estimated (in addition to other variables). These networks track all lightning strikes across the United States and supply this information to customers who need to know about approaching thunderstorms. For example, a golf course could subscribe to a lightning detection service and get alerted when lightning was detected 10 miles away from the course. They could then set off the alarm to let the golfers know that lightning was detected in the area. In this case, the golf course wouldn't have any detection equipment, but rather would rely on an existing lightning detection network.

As I said, the National Weather Service does not test any of this equipment. However, we do get information from privately-owned lightning detection networks to help us alert people to approaching thunderstorms.

Regardless of the type of detection system or equipment, if you hear thunder or the sky looks threatening, you need to get inside immediately. For more safety information, please see:

Can there be a lightening (SIC) alert on a person's smart phone? Is there a LIGHTENINGAPP?

Yes, the same companies that provide the lightning detection data to the National Weather Service also provide alerts via phone text messages and alerts (either directly or through other companies). Because the National Weather Service does not own this data, we are not able to provide this service.

Are cars really the safest place to be in a thunderstorm?

A substantial building is probably the safest place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you stay away from anything that would conduct electricity (anything that plugs into the wall, corded phones, plumbing, and windows and doors). Hard-topped metal vehicles are a safe alternative because the metal shell will conduct the electricity around you (not because of rubber tires). Just make ure you are completely inside with the windows rolled up and not connected to the electronics. If the car is struck, the windows might shatter, the tires might blow out and the electronics might be destroyed. Please see:

Back to the overview

Vera Kreuwels
Technical Advisor Shelter and Settlements on the humanitarian response teamVera
Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
The Hague, the Netherlands (base), working all over the world

I am an urban planner and architect, specialized in and passionate about disaster-related architecture and urban planning. I worked for 2,5 years in Haiti after the earthquake, where I assisted in the reconstruction of new houses and infrastructure. Here, we tried to give people that lost there house and were now living in tents and camps a new house or to repair their damaged house. I also paid attention to preparing the people to a future disaster, for example hurricanes and earthquakes.Now I am travelling all over the world to assist people in their shelter and settlement needs after a disaster or to help them better prepare for a disaster and assist people in need by building solutions.

Topics: (Temporary) housing, Community Planning, Safe construction


What kind of seismic monitoring do they have in Haiti now, 3 years after the big earthquake? How has Haiti recovered from the quake? And what is being done now, 3 years afterwards, in Haiti to help with earthquakes?
Haiti FIRST Resopsonders | Columbus, Indiana 

Seismic monitoring is done all over the world. For more information about seismic activity I recommend you to do some research on the USGS. This US government agency is the main source of information for seismic activity across the world. This is also the case in Haiti. However, you have to be aware that such a thing as seismic monitoring does not really excist, as very advanced as we are in science, we still cannot predict earthquakes. Also, we still do not know exactly where all the fault lines are. Regarding Haiti, Haiti is recovering well under the circumstances. You have to realize that Haiti was a very poor country, already before the earthquake. The high level of poverty makes reconstruction slow, but it is going steady. There are still many people living in camps, these are becoming part of the city now.

Since 2010 many people have assisted in Haiti with the earthquake response. When the first emergency response was given the government and humanitarian organisations started focussing on the reconstruction of Haiti. This is still going on and will be going on for many more years. Examples of things the are being done at the moment are: - construction of houses for people who have lost their home, - repair of houses for people whose house was damaged in the earthquake, - construction of roads, toilets, drainage, schools, health centers, government buildings and many more infrastructures. - urban planning - support of small business to promote - support of farmers - provision of food to very poor families Have you heard about the United Nations Cluster System? This might be worth researching as many clusters are still active in Haiti, most of them have websites with good information.

Does the use of base isolation or structural vibration control technology depend on the geology under the building? For example is one type of earthquake resistant structure better suited to sand or limestone or clay?
NAYBERS | Kingston, Canada

Unfortunately I am not an earthquake engineer, so I cannot answer your question. However there are many earthquake engineering companies in the world, maybe you can do some more research and ask them? What I can say for sure is that every type of soil asks for a different type of foundation.

How would you personally prepare for an earthquake?
CyberRams | San Jose , California

It is almost impossible to prepare for an earthquake because we cannot predict earthquakes. However, when I am in earthquake-prone area I will do the following things in preparation to an earthquake: - I have a whistle attached to my keychain, in case I get caught under the rubble of a building I can use that whistle to attrach attention from rescue workers. - In place where I spend a lot of time (home, office, etc), I will identify my escape routes from the building and a safe space outside the building (a safe space means a location in the open air, where no rubble can fall on me) - I have food and water stocks in my house. In the case an earthquake hits and my house is still ok, the chances are high the stores and markets will be damaged and thus closed for a longer period of time.

How would people that are poor stay safe
Col Drake (17390 | Titusville, Pennsylvania

People that are poor do not neccesarily stay safe in a different way than rich people. However they might sometimes need a little bit of help. For predictable disasters (like hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunami's, etc), the government often has so-called evacuation centers, where people who do not have a safe place to stay during the disaster can go to. Evacuation shelters are often larger buildings that are located in places where people can reach them,but are secure. They can even be buildings used for other community events. for example community centres or sport stadiums. For unpredictable disasters these shelters have to be set up by emergency services. These are often tents for example provided by the United Nations or the Red Cross and Red Cresent which provide extra challenges, such as finding a proper location, getting the materials in the right place and having enough manpower to setup and run the evacation shelter.

Can wood structures withsand a tornado, or do they have to be made of concrete?
Glitchbugs | Saint Joseph, Michigan

Yes, wood structures can withstand a tornado. Just as concrete structures might not withstand a tornado as well. It is not neccesarily the material that defines whether a building will withstand a tornado, but the way that the different parts of the building are connected. Architects call this 'detailing' of the building. For example it is very important to have a good foundation, but if the columns are not properly connected to the foundation there is no purpose for that good foundation. Hurrican strips are a often used in wood construction to make them resistant to strong winds.

Were you worried about the houses you build gettting destroyed?
Shark Attack | Avondale, Arizona

Off course, but therefore we do as much tests as possible to assure ourselves that the design can withstand a hurricane. However, it is not only the design that determines wether a building is safe, it is the execution of the design that decides whether it is safe. So if the soil is stable, if the cosntruction workers have not made any mistakes, if the materials are of the exact right quality. We try to control this as much as possible, by providing training on all these factors. But you never know. So it is never certain.

Is there any way to predict an aftershock if the aftershock is very late?
Rainbow After The Storm | Troy, Michigan

Unfortunally not thhat I know of, no.

how much time would it take to build a very deep basement for a region if everybody needed one?
Twizzler tornado | Eden Prairiw, Minnesota

I do not know how much time that would take. But I would like to ask you to think a bit more about what the effect would be of building a basement for a whole region. This would be a very big basement, that would required a lot of underground space. Under our grounds it is already very busy, there is water pipes, sewage, electricity, internet, subways, etc. All these things are under ground. Do you think there is enough space for all these things and a basement for a whole region?

Back to the overview

Rocky Lopes
Manager, NOAA Tsunami Mitigation and EducationRocky
Syneren Technologies Corporation (NOAA/NWS Contractor)
Silver Spring, MD

Rocky Lopes has more than 30 years of professional experience in the fields of Emergency Management and safety in the public sector. He worked for the American Red Cross National Headquarters, Disaster Services Department for 20 years where he led the nationwide Community Disaster Education Program.  Rocky served as the Convener of the National Disaster Education Coalition from 1992 - 2004, getting 22 federal and not-for-profit organizations to agree on disaster preparedness messaging on 21 topics, resulting in production of Talking About Disasters: Guide for Standard Messages, the definitive source of vetted and approve disaster safety messaging. Rocky now serves as Manager of Tsunami Mitigation and Outreach for the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program through a NOAA Contractor at NOAA/National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.  There he works with stakeholders across the country on communicating about tsunami hazards and supporting local efforts for tsunami mitigation, outreach, and education.

Topics: Tsunamis, Community Emergency Planning, Community Disaster Education


What kinds of educational games are there regarding tsunamis?
Shiocton lego bolts | Wisconsin

You will find "Tsunami Strike!" very interesting. See this website and register (free) to download it and play, learn, and engage.

What are the biggest problems that you see with rebuilding after a tsunami?
FLL 109 Mustechs | Valrico, Florida

Tsunami damage usually destroys structures and building foundations. The biggest problem with rebuilding is having to replace entire structures, and build them back to be more resistant to the forces of flowing water (tsunami waves) as well as earthquakes.

We first chose to prepare for a Tsunami in Miami but our local NOAA said it was unlikely. Now we chose Oahu, Hawaii because we saw how many tourist are not educated and could be at risk. Is there a preparation system already in place to warn people in Hawaii. Is there a possibility of tsunami in Miami?
Cyclone Bots C3 | Miami, Florida

Yes, there are significant tsunami preparation systems in Hawaii. Hawaii Civil Defense has: 1) installed warning sirens on major islands of Hawaii; 2) conducted hundreds of outreach/education presentations on all islands, especially for the tourist industry; 3) posted evacuation route signs and markings of tsunami safety zones; 4) placed information on websites and all island phone books. More information is here:

Your local NOAA/NWS office was correct -- a tsunami in Miami is not likely. That is because there are few know significant fault zones in the Atlantic Ocean near the southeast coast of the United States where a major undersea earthquake could occur that could cause a tsunami.

We are trying to construct a tsunami survival kit. In your opinion, what should we include in the kit? Thanks.
Robo crew | Arcadia, California 

There is no difference in supplies to have in case of a tsunami than for any other disaster. We recommend what FEMA recommends. See this website:

To construct a Tsunami resistant building, what kind of material should be used to construct the walls?
Cubots | Cupertino,California

Construction materials are different for different types of buildings. Also, local and state building regulations control the choice of materials to use for construction - and those building codes and regulations are different everywhere. A building engineer should specify which materials to use and how to build with them to remain in compliance with local building codes and standards. FEMA's publication on tsunami resistant structures provides more information. Please download this document for detailed information:

About how many vibrations do the earth's oceans give out before a tsunami?
longhorns | denton, Texas

We do not know. "Vibrations" from earthquakes are seldom detected in advance of a major quake. Once a major earthquake happens, then a tsunami may follow immediately. Tsunamis radiate from the source in an outward pattern. Imagine dropping a stone into a pool of water. Watch how the rings (waves) flow outward in a circle. Tsunami waves in the ocean behave much like that.

What are some stable defenses that will help defend the land from a tsunami?

Japan has had some success by building seawalls, but even some seawalls can be overtopped by a large tsunami, as was observed on March 11, 2011. Overall, seawalls may provide the best defense in certain areas if the local topography allows. For example, a seawall may work for certain areas that require protection, like a power plant. But you would not want to build a seawall across an entire beach for miles. Not only would the cost be prohibitive, but a seawall prevents people from enjoying the ocean and beachfront. For more information about how seawalls worked and did not work for the Japanese tsunami, just enter "Japan Tsunami Seawall" into a search engine.

What are good systems that will help keep people aware of a tsunami?

Advanced public education is the best way to raise awareness about tsunamis, and ways to be notified if a tsunami may be coming. When a tsunami may be happening, then sirens, NOAA Weather Radio, public radio and television, and alerts to mobile devices are used (though not all of these in all places.) But the best awareness is knowing the environmental clues of a tsunami: a) feeling strong shaking of an earthquake that last a long time; b) ocean making an unusual roaring sound; and c) ocean behaving strangely, such as receding far away from shore. If you feel, see, or hear any of these tsunami clues, head inland and up, away from the shore.

Which tsunami warning system works best today and how does it work?
Fredrikshovs slotts skola | Sweden

What works best for tsunami warnings are multiple systems operating at the same time, because not all systems reach everyone at risk. Most coastlines at risk in the U.S. have siren systems, which work well for people who are at the beach and can hear them. If people are indoors, NOAA All Hazards Weather Radio is great to have, because it sounds an alert and turns on the radio when a warning is issued. Local radio and television are vital parts of the national tsunami warning (and weather warning) systems, too. More recently, alerts are being sent to mobile devices. These "Wireless Emergency Alerts" (WEA) sent warnings to enabled mobile devices in areas at risk for a tsunami. (More information about WEA is here: Having access to all of these warning systems is what is best. No one system is better than any other; they all work together. How these warning systems work in the United States is described in this document available on-line:

What is the longest time a tsunami can last & what is the worst case damage in a tsunami?
Lego Lions | Brampton, Canada

Usually several hours. Some tsunamis can continue for days. The last recorded wave to strike the U.S. after the March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan that cause a Pacific-wide tsunami was observed seven (7) days later, on March 18. In terms of damage imagine total destruction of a building, beachfront, and even a town. Just enter "tsunami damage Japan" into a search engine to see such damage.

How easy is it to receive education for natural disasters, and do many people get to have access to the information?
Technic Synergy | Pelham, New Hampshire

It is very easy to get education and information on natural disasters via the internet, or in-person from people in your community such as emergency managers, fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and non-profit voluntary organizations like the American Red Cross. Since everyone does not have access to the internet, access to some people is limited to public presentations by local community professionals, and information they can see on TV or hear on the radio.

Back to the overview

Patrick Meier
Director of Social Innovation for Next generation humantarian technologiesPatrick
Qatar Foundiation's Computing Research Institute (QRCI), 
Founder of Crisis Mappers, Digital Humantarians and Standby Task Force

Patrick Meier (PhD) is an internationally leading the developement and application of new technologies for crisis early warning, humanitarian response and resilience. He develops new technologies to help people to stay safe and recover from a wide range of crisis and disasters. Using technoogy such as Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Social Computing we can help people to quickly understand what is going on and deicde the best the course of action. Patrick co-founded and co-directed the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping & Early Warning and served as Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi. He has consulted extensively for several international organizations including the United Nations and the World Bank. He is the co-founder of many initiaves that use technologies and volunteers across the globe to help people who are faced with a disaster. Some of these initives are CrisisMappers, Digital Humanitarians and the award-winning Standby Task Force.

Topics: Crisis Information Technology, Digital Volunteers, Early warning systems
Back to the overview

Robert Molleda
Warning Coordination MeteorologistRobert
NOAA National Weather Service, Miami Weather Forecast Office
Miami, FL

Robert Molleda is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Weather Forecast Office in Miami, Florida.  Robert, a native of Miami, has worked for the National Weather Service (NWS) since 1991 and has spent virtually his entire career in South Florida. He has served as Warning Coordination Meteorologist since 2005, after working for seven years as a marine forecaster and Hurricane Support Meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center.
Robert’s career has taken him through many South Florida tropical cyclones, from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and every other hit and near-miss during and since that time period. He has worked in every aspect of hurricane forecasting, from assisting hurricane forecasters with data collection to writing forecasts and conducting local and national media interviews, as well as briefing local officials on expected storm impacts.
Robert is a product of the Miami-Dade County public school system, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Meteorology from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.

Topics: Hurricanes and Coastal Storm Surge


Do tornadoes always follow a specific pattern when they form?
Blue M | Chattanooga, TN

No. Although most tornadoes generally look the same, they can have different sizes. Some point straight down from the cloud while others curve and extend horizontally before dipping down to the ground. They also can move in different directions, and even change directions. For example, the tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma in May of 2013 changed directions before moving over a busy interstate highway. Unfortunately, this sudden change in direction caught a lot of people by surprise and several people died or were injured as a result.

Do you think that mangroves are a good solution to help New Orleans from the hurricanes?
Alpha Beta Zeta |Arcadia, CA

Mangroves in their natural habitat can help as far as protecting areas away from the shoreline from the storm surge. However, New Orleans is below sea level so levees have to be built to keep the water from inundating the city. In their case, mangroves may not help as much as in other areas.

What is the best way to communicate to rescue officials?
Stronghold | Dallas, TX

Rescue officials use many different ways to communicate and receive information. Probably the main way they get information is through radios which pass along information from a nearby command post or center. The people staffed at the command center receive weather information and other types of information from many different sources, and then they pass this along to the rescuers via radios.

How are rainfall amounts calculated?

Rainfall is measured by using a rain gauge. At official weather stations, rainfall is measured every hour. There are different types and sizes of rain gauges, but the most common ones are plastic cylinders of 8 inches in diameter which catch the rainfall through a funnel at the top of the cylinder, then the water empties into a small tube inside the main cylinder. The tube is graduated to show the amounts in inches or millimeters and you measure from the top of water in the tube. There are smaller 4-inch diameter rain gauges. Another type of rain gauge is a Tipping Bucket which consists of a funnel that collects and channels the precipitation into a small seesaw-like container. After a pre-set amount of precipitation falls, the lever tips, dumping the collected water and sending an electrical signal.

Would locals be okay with a giant dam blocking off New York Bay? Would the government support it? Is it a practical idea, if we put a highway on top as well, to make it a multi-functioning system? We hope to used robotics by putting extra walls on the side that elevate 200 feet, to make it 'triangle-shaped.' Is this an okay idea? What can we do to make it better? Is it practical to shoot liquid nitrogen into clouds to slow down the hurricane? Thank you.
Ryan Robotics | Fresh Meadows, NY

I can only answer your last question since my expertise is in meteorology, not engineering, although your idea of a giant dam is an interesting one which sounds like it could work! Is it practical to shoot liquid nitrogen into clouds to slow down hurricanes? The short answer to that question is NO, because of the immense size and energy of a hurricane. It would take massive amounts of liquid nitrogen to make a difference, and even then it would only work for a short time. It would not be practical from a time and money point of view. Thanks for your thoughtful questions!

If the windows blow out of your home during a hurricane, what should you do to stay safe?
Fire Warrior |, Portland, OR

In this case (not a good situation to be in), you should go to an interior room or closet away from windows and cover yourself with pillows or mattresses to keep your body safe. This is why it is so important to put up window shutters or other wind-protection to keep windows from breaking and letting the full force of the hurricane inside your house.

Back to the overview

Sjaak Seen
Staff Group Commander for the Urban Search And RescueSjaak
United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC)
Rotterdam, Netherlands (base), working all over the world

Besides his work for the regional safety Centre of Rotterdam one of the largests ports in Europe, Mr. Seen has been active Staff Group Commander for the Urban Search And Rescue team of The Netherlands (USAR.NL) and United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC)-member and Team leader for several years. He has participated on missions abroad for the USAR.NL Staff Group to in Morocco, Pakistan and Haiti. His specialization lies in his work for UNDAC as member, team leader and international speaker/faclitator. For UNDAC he was deployed on several international missions to, for instance, Jamaica after Hurricane Ivan, New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and the resulting floods, and his recent mission to lead the United Nations team after the earthquake hit Padang, in Indonesia. Mister Seen is an expert in environmental and hazmat incidents, coordinating incidents and assessment on infrastructures, power and water supply, damage and consequences for the home population and political matters involved in large scale incident management. 

Topics: Coordination, Search & Rescue, (Damage) Assesment
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Thomas W. Richardson
Deputy DirectorThomas
Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence
Jackson State University

Mr. Richardson is Deputy Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence at Jackson State University.  The Center is co-led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mr. Richardson is an engineering graduate of The Citadel, the University of Miami, and the International Institute for Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering in Delft, The Netherlands.  His career has focused on managing and performing applied research in coastal and hydraulic engineering.  In 2009, he retired as Director of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory of the Engineer Research and Development Center and began work at his current position.

Topics: Coastal hazards, Hydraulic Engeering


How do people stay safe during tsunamis?
Hairy Eyeballs | La Jolla, California 

The first step in staying safe is recognizing when a tsunami may be coming. If you're at the beach and the water suddenly pulls back and exposes a lot of ocean bottom, that's a sure sign a tsunami will follow. Other signs could be ground movement or unusual animal behavior. The best way to avoid a tsunami is to move quickly away from the coast to higher ground. If that's not possible, move to the upper floor or roof of a strong multi-story building. If the tsunami was caused by a strong nearby earthquake, there may not be much time to move away from the coast and buildings in the area may have been weakened by ground movement. In that case, you should at least move away from natural or man-made features, such as harbors, rivers, or even large streets, that intersect with the coast. These features can "channel" the tsunami and the debris it carries, creating conditions where human survival becomes extremely difficult. If you're caught in a tsunami, find a piece of floating debris and use it to get somewhere you can get out of the water. Don't climb a tree unless there is no other option, as trees often break from the moving water and debris. Once you're safe, stay there. Tsunamis come in multiple waves that may last for several hours, so don't make the mistake of thinking the danger is over after the first few waves.

Hi, Mr. Richardson, Our team has decided to focus on Volcanic Eruption in Hawaii as our topic. Could you tell us, what are some of your big challenges in keeping people safe on the Islands, in the event of an eruption?
Cornwall Raging Robots | Cornwall, Canada

This is not my area of expertise, but I'll offer a few comments about some unusual aspects of volcanic eruptions. In the case of a very large eruption, such as occurred on the Krakatoa volcano in 1883 in the south Pacific , residents on that island and nearby islands need to be aware of an impending local tsunami. The water at the shoreline will recede quickly, meaning that people should immediately seek higher ground or move to the top floors of strong, multi-story buildings. The time to do this will be very short, perhaps only a few minutes.

Can Hydraulic shock ansorbers be fitted onto a 12-ft diameter sewage pipe without having to replace the pipe itself?
Ranibow After The Storm | troy, Michigan

If the intent is to isolate the pipe from ground movement caused by an earthquake, the answer is a qualified "yes". Motion isolation systems usually are used under vertical structures such as multi-story buildings, where the ground motion is relatively uniform. A pipeline is a horizontal structure that may traverse areas of different magnitudes and frequencies of ground movement, so motion isolation may not work by itself. If the pipeline is made from rigid but brittle material such as concrete, it may also have to be divided into segments that are connected by flexible joints. Whether it is less expensive to retrofit an exisiting pipeline or simply replace it would have to answered on a case-by-case basis.

What steps need to be taken to make sure an underwater structure that is attached to the ocean floor is able to withstand a tsunami and earthquake?
Wave Breakers | California

The answer to this question depends very much on the type of structure and where it is. Also, the types of forces exerted by a tsunami can be very different from those exerted by an earthquake. For example, if the structure is an oil platform in relatively deep water, it may not feel any effects from a passing tsunami, but would have to be designed to accomodate ground movement caused by an earthquake. If it's a pier extending from shore into relatively shallow water, It would have to be made very strong and massive to survive the impact of a tsunami. It may make more sense economically to design the pier's superstructure to fail (with prefabricated replacement modules) but design the pilings to survive. A pipeline lying on the ocean bottom in relatively shallow water could be designed to survive a tsunami by making it rigid and anchoring it firmly, but those same characteristics might make it more vulnerable to being damaged by ground movement during an earthquake. In general, it's better and more economical to design structures to move or bend without being damaged or losing their functionality than trying to make them too rigid or massive.

What are the biggest problems you face cleaning up after a hurricane? If you could have anything to help you (technology, processes, extra people) what would you want?
EFB1-72 | Greenville, South Carolina 

The biggest initial problem is coming up with a quick, comprehensive assessment of what has been damaged and to what extent. In addition to buildings, this assessment needs to include people (where they are and in what condition) and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and utilities. The assessment should be done in a way that is useful to the many different people and organizations involved in disaster response and revovery and that can be updated easily from the field as better information and data become available. It depends to a large degree on having good, easily accessible information about what was there before the hurricane hit. The biggest long-term problem is figuring out how to rebuild in ways that will be less vulnerable to future hurricanes. Since zoning, land use, and building codes typically are the responsibilities of local governments, this also is an area where the groundwork needs to be laid before the hurricane so that people aren't trying to make complex and difficult decisons in the stressful post-disaster environment.

Can you freeze a cyclone?
Norview Navigators | Norfolk, Virginia

Starting in 1947, there have been several attempts to weaken hurricanes by disrupting the heat-driven processes that create and sustain them. The most ambitious of these was Project StormFury, which lasted over 20 years. Although StormFury initially generated what appeared to be encouraging results, more detailed measurements eventually showed that its fundamental working hypothesis was not valid. In other words, the way hurricanes actually worked was much more complex than what scientists of the time had assumed. Wikipedia has a very good summary of these efforts and their outcomes at . In recent years, interest has grown in "climate engineering" as a technical response to global warming. This interest could, in turn, spur renewed attention to ways of weakening hurricanes. However, it is likely that, based on the StormFury experience, this attention will come only after science has made significant advances in understanding exactly how hurricanes develop and evolve.

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Chris Weeks
Director of Humanitarian AffairsChris
Brussels, Belgium (base), working all over the world

Chris Weeks works for DHL, the worldwide express freight company. He set up and runs three Disaster Response Teams based in central America, Middle East and Asia. These teams, which are staffed by over 500 employee volunteers, are activated to help keep airports open after natural disasters.  They handle a lot of the cargo that gets donated to make sure it doesn’t block up the airport. They support the UN system and the international community following a major sudden-onset natural disaster anywhere in the world.
Chris is British, based in Brussels and has many years of experience in Logistics. He has first- hand experience of Airport Logistics following ten major disasters: the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Kashmir earthquake, Pisco, Peru earthquake, Padang earthquake, Philippines floods, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, Chile and Haiti earthquakes, and the Pakistan floods. He is on constant standby to attend the next major disaster.

Topics: (Airport) Logistics, Relief supplies, Early response


What are some different ways of distributing medical/safety kits?
Legonators | Redlands, California

Hi Legonators, Getting medical kits and hygeine supplies to people affected by disasters can be a real problem. Fortunately there are quite a few organizations (NGOs) who specialise in getting kits ready during quiet times, and storing them in 'strategic warehouses' in different regions around the world. It's called 'pre-positioning'. Then, when something happens, there's a stock close to the disaster area which can be shipped by air (usually) or by road. After the earthquake in Haiti, I saw many private jets bringing medical teams and supplies from USA, as well as military aircraft from different nations.

Is it possible to distribute lost livestock?

Good question Legonators! I think this is sorted out by the local chiefs and farmers. If livestock have identifying marks or tags that would be easier but I expect it becomes really difficult if they don't and all the livestock get mixed up and owners are missing. One point you might not know is that in some countries (eg Pakistan) inheritance of land and livestock goes to the man's family (his parents or brothers) if he dies, and not to his wife and children. This can cause a lot of problems and misery.

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Jan-Willem Wegdam
Shelter Expert Jan-Willem
Disaster Response and Disaster Risk Reduction Department CORDAID
The Hague, The Netherlands (base), working all over the world

Jan-Willem Wegdam works for CORDAID, the Catholic Organization for Relief and Development Aid, a Dutch NGO, working in 35 countries, striving to build flourishing communities through empowerment, security, opportunity and governance. Cordaid has been involved in all major disasters of the last decades, has supported the re-construction of more than 50,000 (semi) permanent shelters and has been a large supplier of emergency shelters and kits with kitchen or hygiene items.

Topics: Hygiene, Community reconstruction, Shelter


Is there such thing as tornado proof buildings and structures?
Sparrowbots | Dacula, Georgia 

Yes it is possible to make a building Tornado proof by making it very difficult for the tornado to lift the building up. Think of lifting a box from the ground. It is more difficult when the box is very heavy, fixed / glued to the ground or very slippery so you can't grap it. A building can be made heavy by using heavy materials like a lot of concrete and stone. Fixing it to the ground is done by making a strong foundation under the ground. Slippery can be done by making the outside surface very smooth, in a cone shape without holes etc.

Who cleans up and rebuilds after tornadoes?
Electricbees | Girard, Pennsylvania

The roads and community area's will have to be cleared by government. Damage to private houses will have to be cleared by the land / house owner. In practice the owner will often receive some support from the government and the neighbours.

Is concrete a reliable underground building material against something as strong as a tornado?
Robotrons | Yucaipa, California

Concrete is a very good material, but using concrete alone is not enough. Other factors that are playing a role is the amount of concrete, the way the foundation is "fixed" to the ground. Trees for instance are pretty good at fixing themselves to the ground with their Root system, so also a concrete foundation should be rooted well. Do you think that the shape of the building (height, width, structure) plays a role too for the shape / size / material of the foundation?

Is an underground structure always more reliable than an above ground structure?

That depends what you want to do with the under or above ground structures and the dangers around the structure. With a hurricane you are safer in the basement, with floodings it is better to sit above ground and keep your feet dry.

What would you say are the 3 biggest obstacles to rebuilding after tornados?
Calvin Christian Blaine | blaine, Minnesota

There will be many obstacles after a tornado. 1 There will be a lot of rubble to remove,2 people to be calmed down and 3 things organized to get everything repaired, like contracting a building company, ordering materials, finding a temporary house, talking to insurance company etc. We're learning about earthquakes in Guatamala.

We're learning about earthquakes in Guatamala. Where do/did people stay if the shelters are/were destroyed?
Cary Reynolds Elem Team | Doraville, Georgia

Lets assume that the earthquake destroyed their house completely, which is not always the case. People naturally prefer to stay in their neighborhood because they want to stay close to their friends / family and work (cattle, farm). People sleep then in self made huts from timber and plastic or in leftovers of their house. If this is not possible a good option is staying with family or host families a bit further away. The last and least preferred option is moving to a community centre like the townhall / school or an emergency camp with tents.

How do you get all the debris out of the area that it's in and where do you put it?
Col Drake 17390 | Titusville, Pennsylvania

In many places the debris will be dumped on a site that hopefully is appointed by the government. This is actually not the smartest solution. There are also options to use the debris for something useful like filling foundations, repairing roads or use it to block area's where it is dangerous to rebuild, for instance a swamp. Also there are new technologies becoming available to recycle the debris into new concrete on the site where it is found.

How often does a tornado destroys a house?
| Cornelia, Georgia

The path of a tornado can not be predicted, but the chance that one will destroy a house is extremely small. So my answer would be that most likely it will be never!

We are designing a shelter that has a clean source of water. Rather than depend on bottled water that is shipped in we are interested in making a water system at the shelter that can collect rainwater and water in the atmosphere. Do you have any suggestion on what we should take into account when desiging this?
4765 | MAKAWAO, Hawaii

Very smart to become self supporting!! And water is very important. There are many systems and ways to collect water. These systems will consist of 3 things: 1. the harvest area where you collect the water like the roof. 2 a piping system and 3: storage point like a tank, hole in the ground with plastic or a number of jerry cans. Important is that you clean the water before drinking. Rainwater can be dirty or even contaminated, especially if you leave it very long in a closed container. Cleaning can be done with special filters, cooking very long or chlorine tablets / drops. Before building such a system, do look in the neighborhood... maybe there are swimmingpools, lakes or other sources of water, or maybe you can combine something with the neighbours?

Who funds the rebuilds for the damage of wildfires?
Moco Tec | El Cerrito, California

The rebuilding of the house will have to be paid by the owner. Some owners have paid for an insurance that will pay the owner money in case of damage from a wildfire.

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Craig Williams
Information Manager and Early responderCraig
United Nation's humanitarian coordination agency (OCHA)
Geneva, Switzerland (base), working all over the world

Craig works for the United Nation's humanitarian coordination agency (OCHA) in Geneva, Switzerland. He specializes in using information to understand the impact of disasters and coordinate the response, using tools such as satellite imagery, mapping and surveys. The first natural disaster he responded to was a volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002, which saw lava cutting the city of Goma in half. Since then Craig has worked on many earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tropical storms and droughts  around the world, and is on permanent standby to respond at short notice to new emergencies.

Topics: Information, Coordination. (Large) Disaster Management
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