Three months ago, Hurricane Ida devastated the Delaware Valley. Are we ready for big winter storms?
by Davis Giangiulio, contributing editor
When the Farmer’s Almanac and AccuWeather agree on a forecast, we should probably pay attention to it. So here it is: Thanks to La Niña, a polar vortex and increased risk of nor’easters, this winter is going to be frigid, snowy and long. AccuWeather predicts 20-26” of snow, a total that puts us in the same frigid ballpark as the 23.9” we got last winter. Farmer’s Almanac has already dubbed this winter the “season of shivers.” Its editor Janice Stillman said, “This coming winter could well be one of the longest and coldest that we’ve seen in years.”
Trouble is, weather warnings aren’t always heeded in the Philadelphia area. The most awful and recent example of that is Hurricane Ida, which devastated our region in September. Days before Hurricane Ida hit the Delaware Valley, meteorologists forecast its potential to cause major flooding. Yet, Hurricane Ida’s destruction caught many off guard.
When the storm made landfall as a Category Four hurricane on August 29, Ida was pointed directly at Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. “That’s when we started to ramp things up. It looked like a bad storm,” said Brian Haines, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly office.
On August 30, NWS Mount Holly started releasing detailed briefings on Ida, believing it would have a major impact on the Delaware Valley. On August 31, Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management went into action, holding weather-related conference calls with “stakeholders including city departments, non-governmental partners, and nonprofit agencies,” according to a city spokesperson who asked not to be named.
Philadelphia’s administrators used press conferences and social media to communicate the latest storm information to the public. They made phone calls to residents in areas with high flood risk, and also made “direct outreach to residents and businesses who are connected to OEM through the Community Preparedness program,” said the spokesperson.
But was the public listening – or prepared? On the evening of Sept. 1, more than 60 vehicle rescues took place in Horsham Township. “We did our normal preparation for what we thought was just going to be a flood,” said township manager William Gildea-Walker. “But we didn’t put out anything special that day. We weren’t expecting to be hit by a tornado.”
But just before 6 p.m., a tornado ravaged the township, destroying 794 homes and businesses. The Delaware Valley’s structures are almost completely unprepared for tornadic activity. Describing the night as “overwhelming,” and “surreal,” Walker painted a harrowing picture of a difficult evening. “I’ve been through a number of events in Horsham, but never anything like that,” said Walker. “We had a police officer swept away in the creek. I thought we would have at least a minimum of five fatalities.”
In the end, Horsham didn’t have any deaths, but the Montgomery County Coroner’s office reported three storm-related fatalities. Elsewhere in the country, more than 50 people died as a result of Ida.
Some people were shocked by the storm’s scale, but Flora Cardoni wasn’t one of them. Cardoni is field director and leader of climate change work at conservation group PennEnvironment. “Our staff is not surprised by the damage,” Cardoni said. “Those of us who work closely with the issue expect storms that used to be ‘once in 100 years’ to happen much more frequently. It’s very clear that the climate crisis has gone from a distant threat to a present danger.”
What’s being done to prepare the Delaware Valley for a changing climate? In 2015, Philadelphia assessed its position in a detailed report, and since then has “been working with departments on the implementation of those recommendations,” according to a city spokesperson. Some of these efforts include making more buildings and communities climate-resilient and limiting the damage of changing weather on the drinking water and sewer systems.
Aging infrastructure is part of the problem. “Our sewer system, when it was built 100 years ago, was the height of technology,” said Cardoni. Clearly, that system needs to be updated. “More rain barrels, rooftops gardens, permeable pavement so water is absorbed, and more street trees that can absorb more water,” are easy steps for local governments to take, Cardoni said.
For now, however, the question is this: How can local officials prepare for the next big storm? The city spokesperson said that OEM Philadelphia will “conduct a review to see what practices worked and what may be improved.”
Haines put some responsibility on residents, saying we need to be “proactive, not reactive.” Weather alerts are not to be ignored, he said. “We need to educate residents to take these warnings seriously,” said Walker. “When these tornado warnings are put out, you shouldn’t just keep cooking dinner. You should be getting into a safe area, like the basement, until the warning’s over.”
The city spokesperson said much the same. “Each storm is unique and brings different hazards that need to be assessed and handled as they develop. It is imperative to remain aware of the forecast, stay connected to information, and to have an emergency plan.”
Cardoni wants bigger changes to happen on state and national levels. She’s hoping that Ida’s damage motivates residents and leaders to enact changes. “Every time something like this happens more people get on board,” she said, “but not to the degree we need. I shudder to think what event would need to happen to have more people wake up.”
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