Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 29, 2011

A super-cell outbreak is one kind of complex threat. Do the principles of good practice fit?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 29, 2011

There were over 130 tornado sightings reported (some say more than 150) on Wednesday night.  It will take a while to generate a fully accurate count.  Over 300 fatalities are reported in states ranging from Alabama to Virginia.

Depending on how current reports are deconflicted, April 2011 may have seen more North American tornadoes than any prior month since record-keeping began in 1950. The historic record is May 2003 with 543 confirmed tornadoes.  The preliminary count for the current month is close to 600.

Depending on how the Wednesday night reports are confirmed,  the record for the largest single tornado outbreak may also fall.  Until Wednesday night the record was 148 confirmed tornadoes on April 3-4, 1974.   Over 300 fatalities resulted from the 1974 series of storms.

On Wednesday, according to the Birmingham (Alabama) News:

In the Birmingham area, the severe weather started about 5:30 a.m. with winds as high as 100 mph ripping through parts of the city, toppling trees and knocking out power. By nightfall power was out to 370,000 customers statewide, and more than 170,000 in metro Birmingham, Alabama Power reported.

That early storm was just a prelude to what weather forecasters had been warning for days. Schools were shut down and many took a day off from their jobs in anticipation of the events to come. People stayed glued to the radio, and many watched tornadoes touch down live on television, striking Cullman, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

“We were very prepared”, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley told reporters.  But in a highly populated area such as Tuscaloosa, where a maximum force, mile-wide tornado wiped out parts of the city, “you cannot move thousands of people in five minutes.” (See more from the Christian Science Monitor.)

While weather forecasting continues to be a less-than-certain undertaking, it is more accurate than in 1974.  There are also many more sources of weather information than 37 years ago.  It is impossible to precisely measure this complex event against the prior complex event.  But it is not unreasonable to assume lives were saved on Wednesday night because of increased awareness and accuracy of the weather forecast.

Last Friday I proposed five principles of good practice for resilience:

  • Awareness: Observe and engage the full context,
  • Connectedness: Recognize and engage our full range of relationships and dependencies,
  • Realism: Differentiate between cause and effect, capacity and capability, novelty and continuity.
  • Agility: Expect change in context and relationships, remain creatively open to change, and actively embrace change.
  • Flexibility: Expand the “basin of attraction” where and how turbulence can occur without threatening our fundamental identity.

Increased weather awareness is an outcome of 1) much greater communications connectedness and 2) a more sophisticated scientific understanding of the connectedness that “makes” weather.

Most, though not all, residents of tornado alley — and hurricane alley or snow valleys or flood bottoms — are entirely realistic about the threat.  This is not as much the case for earthquakes, wildfires, and some other threats.  I wonder if this is because the connectedness of these other threats seem more obscure?

Because we are more aware of the forecast we are more agile.  We are more alert.  We are not surprised.  Back in Illinois when a friend built a new furniture factory, a tornado safe room was specifically added.  Less than a year later the factory had been flattened, except for the safe room.  All forty-some employees came out without a scratch.  That is anticipatory agility.

The closing of schools is a practical example of expanding the basin of attraction in which turbulence can occur.  Distribute your critical resources, children and otherwise.

Awareness, connectedness, realism, agility, and flexibility seem better suited for a self-help book than a serious piece of homeland security strategy.  Waaay too motherhood and apple pie?  Maybe so.  But I perceive we can undervalue both our mothers and apple pie.  What might come from greater attention?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2011 @ 12:18 am

Good post and one TVA nuclear reactor in Alabama went off status because of storms. I wonder if SCRAMMED?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 29, 2011 @ 4:56 am


There is a good overview of the Browns Ferry shut-down from Nature.com.

Following is the text of the NRC incident report:


At 1701 CDT, the licensee declared a Notification of Unusual Event under Emergency Action Level 5.1U due to loss of offsite power for >15 minutes. The loss of offsite power occurred at 1635 CDT and was due to severe weather and winds in the vicinity. When offsite power was lost, all 3 units automatically scrammed. The units are currently stable in Mode 3 with their respective 4KV busses being supplied by the onsite Emergency Diesel Generators[EDG]. The 161KV Athens line is the only offsite power source energized. All onsite safe shutdown equipment is available with the exception of the Unit 3 B EDG which was out of service for planned maintenance.


The system actuations that occurred during the loss of offsite power were actuations of the Reactor Protection System, Primary Containment Isolation System (PCIS) and Emergency Diesel Generators. All primary containment valves actuated by the PCIS operated as expected. Unexpectedly, the Unit 3 “B” Main Steam Isolation Valve indicates intermediate.

Unit 1 High Pressure Coolant Injection actuated when reactor water level reached -45″. Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) was already initiated at the time.

* * * UPDATE FROM BILL BAKER TO S. SANDIN AT 2153 EDT ON 4/27/11 * * *

Following the loss of offsite power only 12 of the required 100 offsite emergency sirens are operable.

The licensee will inform both state/local agencies and the NRC Resident Inspector.

Notified R2IRC (Wert) of this update.


As a result of the loss of offsite power, the Diesel-driven Fire Pump auto-started. While the pump was running, the licensee discovered that approximately one quart of oil had leaked from the fire pump into the cold water channel which discharges into navigable waterways. The licensee confirmed this at 1950 CDT by visually identifying a sheen in the channel.

The licensee notified the National Response Center of the spill and, in accordance with their site discharge permit, notified the State of Alabama. This constitutes an 0ffsite Notification in accordance with 10CFR50.72(b)(2)(xi).

The licensee notified the NRC Resident Inspector. Notified NRC R2IRC (Wert).


At 2120 CDT, operators on Unit 1 were controlling reactor water level between 2 and 51 inches when RCIC became sluggish and water level dropped to +2″ causing a valid RPS Scram signal as well as PCIS signals 2, 3, 6, and 8. All valves operated as expected and all isolations were completed.

The licensee notified the NRC Resident Inspector. Notified NRC R2IRC (Wert).

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2011 @ 7:21 am

Thanks Phil! Ops also impacted at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, ALA!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2011 @ 10:13 am

The OBAMA Administration intends to make the Alabama situation a test case to prove the new FEMA. Unfortunately an even bigger natural disaster may just be two weeks off on the main stem Mississippi. FEMA will be in the news the next 6 weeks. Good luck to the NEW FEMA!

Comment by Christopher Tingus

May 1, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

The new FEMA will prove nothing of consequence and the same low confidence will continue — the sheen of Fema in its ongoing potrayal of bureaucracy and politics overshadow prerequisite requirements and once again the government will ultimately fail — God Bless us all!

With such technology available in this 21st century, we can’t even get the sirens working….

If you are resting on the backs of the bureaucrats, soon you will find yourself out of touch w/reality!!

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September 27, 2017 @ 11:20 am

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