Wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes sweep US

Destroyed power lines in the Eastern USA following this weekend’s storms © Getty Images

Thousands of Americans are still without electricity this morning after severe storms over the weekend destroyed power lines across the eastern United States. More than a dozen people have died.

Meteorologists call the type of storm that struck the USA this weekend a ‘derecho’, from the Spanish word for ‘straight’. In fact, strictly speaking, a derecho is not just one storm but a series of thunderstorms smashing their way through the air in a devastating straight line.

For those in the path of this climatic juggernaut, the experience was terrifying. Witnesses spoke of walls of water, lighting exploding overhead, 80 mile per hour winds that tore down trees and peeled the roofs off houses and office blocks.

The clouds finally cleared to reveal a scene of devastation. But the weather had not yet run out of trials for the storm-battered people of the United States. After the rain and the wind came an extraordinary wave of intense heat.

Temperatures in some places hit 40º Celsius, smashing records that had stood since 1934. And as the country heated up, around 3.4 million people in storm-affected areas discovered they were also without electricity because of damaged power lines.

For a high tech society like the US, this sort of power loss can have serious consequences. At first, people missed having lights or TV, but soon they were feeling the lack of something more important: air conditioning.

Thousands flocked to public malls, swimming pools, offices – anywhere there might be a generator – some escape from the boiling heat.

There were even special emergency shelters, where refugees from the storms huddled in the artificial cool, clustering round live sockets to charge their mobile phones and iPads. In neighbourhood supermarkets, frantic shoppers fought over the few remaining bags of ice.

But this was more than a minor inconvenience. For the sick and the elderly, high temperatures can be fatal. With the heat wave continuing into this week, it is feared that more deaths will follow the 12 already reported. Meanwhile, high temperatures and high winds have fanned wildfires in the western USA. Thousands were evacuated, and hundreds of homes have been burned to the ground.

Storm warning

When the weather finally stops tormenting the United States, most of those affected will go back to their everyday lives with a collective sigh of relief, and then think no more about it. Life goes on.

But some will be alarmed at how quickly the crucial systems of society can break down under stress; they will be scared by how much we humans rely on air conditioning and food lorries and mobile phones and the internet and refrigerators and all the other taken-for-granted essentials of modern life. What happened yesterday is an important reminder, they will say, that when nature is angry, these things can suddenly disappear.

You Decide

  1. What sort of natural event, if any, do you think is the most dangerous to modern society?
  2. People sometimes talk about nature being angry with humans. Does that make any sense?

Activities

  1. Imagine a five day storm knocked out power lines where you are. Write a diary covering the five days of the storm. What would life be like?
  2. So called ‘survivalists’ try to be ready to live self-sufficient lives. Could you become self-sufficient? Plan your social-breakdown survival strategy.

Some People Say...

“It is foolish to get alarmed over a little storm.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I suppose it would be too much to hope that this might just be a problem for the USA?
You suppose right. Severe weather can strike anywhere in the world. Last week, for example, flooding and landslides cut off all rail links between England and Scotland. And, of course, global warming will make extreme weather more frequent.
What can we do to escape the danger?
Well – it’s not too late to try and fight against global warming, by using less energy, for example. In the shorter term, there are quite a lot of people who call themselves survivalists, stocking up on food and supplies in case society ever really does break down. That might, however, be taking things a little far.

Word Watch

Meteorologists
A meteorologist is someone who studies the weather. The word meteor originally meant any atmospheric phenomenon. It only took on its modern meaning – a shooting star – at the end of the 16th Century.
Juggernaut
A juggernaut is something unstoppable. The word was introduced to English from India. A story went round that there was a town in India where a huge statue of the god Krishna, called the Juggernaut, was dragged through the streets in a giant chariot for certain festivals. Some worshippers, it was believed, allowed themselves to be crushed under the chariot’s wheels as a sign of devotion.
Celsius
The Celsius temperature scale is named after the Swedish astronomer who invented it in the 18th Century. It is built around the freezing and boiling points of water (respectively 0º and 100º C).

Subjects

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