A wave of nearly 50 tornadoes exploded across the Midwestern U.S. Sunday evening, wreaking havoc from Minnesota to Texas — but saving their worst for a single town in southwest Missouri. At least 89 people were killed by a tornado that touched down in Joplin, Mo., around 7 p.m., CNN reports, a death toll that may rise as rescue crews dig through the rubble. "The particular area that the tornado went through is ... the central portion of the city, and it's very dense in terms of population," Joplin Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer tells CNN. "We have been working all night long, and we will continue to do so until we get to everybody."

The Joplin tornado left a path of destruction half a mile wide and six miles long, City Manager Chris Rohr tells the AP, while Fire Chief Mitch Randles estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the city was damaged. Kathy Dennis of the American Red Cross is even less optimistic, estimating that "75 percent of the town is virtually gone." St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin took a direct hit from the tornado and suffered major structural damage, forcing hospital staff to evacuate nearly 100 patients — even as new patients were flooding in. Some X-rays from the hospital were reportedly found 70 miles away in Dade County, Mo., demonstrating how large and powerful the storm system was. Transportation was also difficult in parts of the city Sunday night due to overturned vehicles — at least 20 cars and tractor-trailers were flipped over on one stretch of Interstate 44 alone. "We've had numerous vehicles picked up and thrown into houses," local meteorologist Ray Foreman tells CNN. "There were about 10 semis turned over on their sides on the highway," adds Joplin resident Amber Gonzales. "I had to go around semis on the road." Joplin has a population of more than 50,000 people, according to U.S. Census data, making it an unusually dense city to be hit by a tornado. Its damage is comparable to that of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which was also decimated during a tornado outbreak last month.

While Joplin received the brunt of Sunday's storms, it was far from the only area affected. A line of severe weather swept across the country's midsection, spawning dozens of other tornadoes in Iowa, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as several elsewhere in Missouri. At least one person was killed and 22 were injured in Minneapolis, while severe wind damage was also reported in La Crosse, Wis. There were 48 tornadoes overall reported Sunday, and the region will have little chance to recover before more severe weather arrives: Another round of strong thunderstorms is expected to form today in eastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri, AccuWeather reports, bringing large hail, heavy rain, powerful winds and possibly more tornadoes. The storm system is then forecast to move east toward the Mid-Atlantic.

(Sources: CNN, Associated Press, Kansas City Star, Wichita Eagle, AccuWeather, National Weather Service)


As a fresh wave of storms dumps rain onto the Mississippi River Valley this week, the swollen river continues carrying near-record amounts of water downstream, spurring anxiety throughout the Delta region. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes along both the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, while others race to fortify makeshift levees that have turned houses and businesses into islands. But as the Los Angeles Times reports, humans aren't the only ones struggling to handle the historic floods: Wild animals are also scrambling to survive, potentially causing problems when they encounter people.

"We're trying to cut down on human and wildlife interaction," explains Fred Kimmel, a state wildlife official in Louisiana. Panicked animals like deer, black bears, alligators, wild turkeys, feral hogs and armadillos are all fleeing the floodwaters, sometimes leading to atypical behavior that causes clashes with people. To see this firsthand, the Times' David Zucchino rides around with Travis Dufour, a Louisiana wildlife biologist who's searching for flooded-out animals before they get into trouble. His main problem, Dufour says, are whitetail deer bolting into roads more fearlessly than usual. "They just pop up out of nowhere," he says. Deer and other animals can also quickly become exhausted by their panicky evacuations, Dufour adds, often causing them to flop down on the ground for an hour or more due to stress and fatigue. "I saw a wild pig laying down there yesterday," he says. "An armadillo, too."

Black bears are especially at risk during this flood, the Times reports, since the endangered species is likely to seek out garbage cans while its normal food sources are covered with floodwaters. Louisiana has dispatched 205 wildlife enforcement agents to deal with bears and other wildlife driven from their usual habitats, and Dufour says the effort so far has been effective in preventing conflicts. But, he adds, "we're just getting started. There's a lot more water to come."

(Sources: USA Today, Baton Rouge Advocate, Los Angeles Times)


Chicago may be nicknamed America's "Second City," but as the New York Times reports, it's quickly emerging as one of the country's leading metropolises in figuring out how to prepare for global warming — and then actually doing it. With climate scientists predicting the Windy City will feel more like balmy Baton Rouge before the century is out, city planners are hurrying to make Chicago more capable of handling extreme weather. 

"Cities adapt or they go away," says Aaron Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner of Chicago's Department of Environment. "Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways. We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it." Among the focal points of Chicago's climate change makeover are its public streets and alleyways, which currently help create "heat islands" and oten don't handle heavy rainfall well. With heat-related deaths projected to reach 1,200 a year as temperatures rise in Chicago, officials are concentrating on transforming paved surfaces so they act more like natural surfaces, regulating heat and absorbing water. "Cities are hard spaces that trap water and heat," says Janet Attarian, a director of streetscapes at the city's transportation department. "Alleys and streets account for 25 percent of ground cover, and closer to 40 percent when parking lots are included." To address this problem, the city is adding greenspace that will offer shade and absorb precipitation, and installing pavement that drains excess water into underground storage tanks. This new pavement is also made with recycled tires mixed into the asphalt, allowing streets and sidewalks to expand in extreme heat without cracking or buckling.

Chicago must also rethink its tree cover, the Times reports, since many of the city's current trees represent cool-weather species that don't handle heat well. City planners are already carrying out a plan to add roughly 2,200 trees per year, but they're now shifting to more swamp oaks and bald cypresses, eschewing the heat-intolerant white oaks and ash trees that have shaded the city for decades. It's just one more aspect in a broad, citywide adaptation, says Chicago environment commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna, that's "a constant and ongoing process to make sure we are as resilient as we can be in facing the future."

(Source: New York Times)


Japan, facing an energy identity crisis in the wake of its ongoing nuclear crisis, is considering a dramatic plan to embrace solar power, PhysOrg reports. The proposal, which is expected to be unveiled at the upcoming G8 Summit in France, would require all new buildings to be built with solar panels beginning in 2030.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is expected to announce the plan Thursday, the first day of the two-day summit in Deauville, France, although he won't exactly be abandoning nuclear power. Speaking in a country that generates the vast majority of its electricity from nuclear fission — and representing a country that depends on it for roughly a quarter of its power — Kan will reiterate Japan's intention to continue operating nuclear plants as long as their safety has been confirmed, PhysOrg reports. But he will also describe plans to dramatically boost renewable energy and energy conservation, including a sweeping and compulsory investment in solar power.

In addition to helping offset Japan's reliance on nuclear energy and fossil fuels, the plan is expected to spur the country's technological sector, PhysOrg adds, potentially adding an economic spark that's badly needed after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami plunged the country into a recession. Plus, a new wave of technological innovation should help bring down the cost of solar power, Kan is expected to announce this week, thus making it more practical for the country to adopt it comprehensively.

(Source: PhysOrg)


U.N. takes on "persistent organic pollutants," BP oil spill investigation panel is commissioned, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (tornado damage in Minneapolis on May 22, 2011): Tony Webster/Flickr

Photo (deer swimming in flooded Mississippi River in 2008): Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Photo (Chicago skyline and Chicago River at dusk): Getty Images Digital Vision

Photo (Japanese flag waving against the sky in Nihonbashi, Tokyo): OiMax/Flickr

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon. 5/23/2011
Tornadoes slam U.S. Midwest, floods threaten wildlife, Japan goes solar, and Chicago works on becoming greener.