10.4 Thinking outside the Plume: The 2019 ITC/Deer Park, Texas, Tank Fire

Thursday, 16 January 2020: 11:00 AM
153C (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Lance Wood, NOAA, Dickinson, TX; and S. Luchs, N. Hathaway, and J. S. Evans

On the morning of March 17th, 2019, a tank farm fire erupted in Deer Park, Texas (southeast of Houston). The initial tank had approximately 3 million gallons of naphtha with several nearby tanks also containing naphtha, as well as xylene, gas blends, py gas, benzene and toluene. All of these materials are highly flammable, and the fire gradually spread to several tanks. Because of the expanding fire, ominous black smoke plume, burning toxic materials, and location within the densely populated Houston metropolitan area, this event quickly became a national news story. The trajectory of the smoke plume became the central focus of the news media and emergency managers, given fears from the millions of people covered by the persistent smoke plume. The NWS Houston/Galveston office supported this event for close to a month, and deployed an Incident Meteorologist to support Harris County Emergency Management.

At the onset of the event, NWS Houston/Galveston forecasters ran the NOAA HYSPLIT dispersion model and shared the output with the responding state and government agencies, as well as surrounding emergency managers. A day into the event, forecasters began receiving multiple media requests for a smoke plume forecast with the intent to share this forecast with the public as the smoke plume grew. It was decided that disseminating the HYSPLIT output to the media/public was not a good idea because the technical concentration levels, plume height, and forecast uncertainty would not be well understood. However, forecasters also realized that the local media did not have the expertise or modeling to make their own smoke plume forecast. Therefore, a public-facing smoke plume forecast was created and shared with the media and the general public via social media using multiple data sources as guidance (HYSPLIT modeling, RADAR reflectivity, GOES-16 ABI Veggie channel at 0.86 micrometers) to improve communication of this complex and expanding incident. This presentation will document the pros and cons of this public smoke plume forecast effort, as well as the challenges that developed as the event became more complex and the IMAAC (Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center) began producing higher resolution dispersion modeling for the event.

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