Driving with a blindfold on

Recently, I gave a “County Weather Hazards” presentation to a great group of 44 fifth-graders from Mapleton. Their teachers, Mrs. Bernier and Ms. Black, understood the importance of exposing their young charges to the weather hazards we really have to pay attention to here in The County.

What we watched and discussed were not the “headline-making” weather hazards, like tornadoes and hurricanes. Instead we covered hazards that we are most likely to encounter living here in northern Maine.

A few years years ago, I came up with a weather hazard acronym to make them easier to remember, and recently I modified it. The new acronym is FLICH-V.  

So what do these letters stand for?

“F” is for Flash Flooding. There are some key things to remember about flash floods, and perhaps the most important one is that it does not need to be raining where you are to have one. When you have a moment, google: “Big Thompson Canyon Flash Flood 1976”. People can get into potentially deadly trouble when they underestimate the power of moving water. With respect to water flowing over the road, always remember that the water need only be about halfway up your tires to move ANY vehicle you might be driving right off the road and into a raging stream. In addition, you don’t even know if the road is still there. So when you see water flowing across a road, remember this: Turn Around, Don’t Drown.

“L” is for Lightning. We have a comparatively short “warm season,” and everyone wants to be outside. Though folks rely on their phones for just about everything, in this case, the “eyes have it” —  just by paying attention to the sky, you can often assess your thunderstorm risk. How? By looking for a trend for cumulus clouds to get taller and taller. It is not whether they are light- or dark-colored, it is how tall they are. And if indeed a thunderstorm develops, here are the two things you need to remember. The instant you hear thunder, you are in the lightning threat zone and need to seek safe shelter at once. Also, you need to remain in a lightning-safe place for a full 30 minutes after hearing the last thunder, since lightning can strike up to 12 miles away from the parent thunderstorm. This means that a thunderstorm in Caribou could kill you in Presque Isle.

“I” is for Ice, and it comes in a lot of flavors, none of them tasty. There is black ice, which requires no precipitation at all, but rather just meltwater freezing at night or even moisture condensing onto a chilled road surface. The most dangerous type of ice from precipitation would be freezing rain, which is rain that hits the ground and freezes on contact. I just showed my class a video of a fully loaded school bus, sliding down a gently sloping hill, on totally glazed-over roads. It took out a mailbox, but what if that had been a propane tank? When heavy accretions of ice cause damage (due to the weight of the ice), this is known as an ice storm. When is ice is most slippery to walk on? That’s easy: “Water on ice, not so nice.”

“C” is for cold, and there are two distinct cold-weather hazards we face here in The County. The first is hypothermia, which is a dangerous and potentially deadly lowering of the body’s core temperature. Many people think, incorrectly, that it has to be really cold for hypothermia to be a threat, but you can succumb to hypothermia in temperatures well above freezing. The other cold hazard is frostbite. This is where a windchill chart is handy, because it shows you how long it would take for frostbite to occur for exposed skin. Frostbite is no joke, and severe cases can lead to amputation and, if untreated, even gangrene and death.

“H” is for Heat. If you head out on a hot summer day and really overdo it, and you haven’t had enough water, either, extremely dangerous heatstroke can result. One sign of it is when a person stops sweating, and their body temperature gets as high as it would with a very high fever. Should this happen, it is a medical emergency, and 9-1-1 must be called at once. Heat is an underrated killer, and must be treated with respect. The way we as mammals cool down is through the evaporation of our sweat, and if your body does not have sufficient moisture to produce sweat, it has no way to cool itself.

Finally, “V” stands for Visibility. Whiteouts are as significant in The County as tornadoes are in Tornado Alley. Why? Because they both can kill people. Whiteouts are perhaps The County’s most dangerous winter hazard. As I always say, driving on a whiteout day is like driving with a blindfold on. If I were a decision maker for all County schools, I would never put buses on the road if there was a chance that the driver would be blinded. Remember all of the accidents in early April caused by blowing snow? Well, you can thank whiteouts for that. So that’s the winter “V”.

The other “V” can occur in both the warm and cold seasons, and that is dense fog (sometimes called thick fog). I have seen fog so dense that I could not see the turn onto Brewer Road from Route 1 until I was right on it. It is important to remember when visibility is poor, that your car covers a surprising distance every second. At 60 miles per hour, you cover nearly the length of a basketball court each second, and at only 30 mph, it’s a half court shot.  

So there you have it. We did not talk about wind, because the chances of encountering wind that can injure or kill here in The County are way less likely than encountering the FLICH-V hazards.

I will give wind a mention, though. Localized damage starts showing up if you have a thunderstorm gust of at least 55-60 mph. Region-wide sustained winds of 50 mph or more would lead to widespread power outages, especially in leaf-out season. To calculate the force of the wind, you must first square the wind speed, meaning a 60 mph wind has four times the force of a 30 mph wind.

Teachers, I’d love to help you incorporate this weather hazard information into your classes. Please email me at tshapiro@wagmtv.com. Weather-savvy kids grow up to be weather-savvy adults.

Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been chief meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at tshapiro@wagmtv.com.

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