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EDM Friday Briefing: 21 Deaths Attributed to Polar Vortex

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Emergency and disaster management briefing for February 1, 2019: The polar vortex is being blamed for the deaths of at least 21 people; the Ebola epidemic in the DRC continues to grow amid community distrust; strong storms prompted mandatory evacuations in Riverside County, California on Thursday; a JetBlue flight was forced to make an emergency landing following a potential lightning strike after departure from LAX; Australia logged its hottest month on record as parts of the northern hemisphere grappled with record cold; fires that erupted during the polar vortex posed unique challenges for firefighters and forced them to work in extreme conditions; warming temperatures pose new threats to communities impacted by the polar vortex as snow and ice melt; and federal officials announced the largest seizure in U.S. history of fentanyl at a border checkpoint in Arizona.

  1. Officials across multiple states have [link url=”” title=”attributed the deaths of at least 21 people to the polar vortex that gripped much of the Midwest”] Wednesday into Thursday. Temperatures were as low as minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday in some locations, and snow and ice created treacherous travel conditions in Iowa, with at least 26 road collisions reported within two hours in Johnson County. Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights as a result of the frigid temperatures and winter weather, and [link url=”” title=”30 record lows were shattered across the region”] that was impacted by the polar vortex.  
  2. The Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) [link url=”” title=”continues to grow”] despite the many advances in modern medicine and the addition of an experimental vaccine. Public health officials are pointing to the lack of trust among community members where the outbreak is occurring as the reason for the continued spread of the disease. Although doctors in the DRC are experienced, the community where the outbreak is occurring has never seen the disease before, likely mistaking it for malaria. Coupled with other factors, such as instability and rebel-related violence, it is [link url=”” title=”fostering suspicion and causing individuals to seek treatment too late in the disease process”]. 
  3. Strong storms began moving inland in Southern California on Thursday morning, [link url=”” title=”prompting the Riverside County Emergency Management Department to issue mandatory evacuations”] for residents near the Holy Fire burn scar in the Cleveland National Forest. The heavy rains quickly moved through the area, and by early afternoon, the evacuation order was downgraded to a voluntary evacuation warning, but [link url=”” title=”officials advised residents to remain vigilant”] and be prepared to leave immediately if requested. Emergency management officials also warned that another strong storm was set to impact the area on Saturday, which could necessitate renewed evacuation orders if there was a heightened likelihood of mud or debris flows.  
  4. A JetBlue flight was forced to make an emergency landing after the aircraft was [link url=”” title=”struck by lightning shortly after takeoff”]. Flight 324, which departed Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York late Thursday, had to return to LAX after the crew reported a possible lightning strike as [link url=”” title=”strong storms rolled into the area”]. The flight landed safely back in Los Angeles at 11:15 p.m. and was being assessed by maintenance personnel.  
  5. [link url=”″ title=”January was the hottest month on record for Australia”], according to its Bureau of Meteorology, with a mean temperature for the nation, that for the first time, exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The nation has been struggling with a summer of extremes, including wildfires, melting roadways, and heat-stressed bats dropping by the thousands from trees in the south, and monsoonal rains and record flooding in the north. [link url=”” title=”New South Wales is also drought-parched”], which affected water quality in a stretch of river and caused two separate mass deaths of hundreds of thousands fish.  
  6. As the polar vortex gripped the midwest, [link url=”″ title=”firefighters struggled to fight blazes and were put at high risk of frostbite”] with such low temperatures, that in some cases, exceeded minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Major issues included frozen fire hydrants–[link url=”″ title=”a blow torch was used to thaw the hydrants”]–freezing lines and ladders, and hose overspray that hit firefighters like ice pellets. Firefighters were at high risk of frostbite, since the overspray, when it soaks their face and hands-freezes–[link url=”″ title=”and also wets and freezes their clothing, making it difficult to remove”].  
  7. A new set of issues threatens communities as the polar vortex loosens its grip on the nation–[link url=”″ title=”rapid thawing is likely to cause ruptured water lines, leaky pipes, potholes, and flooded roadways and bridges”]. Detroit had at least 44 ruptured water mains Thursday, and officials expect that number to climb as temperatures push towards 50 degrees over the weekend. Homeowners should also be aware that melting ice could cause [link url=”″ title=”roof leaks and water pipe ruptures or leaks”] as rapid melting causes water to push against expanding ice.  
  8. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials announced that they have made the [link url=”″ title=”largest seizure of fentanyl in history on Thursday”]. CBP says that the sensitive nose of a drug-sniffing dog led federal agents to 254 pounds of the drug–in a hidden compartment under the floor of a truck loaded with cucumbers–[link url=”″ title=”at a border checkpoint in Nogales, Arizona”]. The synthetic opioid is blamed for majority of overdose deaths in the United States, which accounted for more than 28,400 deaths in 2017. 

Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.

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