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Emergency and disaster management briefing for August 26, 2020: Hurricane Laura has rapidly strengthened over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and will make landfall as a major hurricane; Iowa’s only nuclear generating station is to begin decommissioning early due to damage from the devastating derecho that impacted the state in early August; more than 14,000 firefighters are fighting over two dozen fires and lightning complexes across California; an Air Quality Alert is in effect for multiple counties in Central California due to smoke from ongoing wildfires; I-70 in Glenwood Canyon has reopened to motorists, but the threat of rockfalls and mudslides remains high; new, small-scale nuclear reactors are reportedly cheaper and easier to build and safer to operate with automated, advanced safety features; the Pine Gulch Fire is Colorado’s second largest wildfire ever, consuming over 200,700 acres; the First Five Consortium is a partnership between Microsoft and the DOE to develop AI in an effort to improve disaster response efforts, including humanitarian assistance.

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1) Now over the warm waters of the central Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Laura has rapidly strengthened into a Category 3 storm, and is expected become a Category 4 hurricane sometime today. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) says Laura is moving to the northwest at a forward speed of about 15 mph, has sustained winds of 110 mph with higher gusts, and a central minimum pressure of 952 mb, or 28.11 inches of mercury. The NHC noted that storm surge could coincide with high tide and is urging residents in the path of the storm to rush to completion steps to protect lives and property.

2) The derecho that swept through Iowa on August 10 damaged portions of the cooling towers of the Duane Arnold Energy Center, which is the only nuclear power generating plant in Iowa. The building’s exterior also suffered damage, although critical components and safety systems of the nuclear generating station were not affected. A statement from NextEra Energy Resources noted that for safety reasons, damage prevents the plant from restarting its reactors. It will now begin the decommissioning process that was to start October 30, 2020.

3) According to CalFire, more favorable weather conditions have helped the more than 14,000 firefighters across California gain ground against some of the burning wildfires. There are more than two dozen major wildfires and lightning complexes burning in the state, which have killed a reported seven people and destroyed at least 1,400 structures. On August 25, CalFire noted that there had been over 13,000 lightning strikes since August 15 throughout the state. In the previous 24-hour period, there were 233 lightning strikes and a total of 650 new fire starts.

4) An Air Quality Alert has been issued for multiple counties in Central California due to smoke from the many wildfires burning throughout the state. At least 10 counties are included in the alert, which is likely to continue until the wildfires are extinguished. CalFire statistics show that the wildfires have burned over 1.5 million acres combined, with a grand total of 7,012 incidents so far in 2020.

5) The stretch of I-70 that had been closed in Glenwood Canyon in Colorado for the previous two weeks, reopened Monday, only to be closed again less than 12 hours later when a spot fire broke out. A quick response from area firefighters and first responders quickly contained the incident, and the highway was again reopened a short time later. The initial closure of I-70 due to the Grizzly Creek Fire, bumped the wildfire incident to the national number one priority, due to its impact on commerce and the trucking industry. Officials warn that damage to vegetation within the canyon has also led to an increasing concern of rockfalls and mudslides, which could quickly impact motorists along I-70.

6) As renewable and carbon-free energy sources allegedly gain in popularity, small-scale nuclear reactors are reportedly gaining favor. Several companies are already seeking to obtain licenses to operate small-scale reactors across the United States, including companies in Oregon, Washington and California. The smaller reactors are reportedly more flexible to use, cheaper and easier to build, and offer advance safety capabilities that include automatic shutdown, self-cooling, and even reactors that do not use water as a coolant.

7) Four major wildfires continue to burn in Colorado — fires that have burned a total of more than 200,700 acres combined. The second-largest fire ever in the state, the Pine Gulch Fire, continues to burn north of Grand Junction and had consumed a total of 135,903 acres as of Wednesday morning. Evacuation orders remain in effect for some locations. Road closures throughout the fire area are likely to impact motorists, who should be prepared for new closures or changes in current closures.

8) In 2019, 14 disasters across the United States each had more than $1 billion dollars in damages. Ensuring disaster management efforts that help lessen the burden of these disasters is critical to the nation, which was the basis for the development of the First Five Consortium — helping responders to save lives and property. The Consortium is a partnership between Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Artificial Intelligence and Technology in an effort to improve disaster response, including areas such as humanitarian assistance, natural disaster response, search and rescue, damage assessment, flood control, and wildfire prediction.