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Number 523 • April 9, 2009 | Past Issues













1) Giampaoalo Giuliani: Like Chicken Little, But With Better Timing?

It could be the plot of the next blockbuster disaster movie—a scientist on the fringes of seismology invents the impossible, a machine that can predict earthquakes. Although many scoff at the notion, it’s not long before the scientist gets a hit—a big one is on the way. Alone and held in contempt, he must warn the unsuspecting public that they’ll soon be crushed in their beds, but he’s thwarted at every turn by the mindless government machine and the hegemony of the scientific community.

It’s no wonder the similar story of Giampaoalo Giuliani, who claims to have predicted the recent Italian earthquake, is holding popular media in his thrall. But will his tantalizing tale of scientific censorship and subsequent “vindication” lead people to believe that earthquake prediction is a possibility?

Giuliani’s story has run alongside news coverage of Monday’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake in Italy’s Abruzzo region all week and is still gaining momentum. From the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to Time magazine, the combination of good timing and proffered hope has captured imaginations in both Italy and the United States. It’s that combination—especially in the wake of Italy’s loss—that could lead some to believe earthquake damage and death is predictable and therefore preventable. 

"Being able to predict earthquakes is the Holy Grail of seismology," Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson is quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times article. "The more we try, the less progress we seem to make."

According to the news stories—from which, it seems, much has been lost and gained in translation—Giuliani predicted a high-magnitude earthquake would strike the town of Sulmona in late March. The prediction was based on radon gas emissions, which are sometimes observed before a quake strikes. Giuliani took his Chicken Little message to the streets, making statements on blogs, television, and radio, and even via a van with loudspeakers, by some accounts.

After no major quake transpired, Giuliani—who is alternately described as a seismologist, a physicist, or a technician affiliated with either Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics or Gran Sasso National Laboratory—was charged with spreading false alarm. To add insult to injury, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency called Giuliani and his ilk “imbeciles,” according to Time.

"These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news," the magazine requoted Guido Bertolaso as saying. "Everyone knows that you can't predict earthquakes."

Everyone except Giuliani. When Monday’s earthquake badly damaged L’Aquila—about 30 miles south of Sulmona—he immediately seized the airwaves, calling for an apology and laying the 278 dead on the conscience of the officials.

Since then, geologists have been trying to set the record straight on mankind’s ability to predict quakes (see the April 7 post on Scienceinsider for an insightful discussion of the Giuliani case, including background on earthquake prediction attitudes over the last 30 years). The bottom line is that a lot of testing lies ahead of even the most promising methods of trying to get ahead of quakes. And even if it was available now, emergency officials would likely face the same resistance evacuation as they do now with more clearly impeding events such as floods and hurricanes.

Even though technology for earthquake modeling and prediction is improving, most scientists agree that weathering earthquakes without destruction will have to wait for the sequel.

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2) Fargo Floods: Can’t Win for Winning

As the floodwaters of the Red River subsided last week, so did the swelling possibility that Fargo might receive resources to help plan for long-term flood protection. According to an article in the New York Times, Fargo residents’ heroic efforts to save their city will likely net far less funding mileage than swathes of destruction.

“If we would have lost, we would have had the $800 million we need right away,” Fargo Vice Mayor Tim Mahoney told the Times. “We would have had that done tomorrow. But this way, in two weeks, this will be off the national news and people will forget this happened.”

It’s true that a little more than a week after Mahoney made that comment, Fargo has merited only the most passing of mentions in national coverage—despite the fact that the Red River is again threatening the web of earthen levees and sand-bagged barriers contrived to keep it at bay.

The National Weather Service is predicting a second crest of 38-40 inches—an inch less than last week’s narrow reprieve—before April 18, but rather than shoring up the urgency of implementing abatement measures, the record rise could send planners back to the drawing board.

While the recent near-flooding renewed momentum for a long-plotted flood control project—known as the Southside Project—it’s also has planners and politicians thinking twice about the scope of the $161-million system of levees, channel extensions, and retention land, according to an article in the Fargo-Moorhead Inforum.

The project, in the works since epic flooding in 1997, has met with funding restraints and opposition from residents with property in the project zone. While current conditions are helping overcome that resistance, they also point to the need for more stringent parameters. Previous plans had allowed for a four-foot freeboard above 1997’s 40-foot crest.

“I want the model run with the numbers we get from this event,” North Dakota Sen. Tom Fischer told Inforum. “I want to know what that water is going to act like at 43 feet. We owe that to the citizens of the city.”

Others though, including Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and Gov. John Hoeven, want to move ahead with the project as planned starting this fall, according to the Inforum article. Regardless of their Southside stance, North Dakota lawmakers, along with their counterparts across the river in Minnesota, have stated their attention to ask federal players to join the game. But first, the river will get to make its next move.

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3) Here a Tweet, There a Tweet

While spring weather brings the chirping of birds, spring disasters have brought about tweets of a different kind.  From Fargo flooding to Italian earthquakes to volcanoes in Alaska, Twitter has gained much attention as a means of communicating during disasters—but despite all the Twitter chatter, there are many who just don’t get it.

Why would they? People sign up, get a feed and a fill it with continuous bursts of 140 characters or less in what, to some, might seem like the most nonsensical and narcissistic exercise known to man. Yet there are some (and Natural Hazards Center researcher Jeannette Sutton is one) that would argue Twitter has an intrinsic networking value on both sides of the tweet.

Although a lot of research and news reports focus on Twitter users making organic social connections and communicating information during disaster, emergency managers can also use the tool to their advantage, even during downtime.

“Part of it is that you can develop a familiarity with your audience,” Sutton said, adding that that could lead to building community trust, increased understanding of what emergency managers do, and a direct market for preparedness and event information. Furthermore, each Twitter user represents their entire network—“purchasing power” that you don’t generally get from e-mail blasts or other media.

But still, to get the full advantage, some network grooming is required. While everyone from FEMA to the CDC has Twitter feeds, that doesn’t mean they’re doing it right. Anyone with a 140-character attention span is bound to be a least a little fickle, so agencies would do well to balance useful information with insider views and other more “social” items.

On the flip side, when emergency business is booming, Twitterers can provide eyewitness reports and information from the scene, but emergency agencies would have to have the resources to sift the chaff from the grain, Sutton said.

“There might be a lot of value there because people could be sharing information about needed resources,” she said. “One of the problems with Twitter though is that we haven’t found a way to manage the information yet. For the most part, it’s going to be on the level of chatter or noise.”

Of course, there are some that get Twitter, but just think it’s a bad idea. A recent and rather vigorous discussion on the International Association of Emergency Managers listserve cited concerns about authenticity of information, usurped emergency agency identities, and old-fashioned information overload as reasons the industry might want to steer clear of the new technology.

Still, if you’re ready to try this at home, you might find you’re in the company of many who’ve discovered the unexpected marketing advantage of the free site—at least one agency has used it to divert site-crushing web traffic caused by disasters and others have used it to send updates from accident scenes, according to a recent Government Technology article. Considering the cost, it’s a lot of bang for the buck.

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4) Chinese to Throw Money at Shaky Schools

Safer schools could be in the future for earthquake-prone Central and Western China and other at-risk areas. Chinese officials stated they would invest more than $1 million and three years in a project retrofitting unsafe school buildings, according to a Reuters report last week.

Thousands of school children are believed—an official count has never been released—to have perished when shoddily-built schools collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake last May. Many parents protested openly, claiming the surfeit of safety was the result of corrupt officials and lackadaisical building practices. In some places, such as Dujiangyan, schools completely collapsed while surrounding buildings were unharmed.

Demonstrations by grieving parents were continually quashed by police, especially as China prepared for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, according to multiple news reports (New York Times, National Public Radio, The Guardian, among others). In some cases, parents were offered the equivalent of nearly $9,000 if they agreed not to speak about the condition of the schools. Now, it seems, the government is taking a different social tack.

"The safety of school buildings directly relates to the safety of teachers and students, and is related to social harmony and stability," Reuters quotes from the official Chinese statement, which it said was available on the Education Ministry's Web site.

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5) Scientists Prepare to Get Vortex View of Tornados

Scientists and students from around the world will soon launch an ambitious project to learn what lies at the heart of tornado formation. The project, Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornados Experiment 2, VORTEX2 or V2 for short, kicks off May 10, according to a press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The $11.9 million program is an extension of a 1995 program that looked at the life of a tornado from beginning to end. Rather than examining the how, V2 will attempt to find the why of tornado formation.
“An important finding from the original VORTEX experiment was that the factors responsible for causing tornadoes happen on smaller time and space scales than scientists had thought,” stated National Science Foundation program director Stephan Nelson. “New advances will allow for a more detailed sampling of a storm’s wind, temperature and moisture environment and lead to a better understanding of why tornadoes form—and how they can be more accurately predicted.”

Research teams will study supercell thunderstorm activity in more than 900 miles of the U.S. Great Plains region. For more information, visit the V2 Web site.

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6) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Speakers
57th Annual Conference and EMEX 2009
International Association of Emergency Managers
Deadline: April 24, 2009
The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) is now accepting applications for speakers for its annual conference in Orlando, Florida, October 29 to November 6. The conference theme will be “Emergency Management: United We Stand.”   For more information, including track topics, speaker guidance, and an application, visit the IAEM conference site.


Call for Donations
Annual Conference Silent Auction
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Deadline: June 1, 2009
The Association of State Floodplain Mangers is accepting donations for the silent auction to be held at their annual conference in Orlando, Florida, June 7-12. Items can range from $1 grab bag items to those of greater worth. Proceeds of the auction will support the ASPFM Foundation. Donated items are tax deductible. For more information, visit the ASPFM Silent Auction page.


Call for Papers
Disaster Law Reader
Kathleen A. Bergin and Tracey L. McGough, eds.
Deadline: August 1, 2009

Papers are now being accepted for inclusion in an edited collection of writings related to legal issues and disaster preparation, management, and recovery. Published and unpublished multidisciplinary papers are welcome. Abstracts of works in progress may be submitted before May 1. For more information or to contact the editors, visit Kathleen Bergin’s posting on The Faculty Lounge.

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7) Some New Web Resources

[Below are some new or updated Internet resources we have discovered. For an extensive list of useful Web sites dealing with hazards, see]

Science360 News Service
What do you get when you cross National Science Foundation know-how with a slick news aggregation format? Science360—it’s all the serious science news you could hope for with the crisp, media-heavy offerings of an online news feed. The new site, launched by NSF last week, has video, breaking news, daily exclusives, and the latest from science blogs and journals. And while the news is cool, don’t miss the with-it collection of video, audio, and images at  


UNT Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Readiness Information
Students at the University of North Texas now have a new resource to help them prepare for emergencies and disasters—and so do their parents and professors. The UNT Emergency Planning site has a little something for everyone with information on making a plan, how to get emergency and medical training, campus services, and much more.

You don’t have to be a geography nerd to get a kick out of the goofy, interesting content at (subtitled “Geography…In Stereo”). The site is full of podcasts, “TV” episodes, and news about everything from GIS tools to arctic ice shelves. When it comes to making geography very accessible and very relevant, VerySpatial is very cool.


Slightly Morbid
When you die, who will be the faces weeping over your casket? C’mon, you know you’ve thought about it—now lets you make a list and shoot off some last words, even after you’ve “left the building.” And, according to the site’s owners, it’s just as useful to let people know you’re still alive after a disaster strikes your area. Those living in danger zones could find the one-time fee, ranging from $10 to $50, quite a bargain either way.


NDIN Information Network
The National Disaster Interfaith Network has a new “e-bulletin board” papered with disaster news, research, events, and resources aimed at helping the faith-based community deliver services to those in need. Those looking for information on best practices, preparedness initiatives, or anything else to give them an edge in serving disaster victims can browse online, or sign up for the INET newsletter.


FEMA Distribution Course for State and Local Governments
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has created a self-directed course to help state and local governments effectively distribute emergency supplies during disasters. The course, along with an accompanying video and guide, is available online or by mail.


The Landslide Handbook
This online USGS handbook has a little landslide information for everyone—homeowners, community managers, and decision makers. Those in vulnerable areas can get location-specific info including photograph and charts you don’t have to be a geologist to understand.

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8) Conferences, Training, and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at]

May 13-15, 2009
Fourth International Conference on Sustainable Development and Planning
Wessex Institute of Technology
Limassol, Cyprus
Cost and Registration: $1825, open until filled

This conference will address an integrated approach to regional development, with an emphasis on sustainability principles. Topics include regional and city planning, territorial and environmental risk analysis, urban landscapes, and responses to world events.


May 24-29, 2009
Fifth International Conference on Recent Advances in Geotechnical Earthquake and Soil Dynamics
Missouri University of Science and Technology
San Diego, California
Cost and Registration: Not posted

This conference aims to improve earthquake engineering and provide direction for future research in the field. Professionals from more than 40 countries will present research findings and exchange information on earthquake engineering practices.


May 26-27, 2009
Second Annual Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction: Water-Related Disasters
University of the Free State
Bloemfontein, South Africa
Cost and Registration: $265, open until filled

This conference will present the results of research and training initiatives related to risk reduction in Africa. Interdisciplinary session topics include climate change impacting flood damage, implementing disaster risk reduction in mitigation project design, and the effectiveness of business continuity for African banks.


June 7-12, 2009
33rd Annual National Conference: Green Works to Reduce Flood Losses
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Orlando, Florida
Cost and Registration: $610 before May 29, closes June 3, 2009

This conference will present state-of-the-art techniques, programs, and resources to better improve flood mitigation, watershed management, and other community goals


June 8-11, 2009
2009 Conference and Expo
National Fire Protection Association
Chicago, Illinois
Cost and Registration: $895, open until filled

This conference will examine best practices in fire protection and electrical safety. Conference tracks include emergency preparedness and business continuity, fire and emergency services, fire protection engineering, and facility fire safety.


June 9-11, 2009
2009 National Urban Area Security Initiative Conference
Urban Area Security Initiative
Charlotte, North Carolina
Cost and Registration: $250

This conference provides a forum for exchanging technical and administrative UASI information, as well as an opportunity to share best practices in emergency management, public health, evacuations, and mass care planning.


June 10, 2009
The National Risk Conference
Arup, London First, Crisis Response, and others
London, England
Cost and Registration: $568, open until filled

This conference will encourage debates that increase resilience and safety, facilitate effective business continuity, and provide perspective on risks faced by organizations and the community.


June 21-24, 2009
2009 National Conference on Community Preparedness
International Association of Emergency Managers and the Department of Homeland Security
Alexandria, Virginia
Cost and Registration: $325 before June 15, open until filled

This conference is aimed at those seeking to create safer, stronger, and better-prepared communities, regardless of the hazards faced. Attendees will share best practices in collaborative emergency planning, discuss preparedness outreach and education, discover innovative funding approaches, and receive updates on preparedness research.

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9) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

[The following job postings provided an overview of some selected openings in hazards-related fields. For more information on a particular job, please follow the links provided.]

Climate Preparation Program Manager
Resources Innovation Group Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI)
Eugene, Oregon
Salary: Commensurate with experience
Closing Date: April 24, 2009
This position will expand the CLI National Climate Preparation Program by building local capacity to design climate change adaptation strategies. An advanced degree in emergency management, planning, or related field, as well as entrepreneurial and development experience addressing ecological, economic, and social problems, are required. 


Director of Wind/Wave Tunnel Facility
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will establish research programs in wind engineering, pursue funding, manage wind tunnel operations, and teach related courses. Candidate must have a PhD in wind engineering or a related.


Head of Regional Office
United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Panama City, Panama
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: April 19, 2009
This position will include international and regional policy coordination and advocacy that promotes synergy between disaster risk reduction strategies and humanitarian organizations. A master’s degree in business administration, economics, the social or natural sciences, or another field emphasizing development and risk management issues, ten years of professional experience, and fluency in English and Spanish are required.


Reporting Intern
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Salary: $300 per month, plus accommodations, food, and travel costs
Closing Date: April 27, 2009
This position collects and synthesizes field data and draft reports, assists in developing project proposals, and acts as a liaison to program partners. A postgraduate degree in journalism, international relations, or relevant field is required.


Fire Program Specialist, GS-13
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Emmitsburg, Maryland
Salary: $86,927 to $113,007
Closing Date: April 21, 2009
This position oversees the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), ensures compliance with NFIRS standards, maintains National Fire Center databases, and distributes NFIRS data to the public. One of year experience equivalent to GS-12 is required.


Public Health Emergency Preparedness Liaison
Oregon Department of Human Services
Bend, Oregon
Salary: $49,068 to $71,820
Closing Date: April 27, 2009
This position serves as the emergency preparedness contact for multiple counties. Duties include providing public health emergency planning and response, developing local and regional emergency exercises, and monitoring preparedness budgets. A bachelor’s degree in business, the social sciences, or a related field and four years of human services or public health experience are required.


Emergency Services Coordinator
City of Berkeley
Berkeley, California
Salary: $74,496 to $88,464
Closing Date: May 4, 2009
This position plans, organizes, and coordinates fire department emergency management and disaster mitigation, develops emergency response plans, and implements preparedness, public education, and training programs. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management, public policy, or a related field and two years of professional emergency management experience are required.


Seismic Risk Analyst
WeatherPredict Consulting
Raleigh, North Carolina
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position develops perspectives on seismic risk worldwide, including reviewing existing risk models for consistency with current science, supporting development of analytical tools, and reporting on risk and seismic events. A master’s degree in geophysical or engineering science and three years of industry experience are required.

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Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.

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