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Number 543 • March 25, 2010 | Past Issues













1) Flood Officials Fear Fleecing of America Segment Sends a Bad Message

An inflammatory report insinuating that the Federal Emergency Management Agency manipulated the National Flood Insurance Program to bilk money from the public has unleashed a torrent of responses from floodplain and emergency managers across the country.

The NBC Nightly News segment “FEMA Forcing Homeowners to Buy Unnecessary Flood Insurance,” aired as part of an ongoing series called, “The Fleecing of America.” The nearly three-minute piece—which, ironically, hit the airwaves during National Flood Safety Awareness Week—focuses on a South Los Angeles resident who felt his neighborhood was unfairly included in a floodplain when to FEMA updated its 30-year-old flood insurance rate maps. The resident, Isaac Robinson, successfully argued that his neighborhood should not be included and is not required to purchase flood insurance.

At issue isn’t whether FEMA sometimes erroneously designates rate areas, but the damage done by a national news agency perpetuating the myth that flood insurance is not only unnecessary, but used as a scam to fatten government coffers.

“The segment depicted homeowners as “victims” when they had to buy flood insurance because they live in an area where they had lived for 40 years but have not experienced a flood,” wrote Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “In reality, those homeowners live in or near a mapped flood zone and face a very real risk of flooding. The impression left was that it is okay to ignore one’s flood risk.”

Larson’s letter is one of a collection of letters sent to NBC by flood officials angry at what they see as irresponsible and mendacious reporting.

“Just as there is a 26% chance that a home will flood over a typical 30-year mortgage, there is only a 9% chance that it will burn during that same timeframe. Surely NBC would not air a segment that advocates that people not carry fire insurance?” wrote Mississippi Emergency Management Agency NFIP Coordinator Al Goodman. “A national news organization should exist to educate its viewers concerning the facts and not as a 'got you' form of entertainment.”

The “got yous” of the piece include correspondent George Lewis ominously asking if FEMA is “trying to balance the books by soaking the public?” and claiming a local TV station “actually got a FEMA engineer to admit the maps were faulty.” In a particularly spurious display, Lewis stands a few feet from Robinson, with an insurance rate zone line purportedly between them.

“So the water is supposed to magically stop at some point here on this line?” Lewis asks.

“Of course floods do not magically stop at any line on a map,” Larson writes. “Please know this—updated flood hazard maps do not put people in the floodplain, nature and construction do that. Maps just show them that they are at risk.”

Although the Nightly News coverage might be sensational, the organization is far from the first to claim changes to NFIP designations are a response to budget cuts and the strain of responding to Hurricane Katrina.

“I think we’re paying for Katrina,” Cathy Vashey, whose home was designated in a floodplain in September, told the New York Times. “I think FEMA needs the money and they want us to pay for all the money they spent for the other emergency.”

The conclusion might seem logical to homeowners hard-pressed to find the extra cash for flood insurance, but the culprit is actually a $1 billion project aimed at remapping insurance rate zones based on better geographical information, changes to built environments, and new ground surveys, according to the Times article.

Sometimes risk areas are eliminated from the maps, which determine zones that have a one percent or more chance of serious flooding in any one year. Sometime areas are expanded or added—and that’s not always a bad thing, as some Massachusetts residents living in a newly designated floodplain learned after a severe storm last week.

“All of a sudden, I’m thinking, ‘How ironic,’’’ Cambridge resident Ellen Pridham told the Boston Globe. “Everything is destroyed.’’

The situation points to the flipside of the NBC story and one nearly every flood official pointed out—the NFIP exists to protect people. Not only homeowners who could loose everything in a catastrophe, but federal taxpayers as well.

The major reason federal taxpayers pay billions of dollars each year for disaster relief is because those who live at risk of natural hazards (earthquakes, wildfires, wind, and predominately floods) do not insure themselves against these natural hazards,” Larson writes. “In essence, encouraging homeowners who do not insure themselves against natural hazards results in development in high risk areas that must subsidized by all federal taxpayers. That is the real Fleecing of America!”

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2) FEMA Trailers Raise Fears of Formaldehyde and Unfair Trade

The chopping block might seem like the logical destination for thousands of formaldehyde-filled mobile homes that sickened Hurricane Katrina victims and embarrassed the Federal Emergency Management Agency—but nearly 120,000 of the tainted trailers ended up on the auction block instead.

Despite health and environmental concerns and fears of a market deluge, FEMA auctioned most of the remaining Katrina trailers on January 29, according to the Washington Post. The sale is expected to be final April 3, after an antitrust review by the Justice Department, the paper stated.

“This is like history repeating itself,” Marty Horine, who bought a FEMA trailer in 2007, told the Post. “People are all going to buy them, move into them and then start getting sick.”

The trailers, most of which are travel models, are not meant to be used for housing and bear a warning sticker to that effect. Although formaldehyde might still be present, officials believe they’ll be safe for recreational use, according to the article. They also claim the trailers are in such bad shape that no one would want to live in them.

Critics think that saying the trailers won’t be used for housing is disingenuous.
In a March 16 op-ed piece, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson stated that “no warning sticker can absolve the government, the wholesalers and the eventual retailers of these trailers and mobile homes of their moral responsibility.”

“Given the state of the economy,” he wrote, “…it is lunacy to pretend that families will not buy these units as primary residences.”

The general manager of Ohio-based Greenlawn Homes, the highest bidder for the chemical-laden trailers, seemed to support critics' claims that they would be used despite the warnings. He told the Columbus Dispatch that the trailers are “not junk,” and the Washington Post that formaldehyde contamination was a “non-topic” consumers don’t ask about.

In addition to formaldehyde, some lawmakers worry about the market effects of releasing a bevy of low-priced mobile homes. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to review any antitrust determination related to the trailers' sale.

“The trailer industry estimates 2010 sales at approximately 200,000 units, however the government is now further complicating matters by adding an additional 100,000 trailers into the marketplace,” Thompson stated in a press release. “So we now face both the health and safety risk of these units, and the added economic impact on an already depressed industry.”

Although still concerned about health risks, Thompson supported a failed plan in January to send the trailers to Haiti, according to an Associated Press article. That scheme was likely motivated by a desire to keep the trailers off the market as well, according to the AP article.

From FEMA's perspective, there’s little choice but to offload the 145,000 homes, which it bought for $2.7 billion in 2005 and has paid more than $220 million to store, according to the Post. Although the agency will clear less than $280 million on the 130,000 trailers it auctioned, FEMA Associate Deputy Administrator David Garratt indicated the bigger value might come from closing the book on the whole sordid tale.

“I'm certainly hopeful we're approaching the end of the story for the Katrina units…” he told the Post. “I'm hopeful we can reduce the inventory of units which we can no longer use, and actively maintain the units we can use in actual disasters.”

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3) Twitter and Technology Bring Quake Monitoring Down to Earth

Earthquake science, by nature, isn’t a lofty endeavor, but two recent experiments are doing even more to bring seismology to folks on the ground. Thanks to software, social media, and computer sensors, the next team of expert earthquake monitors could just as easily be a cadre of kids as a squad of scientists.

Among the latest in do-it-yourself seismology is the Quake-Catcher Network, a Stanford–University of California Riverside project that links computers to create a web of constant monitoring. This isn’t a swarm of supercomputers dedicated to crunching temblor data; instead, the network’s computers belong to volunteers, from mom and pop laptops to classroom desktops.

The computers use sensors called accelerometers to detect shaking—many laptops have them already installed and desktops can be easily outfitted with external models that cost about $50, according to the Los Angeles Times. When shaking is reported from multiple computers in a concentrated area, the data is uploaded to a central computer system, giving an idea of the size, scope, and direction of the quake. The personal computers would act in the same way as more expensive and difficult to install seismometers, according to the article.

“Ideally,” Project lead Elizabeth Cochran told the Times, “we would have seismometers in every building, or at least on every block. And in tall buildings, we'd have multiple sensors [on different floors]. That way, we would be able to actually get much higher detail…images of how the ground shakes during an earthquake.”

The more people join the network, the more accurate it becomes. The thinking is that a full-fledged network would be able to provide some degree of early warning, possibly allowing utilities and mass transit to be shut down before sever shaking, according to the article.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey is tapping into a much more established network for early quake info—the Twitter stream.

Paul Earle, director at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, has just released the “1st-ever Government case study on Twitter 101,” according to the USGS Twitter feed. A wordier account of Earle’s study, OMG Earthquake! Can Twitter Improve Earthquake Response?, in the Christian Science Monitor details how the USGS team was able to get on-the-ground information from tweets about two minutes before the more formal Did You Feel It? reporting system.

The study examined tweet data from a March 30, 2009, earthquake in California. The first tweet (“omfg, earthquake”) from 4.3 magnitude quake came 19 seconds after the quake, according to the study. “The potential response time for a Twitter-based earthquake detector is impressive,” the study states. “By running a simple automatic algorithm, the Morgan Hill earthquake could have been detected in under a minute.”

The study did identify problems with using Twitter data, including replication of data that is repeated via “retweets” and the inability to verify a tweeter’s geographic location, according to the CS Monitor article. Some of those issues have been addressed by Twitter advances since the study was completed. In any case though, the Twitter model is still useful as a way to get additional information quickly, Earle said.

“As an earthquake responder, at the same time I would have received an email that had magnitudes and an epicenter for an earthquake, I'd have 100 short, personal accounts of what happened,” Earle is quoted as saying in the Christian Science Monitor. “Most of those will only say 'earthquake,' but others will say a little bit more.”

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4) You’ve Got Natural Hazards Observer: Get Notified of New Issues by E-Mail

More and more Natural Hazards Observer subscribers are choosing to take their Observer green by downloading a PDF from our Web site, and if you’re one of them, we’re making it easier for you. Our new Observer e-mail notification list will send you a message with a convenient link every time we post the latest issue. Since the print edition of the Observer is on hiatus until November, there couldn’t be a better time to try this new service.

Simply go to our new information update page, enter as much information as you’d like and click the “Subscribe me to the Observer” button. You’ll be added to the e-mail list, but your print subscription options will remain the same.

Even if you're not interested being on the Observer e-mail list, you might want to take a moment to update your information securely online. It’s the best way to make sure we’re square when the Observer returns to print.

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5) Mary Fran Myers Scholarship Deadline Monday

Less than a week remains to apply for the 2010 Mary Fran Myers Scholarship. Scholarship recipients receive financial support allowing them to attend the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, July 10-13. Scholarships can cover part or all of transportation, meal, and Workshop registration costs.
Hazards practitioners, students, and researchers with a strong commitment to disaster management and mitigation and who currently reside in North America or the Caribbean are eligible to enter. Applicants do not need to be citizens of these areas to qualify. Applicants from other world regions will be eligible for the scholarship in 2011.
Previous attendees of the Natural Hazards Workshop are not eligible for the 2010 Mary Fran Myers Scholarship. Preference is given to those who can demonstrate financial need.

For more information on past scholarship winners and how to apply, visit the Mary Fran Myers Scholarship page at the Natural Hazards Center Web site. Applications must be received by March 29.

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

Call for Participation  
First Responder Health and Safety Risk Survey
National Volunteer Fire Council
Deadline: May 1, 2010
The National Volunteer Fire Council is conducting a survey to determine the health risks faced by firefighters and other emergency responders and how those risks might be changing. Results from the survey will be used in the second edition of the group’s Emerging Health and Safety Issues in the Fire Service report. NVFC estimates the survey will take 10-15 minutes to complete. More information is available at the link above.


Call for Applications
Advanced Studies in Disaster Risk Reduction
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Deadline: May 30, 2010

The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is now taking applications for its four-week continuing education course in Advanced Studies in Disaster Risk Reduction. This year’s course will focus on vulnerabilities and capacities in the context of climate change. Researchers and professionals specializing in disaster risk are encouraged to apply for the two-part course, which will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, from September 6-17 and Bangalore, India, from November 8-19. Visit the link above for more program information, eligibility, and application instructions.

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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]

Natural Disaster and Extreme Weather Ebrary
The folks at ebrary have foraged through an array of government reports and Web sites on natural hazards topics and cobbled together this impressive selection of downloadable information. Site visitors can access documents using a variety of searches, take notes and highlight passages, and even share and archive their findings.


Florida StormSmart Coasts
Florida is the latest state to get StormSmart—a series of targeted Web sites that make sure coastal residents and visitors wise up to the dangers of storms and flooding. With a wealth of information on planning, emergency services, legal and regulatory issues, infrastructure, and grants and funding, you’d have to be a dummy not to check it out.


Health and Human Services Tweets
Don’t Twitter? That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the words of wisdom that filter through the more than 50 HHS Twitter streams. With one visit to this site, created by Ignite Health’s Fabio Gratton, you can check in with the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and many more. 


NOAA Climate Service Webinars
As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gets ready to launch its new Climate Service, it will host a series of Webinars allowing those interested to ask questions and give input. Each Webinar is aimed at a specific group; the next will reach out to the academic research community on April 1, 2010.

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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]

March 29 to April 2, 2010
2010 National Hurricane Conference
National Hurricane Conference
Orlando, Florida
Cost and Registration: $350, open until filled
This conference will examine new ideas and lessons learned to improve hurricane preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery. Session topics include emergency planning and special needs preparation, managing floodplain development, animals in disasters, debris management, crisis communications, and mass care.


April 8-9, 2010
2010 Annual Emergency Preparedness Conference
Joint Commission Resources
Washington, D.C.
Cost and Registration: $629, open until filled
This conference will present emergency planning methodologies, best practices, and case studies to advance disaster preparedness among healthcare workers. Session topics include disaster medicine, patient and clinical support services, and security. A preconference event will improve participants' understanding of changing emergency management standards.


June 1-4, 2010
Understanding Risk: Innovation in Disaster Risk Assessment
The World Bank
Washington, D.C.
Cost and Registration: Not posted
This conference will examine innovations in disaster risk assessment with a focus on hazard and vulnerability modeling, geographic information systems, insurance and reinsurance, and climate change adaptation. The 2010 Outreach Meeting of the Global Earthquake Model Initiative and the Washington, D.C. Crisis Camp will take place in conjunction with this event.


June 4-5, 2010
Katrina Research Summit
University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast
Long Beach, Mississippi
Cost and Registration: $50, closes April 15
This conference will present research on the natural, social, political, and economic effects of Hurricane Katrina in hopes of making communities threatened by natural disasters become more resilient.


June 13-26, 2010
Climate Change and Its Impacts: Resilience and Adaptation to Changes in Precipitation
Brown International Advanced Research Institute
Providence, Rhode Island
Cost and Registration: See Web site

This conference will examine hydrologic cycle changes; ecological, agricultural, economic, and social system resilience; and trans-regional adaptation policies. Session topics include expected patterns of climate change, extreme events, human disease and migration, biodiversity, and food security.

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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.]

Program Manager, Earthquake Response Chile
Oxfam GB
Santiago, Chile
Salary: $33,130 to $43,421
Closing Date: March 26, 2010
This position manages the earthquake response program by ensuring aid to Chileans, representing Oxfam in public forums, meeting administrative and logistical needs, and leading public policy work. Experience in emergency and development program management, rapid coordination skills, advocacy and policy work, and knowledge of the Red Cross Code of Conduct are required.


Public Information Officer, Haiti
Mercy Corps
Portland, Oregon
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: May 9, 2010
This position communicates Haiti earthquake relief and recovery efforts through human interest stories, reports, and other communications, maintains detailed information on fundraising, develops potential news stories for the communications team, and visually documents Haiti programs. A bachelor’s degree in journalism or related field, three years experience in fundraising, marketing, or communications, and the ability to travel to Haiti are required.


Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist
The World Bank
Jakarta, Indonesia
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: April 7, 2010
This position builds internal capacity for disaster risk reduction, facilitates the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery Phase II program, and supports partners in the reduction and management of disasters. A master’s degree in a relevant field, eight years experience working with disaster or climate change issues, and extensive experience working with government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and academia in relation to disasters are required.


Mass Care Specialist
Fairfax, Virginia
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position supports the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mass care and emergency assistance programs. Requirements include the ability to deploy for 30 days or more during disasters, experience in mass care shelter and temporary housing installation, completion of FEMA independent study classes, and an FBI background check.


Emergency Planning Coordinator
Contra Costa County Health Services Department
Martinez, California
Salary: $56,674 to $68,888
Closing Date: April 2, 2010
This position assists in emergency planning, maintains group preparedness, response, and recovery programs, briefs county officials on emergency issues, and provides preparedness training to specialized teams and the public. A bachelor’s degree related to disaster or emergency management, one year of experience in emergency preparedness, and a valid California driver’s license are required.


Deputy Program Manager, GS-15
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Washington, D.C.
Salary: $123,758 to $155,500
Closing Date: April 12, 2010
This position ensures those affected by disasters can access program assistance. Responsibilities include directing three virtual processing/customer contact centers, providing oversight of data tracking systems, and responding to correspondence from Congress, the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the general public. One year of experience at the level of GS-14 or above is required.

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