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Number 546• May 6, 2010 | Past Issues













1) Should We Have Known a Spill Was on Deepwater’s Horizon?

It’s not as if the monstrous oil spill hovering off the Gulf Coast isn’t tragic enough. Eleven lives were lost in the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig. The ensuing spill has threatened thousands of miles of coastline and wetlands. The fishing and tourism industries stand to take quite a blow. Marine life has been barraged with crude and the toxic chemicals meant to disperse it. 

But recently, in addition to all this injury, there’s been some hint of insult, as well. From the initial underestimations of the oil leak to the slow and ineffectual response to the outdated cleanup methods, there’s a sense that we should be able to expect more competency when disasters like this strike.

While that might seem like a logical expectation—especially in light of the continuing impacts of oil spills like the Exxon Valdez, the Selendang Ayu, and others—it’s rarely the case with low-probability, high-consequence hazards, experts say.

“We deal with them by ignoring them until they happen, and then overreacting,” John Harrald, a professor at George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management, told Slate. “We tend to regulate for that very specific event.”

Indeed, if you look at the “vanishingly small” possibility of a situation like the Deepwater spill occurring from an actuarial viewpoint, elaborate response plans and preventative equipment seem “draconian,” according to Slate. And that’s the stance that’s been taken by those charged with addressing the spill, as well.

“We're breaking new ground here. It's hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen is quoted as saying in a Portland Press Herald, defending the company against not writing a response plan for “what could never be in a plan, what you couldn't anticipate.”

But, in fact, BP, the company that leased the Deepwater Horizon, did anticipate just such a disaster and thought they could handle it, according to the Herald. BP submitted exploration plans expressing confidence that it could respond to the “’worst-case spill scenario,’ which it defines in a chart as a ‘volume uncontrolled blowout’ of 300,000 gallons a day,” the paper stated.

The well is now estimated to leak 5,000 barrels, or more than 200,000 gallons, per day. Although responders have attempted to quell the flow of oil with dispersants, burn the surface oil, and block it with miles of absorbent boom, weather and other factors have thwarted any efforts to mitigate the damage.

Perhaps more troubling than BP’s misplaced hubris, though, are similar misguided assessments by the Minerals Management Service—the U.S. Department of the Interior arm that regulates drilling.

According to a Washington Post article, the service estimated that the Deepwater Horizon was unlikely to generate a spill of more than 5,000 barrels and that oil would likely never reach shore. On the basis of the MMS assessments for the platfrom and the Gulf in general, BP was given a waiver—one of 250 to 400 issued each year—that exempted it from completing a detailed environmental impact study. Without it, BP could operate the drilling operation on its own terms, according to the article.

Although comments by survivors of the Exxon Valdez spill—the most recent spill of this magnitude—indicate they expect much of the same treatment they endured to continue in the Gulf, there is a chance the immensity of the disaster will spur change if its handled right, Harrald said.

The best responses to unlikely events take a holistic look at the problem, he told Slate. “[Rare events] raise opportunities to look at whole systems and get the political will and public support to do something about it.”

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2) New Super Heroes: Teenage Mutant Incident Commanders

Anyone who’s struggled with the Herculean task of getting school children out the door each morning might be surprised to learn about a recent effort that evacuated 320 of them in under five minutes. Even more amazing, perhaps, is the fact the feat was pulled of by a handful of teenagers using the power of the Incident Command System.

“Resiliency is a process that starts young,” said Camilla Yamada, a graduate intern at the Natural Hazards Center and creator of the pioneering student-led drill held April 28. “I think it's never too early to help kids learn how to become managers. We don't think of them that way because we never really give them the tools to handle the responsibility.”

Not so at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL), where Yamada first pitched the idea of training students in the ways of the National Incident Management System. The timing couldn’t have been better, since a 2008 Colorado law requires schools to incorporate NIMS and ICS into their emergency planning.

“People are looking for creative ways to work [NIMS] into their EOP [emergency operations plan],” Yamada stated. “This is an answer. RMSEL is in the process of updating their EOP, and they had not done an off-site evacuation…ever.”

The school’s inaugural off-site drill began in early April with two training sessions for the school’s senior class where they learned the basics of ICS and disaster management, worked out their command positions, and even developed tools—such as dual-sided cards for teachers to indicate their class was accounted for—to use during the drill.

When the big day came, the students sprang into their roles as incident commanders, public information and safety officers, operations and planning chiefs, and logisticians. In a scenario worthy of professional envy, the team managed to shepherd hundreds of their fellow students, Kindergarten through 11th grade, off the school grounds to a nearby park. They even identified a missing fourth grader who had been “locked” in a lab two minutes into the exercise. Everyone was back in school within 13 minutes.

“Students had a lot of fun with the responsibility,” Yamada said, adding that the drill helped them realize even crossing the street—which might be full of emergency vehicles—could be problematic in a real disaster.

The students, Yamada, and school officials are still assessing the event, which is thought to be the first time ICS-trained students have led an evacuation. Although they haven’t fully examined the strengths and weaknesses of the program, Yamada said RMSEL is interested in continuing the program with the added element of letting each senior class train the juniors to take over. Others have shown interest in testing the evolving curriculum in their schools, she said, and she’s all too happy to oblige.

“Teaching high school students the management skills in ICS will help shape tomorrow's leaders,” she stated. “Resiliency is a process, not a statement, and equipping our communities with managers of all ages is a pivotal step in that process.”

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3) Natural Hazards Observer Now Online

The latest edition of the Natural Hazards Observer is now available online. Featured articles from the May 2010 Observer include:

—Learning from the Neighbors: Tsunami Survivors Tell Their Tales
—Magnitude Seven Times Two
—Win, Lose, and Draw on the Climate Front

—What is the Chance of Successful Earthquake Prediction?

Visit the Natural Hazards Center Web site to read the May issue and past Observers or sign up to receive e-mail notifications letting you know when the latest Observer is available.

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

Call for Nominations
Samuel Henry Prince Award
International Research Committee on Disasters
Deadline: May 31, 2010
The International Sociological Association’s International Research Committee on Disasters is now accepting nominations for the Samuel Henry Prince Dissertation Award. The award encourages early identification of exceptional research by recognizing outstanding disaster research dissertations in the social and behavioral sciences. Those interested in nominating themselves or another for the award should submit a curriculum vita, dissertation abstract, and two letters of recommendation. Dissertations completed between 2006 and 2010 are eligible. For full details, read the announcement at the above link. Questions and nomination materials should be sent to Sudha Arlikatti.


Call for Feedback
Twitter Storm Reports
National Weather Service
Deadline: December 31, 2010
The National Weather Service is accepting feedback on an experimental project that uses Twitter’s geotagging feature and predetermined syntax to track storms and other extreme weather. The project gives the NWS access to on-the-ground weather reports without have to rely solely on trained spotters. A ten-question survey, available at the above link, will help the NWS evaluate the program.

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5) 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]

RESIN: Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure Networks
The intricate networks that carry our water, electricity, vehicles, and numerous other necessities allow communities to prosper in new ways. Unfortunately, they also allow for failure on an unprecedented scale. The RESIN project, funded by the National Science Foundation, will examine how this growing interdependence—physical, social, economic, and environmental—can be more resilient during crises and ultimately better managed. With a wealth of news and resources from an interdisciplinary team of researchers—including Natural Hazards Center Director Kathleen Tierney—you’ll want to check out all the RESIN site has to offer.


Communities on the Horizon
If the glossy sheen of the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill is on your horizon, then the Communities Web site is for you. This easy-to-use site is full of resources for those in the sight line of the ugly spill and anyone else who's interested. With sections devoted to news reports, volunteer opportunities, maps, hotline numbers, and even jobs, Communities on the Horizon will help you keep on top of the encroaching contamination.


Price of Peril: Homeland Security Spending by State
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has thrown billions at stemming a potential tide of terrorist threats. While some of these Homeland Security Grants have outfitted first responders to face attack, others have bought equipment that’s unused and unwanted. Visitors to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s interactive map, cobbled together from Freedom of Information Act requests, will find a full analysis of grants by state, along with documents provided to CIR by each state. 


GAO Report: U.S. Tsunami Preparedness
U.S. Tsunami preparedness has improved in the past six years, but there's still plenty of room for growth, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO examined several expanded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tsunami preparedness programs. While the GAO found that NOAA’s strategic planning could be more complete, the agency has made headway in expanding the reach of it’s programs and improved how it funds mitigation projects. Practical application of research results and assessing barriers to program participation are among the areas that still need work, according to the report.


FEMA For Your Phone
When you need disaster assistance information on the fly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has you covered. FEMA has just introduced a new mobile Web site designed especially for those times you need to use your phone to log in. Check out the site at the link above, or listen to Craig Fugate tell you why it’s great in this YouTube video.

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6) 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 27, 2010
Better Flood Management Conference
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled
This conference appraises current research with the goal of advancing flood management technology, flood warnings, and emergency response. Central Texas will be used as a case study to illustrate the viability of flood modeling and mapping technologies.


June 21-24, 2010
2010 National Urban Area Security Initiative Conference
National Urban Area Security Initiative
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cost and Registration: Not posted
This conference shares UASI best practices and examines the existing program. Session tracks include planning and exercises, public and private partnerships, and community preparedness.


June 29-July 1, 2010
2010 International Climate Change Adaptation Conference
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility
Gold Coast, Australia
Cost and Registration: $978, open until filled
This conference looks at climate change adaptation research and its contributions to planning and policy, and discusses ways to improve adaptation decisions in the face of climate change uncertainty. Topics will feature issues related to regional and global adaptation implementation.


July 22-23, 2010
Aid and International Development Forum 2010
World Bank, Institute for Advanced Studies on the United Nations, and others
Washington, D.C.
Cost and Registration: Not posted
This forum explores how technology and best practices can improve the coordination, response, and cross-sector understanding of humanitarian aid organizations. Conference topics include climate change, global disaster preparedness, and transitioning from disaster relief to long-term development.


July 25-29, 2010
Conference on Earthquake Engineering
Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the Canadian Association for Earthquake Engineering
Toronto, Canada
Cost and Registration: $950 before June 15, open until filled
This conference applies the most recent knowledge and techniques to improve earthquake understanding and mitigation. Sessions include scenario spectra for ground motion and risk calculation, directions in geotechnical earthquake engineering, and societal dimensions of earthquakes and other disasters.

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8) 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.]

Associate Director
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Madison, Wisconsin
Salary: Commensurate with experience
Closing Date: June 1, 2010
This position assists the executive director in managing organization activities and finances, developing positions on national policy, and building relationships with Congress, agencies, and other organizations. A bachelor’s degree, ten years in a management position, experience in floodplain management disciplines, and successful project development and completion are required.


Disaster Management/Disaster Risk Reduction Manager
Canadian Red Cross
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: May 26, 2010
This position develops disaster risk reduction strategies, identifies planning resources, helps identify and manage future risks, and builds staff and volunteer capacity. A master’s degree in disaster management or a related field, fluency in French, three to five years experience in disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and programming, and at least three years experience managing relief and development programs are required.


Project Manager
United Nations Development Program
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: May 10, 2010
This position advises local and provincial governments and the National Disaster Center, formulates and implements disaster risk reduction initiatives, facilitates disaster management, and develops strategic partnerships. A master’s degree related to disaster risk management, seven years in a management position, and the ability to design, manage, and evaluate a complex multi-disciplinary capacity-building program are required.


Emergency Management Assistance Resource and Preparation Manager
Cook County Emergency Management Agency
Chicago, Illinois
Salary: $38,000
Closing Date: May 10, 2010
This position serves as an advisor and spokesperson for the Cook County emergency management program, assists in maintaining emergency procedures, and helps deliver emergency preparedness and safety awareness presentations to community groups. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management or a related field and completion of standard NIMS coursework are required.


Emergency Management Coordinator
Florida Emergency Preparedness Association
Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position manages disaster mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery activities including conducting staff training and emergency exercises and developing emergency plans. A bachelor’s degree in communications or a related field, three years in an emergency management or preparedness program position, and emergency management coursework 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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