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Number 556 • November 4, 2010 | Past Issues













1) When Early Warnings Are Too Late: Near-Shore Tsunamis Test Limits of Technology

A tsunami that struck west of Sumatra last week brought with it a torrent of questions and speculation about why villagers weren’t warned in advance of the ten-foot waves that buffeted the Mentawai Islands.

Local officials claimed early warning systems had been vandalized, while alert agencies said the systems worked fine and warnings were issued accordingly. Scientists reminded the public no system is fail-safe, especially when a quake strikes close to shore like it did in this case.

While most of these responses are valid (the vandalism may or may not have happened), they don’t address the fact that nearly 450 people are dead, ten villages are decimated, and those at risk have one less reason to put their trust in tsunami warning systems.

In Mentawai, scientists estimated waves were striking the remote beaches about five minutes after the quake and less than 15 seconds after a warning had been sent to regional agencies to sound the alert, according a Nature blog.

“Earthquake and sea-level monitoring systems are in place, but what has proven more difficult is how to get warnings out to remote areas in time,” UN Disaster Risk Specialist Tiziana Bonapace told the BBC. “This remains the weakest link in the system, and unfortunately the tsunami hit one of the farthest outlying islands. Further exacerbating the situation is that buoys do malfunction, and many countries have been experiencing difficulties in this regard.”

Even when the equipment is in good working order, it can take valuable time to transmit and analyze the data. Nearly a year ago, 150 people died in Samoa due to a similar near-shore quake. In that incident, it took 18 minutes to issue a warning—about the same time it took the waves to reach the shore, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

While in hindsight the lapse might seem avoidable, scientists have to carefully weigh caution with accuracy, James Goff, director of the Australian Tsunami Research Centre, told the Monitor.

“There would be a lot of false alarms, then when a real tsunami happened, people would ignore the warning and get killed,” he said.

A good example of a tsunami false alarm came in late February, when nearly 150,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas in Hawaii and warnings were issued as far away as California. Although data from Pacific Tsunami Warning System buoys suggested an earthquake off the coast of Chile would create monster waves, they somehow dissipated, maxing at about three feet by the time they reached the shore.

“Forecasting tsunamis is a relatively new science. We learn a lot every time we have an event like this,” National Weather Service Tsunami Program Coordinator Jenifer Rhoades told the Washington Post at the time. “We dodged a bullet this time, but since tsunami science is not exact, we erred on the side of caution.”

So what’s the answer, considering the limits of technology and the delicate art of maintaining public trust? Shoring up the science with a combination of public awareness and clear communication, according to John Orcutt, chair of a recently released National Academies report on tsunami warnings and preparedness.

“For a tsunami warning system to be effective, it must operate flawlessly, and emergency officials must coordinate seamlessly and communicate clearly,” he stated in a release.  "However, if a large earthquake near shore triggers a tsunami, it could reach the coast within minutes, allowing hardly any time to disseminate warnings and for the public to react.  Education and preparation are necessary to ensure that people know how to recognize natural cues—such as earthquake tremors or receding of the water line—and take appropriate action, even if they do not receive an official warning.”

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2) Mad Science: Will Geoengineering Bring Ruin or Resolution to Climate Woes?

In comic books, it’s generally the maniacal villain who builds the weather domination device, intent on ruling the world. Real life, however, with its looming threat of climate change, might force the good guys into that role.

Problem is, nobody can agree whether tinkering with the climate is a good guy kind of thing to do. The time is near for our hero to choose a path, if a recent flurry of political statements on geoengineering—which would modify Earth’s climate in an attempt to counteract climate change—are any evidence.

Since late September, both the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the House Committee on Science and Technology have issued reports supporting open dialogue and targeted research on how the nation might advance geoengineering.

Even if climate engineering efforts aren't mad science, they smack of hubris. Most current proposals fall into one of two areas—plans that would remove carbon dioxide from the air and those that would cool the climate by reflecting sunlight away from the earth, much like the natural effects of a volcanic explosion.

Although neither report recommends taking steps to engineer the climate, they nod to the possibility that the nation might need to some day.

“If climate change is one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat,” Committee Chairman Bart Gordon states in the forward to the report, Engineering the Climate: Research Needs and Strategies for International Collaboration

The report, completed in conjunction with the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, calls for transparency, international collaboration, and an assessment of geoengineering's risks. Similarly, the GAO report recommends forming a clear research strategy as part of the federal response to climate change. 

Not everyone believes climate engineering is such a good idea. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a moratorium last week "until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks," according to Nature News.

In addition to the possible dangers of toying with the atmosphere, detractors are concerned that a successful climate engineering scheme might be a temporary fix that would lessen public resolve to limit fossil fuel consumption.

Although the moratorium isn’t legally binding and many have criticized its vague language and head-in-the-sand viewpoint, it could still have a chilling effect on research, leading Congressman Gordon to send up a signal that we're tying our heroes' hands.

As he writes in the report, “Scientific research and risk assessment is essential to developing an adequate scientific basis on which to justify or prohibit any action related to climate change, including climate engineering activities.”

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3) Remembering John Solomon: Readiness Guru Embodied Informed, Prepared Citizenship

The world of disaster preparedness lost a valuable asset Monday with the passing of John Solomon, author of In Case of Emergency, Read Blog. Solomon, a journalist and true champion of personal disaster readiness, died of complications from leukemia. He was 47.

Solomon will be remembered as a crusader for empowering members of the public to help themselves during all stages of disaster. Making disaster knowledge accessible and easy to understand was among the many strengths of his blog, which never hesitated to have fun as well as inform.

"John was both an important ally and critic of emergency managers,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said in a statement. “He pushed all of us to always do more to engage and prepare the public—and set the standard for what it meant to be part of our nation's emergency management team."

Solomon began blogging about preparedness in 2008 as he began to research his similarly named, In Case of Emergency, Read Book. While he hoped to use the blog as a way to collect and share background for the book (which is not yet published), it soon took on a life of its own.

Along with Solomon’s own insights as an everyday Joe learning to be prepared, the blog is a trove of resources and interviews with emergency preparedness players big and small. His excellent “What Should We Tell the Public?” series features opinions from the likes of Fugate, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, New York Emergency Management Director John Gibb, and many more.

More information on Solomon and how he became involved in communicating preparedness can be found in his obituary in the New York Times.

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4) Standing Tall: Gilbert White Memorial Flood Level Marker Becomes Reality

After many years of planning, a graceful glass and granite obelisk now stands in memory of the many contributions made by Gilbert White to our understanding of flood hazards.

The Gilbert F. White Memorial Flood Level Marker, designed by White's daughter Mary White and artist Christian Muller, is both a practical and educational tribute. The flood marker's location on the Boulder Creek Path at Broadway Street is the nexus of a major transportation corridor and Boulder's major floodway—and where the greatest Boulder flood damage will occur. Placement in this high-traffic area promises to educate the many passerby about flood risk.

Conceived in 2006, the sculpted granite and recycled jade float-glass marker was installed last week. Instructional signs, a seating area, and landscaping will be completed in the future. For more information, including pictures of the new landmark, visit the Gilbert F. White Memorial page.

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

Call for Articles
Special Pediatric Edition
Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness
Deadline: December 1, 2010
Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness is accepting articles related to the care of children in disasters. Original research, observational studies, reviews, and scholarly commentary on pediatric medical and public health management will be accepted. Instructions for authors and online submission information are available at the journal’s Web site. 


Call for Applications
National Fire Academy
U.S. Fire Administration
Deadline: December 15, 2009

The National Fire Academy is accepting applications for its final session of 2010-2011. Classes begin April 1 and run through September 30. Tuition is free and all instruction and course materials are provided at no cost. Transportation and lodging are also provided for students representing fire departments, rescue squads, and state and local governments. A course schedule and application materials are available online.

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6) 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]

FEMA Disaster Preparedness Challenge
The gauntlet has been thrown—the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to know how you can better prepare your community for disaster, and how FEMA can help make that happen. Using the new format, FEMA will be collecting ideas and monitoring discussions until January 3, when it will pick an idea to hold up as the most enlightened.


Disaster Information Management Research Center
The National Library of Medicine has a new look and lots of new perks at its Disaster Information Management Research Center Web site. Visitors will find easy access to the center’s collection of emergency preparedness, response, and recovery resources, as well as timely features—such as on the Haitian cholera epidemic. Links to articles and tools in PubMed, the Resource Guide for Public Health Preparedness, and a variety of other systems will help responders and caregivers easily find the information they need on the go.


UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Initiative
Is your city ready for a disaster? If not, you’ll want to check out this United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction site devoted to building local preparedness and risk awareness. Community groups, businesses, and local governments are invited to tap UNISDR resources such as workshops, media and outreach tools, and policy making experiences as they work toward making their hometown less vulnerable to disaster. The initiative is designed to be useful to every level of an organization, so get your group on board today.


Faces of Fire
Home fire extinguishers and smoke detectors can only help so much when fire strikes. That’s why the National Fire Protection Association wants to make homeowners understand the value of automatic sprinklers in saving lives. Faces of fire features real people telling stories of their fire experiences. From being horribly burned to losing loved ones, NFPA is hoping these accounts will educate people about one more way to stay safe. Fact sheets and advocacy letter templates are also featured.


Making Our Hospitals Safe from Disaster
Wanna show off your ninja-like reflexes and help make hospitals safe? Now there’s a Facebook page for that. The World Health Organization created the Making Our Hospitals Safe from Disaster page to spread awareness of hospitals' disaster vulnerability and how to make them safer. You don’t need to be on Facebook to read visitor comments and announcements, get tips on what you can do, or to test your skill at the React game (although you do have to log in for bragging rights).


Hurricanes: Science and Society
This newly launched Web site has lot to offer educators and others just beginning to explore hurricanes and how they impact coastal communities. While heavy on the natural science (it’s a little fluffier where societal impacts are concerned), there’s still a lot of well organized and easy-to-access information. Hurricane modeling and forecasting, mitigation and preparedness, and hurricane histories and case studies are among the resources offered.

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7) 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]

November 30 to December 2, 2010
Canada-United States Northern Oil and Gas Research Forum
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
Calgary, Canada
Cost and Registration: $400
This conference will examine the direction of future oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the coast of Alaska, as well as its North Slope and Mackenzie Delta. Topics include arctic oil spill prevention and management, the impact of oil and gas on coastal habitats, and offshore platform safety.


December 1-3, 2010
Third Asian Conference on Earthquake Engineering
Asian Institute of Technology, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and others
Bangkok, Thailand
Cost and Registration: $350, open until filled
This conference will address how building safer environments can reduce disaster risk, with the aim of promoting new ways of thinking about seismology, earthquake engineering, seismic risk, and disaster mitigation. Topics include enhancing community-based disaster risk reduction, promoting safe environments, and understanding and mitigating earthquake hazards.


December 5-8, 2010
30th Annual Meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis
Society for Risk Analysis
Salt Lake City, Utah
Cost and Registration: $490 before November 5, open until filled
This conference will discuss methods for effective risk analysis and the use of risk analysis in decision making. Session topics include trust and uncertainty in the theoretical constructs of risk, evolving risk communication technology, risk governance and climate change, and response to natural disaster.


December 6-10, 2010
Fifth Caribbean Conference on Comprehensive Disaster Management
Caribbean Disaster Management Agency
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Cost and Registration: $360, open until filled
This conference will examine Caribbean disaster issues, measure regional progress, and promote disaster management best practices. Session topics include disaster mitigation in engineering and geology, emergency response operations, and integrating climate change and disaster risk reduction into national planning.


December 13-16, 2010
Shared Strategies for Homeland Security
Denver Urban Area Security Initiative
Denver, Colorado
Cost and Registration: $350, open until filled
This conference addresses disaster preparedness, prevention, response, and recovery from multiple viewpoints. Topics include managing mass casualties, integrating citizens in preparedness and response, protecting infrastructure, and responding to hazardous materials.


December 13-17, 2010
Extreme Environmental Events
European Science Foundation
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Cost and Registration: $943 before November 30, register by September 28
This conference will assess current understanding of the frequency and magnitude of extreme environmental events, the uncertainty associated with such events, and how those uncertainties affect climate prediction. Conference sessions include statistical methodology, modeling extreme events, and the impact of extreme events on the environment.

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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.]

Disaster Management/Logistics Delegate
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Pyongyang, North Korea
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: November 11, 2010
This position analyzes disaster risk and vulnerability, supports community-based risk reduction, assists with long-term disaster management strategies, and develops initiatives to address climate change-related risk. A bachelor’s degree in a related field and experience delivering humanitarian aid in developing countries are required.


International Programs and Emergencies Media Coordinator
Oxfam Australia
Melbourne, Australia
Salary: $61,930
Closing Date: November 15, 2010
This position pitches potential stories about Oxfam’s work to news agencies, coordinates media response in emergencies, and increases Oxfam brand awareness in Australia. Experience as a journalist or media advisor in an international or emergency context, the ability to produce releases and other material on deadline, expertise in establishing media contacts, and a sound understanding of different media are required.


Watch Analyst, GS-11/12
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Atlanta, Georgia
Salary: $59,987 to $93,470
Closing Date: November 10, 2010
This position manages an all-hazard, 24-hour watch operation, monitors the preparedness of regional response teams, collects and analyzes information to maintain situational awareness, and generates daily situation reports and summaries. One year of experience at GS-10 or above is required.


Emergency Human Resources Coordinator
International Rescue Committee
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position oversees humanitarian human resources; participates in emergency needs assessments, emergency intervention designs, and funding development; and manages communication during emergency deployment. A bachelor’s degree in human resources or emergency management and five years experience are required.


Medical Emergency Planning Specialist
County of San Bernardino
San Bernardino, California
Salary: $51,625 to $65,915
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position creates the emergency management plan for the public health department, analyzes potential disaster-related public health impacts, coordinates disaster health care and planning with other county departments, and conducts emergency health studies. A bachelor’s degree in health sciences or a related field and two years experience in health care or emergency services are required.


Shelter Coordinator
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: November 27, 2010
This position manages the transitional sheltering response, integrates emergency and long-term sheltering, and develops shelter strategies in all phases. A bachelor’s degree in planning, structural, or civil engineering, project management knowledge, four years of humanitarian aid experience, and competency in developing shelter strategies 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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