University of Colorado at Boulder CU-Boulder Home CU-Boulder Search CU-Boulder A to Z Campus Map

Number 567 • May 5, 2011 | Past Issues













1) Thick as Mud: Nearly a Century of Lessons on the Levee Can’t Breach Bad Practices

While record rains roil the depths of the Mississippi River and drive it from its banks, commotion over a deliberate levee breach by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatens to muddy debate over the basic wisdom of living and doing business in a floodplain.

The corps' Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who also serves as president of the Mississippi River Commission, made the tough decision to breach the Birds Point levee Monday—despite public outcry and an unsuccessful lawsuit by the State of Missouri. The breach sent about 550,000 cubic feet of water per second into the already flooded 130,000-acre Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. About 90 houses and acres of farmland were affected. A subsequent breach was made further south, near New Madrid, Missouri, on Tuesday and a third was planned for Thursday, according to the Southeast Missourian.

“These are people’s homes, their livelihoods,” Russ Davis, chief of the corps’ operations division, told the New York Times days before the levee was breached. “We really don’t want to do this.”

But a historic 61-foot crest of the river near Cairo, Illinois—which stands on the bank opposite the intentionally breached levee—became enough of a threat that officials had no choice but to activate the floodway. Although many news reports have painted Walsh's decision as a choice to drown rich Missouri farmland to save the poor and fading town of Cairo, in actuality, the entire levee system as far south as Louisiana was in jeopardy. Two other floodways in Louisiana might need to be opened before the end of the week, according to the Missourian.

“The sacrifice that these people are making is for the greater good,” the corps’ Jim Pogue is quoted as saying by CNN. “Their sacrifices are going to benefit hundreds of thousands of people all through this region. It's not just Cairo. It's people all through this part of the country.”

Those affected are understandably distraught and much has been made of their plight. Less attention, however, has been focused on the risks they took by living in the floodplain to begin with. While it may seem obvious that areas designated as floodways are meant to be flooded, the concept and the reality can be harder to reconcile, especially when long periods pass between operation.

In the case of the Birds Point levee, the last forced breach of the levee was in 1937 with another close call in 1950, according to a Mississippi River Commission information paper on the floodway. Apparently that was enough time for some area residents to fail to take precautions for the inevitable. Some, like Larry and Cathy Allred, who just built a new house in floodway, were unable to purchase insurance because of the risk. Others inherited property in the area after the record 1927 flood inspired the federal government to build the floodway system. For those owners, the right of the Army Corps to operate the floodway has always been at issue.

While floodplain managers, emergency officials, and environmental agencies have long opined against floodplain development, tax-starved municipalities—the same ones residents trust to protect community interests—often allow it. And those official blessings can create a cavalier attitude toward flood risk.

“In some cases the [100-year flood] standard has actually increased flood risk,” wrote Rising Tide author John Barry in the Wall Street Journal recently. “Developers push for levee construction, a levee gets built, homeowners move in thinking they're safe and don't buy flood insurance, since it's not required. Then a flood wipes them out.”

Although developer profits aren’t an issue in the case of the Birds Point floodway, the lure of extremely fertile, yet comparatively inexpensive farmland provided the same type of incentive to live under the threat of flood. It’s that willingness, perhaps even more so than a deliberate levee breach, that’s the real tragedy and one that’s bound to be repeated. Regardless of which side of the levee one lives one, eventually the water will flow your direction.

“Once again this shows that conflict arises when humans start manipulating natural river systems,” Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, wrote in an e-mail Friday. “Water in the system must go somewhere—if it can’t spread out and store a portion of that water until the flood passes, the level in the river will go higher to build more energy…. The water must go somewhere and often is pushed onto someone else.”

Back to Top

2) Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Invisible Systems Are Vulnerable, Too 

It was with you at the ATM, it was with you in your car; it’s probably right in front of you as you read this. Chances are you carry it in your pocket or purse, as well as having it strewn about your house. It helped create all those nifty things you like, too—plowed roads, sewer systems, mountain highways. It makes modern life possible.

It’s the Global Positioning System, and it’s only a matter of time until we have to live without it.

Although you might expect something with the benevolent ubiquity of GPS—which provides time-stamping as well as navigation—to be cherished and closely tended, the truth is, many businesses and individuals use it regularly without ever realizing what a key role it plays.

“The bad news is that people that use it, don’t know they use it,” Jim Caverly, of the Department of Homeland Security, told scientists at the Space Weather Workshop in Boulder last week. “Since the system has been so reliable, a lot of people haven’t had that aha moment to say this is important to me.”

That moment could come sooner than we think. Smooth delivery of GPS signals can be impeded by a number of on-the-ground threats, from handheld jammers to new wireless technology.  Add to those worries an upcoming solar maximum, which can cause geomagnetic storms that interfere with GPS, and you have a recipe for… well, no one knows exactly what.

“I have been a proponent, rather facetiously, of shutting down GPS for two days and seeing what happens,” Caverly said. “It’s not a good policy decision but I have no way of knowing how else we’ll know what’s possible.”

Scientists know that disruptions can cause communication shutdowns, power failures, and navigation, traffic, and transport problems. What’s less clear is what it could mean to financial systems that use GPS time stamping to qualify transactions.

"A significant failure of GPS could cause lots of services to fail at the same time, including many that are thought to be completely independent of each other," Martyn Thomas, who recently led a Royal Academy of Engineering study that found countries “dangerously reliant” on GPS, told Agency France-Presse.

How emergency agencies might need to respond to such incidents is also murky, but the DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are beginning to address how we can be better prepared for that eventuality, Caverly said.

“This is like pandemic,” he said. “It’s going to happen, we just can’t tell you where or with what amplitude.”

Back to Top

3) Climate Adaptation? Meet Disaster Risk Reduction

As awareness of climate change grows, it’s becoming difficult to address disaster risk without at least giving a nod to the environmental factors that might change that risk. On the other end of the spectrum, much of the work being done to adapt to climate change could be informed by previous risk reduction efforts. Luckily, a recently released report looks at how organizations can integrate the two.

“Disaster Risk Reduction plays an important role in the new resilience agenda,” stated author Katie Harris in a press release. “I hope that those working in DRR will find the practical advice in this report useful, and be able to take action by tailoring it to suit their own context.”

The report, Harnessing Synergies: Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation in Disaster Risk Reduction Programmes and Policies, aggregated feedback from more than 100 disaster risk managers to provide advice and action plans for those looking to merge risk reduction and adaptation. Using a tool the authors call Zebra, the report helps risk managers navigate integration in a way that is customized to their needs.  

“There is no single pathway to mainstream CAA into DRR programmes and policies and there are no ‘silver bullets’ for developing climate smart DRR approaches,” write Harris and co-author Aditya Bahadur in the report. “All attempts to bring about a change in policies, organisations or strategies will have some effect—the challenge is creating a substantial enough effect that will result in the desired outcome.”

Back to Top

4) Latest Natural Hazards Observer Online

The latest edition of the Natural Hazards Observer is now available online. Featured articles from the May 2011 Observer include:

— Planning for a Nuclear Accident
— Was that Climate Change—Or Just the Weather?
— Building a Better Mousetrap
— From Dictators to Damage Control

Visit the Natural Hazards Center Web site to read the May and past editions of the Observer.

Back to Top

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

Call for Applications
Extremes: Natural Disasters in Changing Climate
Belpasso International Summer School

Deadline: May 15, 2011
Belpasso International Summer School is now accepting applications for its 2011 course on disasters attributed to climate change, to be held September 4-10 in Sicily. The course will examine how climate change affects vulnerability and how natural hazard prevention can dovetail with climate adaptation. Doctoral and post-doctoral students who are able to present on their dissertations are welcome to apply.


Call for Applications
Summer Institute for Advanced Study of Disaster and Risk
Beijing Normal University
Deadline: May 15, 2011
Beijing Normal University is accepting applications for its second summer institute focusing on disaster, risk, and climate change. The institute, which will be held August 2-13 in Beijing, is part of a series aimed at strengthening international disaster risk education. New professionals and advanced doctoral students with a strong interest in hazards and risk are encouraged to apply.


Call for Papers
Post-Disaster Recovery Management Issue
Journal of Public Management and Social Policy
Deadline: May 31, 2011
The Journal of Public Management and Social Policy is calling for multidisciplinary papers addressing ways in which multi-actor response agencies manage interim and long-term recovery. Papers can include local and global case studies, cross learning between early and later phases of response, performance measures for multi-actor response, or alternatives to current strategies and techniques.

Back to Top

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]

Wildfire World
If wildfires are your world, or even if they’re not, you’ll appreciate this new Web site offered by the International Association of Wildland Fire. Launched just ahead of Global Wildfire Awareness Week, the site aggregates wildfire news, resources, and initiatives from around the world, while a community forum and profile postings help those working with wildfire connect no matter where they are.


On first blush, the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry might not seem to fit the natural hazards bill, but there’s plenty of information on this site that might come in handy to disaster researchers. With hydraulic fracturing as a suspected cause of some earthquakes, and oil and gas exploration known to lead to technological disasters, this site helps keep an eye on both the industry and where it operates. Get the latest on fracing policy, find active wells in the United States, and learn what chemicals lurk where.


National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
It’s a tough time to be the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and times are going to get tougher according to this National Research Council report. The report—one of five that will look at corps strategy and planning—found a conundrum facing the organization as it balances declining budgets with the need for more and increasingly complex infrastructure. Even while the corps’ focus will shift from building infrastructure to maintenance, it will need to continue hydrologic services such as flood control and coastal protection, the report states.


Flood Manager Game
It’s springtime and only natural that young folks’ thoughts turn to floodplain management. Now we can all be flood managers thanks to the Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation, which worked to develop a fun exercise that lets you make decisions about development in your hometown floodplain. Just enter where you are, what type of structures you want to build (and how you plan to mitigate), and in what risk zones. After some randomly generated weather, you’ll be able to see if your decision made you a hero or cost your people big time.


Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting
While events such as the Virginia Tech and University of Texas shootings remind us that college campuses can be dangerous places, there are dozens of other more mundane but equally serious threats lurking. The Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting gives colleges and universities an easy framework for addressing them. Released this year as an update to the 2005 Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting, the newer version explains the latest federal mandates on emergency disclosures, evacuations, and fire safety reporting.

Back to Top

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 24-26, 2011
2011 HazMat Conference
Washington Fire Chiefs
Wenatchee, Washington
Cost and Registration: $375, open until filled
This conference provides training in hazardous materials operations across a variety of professions. Lectures and hands-on courses will focus on hazmat response and special operations, technical rescue, terrorism, and law enforcement issues. Class topics include highway transportation, rollover scenarios, radioactive materials, and IEDs.


May 25-26, 2011
Information and Communication Technology for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Workshop
University of Colorado Trauma, Health and Hazards Center
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Cost and Registration: $75, open until filled
This workshop will examine how information sharing has advanced through the use of technology and how those advances affect ethics, guidelines, coordination, and other factors in providing humanitarian and disaster response. Topics include challenges in information sharing, technically savvy volunteers, and optimizing the collection and use of images.


June 8-9, 2011
2011 Building a Sustainable Network of Drought Communities
National Integrated Drought Information System
Chicago, Illinois
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled
This workshop will help drought and water management professionals better communicate drought preparedness. Workshop discussions will focus on assessing community drought knowledge, planning for drought, and building collaborative drought communities and a network of drought professionals.


June 12-15, 2011
NFPA Conferences and Expo
National Fire Protection Association
Boston, Massachusetts
Cost and Registration: $995, open until filled
This conference provides and opportunity for fire protection professionals to share lessons learned, assess challenges and opportunities, and check out the latest technology. Conference tracks include building and life safety, codes and standards, emergency preparedness and business continuity, fire protection and suppression, and loss control.


June 14-15, 2011
Meta-Leadership Summit for Preparedness
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation
Long Island, New York
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled
This summit is designed to help business, government, and nonprofit leaders work together more effectively during a public health crisis or emergency. Exercises, case studies and instruction are used to strengthen problem solving and relationships between organizations. Participants will become acquainted with Meta-Leadership concepts, learn situation assessment, and work on practical plans to improve preparedness and build collaboration.


July 4-6, 2011
ACEM 2011: Emergency Medicine in Global Crises
Asian Conference on Emergency Medicine
Bangkok, Thailand
Cost and Registration: $420 before May 31, open until filled
This conference will look at the best way to provide safe and seamless emergency medicine using technology and the latest medical advancements. Emergency medicine providers from around the world will share best practices, identify challenges, and discuss ways to leverage funding opportunities. Conference tracks include natural disasters; administration, management, and ethics; environmental poisoning; and EMT and paramedic.

Back to Top

7) 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.]

Gender Specialist
United Nations Development Programme Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery
New York, New York
Salary: Not listed
Closing Date: May 10, 2011
This position is responsible for reviewing and implementing a gender-based disaster risk reduction strategy, providing gender-sensitive advisory and technical support, and support knowledge and information sharing among gender and crisis prevention communities. A master’s degree in a social science or gender studies, five years of experience in disaster risk management, and experience with gender disaster policy development are required.


Deputy Assistant Administrator of Recovery, ES-301
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Washington, D.C.
Salary: $119,554 to $179,700
Closing Date: June 3, 2011
This position is responsible for overseeing FEMA Recovery Directorate operations, which includes coordination of assistance programs and delivering disaster relief. Duties include the development and management of long- and short-term recovery programs and direction of all directorate activities. Comprehensive knowledge of disaster assistance programs, legislative issues, and the equivalent of one year of experience at the GS-15 level are required.


Traditional Knowledge Science Advisor
Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska

Anchorage, Alaska
Salary: Commensurate with experience
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will develop a research plan for assessment of the arctic food chain in the Inuit regions of Alaska, including a focus on the effects of climate change, oil and gas development, and commercial shipping. Duties include coordinating mapping and research activities, monitoring federal and state regulations, and providing quarterly reports. A master’s degree in a field related to traditional knowledge and science, or a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience, is required. Experience with Inuit or Alaska Native nonprofits is preferred.


Head, Political Science Department
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma
Salary: Commensurate with experience
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will lead the Oklahoma State University Political Science Department, which includes the university’s Fire and Emergency Management Administration Program. Duties will include budget management, supervision of faculty and staff, and department advocacy. A PhD in political science or public administration, achievements equivalent to the rank of full professor, and a record of external funding are required.

Back to Top

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

To subscribe, visit or e-mail
University of Colorado at Boulder

Natural Hazards Center
483 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309-0483
Contact Us: | (303) 492-6818

A Center in the Institute of Behavioral Science

© Regents of the University of Colorado