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Number 592 • August 9, 2012 | Past Issues













1) Not Just in India’s Back Yard: Failure to Invest in Infrastructure Also Plagues U.S.

From the well-lit and air conditioned vantage of a developed nation, it's tempting to view India’s massive blackouts last week as a groan from a rickety and overtaxed power grid—but don’t be fooled. Our own aging U.S. systems are primed for failure, experts say.

The exact mechanism behind India’s two widespread outages on July 30 and 31 is unclear, but there’s speculation that the likely cause was a failure to balance capacity with demand, causing a cascade of generator shutdowns as system safeguards kicked in to protect each generator from damage. While the result was the world’s first and second largest power failures, affecting 620 million and 370 million people respectively (according to the Associated Press), it’s a far cry from being the real problem.

Issues plague the Indian power system (for an excellent roundup, see this Dot Earth entry on the outages) but chief among them are the inability to make enough electricity to meet demand, fixed-pricing schemes and outright theft, and the failure to invest in needed infrastructure.

In this last issue, especially, India is not alone.

“Our day-to-day interactions are guided by technologies and innovations that rely upon the power grid,” writes Aaron Jagdfeld, president and chief executive officer of Generac Power Systems in Forbes. “But as we continue to develop technological mastery, our power grid is aging and fragile, and its susceptibility to outages means our way of life could break down in an instant.”

In the wake of the outages, much was made of the disparity between India’s ambitions to be a world player and its willingness to build the infrastructure to support them. According to Jagdfeld, the United States suffers from similar denial.

“Power quality is the measure of reliable power in our homes and businesses, and it has been declining steadily since 1990,” he writes. “During this time, demand for power has increased by 25 percent, but the infrastructure needed to transmit power to homes has increased by a mere 7 percent. We have become a digital society, but are burdened with an analog power grid—one that is inefficient and susceptible to weather, surging demand, and even terrorist attack.”

This fragility was evidenced most recently last September when an Arizona Public Service employee made an error that took a down a single transmission line, eventually leaving 2.7 million people in three states without power. While that blackout was found to be caused as much by lack of communication as it was by the infrastructure, it underscored the impacts of shutting off the juice to our hyper-wired world.

Hardening the grid against outages would be expensive. Jagdfeld puts the price tag for overhauling the American grid at two trillion dollars, with no plan in place or apparent political will to even begin that mountainous task. Meanwhile, he estimates the U.S. economy loses $104 to $164 billion per year to power outages.

And grid fixes aren’t all that are needed to move us into the future, writes John J. Licata, founder of clean energy consulting company Blue Phoenix, for CNNMoney. Americans need to focus on changing their consumption habits—perhaps with the help of technology that shows how much juice our gadgets are drinking. We also need to find ways to store energy from alternative sources.

“We need to develop more advanced and cost-effective battery technologies to help store power,” he writes. “We also need to implement management systems which allow power to be consumed ‘on-demand’ to best utilize renewable energy sources, especially during times of peak-energy use.”

Until there’s time, money, and inclination to institute such sweeping changes, we would do well to remember that electricity is a lot less of a given than we might think. While the U.S. grid is notably more reliable than India’s (a fact that actually makes India better prepared to face blackouts), when it comes to avoiding outages, there’s little difference between New York or New Delhi. 

“We must commit ourselves to the knowledge that long-duration power outages are not something that happens elsewhere,” Jagfeld wrote. “India is only geographically distant from us; its current power outage is actually far closer than we might think.”

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2) Island Living: Urban Heat Effects Often Overlooked in Climate Change Plans

It’s a long- and well-known fact—If you can’t take the heat, get out of the city. So it seems strange in these days of record heat and generally increasing temperatures that the nation’s cities are doing little to mitigate their propensity to make things even hotter—a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect.

The effects of these heat islands are far-reaching. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they add to heat-wave death tolls, degrade water quality, increase energy consumption, and elevate the levels of atmospheric pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. Some studies have linked heat islands with increases in extreme weather events such as tornadoes and flooding.

But a recently released study found that while cities are warming at twice the rate of surrounding areas, most of the 50 major U.S. cities' climate plans examined were devoted to quelling carbon emissions and did little to address the increase in temperature.

“We know the big-picture issue is that the planet as a whole is warming, and weather is becoming more extreme,” Brian Stone, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and one of the report authors, told NPR.  “We've got to highlight the fact that in cities in particular, these global-scale changes are actually being amplified.”

A variety of factors converge to make cities hotter—concrete and pavement absorb heat, there’s less vegetation to aid in evaporation, and industries can often create significant heat. The “urban geography” of how buildings are situated in a city can also create and trap heat, according to the EPA.

“It’s not surprising that cities are heating up more rapidly than surrounding areas,” Stone told the Washington Post. “But the extent to which they’re amplifying warming trends did come as a surprise.”

Between 1961 and 2010, rural temperatures have increased about 0.29 degrees Fahrenheit every ten years, while city temps have climbed by an average of 0.56 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Post.

There are steps that can be taken to beat the city heat, other than summering in the Hamptons, of course. They include planting more trees, using reflective roofing and cool paving materials, and adopting policies that limit heat waste from manufacturing and other activities. But first, cities will have to recognize that urban heat reduction needs to be a priority (Chicago’s is a notable exception of a plan that uses these kinds of strategies to reduce the heat island effect).

“If you’re worried about heat waves in the near term,” Stone said in the Post interview, “reducing the heat island effect is the most important thing we can do.”

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3) Dammed if You Do or Dammed if You Don’t? Beavers Can Help Mitigate Floods… Or Cause Them

When it comes to all-natural flood control, it’s hard to beat the benefits offered freely by our furry, buck-toothed friend the beaver. Maybe.

From Europe to the American West, beavers—once hunted to near-extinction or maligned as destructive nuisances—are making a comeback. Some of that rally is thanks to environmental groups who see them as an answer to the ravages of climate change and human-caused environmental damage.

“We found beavers do restoration work better than people,” Celeste Coulter, of the Oregon-based North Coast Land Conservancy told the Wall Street Journal. “We can spend $200,000 putting wood into a stream, cabling down logs. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Put in a colony of beavers and it always works.”

From drought control to flood control to restoring valuable wetlands, there doesn’t seem to be much the amphibious rodent can’t do.

According to an Atlantic article about an Eastern Washington repopulation effort, Beaver dams fight drought by retaining snowmelt and rainwater and preserving groundwater. One study found that a beaver colony could add as much water to the ecosystem in a day as a 200-year flood event, according to the article.

But if flooding is your problem, beavers still have your back, as one British effort at reintroducing beavers has confirmed. The project used manmade means of creating the same dynamic as a beaver dam to see if repopulating the area with beavers—hunted-out since the 16th century—would the have desired flood effects.

“This project is interesting because they re-created a series of features in the landscape that trap water and hold it” ecologist Derek Gow, told the Telegraph. “So when it rains hard, the water comes down into things called leaky dams which leech water slowly. Instead of hitting the village in 25 minutes, the peak of a flood might take 45 minutes and by the time it does, it's lost its force and power.”

Faced with the options of building (and maintaining) the structures or importing beavers to do the job for free, the UK Environment Agency is keeping an optimistic eye on the final project results.

Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of the rodent’s resurgence though. For many, beavers are great if they aren’t mucking up human flood control efforts, cutting down fruit trees and other desirable vegetation, or putting water where we don’t want it.

 “We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Jeff Rodgers of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds told the Oregon Quarterly last year. “We know that beavers are extremely valuable in providing ecological benefits to fish and other wildlife. At the same time, it’s also a fact that beavers can do a lot of property damage.”

In many instances, human–beaver throwdowns consist of small acts of defiance like repeatedly damming a culvert. Other times, the charges are more, well, damning—like when beaver damage was blamed for a dam collapse in Poland resulting in flooding that killed 15 people. Other objections include those of people who simply don’t like the idea of repopulation, including resisters in Scotland who see a reintroduction effort there as environmental meddling.

Certainly beavers are guilty of thwarting at least some human activity. But given the benefits made possible by having an army of industrious little dam-builders on our side, perhaps there’s a way to overcome the negatives. That is the question, said Rodgers.

“It’s an ecosystem thing. There are a lot of things wrong. A lot of things have unraveled that we need to put back together. The question is, if we kick-start it—by providing the habitat beavers need, then not killing them when they show up—can we let beavers do it, so we can go on and do other things?”

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4) PERISHIP Winners: Up and Coming Hazards Scholars

Seven PhD students will receive a $10,000 grant to support interdisciplinary dissertation work courtesy of the 2012 PERISHIP Dissertation Fellowship Program in Hazards, Risks, and Disasters.

The program assists top scholars in the completion of hazards dissertation work in natural and physical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, engineering, and in interdisciplinary programs such as environmental studies.

The PERISHIP fellowship is administered by a partnership between the Natural Hazards Center and the Public Entity Risk Institute with funding from Swiss Re and the National Science Foundation.

The 2012 PERISHIP Fellows and their dissertations are:

Natalie D. Baker, University of California, Irvine, Department of Planning, Policy, and Design, "Practicing Disaster: Organizational Preparedness for a Catastrophic Earthquake in Southern California"

Gregg Bowser, University of South Carolina Department of Geography, "Determining the Differences in Evacuation Influences and Perceptions within the United States Elderly Population"

Grant Cavanaugh, University of Kentucky Department of Agricultural Economics, "The Prospects for an El Niño Futures Market: Simulating New Disaster Risk Markets Emerging Over Time"

Dana Rose Garfin, University of California, Irvine, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, "Differential Responses to Natural Disasters: The Impact of the 2010 8.8 Magnitude Chilean Earthquake on Children and Adults Living Near the Epicenter"

Mark Muszynski, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, "Soil Improvement Strategies to Mitigate Impact of Seismic Ground Failures via Novel Integration of Experiment and Simulation"

Lan Nguyen, University of Colorado Boulder Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, "Theoretical Fundamentals of Confined Masonry for New and Retrofitted Structures"

Jessica Weinkle, University of Colorado Boulder Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, "Characterizing, Creating, and Governing Florida’s Hurricane Risk"

For more information on the fellowship, visit the PERISHIP Web site.

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

Call for Participation
Annual Geoscience Congressional Visits Day
American Geological Institute
Deadline: August 31, 2011
The American Geological Institute is encouraging geoscientists to spend a day in Washington, D.C., promoting lawmaker understanding of geoscience and geoscience-related engineering. Those participating in the two-day AGI event will receive an overview on conducting congressional visits, relevant legislation, and related federal programs on the first day, followed by visits with legislators on the second day. More information on the program is available on the AGI Web site.


Call for Abstracts
Public Health Preparedness Summit
Public Health Preparedness Summit Planning Committee
Deadline: August 31, 2012
The Public Health Preparedness Summit planning committee is accepting abstracts to be presented at the annual summit, March 12-15 in Atlanta, Georgia. Abstracts that showcase resources, tools, and best practices in advancing public health preparedness will be accepted in four categories—interactive, workshop, poster, roundtable and sharing sessions. Priority will be given to submissions that focus on the summit themes of doing more with less, innovating and integrating systems, and using technology to promote public health preparedness.


Call for Applications
Emergency Response Leadership Scholarships

Yvorra Leadership Development Foundation
Deadline: October 1, 2012
The Yvorra Leadership Development Foundation scholarship committee is accepting applications for its 2012 scholarship competition. Scholarships are given to help professionals in fire, hazardous materials, and emergency medical fields improve their leadership skills. Scholarships are awarded base on an individual’s ability to make an impact on their organization and their commitment to the emergency response community. For more information on the range of scholarships or to fill out an online application, visit the foundation Web site.

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6) Some New Web Resources

Red Cross Hurricane App
The Red Cross has just added another notch to its belt of tech preparedness tools, this time in the form of a mobile phone application to assist users before and after hurricanes. The app, available on Android and iPhone platforms, has features that include a one-touch “I’m okay” message to your social media sites, location-based alerts from NOAA, Red Cross shelter locations, and a toolkit complete with flashlight, strobe light, and alarm.


Great Southeast Shakeout
The mammoth earthquake preparedness drill that put 12.5 million people at the ready last year is again expanding—this time to the Southeastern United States. The corresponding Web site has many of the same games and preparedness techniques we’ve become familiar with from other areas, but with new information and resources aimed at getting residents of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia in shape for their drill on October 18, 2011.


Step Up: 2012 International Day for Disaster Reduction
Each year the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction sets aside a day to increase awareness about how we can reduce risk. This year, on October 13, UNISDR is asking women and girls to “step up” to the challenge. This interactive Web site lets visitors celebrate the many ways women and girls are working to create resilience to disaster and offers resources for those who want to do more.


FEMA Flat Stanley and Flat Stella
The Federal Emergency Management Agency wouldn’t want to fall flat when it comes to teaching kids what to do in a disaster, so it’s employed a popular learning tool to help spread the preparedness news—Flat Stanley and Flat Stella. The Flats are little-kid avatars that can be used to learn new concepts and share project outcomes with kids in the classroom or all over the world. With FEMA on board, kids can download characters and start their preparedness adventure right away.


Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None
The National Weather Service is stuck in the '90s. That’s the gist of this just-released National Academies report, which assesses the state of the NWS following high-cost modernization efforts completed in 2000. The report committee found that the NWS has again fallen behind the curve thanks to rapid improvements in science and technology, budget constraints, and expanded user needs. The authors suggest the weather agency can get its groove back by focusing on its core capabilities and collaborating with the private sector and other institutions.

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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]

August 15 and September 21, 2012
Seminars on Disaster Resilience
U.S. Green Building Council Mississippi Chapter
Gulfport, Mississippi
Cost and Registration: $20 per session, open until filled
This seminar series looks at what can be done to build more disaster-resilient structures and how we can harden those already built. The August seminar will address the wind and impact resistance of community shelters, as well as ways to adapt historic structures for wind and flood resilience. The September seminar will discuss sustainable landscape design and coastal living, and new models for transitional housing used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


September 23-27, 2012
Emergency Preparedness & Hazmat Response Conference
City of Baltimore Local Emergency Planning Committee
Baltimore, Maryland
Cost and Registration: $235 before August 10, open until filled
This conference offers training and certification for emergency managers, first responders, and local emergency planners. Topics include community preparedness, criminal and anti-terrorism video surveillance, railroad safety and response, radiation awareness, disaster debris management, the Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grant program, and chlorine safety and emergency response.


September 24-25, 2012
Barrier Based Risk Management Network Event
CGE Risk Management Solutions
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Cost and Registration: $304, open until filled
This conference will discuss emergency incident management for a wide range of businesses and allow for cross-industry networking. Topics include effective incident investigation, resilience analysis, organizational culture and safety management, qualitative risk assessments in a financial context, and a beginner’s introduction to incident analysis.


October 10-12, 2012
First Biennial Conference for Risk Reduction
African Center for Disaster Studies at North-West University
Potchefstroom, South Africa
Cost and Registration: $510, open until filed
This conference will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the African Center for Disaster Studies with presentations that address academic and professional approaches to disaster risk reduction. Topics include building resilience to disasters using gender mainstreaming in Botswana, contingency planning for disaster preparedness and response in southern Africa, integrating disaster risk reduction into South African municipal development, and the magnitude and frequency of flash floods in northern Nigeria.


October 24-26, 2012
Advances in Hurricane Engineering Conference
American Society of Civil Engineers
Miami, Florida
Cost and Registration: $775 before October 12, open until filled
This conference will discuss how designs are becoming more resilient to powerful hurricanes. Topics include hurricane damage mitigation in the Caribbean and Latin America, performance-based wind engineering, wind effects on power systems, hurricane-resistant design for coastal residential structures, hurricane wind loads on high-rise buildings, and the evolution of building codes, construction practices, and code enforcement after Hurricane Andrew.


November 7-8, 2012
Fourth International Conference on Geo-Information Technology for Natural Disaster Management
Geoinformatics Center of the Asian Institute of Technology
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Cost and Registration: $300, open until filled
This conference will present technological advancements for understanding natural hazards and their impacts. Topics include climate impacts on Himalayan glacier dynamics and water resources, intelligent evacuation route identification systems, a preliminary study on intraplate earthquakes in the Indian Ocean, a conceptual model for landslide prediction in Sri Lanka, cloud computing as an approach to natural disaster management, drought monitoring using GIS and remote sensing in Rajasthan, India, and the effects of coastal land use on tsunami inundation along the South Indian Coast.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Planning and Preparedness Manager
Portland Bureau of Emergency Management
Portland, Oregon
Salary: $63,384 to $84,646
Closing Date: August 20, 2012
This position will develop and manage emergency planning, training, and exercise programs for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Responsibilities include supervising staff planning, training, and exercises; activating the city emergency coordination center when needed; coordinating citywide emergency plans and procedures; and assisting with the development of state and federal grant applications. Experience with emergency planning, staff management, training and exercise preparation, and plan writing are required.


Director of Risk Management
Clark College
Vancouver, Washington
Salary: $65,215
Closing Date: August 24, 2012
This position will direct the comprehensive enterprise risk management program. Responsibilities include integrating environmental health and safety into the emergency management plan, providing safety and emergency management training to employees and students, managing the annual budget, leading investigation of tort complaints, and negotiating lease agreements, rentals, and clinical affiliation agreements. A bachelor’s degree in risk management and four years of experience in either risk management, emergency management, or contract development are required. A master’s degree and Incident Command System training is preferred.


Assistant/Associate Professor of Sociology
Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, Texas
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: September 15, 2012
This tenure-track position will teach undergraduate and graduate classes in sociology and maintain an active research program with a focus on disasters, risk, or the environment. A PhD in sociology, the ability to acquire funding and publish research, and excellent teaching skills are required. Experience developing online courses is preferred.


Director of Emergency Management
Massachusetts Port Authority
Boston, Massachusetts
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will oversee coordination of Massport emergency response, training, and exercise planning. Responsibilities include updating emergency management and continuity of operations plans, establishing partnerships with the state department of transportation and emergency management agency, assisting with emergency response awareness and training, and helping with annual operating and capital budget submissions. A bachelor’s degree in public administration or a related field, successful completion of National Incident Management System training, and at least seven years of experience in public safety or emergency management are required.


Associate Project Manager, Wildland Fire Operations
National Fire Protection Association
Denver, Colorado
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will research, collect, and draft new Web content for the NFPA Fire Adapted Communities program. Responsibilities include reviewing and updating Web content, responding to Web site inquiries, adding new multimedia features, and developing technical guidebooks and training programs. At least three years of related experience, analytical research ability, and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection, forestry, planning, or engineering are required.


Seismic/Earthquake Engineer
Paul C. Rizzo Associates
Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will conduct seismic hazard assessments. Responsibilities include assessing site-specific seismic hazards using deterministic and probabilistic methods, evaluating site-specific seismic amplification, and calibrating in-house software used for seismic hazard analysis. A master’s degree in seismic engineering or seismology, and at least one year of experience in geotechnical or earthquake engineering 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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