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Number 595 • September 20, 2012 | Past Issues













1) Feast for Famine: Drought, Flooding, Typhoons, and Politics Set the Table for Food Scarcity in North Korea

Hunger-stricken North Koreans have been served a smorgasbord of disasters recently, but the struggling country got a double helping late last month when it was hit with two typhoons over the course of three days. Now, adding to those woes is the North Korean government, which last week turned away food and medical supplies from South Korea after calling the humanitarian offer insulting.

Typhoon Bolaven struck on August 28 and 29 and was followed a day later by the smaller Typhoon Tembin. The duo compounded damage caused by severe flooding in late June. The summer storm season is thought to have killed at least 300 and left nearly 300,000 homeless, according to The Wall Street Journal. Before the flood and typhoons, the country was facing the worst drought conditions it had seen in the past 100 years.

Unfortunately for agriculture-dependent North Koreans, Mother Nature keeps dishing it out. Countrywide deforestation and drought have greatly decreased the land’s ability to withstand heavy rainfall. Recent typhoon conditions are exacerbating early summer damage caused by droughts and floods, according to The Guardian. Now, the country is plagued with landslides, submerged homes, and thousands of acres of crop loss, and the typhoons keep coming. The catastrophic damage points to what could be a serious food shortage in the coming months.

"North Korea's food situation next year could be difficult," an anonymous South Korean official told Reuters.

One South Korean official estimated a loss of 600,000 tons of crops and another noted that North Korea will likely see a 13 percent decrease in its grain harvest, which includes rice and maize. It is estimated that 45,000 hectares (or 1.7 percent of arable land) has been destroyed in the wake of the consecutive disaster.

Even without the losses caused by disaster, lack of arable land is a problem. In a given year, North Korea typically produces 4.5 million tons of grain, though the United Nations estimates it needs approximately 5.3 million tons to provide for the population. So while food insecurity is always a threat to the nation of approximately 24 million, disasters can greatly intensify the risks.

“It is a long-term problem and the supplies are likely to be very low,” Kim Hartzner, an aid worker with Mission East, told Reuters in a story that appeared in the Star Phoenix. “The damage to the arable land will not have an effect tomorrow or the day after; it will have an effect in two or three months … but I think this will affect a sizable proportion of the maize.”

Despite Hartzner’s claims, UN Food and Agriculture Organization representative Hiroyuki Konuma announced Saturday that crop production may not be severely affected after all.

"My understanding from my visit there yesterday was that the damage was not so significant," he was quoted as saying in an AlertNet report.

Even if crops do rally, though, North Koreans will be far from having enough food on their plates. The government last year halved the amount of rations to a level that provides about half the daily energy requirements of each individual, Konuma told AlertNet.

Help isn’t likely to come from outside sources, either. In recent years, North Korea has all but ended humanitarian efforts with strict aid worker restrictions. At the same time, displeasure with recent North Korean brinksmanship has again lead the U.S. and other nations to turn off food aid.

Last week, the North Korean government turned down South Korea’s offer of flour, ramen noodles, and medical supplies, saying that the amount and type of goods were an insult, according to The Washington Post. The behavior is reminiscent of a situation last year in which South Korean aid was rejected when the South opted not to meet the North’s demand for equipment and building materials—which could have been used for military purposes—in addition to the offered medicine and food.

All this goes to show that even without disaster, food security in North Korea is still, well, a disaster. One of the few programs operating in the country, the UN World Food Programme, has one-third of the funding necessary to provide assistance and is deeply concerned about malnourishment, especially among children.

“We still need continued support from the international community to ensure that we can provide everyone with a full ration,” WFP spokesman told AlertNet. “Although the harvest is coming, from this point on it will take some time before it’s processed and available on the tables of the people around the country.”

Stacia Sydoriak, Contributing Writer

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2) No Breathing Room for BioWatch: Congress Puts Troubled Biosurveillance Program on Notice

A program meant to keep Americans safe from airborne threats could be grounded if the Department of Homeland Security can’t convince Congress that the next generation of technology will produce useable results.

Lawmakers last week questioned whether the BioWatch program—a network that collects airborne particles and conducts daily tests for pathogens—should attempt to move forward when previous efforts have garnered such tepid results, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“How can we proceed with procurement of a new system when we don't fully understand the capabilities of the current system?” the Times quotes Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.) as asking at a joint subcommittee hearing on September 13. “Where is the cost-benefit analysis that proves this next-generation system would be a sufficient improvement over the existing system? Where is the analysis of alternatives?”

The nearly 10-year-old program first installed a series of air sensors in about 30 U.S. cities to check for threats such as anthrax or plague bacteria. Those sensors—which had to be collected and tested by hand with a 30- to 36-hour turnaround on results—were considered too cumbersome for early warning.

In 2007, a second generation of the sensors that could collect and transmit data hourly were installed in some locations. By 2009, that program was scrapped because of technical problems and DHS began plans for a third generation. These so-called labs-in-a-box would be able to collect and analyze particles and notify authorities of a threat almost immediately.

The department had hoped to fully deploy the third generation by this year, but according to the Los Angeles Times, field tests have shown that the prototypes have durability and sensitivity issues. The newspaper (one of the few mainstream news sources to report on the program’s recent challenges) published an article in July calling the system “the biodefender that cries wolf,” citing state health department officials frustrated with BioWatch false alarms. DHS Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs Alexander Garza has disputed those claims.

Even if the functionality of the current system is ignored, the financial aspects aren’t likely to be. Cost estimates for the program have grown from what was initially projected in 2011—from $2.1 to $5.7 billion—according to a Bloomberg article. Only about $800 million has been spent by the U.S. government so far, according to the article.

At least some of the cost increase can be attributed to poor resource management and DHS's failure to follow its own acquisition guidelines, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last week. The report recommended that DHS “reevaluate the mission need and alternatives and update associated performance, schedule, and cost information” before moving ahead with the third generation of BioWatch.

In the meantime, support for the program—or biosurveillance in general—could be waning. As an editorial in New Scientist points out, “Since the U.S. anthrax attacks of 2001 there has been no bioterrorism anywhere in the world. Unlike conventional explosives, germs pose a minuscule terror risk.”

That sentiment was also expressed by subcommittee member Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) during the hearing.

“We must understand that we are on Generation 3 because Generations 1 and 2 did not work,” he was quoted as saying in the Times. “It is time to reconsider the likelihood of the risk [of a biological attack] and adjust our priorities.”

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3) An Accessible Arctic: The Upside of Climate Change?

Earlier this month when scientists announced arctic sea icehad reached the lowest extent ever, many read the phenomenon as bad news. But for some, there’s a silver lining in a less icy arctic.

While the melt could mean even warmer climes in the future, it also means the Arctic—and its oil, gas, minerals, rare earth metals, and trade routes—is becoming more accessible, according to an article in the Washington Post. And that means business.

In the last few years, there has been increasing international interest in the Arctic, and in Greenland in particular. The receding of ice in that country has made it easier to get at its wealth of natural resources—and its government is being courted as never before, according to the New York Times.

“We are treated so differently than just a few years ago,” Greenland Vice Premier Jens B. Frederiksen told the Times. “We are aware that is because we now have something to offer, not because they’ve suddenly discovered that Inuit are nice people.”

Of Greenland’s new suitors, Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, and—perhaps most notably—China, are leading the race. This month, the South Korean-owned Korean Resources Corporation signed agreements to work on joint mining operations with Greenland-based NunaMinerals. Chinese companies have also been financing mining in Greenland for some time, according to the Times.

“There is already a sense of competition in the Arctic, and they think they can have first advantage,” Jingjing Su, a lawyer for a Copenhagen firm that represents many of the Chinese companies, told the Times.

While natural resources might be ripe for plundering, perhaps even more important to the Chinese is access to a trade route known as the NSR, or North Sea Route. A dearth of sea ice means that the route—which would shave about 4,000 miles off the typical Hamburg-Shanghai voyage—would become navigable for a short period each year, according to the Economist.

The importance of the trade route and other interests have led China and eight other countries to petition for spots on the five-country Arctic Council, which has a significant say in shipping and other key decisions. The “observer status” sought by the countries would allow them to voice their opinion but not have a vote, according to the Times.

Even if China and others do get a seat at the table, the Economist points out, “the passage of the NSR is not a straightforward boon, either. Even as it opens up for shipping, it will remain a hazardous passage. Russia can be expected to exact a steep price in transit fees and pilotage.”

Indeed, for most of the world, the boons are even less straightforward. Without the sunlight-reflecting quality of the ice, both temperatures and sea levels could rise globally. And the speed at which it’s happening is alarming, say scientists like Rutgers University’s Jennifer A. Francis, who studies the effect of sea ice on weather patterns.

“It’s hard even for people like me to believe, to see that climate change is actually doing what our worst fears dictated,” she told the New York Times in August. “It’s starting to give me chills, to tell you the truth.”

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4) The Latest Natural Hazards Observer Is Online (and in Print!)

The latest edition of the Natural Hazards Observer is now available online. Featured articles from the September 2012 Observer include:

—The Many Failures of Disaster Diplomacy
—Building Better Flood Risk Maps: Lessons Learned from the Electric Car
—Is Climate Change to Blame?
—A New Era in Disaster Services

And don’t forget, for those of you that would rather get the print edition, we’re now able to offer readers an Observer subscription for only $15 per year. That nominal and not-for-profit cost includes bimonthly delivery to your desk via First Class mail. And that’s not all…

You’ll also get a copy of The Disaster Years, a new book of cartoons by Observer artist Rob Pudim spanning his 36 years of limpid cartooning about hazards and disasters. This book is not for sale and is available only to subscribers to the Observer print edition.

Those interested in subscribing can sign up on our subscription page using a credit card, or be invoiced later.
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5) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Papers
2013 Northeast Environmental History Conference
Yale University
Deadline: December 1, 2012
The Yale University working group on global environmental history is accepting papers for presentation at the 2013 Northeast Environmental History Conference, to be held April 20 in New Haven, Connecticut. The conference will focus on rapid environmental changes. Papers can be on topics such as the roles of nature and society in natural disasters, cultural adaptations to rapid change, the role of the state and local communities in addressing environmental shifts, and other issues. For more information and how to submit an abstract, visit the Environmental History Web site.


Call for Abstracts
Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference
Australian Institute of Emergency Services, Queensland Police Service, and others
Deadline: February 1, 2013
Organizers are accepting papers for presentation at the Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference, to be held May 29-31 in Brisbane, Australia. Papers may be related to a wide range of topics, but should emphasize the conference themes of preparedness, prevention, response, and recovery. For more information and to submit your abstract online, visit the conference Web site.


Call for Participation
Individual Training Needs Survey
DITAC Disaster Training Curriculum
Deadline: Not posted
DITAC is calling for emergency responders and managers and other crisis personnel to complete a survey of individual training needs. Responses will help guide a disaster training curriculum now being created as part of the European FP7 project. The project focuses on developing a highly structured curriculum for first responders and strategic crisis managers who deal with national and international disasters. For more information on the program, visit the DITEC Web site. The survey can be reached at the link above.

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6) Some New Web Resources

Lessons Learned from Fukushima
This webcast offers a National Research Council assessment of the Fukushima disaster and how lessons learned might apply to nuclear safety in the United States. Topics discussed include the causes of Fukushima, reevaluations of spent fuel and radioactive waste storage, and possible improvements in nuclear safety regulations


Don’t worry (about your health), be Mappy! This new site uses Twitter data to track diseases by location, type, and trend, with fascinating results. Traveling to Toledo? They were all tweeting about the flu last week, but now it’s more about common colds. What’s the latest bug buzz? Diphtheria has been pretty popular in the last 24 hours.… The site compiles info using 223 terms, which are then matched to 26 condition sets, and mapped using Twitter geo-location data and profile locations. The result is a handy way see what conditions are just around the corner—you can even drill down to the tweets themselves.


Crisis Tracker
While Mappy mines Twitter for information useful in tracing disease outbreaks, Crisis Tracker is doing something similar for crises. The system tracks keywords and creates “stories” of crisis and disaster when tweets on a topic or situation begin reaching critical mass. Users can examine stories, see events on a map, read individual tweets, and see how stories are being shared in the Twittersphere. Crowdsourced tagging allows for further granularity, and mapping tools can help responders and government officials organize and present the information.


FAS Federal Emergency Management Agency Archive
The Federation of American Scientists has collected a treasure trove of documents for anyone who’s ever wanted to take a retro look at how FEMA works. With disaster-related reports, memos, letters, charts, and handbooks that date back to the 1980s, there’s sure to be plenty of perspective to be gained from this long look back.


Humanitarian Icons
If a picture is worth a thousands words, then these icons will save a lot of breath when trying to communicate emergency information during a crisis. The collection of icons, revised by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the fifth year running, can be used to quickly overcome barriers such as language, culture, or even confusion when you need to communicate warnings or coordinate responses. The icon set is available in a variety of formats.


Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security
With the Himalayan glaciers of the Hindu Kush retreating, there’s bound to be impacts on water security for the region—but scientists don’t know exactly what they will be. This National Academies report found that while water at lower elevations won’t be immediately impacted, there’s no clear picture of what the long-term effects will mean in terms of groundwater depletion and altered river flows. Throw in a little climate change to intensify snow and rain variability and you’ve got the makings of a water wait-and-see.

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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]

September 24-26, 2012
National Integrated Drought Information System Workshop
National Integrated Drought Information System
San Diego, California
Cost and Registration: $200, open until filled
This workshop will determine which topics are included in a potential congressional reauthorization of the National Integrated Drought Information System. Topics to be discussed include NIDIS legislative history, the federal role in drought programs, a NIDIS program overview, the U.S. Drought Monitor, and the NIDIS California and Upper Colorado River Basin Pilot Projects.


October 10-12, 2012
Public Health Law Conference
American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics
Atlanta, Georgia
Cost and Registration: $295, open until filled
This conference will discuss current challenges in public health law, including how to improve emergency preparedness planning for vulnerable populations. Topics include mental and behavioral health in emergencies, implications of the affordable care act, effective enforcement of public health codes and regulations, reducing toxic exposure in the home, electronic health records, and enhancing food safety.


October 14-19, 2012
North Carolina Emergency Management Association Fall Conference
North Carolina Emergency Management Association
Hickory, North Carolina
Cost and Registration: $125, open until filled
This conference will discuss new research in emergency management. Topics include radiological emergency preparedness, emergency management law, responding to dam failures, historical preservation during disasters, the purpose of Local Emergency Planning Committees, liability issues in emergency management, and emergency incident communications.


November 7-9, 2012
Risk Assessment in the Context of Global Climate Change
UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and the China Ministry of Civil Affairs
Beijing, China
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled
This conference will discuss how to enhance long-term risk reduction efforts by obtaining space-based climate change data from international and regional organizations. Topics include national climate change-related risk reduction efforts, the increasing availability of open source data, applying space technology to disaster risk assessment and mapping, and activities supported by the UN Platform for Space-Based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER).


December 13-15, 2012
Eighth International Conference on Geo-Information for Disaster Management
Eindhoven University of Technology, Technische Universiteit Delft, and University of Twente

Enschede, The Netherlands
Cost and Registration: $197 before October 4, open until filled
This conference will focus on use of geo-information for data modeling and emergency communication. Topics include semantics and situational awareness, four dimensional geographic information systems, interface design for crisis management, multi-sensor data collection, crowd sourcing and volunteered geographic information, security and privacy, decision enhancement systems, simulation tools for crisis situations, and evacuation and navigation systems.


January 8-10, 2012
International Disaster Conference
International Disaster Conference and Expo
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cost and Registration: $300, open until filled
This conference will discuss emergency management policy and successful mitigation practices. Perspectives from homeland security, emergency response, disaster recovery, business continuity, and global security will be presented. Topics include the differences in responding to natural versus man-made disasters, the Mississippi Alternative Housing Pilot Program, human resilience and logistics in supply chain management, emergency responder decision support tools, societal resilience to terrorism, portable water storage and distribution, and technologies for managing high volumes of insurance claims.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Emergency Management Specialist, GS-13
Bureau of Indian Affairs
Billings, Montana (and other locations)
Salary: $81,823 to $112,136
Closing Date: September 26, 2012
This position will determine the response capabilities of Bureau of Indian Affairs regions, as well as those of tribal, state, and local emergency management agencies. Responsibilities include overseeing BIA emergency preparedness, response, and recovery; providing recommendations to the BIA regarding emergency management proposals, actions, and reports; and communicating with various regional entities to support emergency response operations. At least one year of experience at or above the GS-12 level and experience working with tribal governments on emergency management issues are required.


Firefighter, GS-7
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Round Hill, Virginia
Salary: $42,209 to $60,765
Closing Date: September 27, 2012
This position will provide first response for all fire rescue, hazardous materials, and emergency medical services for the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center. Responsibilities include fire rescues, controlling and extinguishing fires, maintaining firefighting equipment and vehicles, conducting arson investigations, providing first aid, and performing emergency medical technician duties. One year of specialized experience fighting fires and driving and operating fire and emergency equipment is required.


Emergency Preparedness Manager
Memorial Hermann Health System
Houston, Texas
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will coordinate emergency support functions for the Memorial Hermann Health System. Responsibilities include reducing the probability of predictable emergencies, conducting vulnerability analyses, preparing mitigation plans, overseeing health system communications systems, and coordinating emergency response activities with federal, state, county, and municipal authorities. A bachelor’s degree in emergency preparedness and five years of experience with emergency management are required. A master’s degree and emergency management certifications are preferred.


Senior Environmental Planner
Tetra Tech, Inc.
Portland, Oregon
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will participate in a variety of environmental science, remediation, and restoration projects. Responsibilities include providing technical experience in social science issues regarding public lands, recreation, visual resources, and wilderness issues. Applicants should be experienced in federal land management planning, rural community planning, hazard mitigation planning, and managing projects where National Environmental Policy Act documents are required. Experience managing projects and coordinating public involvement processes is required.


Senior Business Continuity Manager
CVS Caremark
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will ensure continued operations for critical business areas, functions, and applications. Responsibilities include enhancing contingency plans, mitigating the effects of significant incidents, facilitating business continuity plan exercises and client continuity plan reviews, conducting business continuity training for management personnel, and reporting and budgeting for projects as needed. A bachelor’s degree in business or information management and at least four years of related experience in retail environments are required. Certification in business continuity planning is preferred.


Emergency Services Specialist
American Red Cross
Plantation, Florida
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will increase Red Cross visibility through program and service delivery. Responsibilities include recruiting, managing, and coordinating emergency orientations for volunteers; developing relationships with local emergency managers and fire personnel; attending community emergency management meetings; supporting community disaster education activities; and partnering with shelter facility owners in the coordination of regional mass care. A bachelor’s degree and at least three years of experience implementing social service programs are required. Six months of supervisory experience is preferred.

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