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Number 621 • January 23, 2014 | Past Issues













Hobroken: New Jersey City Highlights Yet Another Fracture in Disaster Relief Disbursement

It’s no secret that the pipeline that funnels federal relief funds to victims of disaster sometimes suffers from leaks due to fraud, waste, and abuse. Now it seems that New Jersey residents affected by Hurricane Sandy can be added to the list of those downstream.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer last week accused members of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration of threatening to withhold funds meant for Sandy recovery unless she helped push through a development deal.

Hoboken, 80 percent of which was submerged after Sandy, requested $127 million in federal relief funds administrated by the State of New Jersey, but received less than $350,000, according to a MSNBC report. Meanwhile, a proposal to develop a 19-block tract in Hoboken has languished after suspect environmental studies showed only three blocks—those owned by the Christie-connected Rockefeller Group—were suitable for development.

The two seemingly unrelated issues were put together for Zimmer in May by both Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who told her that the deal needed to “to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you,” according to Zimmer, who appeared on MSNBC’s UP w/ Steve Kornacki Saturday.

"The bottom line is, it's not fair for the governor to hold Sandy funds hostage for the City of Hoboken because he wants me to give back to one private developer," Zimmer, a former Christie supporter, said on the program. "I cannot give a windfall to one property owner because the governor and other people want me to do it."

Christie’s administration—which is also under investigation by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for allegedly misusing Sandy recovery money for a $25 million tourism campaign—has called Zimmer’s claims “outlandishly false,” and accused MSNBC of being partisan and openly hostile to the administration, according to Time. The Rockefeller Group has also denied any knowledge of involvement on their behalf.

The various imbroglios serve to show how ineffective measures taken to stanch abuse are in the long run. New Jersey, for instance was required by HUD to submit an elaborate action plan before being entrusted with $1.8 billion in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery. As part of that plan, the state created procedures to guard against waste and fraud, according to the State of New Jersey Office of Recovery and Rebuilding. An executive order signed by Christie and a Web site called the Sandy Transparency Portal were supposed to provide additional protections.

New Jersey, long known as a den of graft and political cronyism, isn’t alone in mismanaging disaster funds, however. The Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General investigates multiple cases each year. In some instance, funds are found to be properly accounted for. In others, they are not and must be recovered.
A 2013 audit of 10 states and one urban area (which did not include New Jersey) identified $5.7 million in questioned funds. In its report to Congress, the office recommended improvements in allocation, obligation, and expenditure of grant funds, monitoring of subgrantee activities, and financial management.

All this to say what we’ve known since Hurricane Katrina—while a flood of federal funds is often necessary to rebuild broken communities in the wake of disaster, it can sometimes serve as an invitation to drink from the well of exploitation.

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Businesses Behaving Badly: The Latest on West Virginia's Freedom (from Responsibility) Spill

When it comes to iniquitous behavior by companies who despoil the environment, there’s some pretty stiff competition. From the long-ago tactics of Exxon in the Exxon Valdez days to the more recent examples of BP or the Tennessee Valley Authority, there are plenty of not-so-shining examples of corporations putting profits over people.

Recent events, however, make it clear that Freedom Industries means to be a contender.

The company earlier this month purportedly allowed about 7,500 gallons of a chemical known as “crude MCHM” to leach unchecked (and unreported) into the water supply for about 300,000 West Virginians. Then, even as some remained without water, the company filed for bankruptcy—a move that effectively puts a hold on liability suits filed against it. For the grand finale (so far), the company shocked regulators by waiting two weeks to disclose that a second chemical, PPH, was present in the spill.

“The good news is that the experts think—maybe—the second chemical wasn’t any more dangerous than the first,” writes Paul M. Barrett in an editorial in Bloomsberg Businessweek. “The bad news is the belated revelation reaffirms that the company behind the spill is truly out of control.”

The timeline on when the careening began is a little sketchy. According to the New York Times, the company claimed it located the initial leak at about 10:30 a.m. on January 9 and began clean up. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, said it was their inspectors who located a hole in a holding tank at 11:10 a.m. that day after receiving complaints of a strong odor from residents. The chemical had spilled from the tank into a containment area and seeped into the Elk River. No clean up was underway at that time, inspectors said.

Five days after the spill, authorities were still working to restore water to residents while the company played down the toxicity of the chemical (which is little understood) and the extent of the leak, according to the Washington Post. About 10 people were admitted to the hospital due to ingesting water tainted with the chemical, which can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing, the Post reported.

More than week after the spill, as water was finally being restored to the last of the affected residents, Freedom filed what U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson called the “one of the most unique Chapter 11 cases I've ever seen,” the Charleston Gazette reports.

The bankruptcy filing and a subsequent emergency motion for “debtor-in-possession” financing (DIP) will allow Freedom to borrow up to $4 million to pay debts and continue operations. It also puts 28 lawsuits currently filed against the company on hold. The workings of the case are labyrinthine and slightly suspect, including the two lenders who would provide the financing. According to the Gazette, both financing companies were incorporated the day before Freedom’s filing and can be tied to Clifford Forrest, the owner of Chemstream Holdings, Freedom Industries' parent company.

The West Virginia American Water Co., which operates the infrastructure infiltrated by the spill, unsuccessfully asked the judge to deny Freedom’s DIP financing, stating that it “reeks of collusion,” and was a “loan to own scheme,” the Gazette reports.

"The terms of the DIP facility would provide the lender with a lien on all of the Debtor's assets, a superiority claim, and the ability to foreclose selectively on the assets and take away the most valuable assets from the Debtor's estate, leaving behind only the toxic facilities and huge damage claims caused by the Freedom spill," the water company's filing states.

It’s unclear what those huge damage claims might look like, especially after Freedom’s revelation this week that there was second, undisclosed chemical lurking in the leaky tanks.

State officials were dumbfounded Tuesday to learn that Freedom had withheld the presence of the second chemical—called PPH—and continued to withhold information on it, based on the fact that it was a propriety formula. Representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t suspect the 300 gallons of PPH that Freedom estimated was spilled would cause health problems, but they couldn’t be sure without more information on the composition.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was forced to issue an order the following day demanding the complete disclosure of any and all chemicals released into Elk River, according to the Gazette.

"Having this revelation so late in the game is completely unacceptable,” DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told the Gazette. “Having to order them to provide such obvious information is indicative of the continued decline of their credibility.”

Indeed, anyone following the issue closely is likely to wonder what new hubris the company will roll out next. Until then, though, there’s some hope that the egregiousness of the situation might start changing some of the state’s long held anti-regulatory opinions.

“I am thankful that my husband had a job for 32 years, one that could pay our bills and feed our family,” Cindy Harrah-Cox, whose husband was a coal miner, told the New York Times. “[But] at what cost? Dying young? The air and water is killing us? Is it worth all that?”

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Apply Now for the Mary Fran Myers Scholarship

The Mary Fran Myers Scholarship Committee is now accepting applications. Recipients will receive financial support allowing them to attend the 2014 Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, June 22-25. Recipients may also stay through June 26 to attend either the International Research Committee on Disasters or the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association add-on events for researchers and practitioners, respectively. Scholarships can cover part or all of transportation, meals, and registration costs.

The Mary Fran Myers Scholarship is awarded annually to at least one potential Workshop participant. Recipients are recognized at the Workshop and may be asked to serve as panelists, where they can highlight their research or practical experiences with hazards and disasters.

As the longtime co-director of the Natural Hazards Center, Myers recognized that many of the people and organizations that could benefit from and contribute to the Workshop—including local practitioners, students, and international professionals—were among those least likely to afford it. The scholarship was established in 2003 to fulfill Myers’ request that qualified and talented individuals receive support to attend.

Hazards practitioners, students, and researchers with a strong commitment to disaster management and mitigation and who reside in North America or the Caribbean are eligible to enter. Eligibility is based on current place of residence, not citizenship.

Applicants from outside North America and the Caribbean will be eligible for the scholarship in 2015. Previous attendees of the Natural Hazards Workshop are not eligible for the 2014 Mary Fran Myers Scholarship. Preference is given to those who can demonstrate financial need.

For more information on past scholarship winners and how to apply, visit the Mary Fran Myers Scholarship page at the Natural Hazards Center Web site. Applications must be received by March 28.

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

Call for Participation
Fuel Treatment Science Plan Survey
Joint Fire Science Program
Deadline: January 31, 2014

The Joint Fire Science Program is requesting participation in a survey that will inform planning, operations, and management of natural fuels. Survey questions pertain to fuel treatment research, tools and technology, fuel treatment needs, reducing hazardous fuels, and managing vegetation. For more information or to take the confidential survey, visit the survey Web site.  A separate survey for federal employees is also available.


Call for Submissions

Student Paper and Poster Competition
Association of State Dam Safety Officials
Deadline: February 17, 2014
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials are accepting paper and poster submissions for its annual student contests. Winning papers will receive a $500 prize and a stipend to present at the Dam Safety Conference to be held September 21-25 in San Diego. Poster competition winners will receive recognition at the conference. Submission topics could include public safety at dams, impacts of dam removal, safety of fly ash impoundments, the effects of extreme flood events on dam safety, hydrologic modeling in dam safety decision making, or many others. For full information, visit the competition page on the ASDSO Web site.


Call for Applications

Youth Preparedness Council
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Deadline: February 24, 2014

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is accepting applications from youths aged 12 to 17 to serve on its Youth Preparedness Council. Applications from kids who have been motivated by disaster experience or who are involved in community preparedness projects will be accepted. For full details on eligibility and how to apply, visit the application Web site.

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Some New Web Resources

USGS Science Pop Quiz: Natural Hazards Edition
Think you know your hazards? Take this quick quiz from the U.S. Geological Survey and prepared to get served. With questions on everything from sinkholes to magnetic storms, you’ll have to dig deep to get a respectable score—but you’ll also walk away wiser and wow your friends.


Influenza Forecasts
Tis the season for getting the flu, and those who like to keep track of where the virus lurks will love this interactive site put together by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Visitors can view outbreaks by city, compare forecast methods, and even look at flu incidences by location and season. Also check out the school’s predictions for the 2013-2014 flu season (spoiler alert: January is the month to look out for!)


Risk Barometer
When it comes to risky business, natural hazards and their cascading effects are what keep CEOs up at night. The Allianz Risk Barometer surveyed 400 corporate insurance officers and learned that business disruption, threats to the supply chain, natural catastrophe, and fire are high on the list of what companies will be watching for in 2014. The report also highlights hidden risks, risks by region, and a number of trends and growing areas of concern.


Annual Global Climate and Catastrophe Report

While businesses worry about disaster risks ahead, Aon Benfield has been busy counting the impacts of those that struck last year. The company released its annual report last week, finding that the worldwide economic losses are actually below the ten-year average and the lowest they’ve been since 2009—at $192 paid out for 296 events (mostly floods). Check out the report for information on insured losses, fatalities, and expected future events.


Responder Self-Care App
It’s no shock that first responders often neglect caring for themselves when they’re caring for others, but this app from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health won’t stand for it. The app contains checklists, reminders, and tips to make sure responders pack what they need, maintain their health and relationships, and take a moment to reflect when their mission is over. Available on iPhone and Android platforms.

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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]

March 13-14, 2014
International Conference on Disaster Management
Yeshwantrao Chavan College of Engineering
Maharashtra, India
Cost and Registration: $140 before February 15, open until filled

This conference will address challenges in disaster management strategies and technology that addresses issues using information and communication. Topics include the role of communications in disaster prevention and recovery, economic risks, the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and various elements of disaster management.


March 24-25, 2014
International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Disaster Management
Algiers, Algeria
Cost and Registration: $340, open until filled
This conference will examine new methods of research and technologies related to the study of disasters. Topics include emergency communication, decision enhancement systems, cloud computing for disaster management, crowd sourcing, damage and loss assessments, and post-disaster needs assessment.


March 24-28, 2014
International Conference on High Impact Natural Hazards related to the Euro-Mediterranean Region
European Geosciences Union
Istanbul, Turkey
Cost and Registration: $408, open until filled

This conference will discuss large-impact natural hazards with high destruction potential (tsunamis, earthquakes, hydro-meteorological events, volcanoes, and landslides) in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Topics include best practices in prediction, the physics of tsunamis, educating students and the public on natural hazards, flooding, and volcano monitoring.


April 14-16, 2014
2014 Southeast Regional Conference
Association of State Dam Safety Officials
Montgomery, Alabama
Cost and Registration: $425, open until filled
This conference focuses on challenges in construction and maintenance of dams, as well as dam failure mitigation and disaster prevention. Topics include earth dam rehabilitation, dam failure liability, Alabama water policy, instrumentation and monitoring systems, and emergency action planning.


May 8-9, 2014
Conference on Disaster Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Sustainable Education
Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities
Boston, Massachusetts
Cost and Registration: $120, open until filled
This conference will examine the role of architecture, planning, and engineering education in preventing and mitigating natural hazards. Topics include cultural resources recovery, contingency planning, transportation infrastructure, future trends in education, ethical and political ethics, and Atlantic-based tsunamis.

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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Emergency Manager
Montrose County
Montrose, Colorado
Salary: $54,862 to $62,794
Deadline: January 31, 2014

This position develops and coordinates the county emergency management program and supports the sheriff’s office, elected officials, and health services during an emergency. Duties include developing emergency plans and procedures, coordinating emergency operations centers, conducting operational studies, and submitting budget recommendations. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management, budget preparation skills, and at least three years experience in disaster and emergency planning are required.


Program Manager

Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
Oakland, California
Salary: Not Posted
Deadline: February 5, 2014
This position is responsible for creating professional development programs, leading workshops, proposal writing, and supporting regional and university-based student chapters of EERI. Duties include project management and reporting, creating short courses, developing seminars, providing support at annual meetings and conferences, and representing EERI at advisory project committees. A bachelor’s degree in an earthquake-related field, collaborative skills, and the ability to travel are required.


Humanitarian Affairs Officer

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
New York, New York
Salary: Not posted
Deadline: March 14, 2014
This position analyzes information on emergencies, organizes humanitarian relief, administrates disaster response projects and is involved, in coordinates appeals for international assistance. Duties include reviewing policies, distributing aid funds, evaluating assistance programs, and working with government officials. A master’s degree in political science, at least five years of experience in humanitarian or emergency relief management, and field experience in natural disasters are required.


Postdoctoral Research Associate

Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
Salary: $45,000
Deadline: Open until filled
This position will work with the Institute of Sustainable Coastal Communities to identify ways to improve hazard mitigation, reduce vulnerability, and address threats to coastal resilience. Duties include developing a method to determine environmental and geographical trends, analyzing hazard mitigation policies, modeling changes in hazard exposure, and predicting future vulnerabilities. A PhD in environmental planning or a related field and experience in research design are required.


Emergency Management Project Tracking Specialist

Arc Aspicio
Winchester, Virginia
Salary: Not posted
Deadline: Open until filled
This position is part of a technical analyst program that supports a mission-critical project to improve disaster assistance. Duties include developing disaster assistance software, researching and analyzing disasters, interface planning, and working with government Web sites. Three years of IT project tracking experience, a strong understanding of emergency management methods, and a bachelors degree 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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