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Number 626 • April 3, 2014 | Past Issues













Insensitive or Just Good Sense? Assigning Blame in the Oso Landslide

There was once a time when an event such as the landslide that struck in Oso, Washington, would have been called an act of God. But as we’ve become more savvy about the manmade triggers of many disasters, that’s no longer so.

Nowadays, it’s just as routine to look for the role humans play in hazards as it is to look to nature. So, are humans at least partly responsible for the Oso disaster?

After weeks of rainfall sent a massive debris flow plummeting down slope to bury a mile-wide swath of the valley below, everyone focused on the tragedy and the search to find the missing. Within a week, however, the Seattle Times published an analysis that damned state regulators for not protecting land near the slide site from ecologically unsound logging practices.

The analysis examined a 1997 report by geomorphologist Daniel Miller that delineated where ground water could leach into the slope and create a landslide risk. Despite lauding the report as state of the art and using it to issue logging restrictions, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources later approved clear cutting (a practice that removes all or most trees from an area) on about five acres that should have been protected, according to the Seattle Times report. Removing trees, which absorb rainfall, can lead to excess water seepage and destabilize the landscape.

“We did the work,” Miller told the Times. “It was cited in the prescriptions as what you should do. And it appears from your comparison of the maps that it didn’t get done. I suspect it just got lost in the shuffle somewhere.”

While the oversight was significant and could have contributed to the landslide danger, the public revelation may have been premature for a community built on logging and still reeling from the disaster. Indeed, many of those searching for bodies in the mud are loggers.

“They don't need to hear ... that,” resident Peter Brandt told CNN on the topic of logging and landslides. “They need to hear thank you and God bless you.”

Further, scientists can’t yet be sure—and may never be—of exactly what role logging played in the disaster. The area has a long history of both logging and landslides, and while there are widely acknowledged links between the logging industry and shallow debris flows, the Oso slide was deep.

“I can't even put my finger on a really clear, defensible, definitive study that says ‘Yes, logging matters for deep-seated landslides,’” Josh Roering, a University of Oregon, Eugene expert on logging and landslides, told National Geographic News.

Even though the timing and tenuous connection of the Seattle Times analysis might be unfortunate, probing for possible manmade causes is helpful. The shallow landslides that can be linked to logging could be just as damaging on a smaller scale, and some residents may be unaware of the danger hanging over their heads.

“Nobody told any of us,” 63-year-old Robin Youngblood, a native of the area and survivor of the slide, told CNN. “This is criminal, as far as I'm concerned.”

Furthermore, disaster experts have long known that it takes these sort of epic-proportion disasters to get the public to take notice and implement change. In that sense, looking to manmade causes is absolutely constructive and necessary, as Miller pointed out in a recent editorial.

“Mapping hazards is not a national priority,” he wrote. “Yet it seems that, if my smartphone can tell me how to drive to the nearest coffee shop, it should be able to tell me what's known about the hazards where I'm standing. We have the technology; we need the public interest to drive the required investment.”

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Ship Shape: Oil Spill Shines Light on Ship Channel Risks

A March 22 collision of two ships resulted in an oil spill that closed a major U.S. shipping channel for days, killed wildlife, and caused the evacuation of a nearby dike—not to mention dumping around 168,000 gallons of oil into Galveston Bay.
Perhaps most disturbing, though, are the crowded conditions that led to the accident.

It was a foggy late morning in the Houston Ship Channel when a tugboat towing two barges made way for a large bulk carrier ship. Despite a call between ship captains about five minutes before the incident, a collision was unavoidable.

“If you keep on going, I'm going to get you,” the captain of the bulk carrier, said in a recording of the call, according to the Associated Press. “Captain, I can cut her back. I can go dead slow, but that still ain't going to stop it because I'm coming up on half a mile of you.”

The tugboat, which was hauling nearly a million gallons of a thick form of oil known as bunker fuel, tried to back out of the channel, but it was too late, according to the AP report. The resulting collision partially submerged the barge and allowed 168,000 gallons, or about 4,000 barrels, of oil to escape.

The Houston channel was closed for nearly six days while crews worked to clean up the spill. Industry experts worried about the nationwide impacts of cutting off one of the busiest petrochemical ports in the United States from the Gulf of Mexico, while wildlife officials fretted over the pollution of an important shorebird habitat during the peak of migration season. The Texas City Dike was closed as black globs of oil appeared on its shores and oil tarnished the popular Padre Island, as well.

Despite the far-reaching impacts of the accident, which the U.S. Coast Guard called a significant spill, lies the import of the crowded ship channel that moves about 80 ships a day along with hundreds of tugboats and barges. Accident numbers for the channel weren’t readily available, but a 2012 National Transportation Safety Board investigation into another collision cited traffic in the channel as problematic in waterway with a limited margin for error.

“The only thing I can say is, ‘Wow,’” Tim Gunn, tugboat captain for Buffalo Marine Service Inc., told Bloomberg News in 2013. “Sometimes you can meet and be overtaken by a handful of ships, 10 to 15 of them. When I first started it seemed like two or three.”

While traffic in the channel has increased along with energy demands, infrastructure maintenance has not, leading to dangerous conditions. Federal funding cuts have made it difficult to keep up with the dredging needed to keep the channel clear, according to Bloomberg. Along with that, natural flow conditions in the channel make it difficult to pilot as well, the NTSB report said.

The combination can lead to near misses and full-on hits like the March collision. Just days earlier, a similar spill was avoided when a cargo ship carrying rice collided with a barge carrying thousands of gallons of oil, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Although crowded conditions in the channel aren’t likely to dissipate, an estimated $35 billion in capital and maintenance projects is underway, according to Bloomberg. The question remains, however, whether the projects will keep up with the demands from the companies that rely on the port—and whether the change will happen quickly enough.

“We’re still trying to stuff these bigger ships up these tiny ditches,” Captain Mike Morris, presiding officer of the Houston Pilots, told Bloomberg. “Everywhere you look in the port, we’re expanding.”

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Disaster News Redux: Latest IPCC Report Sends Stern Message

Early Warnings: In September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report, addressing the physical science of climate change.
That report, the first from the panel since a 2011 special report, makes the strongest assertion to date that humans are driving climate change. It says that it is 95 percent certain (up from 90 percent stated in the previous report) that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The report also contains ominous warnings about what to expect if nations are unable to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including sea level rise of up to 39 inches by the end of the century and global surface temperature increases of up 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The report is part of an ongoing series in which several United Nations-appointed scientific working groups provide a comprehensive analysis of available climate research and suggestions for actions that might be taken to mitigate the impacts of a warming climate. 

Current Injunctions: The IPCC, which released the second part of the Fifth Assessment Report on Sunday, continued to emphasize the need for immediate response to climate change.

“We’re not in an era where climate change is some sort of future hypothetical,” Chris Field, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution and co-chair of Working Group II, told reporters in Yokohama, where the scientists convened. “There is no question that we live in a world that’s already altered by climate change.”

The latest report addresses the impact of climate change on everything from oceans and agriculture to human society and finds that human and natural systems are already suffering and will continue to suffer.

Changes in water quality and quantity, negative impacts on crop yields, a downturn in human health are among the effects to be expected if change isn’t forthcoming, according to a summary of the report for policymakers. The report also claims that non-climatic factors will be exacerbated by climate change in the coming years.

“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report states.

Although the report is grim, it’s not all gloom and doom. The authors report that while a certain amount of climate impact is already locked in, adaptations, especially those that slow greenhouse gas emissions, can reduce future impacts and the need for even more costly adaptation.

Future Guidance: Sunday’s report is the second of four to be released by the IPCC. The Working Group III report, which will address mitigation measures, is expected later this month, while a synthesis Report will be delivered in late October 2014.

Government around the world are also preparing for a UN for a climate conference to be held in Paris in 2015. The Fifth Assessment Report will deeply inform those talks and there’s some hope the IPCC’s lack of word mincing will give the talks more teeth than those of the Durban and Warsaw talks that came before.

In the meantime, there is no need to ask for whom the climate change bell tolls, according to IPCC Chairperson Rajendra K. Pachauri. It tolls for all of us.

“In view of the impacts [presented in the report] and those that we have projected for the future, we know that nobody on the planet will be untouched by climate change.”

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Mary Fran Myers Award Deadline is Approaching

Just a little more than a week remains to apply for the 2014 Mary Fran Myers Award. The award recognizes disaster professionals who continue Myers’ goal of promoting research on gender issues in disasters and emergency management.

Individuals eligible for the award will have added to the body of knowledge on gender and disasters or furthered opportunities for women to succeed in the field. The selection committee is especially interested in nominations from outside the United States. Previously nominated individuals who have not won the Mary Fran Myers Award are still eligible.

The award winner will be invited to participate in the Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, on June 22-25 and will be acknowledged in the Workshop program. Workshop fees will be covered. Travel to and accommodations at the Workshop are the winner's responsibility.

Nominations should be submitted by April 14. For more information on the award and how to submit a nomination, visit the Award Web Site.

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

Call for Applications
John D. Solomon Fellowship for Public Service
New York City Office of Emergency Management
Deadline: April 7, 2014

The New York City Office of Emergency Management is accepting applications for the John D. Solomon Fellowship for Public Service. Fellows will complete a nine-month, paid fellowship in a New York City government agency or nonprofit focusing on emergency management. Graduate students in the fields of emergency management, public safety, journalism, social work, law, or a related field are eligible. For further eligibility requirement and to learn more about participating agencies, visit the fellowship Web site.


Call for Applications
Post Graduate Internship Program
Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
Deadline: April 14, 2014
The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute is accepting applications for two post-graduate internship opportunities. Interns will work on a number of EERI projects, including organizing the 10th U.S. National Conference on Earthquake Engineering to be held in July. For a list of requirements and to submit an application, visit the EERI Web site.

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Some New Web Resources

Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
Events like the gas explosion in Harlem or the collision in the Houston Ship Chanel serve as good reminders of the importance of infrastructure in the United States, and the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on vital systems every four years. The report card provides a quick overview of infrastructure by category or state, and you can drill down to more detailed information. Equipped with information on everything from aviation to wastewater, you can keep an eye on whether or not America is making the grade (spoiler: it’s not).


Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Sometimes it helps to start small before you go big. That’s the concept behind the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, which implements strategies for wildfire resilience in pilot communities and uses hub organizations to spread the word about how they worked. Whether you want to be a participant or just check out what they’ve learned, visit the Web site for more information, resources, and updates.



With 911 call centers beginning to catch up with the texting revolution, the Federal Communication Commission has created a Web site to help share best practices and lessons learned. The site will answer frequently asked questions, allow text providers and call centers to share information, and offer a checklist for centers to consider when integrating texting into their operations.


Beyond the Basics: Best Practices in Local Mitigation Planning

If you’ve been procrastinating on putting together a hazard mitigation plan, there’s no time like the present—especially since this new Web site will walk you through it step by step. The site, which was created by the DHS Science and Technology Coastal Hazard Center of Excellence and the of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also contains a self-assessment tool, sample community plans and place to share experiences and lessons learned.


National Tsunami Preparedness Week

Just to be clear, National Tsunami Preparedness Week was last week, but this list of resources is just too useful to parade out for a mere seven days. Check out what the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation has put together on topics such as the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami, the SAFRR tsunami scenario, tsunami resources by state, and a wealth of other great information on tsunami awareness.

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Conferences 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]

April 30 to May 3, 2014
Fire-Rescue Med
International Association of Fire Chiefs EMS Section
Arlington, Virginia
Cost and Registration: $525, open until filled

This conference provides education and training on fire-based emergency medical services and information on challenges in the field. Topics include the new mobile healthcare environment, rescue in active shooter incidents, EMS issues at a federal level, generational differences in fire service, improving fire-based EMS performance, and infectious disease management.


April 30 to May 3, 2014
50th Anniversary Workshop 
University of Delaware Disaster Research Center 
Newark, Delaware
Cost and Registration: $100, open until filled
This workshop will focus on the ways in which urbanization, the economy, aging infrastructure, and growing populations are creating new challenges in disaster research and management. Topics include climate change, technological failures, new research directives and methodology, integrating findings with policy needs, and basic disaster science research.


May 25-30, 2014
First International Summit on Tornadoes and Climate Change
Aegean Conferences
Chaina, Crete
Cost and Registration: $1,950 (includes hotel), open until filled
This conference will apply climate science to the understanding of tornadoes in an effort to better predict how climate issues might affect future tornado activity. Topics include quantifying tornado risk, understanding the relationship between storms and climate, tools used to examine risk over time, and methods to advance tornado prediction.


June 1-6, 2014
ASPFM Conference: Making Room for Fish and Floods
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Seattle, Washington
Cost and Registration: $625 before May 3, open until filled
This conference presents state-of-the-art techniques, programs, training and resources to better improve flood mitigation, watershed management, and other community goals. Topics include legislative updates, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, levees and dams, flood loss mitigation, and water resource management.


July 21-25, 2014
National Conference on Earthquake Engineering
Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
Anchorage, Alaska
Cost and Registration: $975 before May 15, open until filled
The conference will address the many aspects of earthquakes and their impact on society. Topics include the 1964 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami, megadisasters, the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, resilient communities, planning for recovery, tsunami engineering, and subduction megaquakes.

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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Regional Hurricane Program Manager, GS13
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Denton, Texas
Salary: $87,354 to $113,560
Deadline: April 13, 2014

This position will support the region in responding to hurricanes. Duties include identifying state and regional readiness, producing plans, reports, and situational updates, and participating in regional and national working groups. One year of experience and the GS12 level and knowledge of hurricane evacuation planning at the state, local, and federal level is required. Experience providing evacuation preparedness or shelter in place assistance to government agencies is preferred.


Supervisory Attorney Advisor, GS14

Federal Emergency Management Agency
New York, New York
Salary: $110,112 to $143,141
Deadline: April 13, 2014
This position advises lead supervisors in the FEMA Office of the Chief Counsel. Duties include providing legal advice related to FEMA responsibilities (including complex research of statutes, regulations, and policies); providing advice on matters of federal ethics, Freedom of Information Act, and employment law; and contributing to FEMA-wide policies. One year experience at the GS13 level, five years of experience, and a juris doctorate is required.


Disaster and Emergency Management Major Research Project Supervisor

Royal Roads University
Victoria, British Columbia
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: April 28, 2014
This associate faculty contract position is responsible for supervising a group of 10 graduate students as they complete their final research projects in the Disaster and Emergency Management distance learning program. Duties include guiding students in developing their research prospectus, reviewing ethics applications, and providing supervision and support in the study and writing of the final report. A PhD in emergency management or a related field, graduate supervisory experience, and experience with web-based education is required. Please note revised deadline.


Risk Management, Decision Making, and Insurance Postdoctoral Researcher

Wharton Risk Management and Decision Process Center
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: April 30, 2014
This position will conduct research on the topics of risk management, decision making, an insurance in the context of flood risk and resilience. Duties will include undertaking original research and contributing to new and ongoing projects. A strong analytical background and a Phd in behavioral science, economics, psychology, sociology, or a related field is required.


Public Assistance Engineer or Architect

Hagerty Consulting
Multiple locations
Salary: Not Listed
Deadline: Open until filled

These positions will provide technical support and expertise in recovery efforts. Duties include explaining regulation and policies of the FEMA Public Assistance program to stakeholders, performing field inspections of disaster damage, and developing a scope of work for repairs and estimating cost. Five year experience, ability to travel, knowledge of the FEMA Public assistance program, and a master’s in civil engineering or architecture is required.

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Webinars, Training, and Education

April 11, 2014, 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. EST
Is Your State Resilient? Planning for Climate Change
American Planning Association
Cost and Registration: Free, register online

This webinar will focus on plans, policies, and laws that address the impacts of climate change on the state level. Speakers from the California Governor’s Office of Planning, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will share their expertise on forward-thinking state policies that alleviate the impacts of climate change. 


April 16, 2014, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. EDT
Disaster Preparedness Planning for Family Caregivers
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Cost and Registration: Free, register online
This webinar will address ways in which to support family caregivers in creating emergency plans for themselves and those they care for. Attendees will learn about the unique aspects of planning for vulnerable populations and get tips from disaster planning experts.


April 22, 2014, 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. MDT
Learning from the Elk River Chemical Spill
National Association of City and County Health Officials
Cost and Registration: Free, register online
This webinar will review the January 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill that left nearly 300,000 West Virginians without adequate drinking water for days. Attendees will learn about how the response to the spill was coordinated, challenges faced by public health officials, practices that led to the incident and ways to prepare for and mitigate future incidents.

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