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Number 638 • January 15, 2014 | Past Issues













Getting Down and Dirty in the Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance

Scientists were able to use a couple of membranes and a pile of dirt to unearth some good news on the antibiotic front this month—and anyone following the current state of antibiotic effectiveness knows good news is needed.

Health officials have warned of a bleak outlook in the antibiotic arena for some time now. Misuse and overuse of the drugs—combined with flagging interest (and profit) in antibiotic research—have led to bacteria mounting something of a comeback against modern medicine. With diseases such as staph, strep, and tuberculosis more frequently mutating into drug-resistant forms, scientists are going to have to play dirty to keep the upper hand.

“Pathogens are acquiring resistance faster than we can introduce new antibiotics, and this is causing a human health crisis,” Northeastern University biochemist Kim Lewis told Smithsonian Magazine.

Lewis and a team of researchers, though, have developed a technique that might just deliver the one-two punch needed to quell that crisis.

One difficulty in creating antibiotics is that most are derived from organisms that live in soil and plants. Over the years scientists have mined most of the easily accessed compounds, but now that diseases are able to overcome them it’s becoming difficult to find alternatives. The fact that they aren’t easily grown in labs adds to the problem.
“The majority of bacteria on this planet are 'uncultured,' meaning they don't grow on our petri dishes,” Lewis told NPR. “And when I'm talking about 'the majority,' it is 99 percent.”

Lewis and his team created a device that uses two thin membranes that isolate bacteria-rich soil from the soil in which it originated. By allowing organisms in the dirt to flourish independently, the device essentially tricks the bacteria into thinking it’s growing under natural conditions—scientists can then later cultivate them in lab setting, Lewis said.

The gizmo was able to churn out more than two dozen compounds that could be useful in creating antibiotics—including one called teixobactin that might just be unbeatable. Teixobactin is different in that it affects portions of bacteria cell walls that don’t mutate. That means bacteria have less opportunity to fight back.

Still, even a star player like teixobactin probably won’t be able to carry the team indefinitely though. What we need is a change in game plan, according to world health leaders.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have indicated that the path we’re currently on will lead us back to the dark ages of medicine. England’s top health official has likened the situation to a “ticking time bomb” on par with a “risk as big as terrorism.” The World Health Organization released a 275-page global report on antibiotic resistance in April that also outlined a grim future.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security Keiji Fukuda stated.

To avoid that future, the WHO recommends that individuals be more responsible when taking antibiotics and follow instructions closely. Health workers should focus on disease prevention and only prescribe the drugs when absolutely necessary. And policymakers also need to do more to support research like Lewis’.

“Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, ”Fukuda stated, “the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”

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Disaster News Redux: Elk River Chemical Spill

Awash in Toxic Water: About this time last year, more than 300,000 people were without water thanks to a toxic chemical that leached into the Elk River in West Virginia, while the company responsible for the spill simultaneously sought to protect its assets and thwarted cleanup efforts.

Freedom Industries purportedly allowed about 7,500 gallons of a chemical known as “crude MCHM” to leach unchecked into the water supply and then, even before water was completely restored to residents, took legal action to effectively put a hold on liability suits filed against it. The company also shocked regulators by waiting two weeks to disclose that a second chemical, PPH, was present in the spill and then refusing disclose information on its proprietary formula.

Underlining the company’s obvious concern for profits over people was what U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson called “one of the most unique Chapter 11 cases I've ever seen,” according to the Charleston Gazette.

The bankruptcy filing and a subsequent emergency motion for “debtor-in-possession” financing (DIP) was designed to allow Freedom to borrow up to $4 million to pay debts and continue operations. It also puts 28 lawsuits filed against the company on hold.

The workings of the case were 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 reported.

Knee Deep in Trouble: While the company itself will likely have limited liability for the spill, an indictment issued by U.S. District court last month named four company officials negligent for their part in the spill.

Former Freedom owners Dennis Farrell, William Tis, and Charles Herzing, and president Gary Southern were each charged with three counts of violating the Clean Water Act. Their failure to exercise reasonable care in running the company is what ultimately caused the negligent discharge of the pollutants, according to the indictment.

“Farrell, Tis, Herzing, and Southern approved funding only for those projects that would result in increased business revenue for Freedom or that were necessary to make immediate repairs to equipment that was broken or about to break,” the indictment stated.

In separated proceedings, Southern was also arrested and charged with wire fraud, making false statements under oath, and bankruptcy fraud, according to the New York Times. Those charges are related to Southern’s attempts to downplay his role in Freedom Industries and protect his personal assets, according to a criminal complaint lodged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Freedom Industries entered a plea agreement with federal authorities that will limit fines and block restitution claims for the company’s crimes, according to the Charleston Gazette.

“This will permit Freedom to focus its time and limited resources on its environmental cleanup obligations and addressing the claims of its creditors,” Mark Welch, Freedom’s chief restructuring officer told the Gazette.

Wading through Solutions: If convicted, Farrell, Tis, and Herzing could face up to three years in prison, and Southern faces up to 68, according to the Gazette.

Regardless of the outcome, many in the region ruled by coal companies see the indictment as hope that the industry will begin to be held accountable. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the case sends a strong message to polluters.

“They put an entire population needlessly at risk,” the Gazette quotes Holder as saying. “Such conduct cannot, and will not, be tolerated. These law enforcement actions send an unambiguous message that compliance with environmental safety standards is an obligation, not a choice.”

Some West Virginia activists disagree, though. People like Junior Walk of Coal River Mountain Watch say that holding a few individuals guilty for widely accepted practices diverts attention from the state's widespread evironmental woes.

“These guys are scapegoats. They’re just the ones that got caught,” he told The Atlantic. “The industry and its proponents in our government want us to believe these guys are just a few bad apples, that these are all isolated incidents. Well, they’re not. The whole damn system is guilty.”

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New Editor, New Observer: The Natural Hazards Center Welcomes Elke Weesjes

The Natural Hazards Center is thrilled to announce we have a new editor at the helm of the Natural Hazards Observer. Elke Weesjes joined the staff December 15 and has been busy applying her expertise and enthusiasm to the job ever since.                        
Weesjes comes to us following a brief stint as a correspondent for a nonprofit at the United Nations. She has also worked as editor of the peer-reviewed United Academics Journal of Social Sciences and has been a research associate for the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University since 2012.

Weesjes specializes in cultural memory and neighborhood and community change in times of acute and chronic stress. Her dissertation, Children of the Red Flag: Growing up in a Communist Family During the Cold War, and the majority of her publication record examine culture and identity through oral history.

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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 2015 Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, July 19-22. Recipients may also stay through July 23 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 on or practical experiences with hazards and disasters.

As the longtime co-director of the Natural Hazards Center, Myers recognized that many of the people 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 outside North America or the Caribbean are eligible to enter. Eligibility is based on current place of residence, not citizenship.

Applicants from North America and the Caribbean will be eligible for the scholarship in 2016. Previous attendees of the Natural Hazards Workshop are not eligible for the 2015 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 27.

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

Call for Presentations
National Hydrologic Warning Council Training Conference
National Hydrologic Warning Council
Deadline: February 13, 2015

The National Hydrologic Warning Council is accepting abstracts for presentation at their 11th annual training conference to be held June 16-18 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Short format presentations will be limited to 30 minutes, while long format presentations will be limited to 90 minutes. Presentation submissions should include a brief biography of the author and address some aspect of advances in hydrologic warnings. For more details on requirements or to submit a presentation, visit the Website.


Call for Essays
Disaster Law Essay Contest
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Deadline: January 30, 2015

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is accepting essays for their disaster law essay contest. Graduate and undergraduate essays on any topic related to law and natural hazard-related disasters will be accepted. Essays should be written from a comparative and/or an international law perspective that examines no less than three countries. For more information on essay requirements and rules for submission, visit the contest Website.


Call for Student Papers/Posters
Dam Safety Student Paper and Poster Competitions
Association of State Dam Safety Officials
Deadline: February 9, 2015
The Association of Sate Dam Safety Officials is accepting submissions for its annual student paper and poster competitions. Papers and posters should focus on dams and levee issues with emphasis on public safety. Winners will be recognized at the Dam Safety Conference September 13-17 in New Orleans. For more information on prizes, topic areas, and how to submit, visit the competition Website.

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Some New Web Resources

Communicating About Asteroid Impact Warnings and Mitigation Plans
While Hollywood seems to have a pretty good idea about how an asteroid hurtling toward earth would be announced, the people actually responsible for issuing such warnings are still working it out. This report is the result of a workshop where experts gathered to discuss near-earth object (NEO) risk communication. Recommendations include strategies for creating a strong, credible network for information dissemination and a workable scale that allows non-experts to understand NEO risk.


Community Disaster Recovery and Resiliency
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently brought together a panel of experts (including our director, Kathleen Tierney) to discuss a number of elements that can lead to ensuring communities are resilient and able to recover from disasters. This video archives that live event and includes presentations on the reinsurance industry and Greensburg, Kansas.


Disaster Preparedness for Seniors by Seniors
There are plenty of resources aimed at getting senior citizens prepared for disasters—but this one is written by people who have been there. The American Red Cross collected suggestions from a dozen seniors caught in a New York ice storm in this guide that includes checklists, preparedness tips, and what to do if you have to shelter in place.


Model EMS Clinical Guidelines
The National Association of State EMS Officials has compiled this collection of evidenced-based and consensus-based practices to assist EMS organizations in delivering enhanced patient care, increasing safety, and promoting positive outcomes. While adoption of the guidelines are optional, it was created with the intent of standardizing EMS care at the state level.


Disasters at Data.Gov
Need disaster data? This newly launched site includes disaster data sets, tools, news, and just about any other disaster related information you could put on a Website. The site is meant to be a community effort that increases resilience, so be sure to weigh in with any info you might have, too!

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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]

February 18-19, 2015
Disaster Resilience Workshop
National Institute for Standards and Technology
San Diego, California
Cost and Registration: $130, open until filled
This workshop is one in a series of events that will focus on the role that buildings and infrastructure lifelines play in ensuring community resilience.  Topics include resilient infrastructure, impacts on social systems, resilience tools and metrics, interdependencies among buildings, and reducing community vulnerability.


February 20, 2015
Creating a Resilient Aging Society
World Health Organization
Kobe, Japan           
Cost and Registration: Not listed, open until filled

This conference will examine the health, psychosocial, and physical needs of aging populations in disasters. Topics include long-term health consequences, social welfare, community responsibilities, and case studies of the elderly population after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

March 5-6, 2015
Decentralized Disaster Governance in Urbanizing Asia
National University of Singapore
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled

This conference will examine how citizens can take part in a decentralized decision-making process that improves disaster preparedness within the community. Topics include long-term disaster preparedness, post-disaster impacts on governments, and shared disaster experiences.


March 14-18, 2015
World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction
UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Sendai, Japan
Cost and Registration: Not listed, closes February 20

This conference will discuss international disaster risk reduction and recovery from the viewpoint of all levels of governance. Topics include earthquakes and tsunamis as mega disasters, disaster resilient cultural heritage, agriculture and nutrition, and resiliency in the tourism sector.


March 18-20, 2015
Virginia Emergency Management Symposium
Virginia Emergency Management Association
Hampton, Virginia
Cost and Registration: $425, open until filled

This conference will examine the divide between practitioners and the academic study of emergency management using specific events. Topics include the Cherrystone Campground tornado, the efficiency of technology in emergency management, vulnerable populations and their experience with Hurricane Irene, and threats to the power grid.

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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Flood Mitigation Program Manager
City of Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Salary: $79,268 to $108,950
Deadline: Open until filled

This position oversees the Cedar Rapid flood mitigation program and ensures the city flood protection system is accredited. Duties include conceptualizing and implementing the flood protection, long-term evaluation of staff members, and communicating progress to upper management. A bachelor’s degree in engineering, business, or a related field, experience managing public works projects and licensure as a professional engineer issued by the State of Iowa is required.


Assistant Professor of Emergency Management 
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: Open until filled

This position will teach emergency management courses at an undergraduate level. Duties include publishing in scholarly, peer-reviewed outlets, compiling an active research agenda, and committing to rotations in professional development in emergency management. A PhD in Emergency Management or closely related field and classroom teaching experience is required.


Emergency Preparedness and Response Grant Coordinator
Washington State Department of Health
Tumwater, Washington
Salary: $40,524 to $53,148
Deadline: January 25, 2015

This position is responsible for the coordination of the federal emergency preparedness grants. Duties include collecting program information, grant management, developing applications for other grant opportunities, and working with the Center for Disease Control and the Hospital Preparedness Program to secure grants. An associate’s degree in business, public administration, or public health and two or more years of experience working with federal grants is required.


Hazard Mitigation Planner
Amec Foster Wheeler
Boulder, Colorado
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: Open until filled

This position supports hazard mitigation and emergency management services. Responsibilities include evaluating existing mitigation plans, performing risk assessment analyses on hazard data, identifying cost-effective and environmentally safe mitigation plans, and assisting with emergency management training and exercises. A bachelor’s degree in a related field and at least two years of experience in the hazard mitigation management are required. Reference number 22398BR when accessing the job site.

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Webinars, Training, and Education

Regional Transportation Planning for Disasters
January 21, 2015, 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. EST
Transportation Research Board of the National Academies
Cost and Registration: $89, register online before event

This webinar will focus on foundational principles for disaster and emergency planning as well as effective communication practices. Topics include case studies of regional planning, long- and short-term emergency planning, mitigation, and confluence of transportation planning. Up to 1.5 professional development hours can be earned.


Online Course
Introduction to Mental Health and Disaster Preparedness
Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness
Cost and Registration: Free, registration required

This course examines the relationship between public health and disaster mental health. Topics include psychiatric first aid, mental health surge capacity, and disaster mental health services. Coursework is available online and can be accessed at any time.


Online Training
Assisting Persons with Disabilities During an Emergency
The North Carolina Institute for Public Health
Cost and Registration: Free, registration not required

This self-directed training will provide an overview of the equipment and the resources that assist persons with disabilities during an emergency. Topics covered in the 20-minute presentation include adaptive equipment, assistive technology, and responding to cultural differences. Pre- and post-test, training activities, and a certificate of completion are included.

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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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