1) Et Tu, Japan? Even in the Best Prepared Societies, People Forget They’re Vulnerable
Despite its well-known penchant for preparedness, Japan proved surprisingly vulnerable to a spate of disasters following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11. Nearly 15,000 people died, thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed, and officials are only now getting a handle on the shattered nuclear plant at Fukushima. Millions have been left without electricity and water.
Perhaps more frightening than the toll extracted by the mammoth earthquake and tsunami is that the price was paid by what’s considered one of the most disaster aware nations in the world. When strict building codes, early warning systems, and a well-informed, compliant public don’t ensure disaster safety, what’s gone wrong?
The answer, on one hand, is nothing. The Japanese disasters were immense, and had they happened elsewhere, experts say damage and loss of life would have been much greater. But it’s also a mistake to think that all the losses were inevitable.
“Some brief arguments regarding the relative success of Japanese disaster preparedness can still be mentioned,” writes Harvard postdoctoral researcher Jonatan Lassa in the Jakarta Post. “First, its coastal towns and cities are often densely populated, which … means there is a higher level of exposure to disaster risks. Second, the recent Japanese disasters were not simply a problem because the disaster prevention/mitigation failed, but because there are limits to prevention and mitigation—especially when the exposure to risk is neither reduced nor considered.”
Put more directly, people often live where they shouldn’t, and that happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most under-examined is the loss of “disaster memory,” as New York Times environmental writer Andrew Revkin terms it.
“It seems that just about everyone immersed in disaster preparedness and risk mitigation has an example of communities quickly forgetting wrenching lessons from past disasters,” he wrote in a 2008 article on the concept.
This was certainly true along the Japanese coastline, which is strewn with ancient markers that have warned generations of people of tsunami danger.
“High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” a stone marker near Aneyoshi reads according to the Associated Press. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”
The small village paid attention and survived the most recent tsunami, but many more don’t. Nor do they have the collective memory needed to give them a strong sense of the danger.
“It takes about three generations for people to forget,” Tohoku University Disaster Planning Professor Fumihiko Imamura told the AP. “Those that experience the disaster themselves pass it to their children and their grandchildren, but then the memory fades."
That’s unfortunate, because there are indications that warnings transmitted person-to-person go much further than all the safety drills and public service messages combined. A “megastudy” examining human behavior related to risk determined that people are more likely to engage in risk avoiding behaviors if they see others they know do it, said former Natural Hazards Center Director Dennis Mileti, who worked on the study.
“It’s cues; seeing other people take action,” he said in a recent presentation of the results. “A brilliant social psychologist a hundred years ago described this basic scientific tenet as ‘monkey see, monkey do.’”
Without that relevancy, warnings can easily fade into the daily information barrage. This is especially true after a lull in hazard events, such as the “roughly 40-year period of relative seismic calm,” that existed before this decade, Revkin points out in a recent article on Fukushima.
It’s then that people forget to assess their living conditions, communities forget and allow building in risky areas, and governments forget that one catastrophe can demolish the progress something like a nuclear power plant creates. And in culture after culture, once that forgetfulness sets in, it’s only a matter of time before the dangerous status quo returns.“I always told my parents it was dangerous here,” Hiroshi Kosai, whose parents died when the tsunami hit his home town of Natori, told the AP. “In five years, you'll see houses begin to sprout up here again.”
The grueling budget machinations necessary to avoid a government shutdown have left a slew of underfunded programs, including those that keep our food edible, our children educated, and our water drinkable. Less apparent but perhaps farther reaching are series of cuts that affect local emergency staffing, training, and equipment.
The $786 million in cuts will affect Federal Emergency Management Agency grants, according to a ProPublica report. According to the New York Times, the cuts will stunt a program that helped hire police officers and change the face of Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants. Those grants, which were previously used to pay fire personnel for up to two years, will now be capped to the point where local agencies will have to pitch in on salaries or pass on the grants.
“It is money appropriated in a bill that municipalities will not be able to access,” International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger told the Times. “They’re going to be doing it shorthanded, short-staffed.”
Staffing isn't the only problem. Often, when agencies are forced to decide between the cold comfort of well-trained warm bodies or public outreach, preparedness efforts take the hit.
“States have very little resources for this of their own—they have relied on the federal government from the beginning,” William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, told ProPublica. “They have essentially been able to stand up their preparedness activities in the last decade on the shoulders of federal support.”
The hit to preparedness is especially bitter for emergency managers who have long tried to convince the public and policy makers that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In addition to the grant program cuts, now it looks like FEMA will lose $50 million from its National Predisaster Mitigation Fund and $38 million from its effort to bring flood maps up to date, according to ProPublica. An anonymous FEMA staffer was cited as the source of the information. About $1 billion was set aside for responding to future disasters, according to the House Appropriations Committee.
Perhaps more disturbing than the lack of staffing and preparedness dollars is the dangerous precedent set by carving up emergency programs, Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told ProPublica.
“The cuts undermine the security of the country, as far as disaster preparedness is concerned,” he said. “If this is the direction we’re going in, I think the country is in for a lot more trouble.”
Flood risk is a slippery notion. To the everyday Joe, it might be a matter of whether his property runs a chance of flooding. (Or, if last year’s floodplain remapping flap is any indication, whether or not he has to pay flood insurance.) To city planners, it could be an arbitrary boundary that thwarts or encourages development. To banks, it might be a simple equation, risk = probability x consequence.
“But if that’s risk, then where does all the other stuff fit in?” Doug Plasencia of the Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation asked a room full of Colorado flood experts last week. “This flood risk concept is really amorphous right now.”
That issue, among others, was on the table when about 70 practitioners and academics from different disciplines gathered at the Natural Hazards Center for the Colorado Flood Risk Symposium. The April 14 symposium was an offshoot of the third Gilbert F. White National Flood Policy Forum.
The GFW Forums are held every three years to examine nationwide issues of floodplain and watershed management and determine strategies for solving them. The first forum, in 2004, looked at whether the one percent annual chance of flood standard is sufficient to reduce flood loss. The 2007 Forum discussed “Floodplain Management 2050,” which focused on managing floodplains in the face of population changes, funding shortages, housing demands, and other issues.
The March 2010 Flood Risk Management Forum (watch it here) is where the assembled experts concluded that the concept of flood risk could use some firming. Among the actions suggested for getting a grip on what flood risk means were developing a definition for both risk and floodplain management, developing local risk management indicators, creating a model for setting and measuring goals locally, and learning how to communicate risk so that people act.
With those goals in mind, and wanting a deeper understanding of local issues, the ASPFM Foundation hit the highway looking for feedback, first at a symposium hosted by the Indiana Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management, and then at the Colorado event, hosted by the Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers.
“Ultimately, what it comes down to is what is happening at the state, local, and regional level,” ASPFM Policy and Partnerships Manager Sam Riley Medlock said at the Colorado meeting. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”
The group spent the day discussing strategies for improving local flood risk comprehension and management, including some current homegrown innovations, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s bold move to improve flood resilience and planning for the high spring flood risk caused by last September's Fourmile Canyon fire.
The results of both states' brainstorming will be added as an addendum to the 2010 Forum report, expected out this week. If all goes well, the collected ruminations of hundreds of professionals will move U.S. communities that much closer to safety, and that much further from risk—whatever its definition.“We all want resilience,” Medlock said. “We’re all after people and families and communities to bounce back.”
Call for Participation
Emergency Access Advisory Committee Survey
Federal Communications Commission
Deadline: April 24, 2011
The Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Access Advisory Committee is conducting a survey to determine how senior citizens and people with disabilities would prefer to contact 911 in an era of extensive technology. The committee is encouraging seniors and the disabled to complete the 10-15 minute survey, and others to spread the word.
Call for Applications
Assessing Public Health in Emergency Situations
The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters
Deadline: April 30, 2011
The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters is accepting applications for a course in Assessing Public Health in Emergency Situations to be held in July 4-15 in Brussels, Belgium. The course will include theory, case studies, and a situational exercise. Professionals with experience in emergency management or the humanitarian sector are welcome to apply.
Call for Signatures
Proposed Disasters and Crisis Working Group
American Political Science Association
Deadline: Summer 2011
Signatures are being collected in an attempt to create more synergy among political and other social scientists working on issues of recovery and resilience. The signature drive would create a new Disaster and Crisis group within the American Political Science Association. Fifty or more member signatures are required to create the group. Contact organizer Daniel P. Aldrich at the link above for more information on the group and how you can help.
Call for Participation
Communication of Probability Statements for Crisis Decision Making Survey
Massey University Joint Centre for Disaster Research
Deadline: Not listed
The Massey University Joint Centre for Disaster Research is soliciting participants for an online survey assessing perceptions of probabilistic warnings and forecasts. Survey results will help determine effective methods for framing probabilistic warnings and improve communications between scientists and emergency managers in crisis decision making. Emergency managers and responders, public safety officials, and those involved the science of natural hazards are encouraged to take the 15-20 minute survey.
[Below are some new or updated Internet resources we have discovered. For an extensive list of useful Web sites dealing with hazards, see www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/.]
When is ocean oil a good thing? When it stands for the Online Clearinghouse for Education And Networking—Oil Interdisciplinary Learning, a trove of scientific and educational resources on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Part of the Encyclopedia of Earth site, these peer-reviewed articles and resources are submitted by scientists and teachers in an effort to keep the public informed on all aspects of the spill.
Ready, Set, Go!
Why whisper about fire warnings and preparedness, when this new initiative will give your agency a megaphone? Ready, Set, Go! was created to help leverage community respect for firefighters into safe and ready practices for those who live with the threat of wildfire. The Web site offers support, resources, and collaboration that can help turn everyday firefighters into public outreach experts.
It’s a wonder weathermen still have jobs and WeatherSpark might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Although still in beta, the site taps about 4,000 weather stations to let armchair weather watchers create pretty much any type of report, comparison, or map they can think of. And if they can’t, a mere tweet will get the idea into the hopper.
It’s a simple concept—pick a safe place, plan to meet there in an emergency. Now Safety Maps makes it simpler by helping you create the map, append a message, then print it and stuff it. Whether you’re thrown off your game by disaster stress or just can’t remember where mom said she’d meet you, all you have to do is check your pocket and you're one step closer to safety.
JHAZ: Journal of Hazard Mitigation and Risk Assessment
From linking green building techniques and hazard mitigation to learning the lessons taught by damaging earthquakes, this new journal is aimed at mitigating disaster losses. Published by the National Institute of Building Sciences as part of a push to expand its Multihazard Mitigation Council, the first issue invites readers to join the council, give feedback, and submit articles for future issues.
Public Health Preparedness Capabilities: National Standards for State and Local Planning
State and local planners will now have guidance as they prepare to meet the needs of their communities in a public health crisis. This report, compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outlines six categories of capabilities—biosurveillance, community resilience, countermeasures and mitigation, incident management, information management, and surge management—that each organization should be able to provide. The report offers step-by-step guidance on assessment, planning, and implementation.
[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 www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/conferences.html.]
May 20-21, 2011
Exploring Medical Missions Conference
Institute for International Medicine
Kansas City, Missouri
Cost and Registration: $280, open until filled
Sporting the theme "from rescue to resilience," this year's conference will train participants to empower local leaders to "care for their own." Tracks will be offered in public health, clinical medicine, and medical missions. Topics include promoting medical literacy, training community health workers, disaster medicine management, and mobile medical services.
May 22-23, 2011
Disaster Management Initiative Annual Initiative
Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley
Moffet Field, California
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled
This workshop will provide information useful to disaster managers and humanitarian organizations with an emphasis on using technology. Sessions include presentations on NASA emergency communications, the Santa Clara Wireless Network, smart apps for disaster management, and interoperability for non-techies.
May 25-26, 2011
Cost and Registration: $1,100, open until filled
This ongoing conference series will examine issues affecting aerial firefighting and what must be done to effectively fight more and larger fires from the air. Discussion topics include determining the costs of aerial firefighting, creating a federal agency to oversee airborne fire suppression, and incorporating military tactics and new technology into fighting fires.
May 25-26, 2011
Growing Old in a Changing Climate: Exploring the Interface Between Population Aging and Global Warming
Simon Fraser University
Cost and Registration: $369, open until filled
This conference will look at links between population aging and global warming and address gaps in research, planning, policy, and practice. Topics include adaptation strategies for aging populations, climate change and health, and supportive technologies for aging in an era of climate change.
May 30 to June 3, 2011
The Role of Libraries and Archives in Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Research
Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries
Cost and Registration: $300, open until filled
This conference will discuss the many facets of libraries in relation to disasters, including how they can help their communities (and themselves) prepare and recover. Topics include preventing and mitigating damage to collections, disaster mapping, the role of digital libraries in recovery, and providing health information in emergencies.
June 1-3, 2011
Gulf Coast States Hurricane Conference
Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cost and Registration: $175, open until filled
This conference, which immediately follows the Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association’s annual meeting, gives leaders an opportunity to brainstorm about providing emergency services during hurricanes. Breakout discussions will be held on shelter, recovery, technology, evacuation, and resource management.
[The following job postings provided an overview of some selected openings in hazards-related fields. For more information on a particular job, please follow the links provided.]
Regional Preparedness Administrator
City of Portland
Salary: $74,208 to $98,856
Closing Date: April 25, 2011
This position will help guide Portland’s transition to a new regional disaster preparedness structure. Duties include implementing projects and initiatives, coordinating staff efforts, and developing regional preparedness strategies. Planning and public outreach experience, management skills, and the ability to effectively coordinate all aspects of a complex program are required.
Chief Technology Officer
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Salary: $119,554 to $165,300
Closing Date: April 28, 2011
This position leads initiatives that support NASA’s mission across federal agencies. Duties include researching and reviewing technical solutions developed by industry, enhancing information management, and implementing technology in the NASA system. One year of experience at the GS-15 level or above is required.
Logistics Section Chief, GS-13
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Kansas City, Missouri
Salary: $81,823 to $106,369
Closing Date: May 2, 2011
This position provides logistic support to disaster recovery locations, including coordinating resources, mobilizing equipment, and maintaining mobile home staging areas. One year of experience at the GS-12 level or above is required.
Health Sciences Librarian
Salary: Not listed
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position distributes information and provides contact support for the Disaster Information Management Research Center at the National Library of Medicine. Duties include communicating with communities of practice, networking with libraries, and maintaining web and database management systems. A master’s in library or information science, medical bibliographic skills, and the ability to work with content management systems are required.
Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.To subscribe, visit http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/dr/ or e-mail email@example.com.