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Number 596 • October 4, 2012 | Past Issues

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

1) MRGO, Going, Gone: Ruling for Plaintiffs Drifts Back Into Army Corps' Favor

Mismanagement of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet may have exacerbated extreme flooding during Hurricane Katrina, but—contrary to two previous rulings—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can’t be held liable, according to a recent appellate court ruling.

The decision, handed down September 25 by the same U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel that in March said the Corps should pay, came as a shock to plaintiffs.

“[The decision] is devastating,” Joseph Bruno, a lawyer in New Orleans who represents the plaintiffs, told the New York Times. “I’m just amazed that the same three-judge panel that affirmed did an abrupt about-face and gave the corps a pass.”

Homeowners along the 76-mile MRGO shipping channel (called Mister Go) have long claimed Army Corps negligence in its design. Constructing the channel destroyed protective wetlands and the channel acted like a “hurricane highway," allowing Katrina’s storm surge to reach New Orleans, according to the Associated Press.

In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., ruled that a law protecting the government from lawsuits for the failure of flood control measures did not apply to the MRGO because it is a navigation channel. He also rejected Army Corps arguments that maintenance decisions were “discretionary policy judgments of … professional staff and thus protected under federal law,” according to a March 2009 Times-Picayune article.

"Ignoring safety and poor engineering are not policy, and clearly the Corps engaged in such activities," Duval is quoted as saying.

But in September, the three-judge panel reversed Stanwood and its own March 2012 ruling by saying that the Corps’ misjudgments in not strengthening MRGO levees were policy decisions and that the Corps is therefore immune from liability.

“The corps's actual reasons for the delay [in armoring levees] are varied and sometimes unknown, but there can be little dispute that the decisions here were susceptible to policy consideration,” the September ruling states.

The panel might have reversed itself to avoid setting a precedent that would allow the Corps to be sued for future flooding, Mark Davis, a Tulane University law professor speculated in the Times-Picayune. The cost in this case alone could also be a factor. An Army fiscal report estimated in 2009 that damages could be as much as $500 billion in future claims, according to another New York Times article.Approximately 80,000 people live in the affected area, which includes St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward, the article stated.

The plaintiffs can have the Fifth Circuit hear the case again or take their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bruno didn’t say what action they would take, but that they would continue to fight. Another lead attorney in the case, Pierce O'Donnell, didn’t discount the enormous effort required to keep taking on the federal government.

“It's a Herculean task,” he told the Associated Press. “The government makes the laws— they created the immunity; it prints the money—they have unlimited funds; and the case is tried in a building called the U.S. courthouse.”

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2) How Much of a Disaster Is the Expired Farm Bill, Really?

While Congress is seemingly held hostage by the campaign season, agricultural organizations around the country are voicing concern over the one thing that withstood this year’s drought only to be left sitting on the table—the farm bill.

About two weeks ago, Congress adjourned so members could go home and campaign. Just after they left, on September 30, the 2008 farm bill expired. This wasn't exactly an oversight. By the end of July—before the August recess, that is—the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee had both passed farm bills. But before the House committee's full farm bill was ever scheduled for a floor vote, the House Republican leadership put forward an alternative one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill. The extension never made it to a vote either, but its disaster provisions certainly got some folks all hot and bothered.

There are five main agricultural disaster assistance programs that fall under the Farm bill (see next article for an explanation). Eligibility for these programs often requires an agricultural disaster declaration for the producers county, followed by almost a yearlong wait while the crop price, revenue, and payments are determined. Because of this mechanism, the 2008 farm bill's coverage of disaster production losses ended September 30, 2011, but the processing of those claims is ongoing. While 2012 disaster losses are presently uncovered, no one would yet be expecting any payments for those losses, and there is nothing preventing Congress from covering those losses in future legislation.

Still, the prospect that those losses might not be covered is unsettling for farmers who have faced record crop losses and feed prices this year as a result of record drought. Presumably this anxiety was what drove the House leadership to put forward the one-year stopgap, which would have extended the disaster assistance programs. However, conservation programs would have been severely cut to "offset" the extension of disaster assistance, according to a National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition article. The absurdity of this exchange was not lost on a number of constituencies.

“We recognize farmers need aid in this emergency drought situation; however, sacrificing the very programs that help mitigate the impacts of drought and other disasters is extremely shortsighted,” NSAC quoted National Association of Conservation Districts President Gene Schmidt as saying. “While we can’t control the weather, long-term conservation planning is our best defense in protecting and preserving our natural resource base for the future. I think everyone would agree that it’s better to continue to invest in conservation now, than to be forced to pay the escalated costs of repair down the road.”

Nonetheless, after drought conditions worsened through the first week in August, the House passed a standalone drought assistance bill. That new bill still contained $639 million in conservation program cuts, even though 71 percent of farmers reject supporting short-term drought assistance via cuts to long-term conservation efforts, according to an early September Cultivate Impact–National Farmers Union poll. On September 7, 13 organizations sent a letter urging the Senate leadership not to bring the House bill up for a vote and to instead address drought relief in the context of a long-term farm bill.

The one thing Congress did manage to pass before the current recess was a continuing resolution allowing the government to keep operating after September 30. According to Drovers CattleNetwork, this means that most USDA programs, including crop insurance, the Conservation Reserve Program, and food stamps will continue at current levels until March 27, 2013.

Drovers also points out that farm bill renewal is often delayed (the 2002 farm bill was expired for more than seven months before the 2008 farm bill was passed). And, ironically, farm programs might fare better under the automatic budget sequestration scheduled to begin in January than if Congress directly cuts programs during the November lame-duck session.

"The general consensus is that the amount of money available for farm programs will decline regardless of whether the new farm bill is approved in the lame-duck session or with a new Congress in 2013. … A report from the Office of Management and Budget indicates that the actual reductions in agriculture department funding would be about $8 billion over 10 years, far less than under either the House or the Senate proposed farm bills."

Stacia Sydoriak contributed to this story.

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3) Hazards of the Farm Bill: What’s on the Line

Congress has reaped a lot criticism lately for letting the farm bill lapse—at least in part because while it languishes, drought-stricken farmers face an uncertainty about whether disaster assistance will be available when they need it.

The timing of record drought mixed with political posturing has shined light on the bill’s disaster provisions and—at least for us here at DR—how little we really know about the fairly complex world of agricultural disaster aid. We thought this far-from-comprehensive primer might help others out there scratching their heads about what’s really at risk of being lost (not to mention what’s already gone).

At least five farm bill disaster assistance programs expired as of September 30, 2011, meaning they won't cover any losses after that date. The programs include:

SURE, or the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments program, which covers crop losses caused by natural disasters;

TAP, or the Tree Assistance Program, which provides assistance to nurseries and orchards to help rehabilitate trees damaged by natural disasters;

LIP, or the Livestock Indemnity Program, which gives aid to ranchers whose cattle have died because of natural disasters;

LFP, or the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which covers grazing losses caused by drought or by wildfire on federally managed land; and,

ELAP, or Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-Raised Fish, a program that fills the gaps in disaster aid offered by other programs.

Interestingly, crop insurance is a "permanent" program authorized by the Federal Crop Insurance Act. Since crop insurance doesn't depend on farm bill reauthorization, we'll save an exploration of that topic for another day. But if you want a detailed explanation of the implications of farm bill expiration, check out the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Web site.

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4) Breaking Up Might Not Be So Hard to Do: 2012 Earthquake Shows a Tectonic Plate's Crumble

Scientists have just discovered that the 2012 Indian Ocean quake—already bizarre on a couple of levels—could herald the beginnings of a new tectonic plate.

The earthquake, which struck off Sumatra April 11, first puzzled Indonesians expecting a large tsunami to wash ashore. When the wave did appear, it was 12 inches high, explains the Christian Science Monitor.

The 8.7 magnitude quake followed a strike-slip pattern. In such cases, the fault sides shake horizontally, not vertically. Since an upward push on the ocean’s floor is needed for a tsunami to develop, one never occurred.

Not only was this the largest strike-slip earthquake ever recorded, the event was unique because it occurred at the middle, not the boundary, of an oceanic plate. The earthquake ruptured at one fault and continued to rupture a total of four faults within 150 seconds, resulting in an energy release the size of four 8.0 magnitude quakes.

"It was jaw-dropping," said Thorne Lay, a University of California, Santa Cruz, professor of earth and planetary sciences. "It was like nothing we'd ever seen," he told the L.A. Times.

Particularly interesting is what the quake might signal about the Indo-Australian plate, which scientists have long believed is breaking up. The earthquake provides the clearest evidence to date that they're right, according to Nature News.

And while the April earthquake and its aftershocks weren't particularly destructive, they have turned some conventional quake wisdom on its head. According to Nature News, five times the normal number of 5.5 magnitude or greater quakes occurred worldwide for six days after the main shock.

“Until now, we seismologists have always said, ‘Don’t worry about distant earthquakes triggering local quakes,’” said earth science professor Roland Burgmann, quoted in a University of California, Berkeley, news release.

“We found a lot of big events around the world, including a 7.0 quake in Baja California and quakes in Indonesia and Japan, that created significant local shaking,” Burgmann added. “If those quakes had been in an urban area, it could potentially have been disastrous.”

And that new realization means we're unlikely to find the breakup of the Indo-Australian plate to be either quick or painless.

“This is part of the messy business of breaking up a plate,” University of Utah Director of Seismograph Stations Keith Koper is quoted as saying in another news release. “This is a geologic process. It will take millions of years to form a new plate boundary and, most likely, it will take thousands of similar large quakes for that to happen.”

Stacia Sydoriak, Contributing Writer

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

Call for Applications
Research Associateship Programs
National Research Council
Deadline: November 1, 2012
The National Research Council is accepting applications for its Research Associateship Program that pairs like-minded science and technology scholars with research projects in their fields of interest. Applicants should consult the list of available projects, contact the project advisor to see if funding is still available, and then submit an online application. For eligibility requirements and full details, visit the Research Associateship Program Web site.

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Call for Posters
Learning in Disaster Health
National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health
Deadline: January 11, 2012
The National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health is accepting submissions of poster abstracts for presentation at its Learning in Disaster Health Workshop, to be held April 2-3 in Washington, D.C. Posters should focus on disaster health training and education. For full submission guidelines and how to submit an abstract, visit the workshop web site.

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6) Some New Web Resources

Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers
Don’t let the dull title fool you, this report for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is a scathing indictment of what the authors see as a colossal waste of Department of Homeland Security dollars. From providing “shoddy” information to violating privacy to claiming fusion centers existed where they didn’t, the report calls the entire program into question. Recommendations include improving oversight, conducting promised assessments, and strengthening the protection of civil liberties when reporting intelligence.

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National Ecological Observatory Network
There’s a bright new spot to gather data on climate change, land use, and invasive species now that the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, had opened its doors. The project will collect data from 60 U.S. sites and by remote sensing to better understand the impacts of human activity on the ecosystem. Many parts of the project are still evolving, including a new emphasis on citizen science.

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National Health Security Preparedness Index
When it comes to assessing health preparedness, health providers need objective indicators to help create awareness and spot emerging trends. This index is an effort to fill that need. As the index is being developed, visitors are invited to stay updated, include their ideas, and keep track of events. The site also includes resources and frequently asked questions.

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Dealing with Drought: How Planners Can Make a Difference
Planners interested in doing more to mitigate the effects of drought on their communities will be able to get insight from this American Planning Association Hazards Planning Research Center podcast featuring Kelly Smith and Mike Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center. Among topics discussed are the 2012 drought and how planners can get involved today.

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Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication
This newly revised manual accompanies the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Crisis And Emergency Risk Communication training program, which uses lessons learned and best practices to assist emergency personnel in communicating risk. This edition includes new crisis information, new understandings of communication principles, and examples from recent disasters.

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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 www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/conferences.html.]

October 15-17, 2012
Measuring Progress and Improving Preparedness in Disaster Management
World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine
Leesburg, Virginia
Cost and Registration: $750 until October 1, open until filled
This conference will address issues in disaster and emergency medicine, including using social media, psychosocial issues, standards of care, forensics, and new technology. Topics include disaster and mass gathering medicine, ambulance design, health informatics, disaster health terminology, and military nurses in disasters.

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October 30 to November 12, 2012
SARMA Annual Conference
Security Analysis and Risk Management Association
Arlington, Virginia
Cost and Registration: $595, open until filled
This conference will focus on the challenges and needs of the security risk management community as it strives to professionalize the field. Topics include standards and training, applying security management risk principles, creating innovations in security risk, cybersecurity, and emerging issues.

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November 13-14, 2012
Texas Dam Safety and Field Technician Training Workshop
National Hydrologic Warning Council
Austin, Texas
Cost and Registration: $175 before October 15, open until full
This workshop will examine issues of dam safety in Texas, with emphasis on challenges, regulations, and the impact the drought has on dam safety and maintenance. In addition to the workshop, extensive training for hydrologic field technicians will also be offered. 

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December 3-7, 2012
Fifth International Fire Ecology and Management Congress
Association for Fire Ecology
Portland, Oregon
Cost and Registration: $445 before November 1, open until filled
This workshop will examine wildland fire issues in a global context, study advances in science and technology, and get a perspective on wildland fire worldwide. Topics include assessing fire with geospatial technology, implementing fire policy, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, climate drivers of historical fires, native species management, and mitigating human risk from wildfire.

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March 12, 2013
Second Annual Forum for Disaster Victim Identification
The Royal College of Pathologists
London, UK
Cost and Registration: $273, open until filled
This conference will discuss techniques and legislation related to the identification of disaster victims. Topics include the importance of culture in victim identification, roles and duties of coroners in disaster, academic programs for disaster victim identification, and age estimation from developing teeth.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Emergency Preparedness Unit Director
Washington State Department of Health
Tumwater, Washington
Salary: $67,668 to $86,604
Closing Date: October 9, 2012
This position will plan for and respond to public health and medical emergencies across the state, directs the state emergency preparedness unit, and develops public health emergency response plans. Duties include administrating the unit’s $2 million annual budget, coordinating emergency exercises, and managing the department’s emergency operation center during disasters. A bachelor’s degree in public health, emergency management or a related field, leadership ability, and two years of program coordination experience are required.

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Disaster Risk Reduction Program Manager
Catholic Relief Services
Hanoi, Vietnam
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: October 12, 2012
This position is responsible for managing disaster risk reduction program, supervising staff, and ensuring the strategic achievement of program goals. Duties include developing DRR activities and budget plans, provide technical and management support, participate in financial reporting and compliance, and build and maintain key partnerships. A master’s degree, preferably in rural development and agriculture, five years of program development experience, and technical knowledge on managing disaster risk reduction programs are required.

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Research Physical Scientist
Department of Agriculture
Beltsville, Maryland
Salary: $62,547 to $81,204
Closing Date: April 30, 2013
This position will evaluate a remotely sensed drought index in comparison to crop conditions and soil moisture data sets to see if early warning of impending drought is conveyed. Experience with soil-vegetation-atmosphere-transfer modeling and satellite image processing is required. Applicants must have received a PhD in geography, hydrology, atmospheric science, or agronomic modeling in the last four years.

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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.

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Special Needs Outreach Coordinator
New York City Office of Emergency Management
Brooklyn, New York
Salary: $55,000 to $65,000
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will work to incorporate the requirements of special needs populations and their caregivers into emergency response plans. Duties include chairing a special needs advisory group, implementing systems to provide support and information, conducting planning and preparedness activities, and managing a Web site-based alert system for special needs populations. A master’s degree in emergency management, public administration, urban planning, or a related field, knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and experience working with an emergency management organization is preferred.

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Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to jolie.breeden@colorado.edu. Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.

To subscribe, visit http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/dr/ or e-mail jolie.breeden@colorado.edu.
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