VOLUME XXI NUMBER 6--July 1997
Table of Contents
Growing Smart at the State Level
California Maps Earthquake Hazards
A New Twist in Disaster Recovery
Educational Opportunities in Disaster Management
Fear and Loathing in North Dakota
--an invited comment
Grand Forks, North Dakota, recently suffered a devastating flood that inundated 80% of the city
and forced almost total evacuation of its citizens. Because of this event, the Grand Forks City
Council has learned many lessons "the hard way" and is confronted with difficult and complex
decisions about our city's future.
Despite the knowledge that Fargo, 70 miles upstream, had received the greatest snowfall in its
recorded history (115 inches), and despite reports that soil in the Red River Valley was saturated
from heavy moisture the year before, the National Weather Service1 continued to predict that the
river's crest at Grand Forks would be 49 feet, about the same level as the 1979 flood, the flood of
record that had damaged basements within seven blocks of the Red River because of seepage,
although the river had stayed within its banks. At that time, a tributary ran through town near the
hospital and had seriously overflowed, but a retaining dam had been built after 1979 to prevent
future overland flooding.
Since the 1979 flood, many dikes had been raised to 50 feet, and their strong bases made it
possible to add sandbags or clay to increase their height to 52 feet. In January and February,
when North Dakota experienced severe snow storms, city staff prepared to combat the
anticipated 49-foot crest of the Red River and briefed the mayor and city council members about
their ongoing activities. The staff checked gauges and flapgates and made plans for responses to
specific increases in river level. We believed we were ready.
In retrospect, perhaps we should have also listened to two or three old timers in the country who
walked in their fields after the seventh winter storm and told us, "Pretty wet out there. Never
seen nothin' like it. It's gonna be a bad one."
We learned afterwards that some experts, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were
telling individuals in Washington, D.C., that they thought a crest of 53 or 54 feet was more likely
than 49. The city engineer, relying on the 49-foot estimate by the National Weather Service,
stated that, had they been told of the potential for a 54-foot crest, they could have planned for and
built a number of secondary dikes that would have saved much of the city from serious damage.
If someone had told us that these estimates were not an exact science, or that other countries
predict potential river crest heights in probabilities for various levels, we may have been better
The message for other public officials facing a potential flood and the need to make decisions is,
clearly, "trust but verify." Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Get a second opinion from
outside the primary system--as well as more information--because billions of dollars in
property are at stake.
Only about one out of 16 structures in Grand Forks was covered under the National Flood
Insurance Program (NFIP). After years of city action--improving the dike system, building the
Coulee retention dam, and negotiating for years with the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) to clarify the exact line of the 100-year flood--many structures that had
previously been in the 100-year floodplain no longer required flood insurance. Despite a
vigorous advertising campaign by FEMA more than a month before the flood, few homeowners
or businesses added coverage. Subsequently, reports have surfaced of insurance agents
discouraging their clients from adding flood coverage because the event seemed unlikely and the
insurance excluded so much. Many did add sewer back-up coverage to their homeowner policies,
and through the goodness of many insurance companies and quick intervention by the state
insurance commissioner, many of these claims were paid, even though arguments continue over
whether basements (and first floors) were flooded by overland river water, individual sewer
backup, sump pump failure, seepage, or citywide storm sewer overload. Who is responsible for
what types of damage is still not clear from company to company and policy to policy.
One final annoyance voiced by many NFIP policyholders was that they have been paying
premiums for flood insurance for years, and because of the declared national disaster and ensuing
buyouts to establish a stronger dike protection line, ironically they may get full value from the
buyout but nothing from their flood insurance. At the same time, their neighbors will get equal
buyout value, while never having paid flood insurance premiums.
We need standardized federal language that clearly defines what flood insurance covers and what
is excluded, such as overland flood, sewer backup, storm sewer failure, pump failure, seepage
from river pressure, etc. Also, unhappily, more people ought to buy flood insurance whether they
are in the 100-year floodplain or not, and whether or not they have a mortgage that requires this
Soon after the waters began to recede, the papers and airwaves were full of warnings against
"contaminated" river water. Grave warnings, designed to protect the public, created fear and
loathing for anything touched by the river. Tetanus shots for anyone who came in contact with
the river were promoted by public health officials. City inspectors and local electrical and
furnace contractors insisted that any appliance that had been submerged in water be thrown out.
Consequently, immense amounts of trash were created that might have been greatly reduced if
more conservative cleaning procedures were used.
We subsequently learned there was strong disagreement between Minnesota and North Dakota
public health officials. Minnesota took the position that river water, by itself, was not toxic or
"contaminated," and exposure did not require tetanus shots. North Dakota was more cautious.
At the same time, the local talk radio station aired a running battle between outraged callers and
FEMA spokespersons over furnace replacement. FEMA's position was that, in general, furnaces
could be cleaned and repaired at little cost and restored to useful service--work for which the
agency was quite willing to pay. Replacement of furnaces required certification from FEMA
inspectors, and if a homeowner disagreed with a FEMA inspectors' decision, he or she could
appeal and request a second inspection that would be done within 7 to 10 days. However, city
personnel and local electricians stated that furnaces under water for a week or more could not be
safely repaired. Intense on- and off-air negotiations were held, and FEMA agreed to make
appliance replacement easier so that homeowners could return to their homes more quickly.
As a local policy maker, I depend on experts to provide me with information that helps me make
sound public policy decisions. I have no idea whether furnaces will work six months from now if
they are carefully cleaned and repaired. I have no idea if merely touching river water exposes
homeowners to life-threatening illness. But, when faced with divided opinions from experts, I
lose confidence in the advice I am getting. The difference of opinions also costs
money--excessive or unnecessary caution may have cost individual Grand Forks citizens
thousands and the federal government millions of dollars.
About a week after the flood, I ran into the Grand Forks mayor at the Air Force hanger that was
serving as my evacuation shelter. She mentioned in passing that there would be good news soon,
that she was in touch with a person who wanted to give between $10 and $50 million to alleviate
suffering in Grand Forks. About two weeks later, while staying at a friend's home 30 miles south
of the city, I saw the mayor on the evening news giving out $2,000 checks to homeless people at
the same shelter. The donating "angel" had wished to be anonymous and had specified that there
was to be no bureaucratic red tape, no guidelines for applying for aid except for a simple form
that only asked for a recipients' name and address.
By the next day, a new stipulation was added--only those who had evacuated their homes were
allowed to receive assistance. By the third day, a more serious revision occurred. Those who
needed it should apply for the money but were asked to be guided by their conscience. This new
guideline caused a fight between my wife and me that lasted for three days, since I felt we did
not need the aid because we were not starving, while she felt our lives were disrupted, we had
financial losses, and we were generally in need. Our local talk radio mirrored the conflict, and
what had started as a generous and selfless gesture turned ugly. Finally, after the fourth or fifth
day, it became clear there might not be enough money to help everyone, and that the total
amount available would be $15 million, not $50 million. Some people felt bad because they had
taken the money while others received nothing. Still others had not even had the chance to apply.
I relate this story because it deepened my support for government, despite the current trend to
idolize the private sector. Both as a victim and a council member, I saw the importance to the
human psyche of clearly delineated rules and expectations, which may be more cumbersome but
are ultimately more fair. The well-intended declaration of "no red tape" may have done more
harm than good in many ways, despite the generous and decent intentions behind it.
Soon after the water supply was restored to some areas of the city, business people returned and
began deliberating the future of Grand Forks. At a meeting attended by the governor and state
and local officials, they outlined necessary steps to restore the economic viability of the city,
emphasizing two major elements: the immediate need for housing to bring back the work force
and state economic assistance to small businesses. The strongest sentiment at this meeting was
that a flood of this magnitude must never happen in Grand Forks again. There would be very
little reinvestment in our community by businesses or homeowners unless they could be assured
that future damage could be prevented.
As a result of this understandable pressure, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city
engineer quickly drew up a plan to construct a significantly higher dike system. However, when
people were informed that this would require the purchase and removal of over 1,000 homes and
businesses, moving the dike further inland, and opening up the river's channel, a number of those
who demanded rapid response instead called for further study.
Simple Questions, Complex Answers
In a time of unexpected disaster, people yearn for simple, decisive answers that will give them
hope and encourage them to rise above the loss. Our constituents want to know where they stand,
and they want to be told by a reliable source that things will be okay again. As public officials
and caring members of the community, members of the Grand Forks City Council want to be
able to speak with certainty, clarity, and accuracy. We do not want to lie or give false hope, but
we want to speak positively lest our attitudes discourage people or convince them to leave town.
After the first euphoria of President Clinton promising 100% disaster assistance (which we later
discovered is only for a small portion of the damage), as well as FEMA promising to help us
"every step of the way," I began to yearn for simple guidance on how to deliver what was
promised. Soon I also realized that, even with their homes destroyed, people preferred unpleasant
facts to uncertain or overly complex responses.
Yet, as recovery from this disaster proceeds, I realize how difficult it is to give simple, straightforward answers, particularly to questions like "Can I rebuild my house now? Can I rebuild it
permanently or are you going to buy it out? Do I have to clean out the basement if it's too
damaged to repair? What if it's in the 100-year flood zone? What should I do while all of this is
In an effort to clarify for myself and the citizens of Grand Forks the best responses available, I
made up a chart (see Table 1) and offer it to others as a starting point, so that they can refine it
for future use, hopefully giving their citizens some sense of closure sooner than we have been
able to in Grand Forks.
Table 1--Options for Recovery
to Live in
for 1-3 Years
to Live in
|Damage over 50%, located in 100-year floodplain, on wet side of proposed
||Only if immediate
|Damage over 50%,
floodplain, on dry
side of proposed
|Damage over 50%,
not in floodplain,
on wet side of proposed dike
|Damage over 50%,
not in 100-year
floodplain, on dry
side of proposed
50%, in floodplain,
on wet side of
50%, in floodplain,
on dry side of
50%, not in floodplain, on wet side
of proposed dike
50%, not in floodplain, on dry side
of proposed dike
During the disaster, citizens were scattered throughout the region.
Senior staff members with the
knowledge and fortitude to act made decisions in consultation with the mayor, who worked 20-hour days for weeks. There was little structure to city government, but staff people moved ahead
to repair the damage that fell under their areas of expertise. City council members were out of
town and most were out of touch. This was not a problem until the third week after the flood,
when it was time to make decisions about recovery and how to handle future flooding. At that
time, the need for a representative council grew, since decisions had to be made, but also had to
be based on public input and mediation by elected officials.
The Grand Forks City Council reconstituted itself, met once a week
instead of its usual twice a
month, created a special Flood Response Committee to recommend action to the council, and
sent a team to meet with the Corps of Engineers prior to release of Corps recommendations for
mitigating future floods. At the same time, council members became more aggressive in asking
questions, voicing citizens' concerns, and in demanding more involvement in staff decisions.
Although many residents just want to know where to live next week and
whether their business
can find a place to rent before they go broke, others have taken on a utopian vision, asserting that
"we can build it better." The state art museum, located in Grand Forks, is assembling and
archiving all the images and stories created by the flood. Still, at this point, the only thing we
know is that Grand Forks will never be the same, emotionally or financially. Will we become a
new town, reborn from the soggy ground, or will we return to our solid complacency? One point
is certain, without the help we have received from federal and state governments, private
foundations, congregations, and aid organizations, as well as the many individuals who sent help
and money, we would be lucky to recover in 20 years. As it is, I expect us to be back in five.
Eliot Glassheim, Member, City Council, Grand Forks, North
The author can be contacted at 619 North 3rd Street, Grand Forks,
ND 58203, (701) 772-8840;
1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently
preparing a comprehensive
evaluation of National Weather Service outlooks and forecast services provided during the 1997
flooding on the Red River of the North, including the Grand Forks/East
Grand Forks area.
Task Force Issues Recommendations
On May 24, 1997, President Clinton announced a federal action plan for
recovery for North
Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota developed by the Long Term Recovery Task Force, an
interagency group established by the president to assist in the recovery of affected states. FEMA
Director James Lee Witt chaired the task force.
The Framework for Federal Action To Help Build a Healthy
Recovery and Safer Future in
Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota (1997, 36 pp.) identifies three priorities for
federal long-term recovery; mitigating flood hazards, ensuring housing, and re-establishing
community sustainability. Working in conjunction with state and local governments, the action
plan details the wide range of grants, loans, and technical assistance the federal government
offers. Many of the recommendations are subject to funding approval.
Copies of the report are available via the Internet at the FEMA Web
http://www.fema.gov/fema/fld97.htm. An Adobe Acrobat viewer is required.
The Internet Pages
Here are even more interesting Web sites we've encountered recently . .
. is there no end?! A
more extensive, annotated list of useful hazard/disaster Web pages is posted on the Hazard
Center's World Wide Web page:
Operation Fresh Start is a Department of Energy initiative designed to
help individuals and
communities incorporate sustainable principles and technologies into their plans when they
recover from a flood, earthquake, or other disaster. The Clinton Administration announced the
Operation Fresh Start Web site as part of a federal aid package to flood victims in the Red River
Valley area of the Dakotas and Minnesota, but the information can be of value to any community
suffering a disaster. Operation Fresh Start includes case studies of successful recovery projects
and is a gateway to information from a variety of federal agencies that deal with disaster
recovery. The site offers a host of resources one can use to rebuild a community, business, or
home--not just the way it was before the disaster, but healthier, more energy efficient, less
expensive, safer, and more livable--in short, more sustainable.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Emergency
(NETC) Learning Resource Center (LRC) has added its on-line card catalog to the FEMA Web
site. This index will provide bibliographic access to NETC's collection of more than 50,000
books, reports, periodicals, and audiovisual materials concerning fire service and emergency
The LRC is NETC's on-campus library for staff and students of the
National Fire Academy and
the Emergency Management Institute. The center concentrates on the social and behavioral
aspects of natural and technological hazards. Generally, NETC students are not scientists but
practicing emergency managers and first responders, and the LRC is designed to meet their
needs. While full text will not be available on-line, the listings will give users the opportunity to
survey the center's wide range of material, and the general public can gain access to the LRC's
collection via interlibrary loan through their local libraries. Additional information is available
from the LRC Web site or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
FEMA re-launched its Tropical Storm Watch page on the World Wide Web on
Friday, May 30.
Usage of the site has increased greatly since its inception three years ago, with a record 400,000
hits on one day--September 5, 1996--the evening Hurricane Fran made landfall in North
Carolina. The Tropical Storm Watch page offers hurricane preparedness information, fact sheets,
maps, and links to other key sites offering weather satellite images and forecasts. During the
hurricane season, the site is updated daily--sometimes hourly--with news releases, situation
reports, tracking maps, and graphics. As a hurricane approaches landfall, users can see its
projected path and learn how FEMA is coordinating the federal government's efforts to assist
state and local governments in coping with the impending disaster.
We've mentioned the excellent Firewise Web site before, but with the
onset of summer and fire
season, we wanted to point out this section of that site, which includes several on-line
publications, such as Protecting Your Home from Wildfires, Firewise Landscaping Checklist,
and the Wildfire News & Notes
This U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Web site provides
links to other sites
providing information on wildfire management, as well as access to the Federal Wildland Fire
Policy Final Report and the Federal Wildland Fire Management, Policy and Program Review,
Implementation Action Plan Report (see the
Observer, Vol. XXI, No. 2, No. 10).
The National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (NCEER) Web
site continues to grow
with new features to aid the earthquake engineering and hazards mitigation community. The
main menu now features background information on NCEER; a guide to services and products
available from the NCEER Information Service, including an interactive connection to NCEER's
Quakeline database; a list of NCEER publications and technical reports with ordering
information; full-text documents, including NCEER newsletters; a comprehensive list of
upcoming conferences; a guide to other data bases, software, and information sources that
support earthquake engineering; and links to other useful Web sites.
The Earthquake Engineering Research Center (EERC) gopher service (one
of the pioneering
efforts in the use of the Internet to disseminate hazards information) has been retired and the
information has been moved to the EERC Web site above. Now included on that home page are
links to all EERC data bases searchable on the Web, which cover: EERC's Earthquake
Engineering Abstracts and Engineering Reports, computer software for earthquake engineering,
protective systems, and training resources. There is also a new section called "Lessons from
Loma Prieta," which includes papers on important engineering effects of the Loma Prieta
earthquake, selected images, and the Loma Prieta data archive.
The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) continues to grow
impressively with the
addition of brief clips, which can be viewed on-line, from the EERI videos on the Kobe, Northridge, Loma Prieta, and Armenia earthquakes. Samples from other EERI publications--including
slide sets, CD-ROMs, and other resources--are also available.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has identified four principal theme
Resources, Environment, and Information Management--in which USGS earth science
information contributes to public policy, and the USGS "Themes" Web site reflects this taxonomy. After a brief introduction to USGS activities regarding hazards, this section offers
information on earthquakes, floods, landslides, coastal storms and tsunamis, volcanoes, and
geomagnetism, as well as hazard-related fact sheets and other
Approximately half of the homes built in the United States today are
constructed on reactive
soils--soils that, when exposed to certain physical or geological conditions, undergo changes in
shape and structure that can lead to serious foundation and structural damage to buildings.
Reactive soils cause an estimated $6-$11 billion damage annually, making them by far the most
expensive of any geological hazard. This site, created by a team of five students from the
Colorado School of Mines with help from advisors and a private engineering consultant, is
designed to assist homebuilders, homebuyers, and homeowners in identifying the most common
forms of reactive soils. It describes the hazards these soils can pose to various structures and
offers feasible mitigation techniques to undertake before or after
In April of this year, the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group
(ESIG) of the National
Center for Atmospheric Research, along with several other public and private institutions,
sponsored a "Workshop on the Social and Economic Impacts of Weather." The proceedings, now
available on-line at the URL above, include an executive summary; numerous papers on specific
weather-related hazards, such as extreme temperatures, hail, tornadoes, lightning, winter storms,
floods, hurricanes, and debris flows; and papers addressing broader issues, such as the impacts of
weather on health and the perils of weather prediction generally.
The Emergency Management Gold Web site was created by David Crews, a
Emergency Manager, to serve other front-line emergency management professionals in all
aspects of their work. The site contains a Virtual Library page with numerous links to other
resources on the Net; a What's New section to help users easily locate new information; several
papers on emergency management by Crews; a section of frequently asked questions (FAQs)
about emergency management, the site, the Internet, etc.; links to other sites dealing with natural
and technological risks; and lists of additional resources, state emergency management agencies,
and other useful URLs.
This SAR [Search and Rescue] Contacts Page lists over 118 search and
rescue organizations in
approximately 40 U.S. states and numerous other countries. The site authors note that SAR teams
can be excellent resources in times of disaster, especially if they are incorporated into plans
ahead of time. These teams are often very familiar with their community, have access to
communications gear, are trained for medical aid, and want to be of assistance during an
emergency. Although the principal purpose of this site is to put volunteers in contact with a local
team, it can definitely help emergency coordinators learn about the unique services offered in
their area. The site includes a map of the U.S. and U.S. territories, and a person can click on any
location to determine the local SAR teams active in that area.
This Emergency Services Registry and Search Site provides an index of
resources and personnel. The owners invite all interested emergency management professionals
to browse the site and register so that it can become a comprehensive data base of colleagues and
This site provides original information as well as numerous links to
other sites that address
disaster contingency and response planning. Some of the links include a sample business
contingency plan from MIT, sample earthquake and tsunami response plans, an article on
developing a recovery plan, and another article entitled "Crisis Communications Strategic
Those of you who are map lovers (as are we), should definitely look at
this site. Starting with the
entire globe, you can begin zooming in until you actually identify, for example, a good Italian
restaurant and its street location in Missoula, Montana (there is one!). Then, if you want, the
program will show you the best route to get there (whether you are starting in Miami, Florida, or
Elko, Nevada). Many other capabilities are available.
Managing Disasters in the Americas
Who's Who on the Net
Anyone concerned about disasters in Latin America, should take a look at
the redesigned Web site entitled "Natural Disasters in Nicaragua." The site is maintained by the
Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) country office that has served as the administrator
for email@example.com, a predominantly Spanish-language e-mail discussion group on
general topics of interest to the disaster community. A new search engine on the Web site now
allows anyone to find names, organizations, and e-mail addresses of all discussion group members. The site also offers information on disasters in Nicaragua and can serve as a model for
countries interested in developing similar Web pages. For more information about this venture,
or to subscribe to the discussion list, contact Denis Rodriguez; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Adapted from Disasters--Preparedness and Mitigation in the Americas, a PAHO newsletter]
Speaking of Latin American Disaster Discussion
Based on experience with the discussion list mentioned above and other networking ventures, the
Pan American Health Organization has recognized that e-mail discussion represents one of the
most efficient ways to link disaster professionals. Therefore the organization is establishing
another discussion group for South America. Anyone (not only South Americans) interested in
joining this predominantly Spanish-speaking group should send an e-mail message to email@example.com, giving their name, affiliation, mailing address, and a brief description of their disaster-related responsib
ilities. Subscribers will receive an e-mail message containing instructions on
how to circulate messages and participate in discussions.
[Adapted from Disasters--Preparedness and Mitigation in the Americas]
A New E-Mail List
DisastMH -- Disaster Mental Health Professionals On-line
The DisastMH e-mail discussion forum was established as on ongoing conference for disaster
mental health (DMH) professionals. Through DisastMH, colleagues can discuss mental health
issues in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Topics could include but are not limited
- Planning, development, and operations in DMH
- Use of volunteers
- DMH and coordination with agencies, schools, government, etc.
- Construction of protocols for disaster response
- Handbook preparation and records maintenance
- Risk management (referral systems, liability, safety, etc.)
- Media and public relations
- Debriefings and interventions for disaster response
- Communication trees
- DMH leadership at local, state, national levels
- Clinical issues for disaster response
- Clearinghouse for material available on disaster psychology
- Peer consulting for disaster mental health services
- Communication regarding DMH during an ongoing disaster.
Mental health professionals and associated professionals in disaster psychology are welcome to
join this forum. To subscribe, send the following message to firstname.lastname@example.org:
subscribe DisastMH [firstname] [lastname]
For additional information, contact the list owner/moderator, Denruth Lougeay, via e-mail at
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