Volume XXII Number 4

March 1998

Table of Contents

Damage in Acapulco by Hurricane Pauline-an invited comment

NOAA Chief Outlines Proposed National and Global Disaster Information Networks

On the Line

State of New York Launches Disaster Mitigation Partnership

Washington Update

A Letter to the Editor: Of GOES and Space Jalopies

USGS Seeks NEHRP Proposals

Another IDNDR Update


The Internet Page(s)

Something Nifty from Alta Vista

Tufts University Offers Masters Program in Humanitarian Assistance

Contracts and Grants

Conferences and Training

Recent Publications

The Department of Defense on Disasters

A Flood of Reports

NYU Press Seeks Disaster Essays

CD-ROM for Disaster Educators Available

Who We Are

Damage in Acapulco by Hurricane Pauline

--an invited comment

Hurricane Pauline hit the Pacific coast of Mexico approximately 200 miles south of Acapulco on October 8, 1997. It caused significant damage along the coast and penetrated inland, losing strength but producing heavy rains. In its path, parallel to the coast, it caused severe damage due to floods in the highlands of the state of Oaxaca and the southern part of the state of Guerrero.

When Pauline reached Acapulco in the early hours of October 9, the storm had lost most of its strength in terms of wind speed, sea wave height, and storm surge. Nevertheless, it produced extraordinary rainfall in Acapulco Bay. The precipitation amounted to more than 350 mm (13.65 inches) in four hours--about one-fourth of the average annual rainfall for the city. The heavy rain caused a flash flood with debris flows that produced the worst natural disaster in Acapulco in the last 30 years.

The city's population has been increasing at a significant rate over the last 40 years and is presently more than 700,000. The poorest human settlements are located in the highest elevations of the bay, and many of them have expanded into the gullies that drain seasonal heavy rains.

Damage took place when intermittent streams started to develop in the highest part of the mountain range that surrounds Acapulco Bay; the flow ran down with enough force to drag rocks, sand, and debris. Flash floods occurred in several gullies where human settlements existed.

Huge rocks, up to two meters in diameter, were dragged from high to middle ground and destroyed houses (some of which helped to stop these rocks from rolling further). In lower regions, sand deposits covered the ground floors of houses and led to further flooding. The violent currents unveiled and eroded building foundations, causing the collapse of several homes. Cars, rocks, furniture, and other objects were carried by the flood through the riverbeds and streets. Seventy-five persons died because they were caught in the debris flow.

The maximum flow has been estimated as 300 cubic meters per second, and mean velocity in the highest part of the catchments as four meters per second.

Acapulco had been affected by floods several times in the past, but never in recent history has rainfall caused the granite rocks of the upper part of the bay to dislodge and produce debris flows. No protection work had been provided against this kind of event. The path of the hurricane was well established at least 24 hours in advance and an alert was issued to the population--but without any specific warning about the risk of flash flood and debris flow.

In conclusion, the damage in Acapulco was caused by several factors: an extraordinary rainfall, the geological conditions of the terrain (rocks dispersed in the highest part of the sierra embedded in loose soil), the topographic conditions (many gullies and steep slopes), the expansion of the human settlements into the riverbeds of the intermittent streams, and the lack of proper drainage for heavy rains, of protection works against debris flows, and of warning about the specific risk of a flash flood with debris flow. Prior to the storm, attention was given only to the impacts of ocean waves on navigation and of storm surge on the coastline.

The resort area of the city, along the sea shore, suffered very little damage, and, after a few days, was ready to receive the influx of winter tourists. The most affected lifelines were coastal roads between Acapulco and Oaxaca, and especially, water supply pipelines. It took more than one month to restore the full water supply to the city.

Unfortunately, the situation remains critical for thousands of people living in the highly vulnerable gully areas in the highest part of the city. Some of them have been relocated, but many still live in the same places, exposed to future floods. To help remedy this problem, a comprehensive project for the regulation of flash floods and debris flows is being prepared. However, the necessary works will be extremely expensive and time consuming. On a short-term basis, an alert system is being implemented to warn people living in areas exposed to flooding to evacuate when heavy rainfall starts to develop. The plan is being jointly prepared by the National Water Commission, CENAPRED, and the Acapulco Municipal Authority.

Roberto Meli, Centro Nacional de Prevencion des Desastres (CENAPRED), Mexico


A more detailed account of the impacts of Hurricane Pauline can be found in the CENAPRED quarterly publication, Prevencion Number 19 (August-December 1997). Among the information in that article, which is in Spanish, are the following recommendations, which have been translated and adapted for our readers.

For better understanding of this kind of event, it is important to undertake a more thorough study of the phenomenon in order to:

NOAA Chief Outlines Proposed National and Global Disaster Information Networks

In a speech to the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) on February 9, 1998, D. James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), discussed the need for a national and international information system to deal with disasters. He indicated that to save more lives and reduce disaster costs, accurate information must be placed in the hands of those who make critical life and property decisions. "We have the best opportunity ever, right now, to solve this problem, by bringing people and information together through the use of technology," Baker said.

Baker described the work of an interagency task force that he co-chaired over the previous six months, which studied the feasibility of creating national and global disaster information networks.

Responding to the task force's recommendations, the Office of Management and Budget recently included $15 million in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) budget request for FY 99 to support "a multiagency program for the integration of natural disaster-related information and its dissemination to emergency managers and others who can take action to reduce disaster losses." Along with robust computer and broadcast networks that can operate during all phases of disaster management, the program will establish a public/private partnership to bring all stakeholders together to develop a truly comprehensive disaster network.

Baker indicated that disasters currently cost the nation more than $52 billion per year and costs are rising. More and more people are moving into densely populated urban areas at risk and the required infrastructure is growing rapidly in complexity and cost. There are many ways to reduce disaster costs, particularly through long-range planning and development. However, in the short term, a particularly effective way is through an improved information network.

The task force found that the required technology exists, but that significant coordination and integration of information providers, disseminators, and users are required. Baker indicated that the problem is finding what you need, when you need it, in a form that is useful for making critical decisions. Under the plan recommended by the task force the USGS will host an Integrated Program Office (IPO) that will include members from each of several key federal agencies in order to integrate and coordinate federal disaster information. At the same time, the Administrator of NOAA will chair an executive committee that will oversee the office and set policy. The IPO will work with other interested groups to form the public/private partnership that will design and implement the national disaster information system. In addition, global partners will be sought to develop ways to expand this National Disaster Information Network (NDIN) to form a Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN).

These networks will be used during all phases of emergency management--mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery--and it will provide information from all types of sources. The information will be made available rapidly and reliably to decision makers and to others who are charged with taking action to reduce the loss of life and property damage before, during, and after a natural disaster. Once established, the NDIN/GDIN will be available on the World Wide Web. When disaster strikes, the network will support the high volume of requests for information that are sure to come, with critical users having access to government "Intranets" (limited access, proprietary networks) where use can be restricted to minimize overloading. Access may also be provided by satellite to avoid the flow of information being cut off by damage on the ground.

Federal groups participating in the feasibility study included the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Interior, State, and Agriculture; the Environmental Protection Agency, National Economic Council, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Office of Management and Budget.

For further information about the formation of the NDIN and GDIN, contact Peter Ward, U.S. Geological Survey, 106 National Center, Reston, VA 20192; (703) 624-6264; fax: (703) 325-3282.

In addition, a NDIN/GDIN Web site has been established at http://disasterinfo.net. The site explains the current status of the project and will be the eventual homesite of the network. It now describes in detail the project's organization; provides a downloadable copy of the project's recently released 125-page feasibility study, Harnessing Information and Technology for Disaster Management: The Global Disaster Information Network--Disaster Information Task Force Report, November, 1997; frequently asked questions about the project; current transition team plans; and press releases about the NDIN/GDIN.

On the Line

The Montserrat Volcano Emergency: Use of the Internet in Public Awareness

Soufriere Hills, a stratovolcano on the island of Montserrat, began erupting on July 18, 1995--the first recorded eruption of this volcano in historic time. Since then, the volcano has generated considerable international attention due to its ongoing activity, including a major eruption on December 26, 1997, when its dome collapsed, creating a large and destructive pyroclastic cloud with an ash plume that rose to 47,000 feet. Many inhabitants have been forced to relocate off the island due to the continuing danger. This article describes the use of the Internet to inform interested parties of current conditions regarding the volcano.


The Montserrat volcanic crisis started in July 1995 after some long- and shorter-term warning signs. The long-term warning signs comprised three volcano-seismic crises in the previous 100 years, none of which led to surface eruptions, but all of which indicated the high potential for further eruptions.

The main hazards of the Soufriere Hills volcano are pyroclastic flows and explosions, but ash fall can also cause health hazards. Both active volcanoes and the hazards they produce were new to most administrators and islanders at the onset of the eruption, despite some public education programs in previous years.

The community on Montserrat was very vulnerable to any eruption due to the proximity of housing, industry, and infrastructure to the volcano. The capital town, Plymouth, lay just 4.5 km from the summit crater, and principal income generation was from farming, which took place on the upper flanks of the volcano.

Need for Internet Usage

The Soufriere Hills volcano changes its style of activity often, and assessments of risks can change on a daily or even hourly basis. Thus, the rapidly changing situation on Montserrat required constant updating of information.

At the same time, a large and ever-increasing overseas Montserratian population wished to stay informed of ongoing events in their homeland. The non-computer-mediated communications methods from Montserrat soon became slow and fragile so that the only effective way of prompt international information dissemination was through the Internet, which provided an excellent medium for posting information any time of the day or night.

The international media often do not fully or accurately report disaster situations, and Montserrat has been no exception. The number of good stories have been extremely small, and the staff of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) found that it had to produce and disseminate good quality information rapidly in order to counter the often misleading articles that appeared in the press.

Methods of Dissemination

Public information is disseminated mainly through a World Wide Web site for the government of Montserrat, which includes MVO pages (http://www.geo.mtu.edu/volcanoes/west.indies/soufriere/govt/). This site is currently constructed and administered off-island for greater efficiency and lower cost (by Mike Dolan at Michigan Tech University, to whom we are most grateful), although as the MVO stabilizes its structure, it is likely that a Web site will be run from Montserrat in the future.

E-mail is vital in getting information to the Web server and to limited groups, if not for general dissemination, and e-mail usage at the MVO is very high. Most importantly, this method is considerably less expensive than conventional phone, fax, or courier services.

Scientific Usage

In addition to general public communications, the Internet is vital to the scientists working at the MVO. Most day-to-day communications between scientists on and off island is done by e-mail. This provides a method for effective discussion and pooling of knowledge and has enabled a very large number of scientists to be involved in analysis of the eruption without necessarily being on Montserrat at all times.

Rapid transfer of scientific information and large data sets is possible over the Internet, with anonymous FTP sites being especially useful for making large data sets available. The Web site is also used for posting scientific information, although this usage could be expanded significantly.

Lessons to Be Learned

Some lessons that we can share from our experiences include:

Simon Young and MVO Staff, Montserrat Volcano Observatory, Mongo Hill, Montserrat, West Indies

Dr. Young can be contacted at the British Geological Survey, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3LA, U.K.; tel: 44 131 50 0438; fax: 44 131 668 1535; e-mail: sry@bgs.ac.uk.

State of New York Launches Disaster Mitigation Partnership

To make homes and businesses in New York more disaster resistant, the New York State Emergency Management Office has established a State Joint Loss Reduction Partnership that comprises a cross-section of the state's business leaders and key federal, state, and local government officials, all of whom are familiar with business disruptions and their potentially devastating consequences for communities.

To carry out this project, a State Joint Loss Reduction Partnership Committee has been established that, as a whole, is dedicated to training, planning, and public awareness. Subcommittees have been established to address several specific areas: commercial practices, emergency access, financial support, legislation, partnership clearinghouse technology, and business facility mitigation. The solutions generated by the partnership will provide a blueprint for improvement at the community level of corporate and home emergency preparedness throughout the state.

One element of this initiative is to identify how the banking, construction, real estate, code enforcement, and insurance industries can promote mitigation through incentives and other business practices. A number of leading businesses and financial institutions in New York are involved in the effort. For more information, see the Joint Loss Reduction Partnership Web site: http://www.nysemo.state.ny.us/Joint; or contact Susan Schneider, Project Manager, New York State Emergency Management Office, State Office Campus, Building 22, Albany, NY 12226; (518) 457-9968; e-mail: schneiders@nysemo.state.ny.us.

Washington Update

Witt Announces Red River Flood Recovery Plan

On December 12, 1997, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director James Lee Witt issued a final federal task force report detailing the delivery of nearly $2 billion in assistance for long-term flood recovery in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Under a plan drawn up last May by the Federal Interagency Task Force appointed for the flood relief effort, President Clinton directed FEMA and other federal agencies to make available a wide range of options in order to ensure three long-term recovery objectives: mitigating flood hazards, providing housing assistance, and re-establishing community sustainability.

The Final Report of the President's Long-Term Recovery Task Force for Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota (1997, 36 pp., free) outlines the long-term recovery plan developed by cabinet agencies, under the direction of FEMA Director Witt, and details the types and amounts of assistance provided by these agencies. Areas of greatest concern include:

The report identifies the assistance programs the federal government offers for each of these areas. Specific needs are still in the process of being identified both at the state and local levels, although federal agencies continue to assist in the recovery effort. In all, the report details the delivery of nearly $2 billion in assistance, including $587 million in disaster loans; $389 million in aid to rural areas for agricultural damage and losses; more than $130 million for repair or replacement of road systems; more than $10 million in disaster unemployment aid; and $8 million for community, social, and health services.

The report can be viewed on the FEMA Web site at http://www.fema.gov/fema/frmwrk2.htm. For further information on this effort, contact the FEMA Office of Emergency Information and Media Affairs, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20472; (202) 646-4600; e-mail: eipa@fema.gov.

FEMA Establishes New Flood Insurance Rate Zone

In a recent issue of the Federal Register (Volume 62, No. 207, p. 55705), FEMA published a final rule establishing a new flood insurance rate zone, known as the flood control restoration zone or Zone AR, to delineate special flood hazard areas on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMS). This new designation covers areas for which a flood protection system is being restored and reduces flood insurance costs and elevation requirements for properties that will be exposed to an increased risk during restoration.

Periodically, FEMA, other federal agencies, and private contractors restudy flood risks and revise flood maps when there is sufficient change to warrant such action. For example, following completion of such a study, the agency may determine that a levee no longer provides protection against a flood; thus, the agency will decertify the flood control structure. Because flood insurance premiums are calculated on actual flood risk, such actions can result in substantial increases in insurance costs. However, in some cases, while communities are re-establishing protection, this increased risk is temporary and will be remedied when the system is restored.

In October 1992, Congress enacted the Housing and Community Development Act (Public Law 102-550), which created the Zone AR designation. Under this legislation, Congress reduced elevation requirements for new construction, eliminated elevation requirements for substantial improvements to existing structures, and capped the flood insurance rate for such structures while the flood protection system is being restored. At the same time, Congress realized that the federal government would accept additional costs due to increased insurance liability and potential costs for disaster assistance during the reconstruction. Congress also specifically prohibited the designation of Zone AR in coastal high hazard areas.

The final rule outlines the procedures for remapping of areas for both projects that involve federal cost-sharing and those that do not. It describes the steps communities can take to receive such a designation, limitations of the designation, and other procedures. Copies of the Federal Register can be found at your local government depository library or can be perused via the Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov.

For further information about the final rule, contact Michael Buckley, Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Division, Mitigation Directorate, FEMA, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20472; (202) 646-2756.

TMAC Submits Recommendations

As most flood professionals know, floodplain mapping is an essential tool for making land use, insurance, and other decisions regarding flood risk. The Technical Mapping Advisory Council (TMAC) was created by Congress in the 1994 Flood Insurance Reform Act to evaluate Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) and other mapping products prepared by FEMA for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). TMAC is also mandated to make recommendations to the FEMA director regarding improvements in FIRMs, setting standards and guidelines for preparing and revising these maps and other products, and evaluating their effectiveness. The council must report to FEMA yearly, and its second report was recently submitted. In it, TMAC recommends that FEMA:

There are a limited number of copies of the report available. They can be requested from TMAC, FEMA, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20472-0001; (202) 646-4600. Further information on TMAC is available on-line at http://www.fema.gov/MIT/mitmac.htm.

[Adapted from National Lender's Insurance Council newsletter, Volume 3, No. 1 (January 1998), p. 1.]

Readers interested in learning more about the TMAC can obtain a copy of the council's first annual report, Technical Mapping Advisory Council 1996 Annual Report to the Honorable James Lee Witt, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (1997, 45 pp., free), from the FEMA Publications Distribution Facility 8231 Stayton Drive, Jessup, MD 20794; (800) 480-2520 or (202) 646-6378.

FEMA Issues Final Rule on Replacing Damaged Structures

Following a presidential disaster declaration, public and private entities often receive disaster assistance to repair and/or replace damaged buildings. However, on occasion, confusion has arisen concerning whether a structure should be rebuilt to existing building codes or should be required to meet updated standards that were adopted as a consequence of the disaster.

In the February 5 Federal Register (Volume 63, No. 24, pp. 5895-5897), FEMA issued a final rule stating that assistance will be based only on construction standards in writing and formally adopted by a state or local government on or before the date of a disaster declaration. The rule takes effect on January 1, 1999, for local governments and January 1, 2000, for state governments. It declares that eligible costs will be those associated with state and local repair or replacement standards (building codes, specifications, or standards required for the construction of facilities) that are found reasonable and are in effect at the time of the disaster.

For more information on this final rule, contact Melissa Howard, Infrastructure Support Division, FEMA, Room 713, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20472; (202) 646-3243.

NAPA Examines Ways to Make Existing Buildings Seismically Safer

Congress recently requested that the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) assist FEMA in identi-fying ways in which federal standards for improving the seismic safety of existing federally owned and leased buildings can be applied to other existing buildings. In particular, NAPA examined ways to apply these standards to buildings for which federal financial assistance has been obtained through grants, loans, financing guarantees, or loan or mortgage insurance programs, as well as buildings whose structural safety is regulated by a federal agency. Congress requested this study under the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Reauthorization Act of 1990.

In its report, Reducing Seismic Risks in Existing Buildings (1997), the panel convened to conduct this study determined that there are many ways in which such standards can be applied. Among its conclusions:

The full report describes the purpose of the study; seismic risks and various approaches to mitigate them; the federal standards for seismic safety in existing buildings; options for using federal aid and regulations to help improve seismic safety; state and local perspectives; and panel findings, conclusions, and recommendations.

The full report is no longer available. However, copies of the summary can be requested by sending a fax to Bruce McDowell, NAPA, 1120 G Street, N.W., Suite 850, Washington, DC 20005-3821; (202) 347-3190; fax: (202) 393-0993. For more information on NAPA, examine their Website: http://www.napawash.org.

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