Volume XXV, Number 2

November 2000

Table of Contents

Biological Agents as Natural Hazards and Bioterrorism as a "New" Natural Disaster Threat

--an invited comment

A New Working Paper on the Future of Emergency Management

A Modest Price Increase

Introducing the Natural Disasters Roundtable

Introducing the APA Landslide Project

Introducing the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative

On the Line
Mount St. Helens: What We've Learned 20 Years Later

Washington Update

Northridge Earthquake Victims Given One Year to Refile Insurance Claims

Experts Say U.S. at Grave Risk from Hurricanes

The Internet Pages

Contracts and Grants

NSF Funds First Phase of Earthquake Network

MCEER, PEER, NCREE, and ONSTHM Launch Joint Program to Study Taiwan Quake

Conferences and Training

FEMA/MMC Offer Mitigation Planning Fellowships

New Programs and Projects in Latin America and the Caribbean

Recent Publications


Richmond Debuts On-Line Crisis Management Certificate Program

International Graduate School in Earthquake Engineering to Open

Who We Are

Biological Agents as Natural Hazards and Bioterrorism as a "New" Natural Disaster Threat

--an invited comment

Biological weapons represent a unique "natural" hazard. The pathogens involved are natural in the sense that they are risks that naturally occur in our environment. However they are unnatural in the way in which they are inflicted upon society.

Not a New Hazard

Despite their current notoriety, biological weapons are not new. Two of the earliest reported uses occurred in the 6th century B.C., when the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot, and Solon used the purgative herb hellebore during the siege of Krissa. In 1346, plague broke out in the Tartar army during its siege of Kaffa in the Crimea. The attackers hurled the corpses of those who died over the city walls; the plague epidemic that followed forced the defenders to surrender, and some infected people who left Kaffa may have started the Black Death pandemic that spread throughout Europe, killing one-third of the population.

Biological Weapons as Modern Instruments of War

In 1972, the United States and many other countries signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological [Biological] and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, commonly called the Biological Weapons Convention. This treaty prohibits the stockpiling of biological agents for offensive military purposes and forbids research into offensive employment of biological agents. The former Soviet Union and the government of Iraq were both signatories to this accord, but despite this historic agreement, biological warfare research continued in both countries.

Since 1972, there have been several cases of suspected or actual use of biological weapons. For example, in late April 1979, an incident in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in the former Soviet Union appeared to be an accidental release of anthrax in aerosol form from Soviet Military Compound 19, a microbiology facility. Residents living downwind from this compound developed high fever and difficulty breathing, and a large number died; the final toll was estimated to be 200 to 1,000.

In August 1991, the first United Nations inspection of Iraq's biological warfare capabilities was carried out in the aftermath of the Gulf War. On August 2, 1991, the Iraqi government announced to leaders of the United Nations Special Commission that they had conducted research into the offensive use of Bacillus anthracis, Clostridium perfringens (presumably one of its toxins), and botulinum toxins. This was the first open admission of biological weapons research by any country in recent memory, and it verified many of the concerns of the international community. Biological agents were tested by the Iraqis in various delivery systems, including rockets, aerial bombs, and spray tanks.

Despite the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, the threat of biological warfare has actually increased in the last two decades, with a number of countries continuing to conduct research on the use of these agents as offensive weapons. The extensive program of the former Soviet Union is now controlled largely by Russia, and the Russian government has stated that they will put an end to further biological research. However, the degree to which the program has been scaled back, if any, is not known. A senior bioweapons program manager who defected from the former Soviet Union in 1992 outlined a remarkably robust biological warfare program. There is also growing concern that the smallpox virus--eradicated in the late 1970s primarily through the enormous efforts of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization and now stored in only two laboratories at the CDC in Atlanta and the Institute for Viral Precautions in Moscow, Russia--may have been "bargained" away by desperate Russian scientists seeking money. An attack with an agent such as smallpox could pose threats to large populations because of the potential for person-to-person transmission, enabling spread to other cities and states. Such a disease would quickly become a nationwide emergency, with international involvement sure to follow.

Not surprisingly, there is currently intense concern about the proliferation or enhancement of offensive programs in several countries due to possible hiring of expatriate Russian scientists as well as a number of other conditions, including neglected security systems and unpaid and unemployed technical personnel with access to and knowledge of weapons of mass destruction. Reportedly, in January 1998 Iraq sent about a dozen scientists to Libya to help that country develop a biological warfare complex disguised as a medical facility in the Tripoli area. In a report issued in November 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen singled out Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Syria as countries "aggressively seeking" nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Biological Weapons as Instruments of Terrorism

In addition to biological agents as weapons of war, there is also increasing concern over the possibility of terrorist use of biological agents to threaten civilian populations. There have already been cases of extremist groups in the U.S. trying to obtain micro-organisms to use as biological weapons. Until recently, an attack on civilians with a biological agent was considered very unlikely; however, now it seems entirely plausible. Recent events indicate that neither arms control treaties nor the moral repugnance long associated with the use of biological weapons will deter their use as terrorist weapons. Some experts have stated publicly that it is no longer a matter of if but when such an attack will occur. They point to the accessibility of information on how to prepare biologic weapons (e.g., on the Internet) and to activities by groups such as the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo, which, in addition to releasing nerve gas in Tokyo's subway system, experimented with botulism and anthrax and vigorously sought to obtain the Ebola virus.

A New Hazard

Unfortunately a disaster caused by the intentional release of biological weapons would be very different from other natural or technological disasters, conventional military strikes, or even attacks with other weapons of mass destruction (e.g., nuclear, chemical, or explosive). For example, when people are exposed to a pathogen such as plague or smallpox, they may not be aware of their exposure, and they may not feel sick for some time, although they would be contagious. Indeed, the incubation period may range from several hours to a few weeks, and consequently, an attack would not become obvious for a similar period. By that time, modern transportation could have widely dispersed the pathogen and greatly expanded the population of victims, perhaps exponentially.

Moreover, unlike an explosion or a tornado or an earthquake, in a biological event, it is unlikely that a single location or cluster of people will be identified for traditional first response. The initial responders to a biological disaster will most likely include county and city health officers, hospital staff, members of the outpatient medical community, and a wide range of response personnel in the public health system and not traditional first responders such as police, fire, rescue, and ambulance services.

Unfortunately, few American physicians have ever seen a case of smallpox, or anthrax, or plague, and diagnosis of an epidemic is certain to be delayed. Laboratory capabilities for diagnosis and measuring antibiotic sensitivity of organisms are similarly limited and would cause further delays.

Few, if any, recent disasters on American soil have resulted in the large numbers of patients needing immediate and sustained medical care that would probably result from an epidemic due to an intentionally released virulent biological agent. It is hard to identify a modern disaster that has tested the capacity of the U.S. health care system to deal with something comparable to an attack on a U.S. city with an aerosolized anthrax weapon. Clearly, should such an attack occur, hospitals would be frontline response institutions, with hundreds, thousands, or perhaps even tens of thousands of people requiring immediate and/or intensive care. Yet, hospitals in the U.S. are already overburdened, over-occupied, and understaffed, and thus ill prepared to deal with a mass disaster. In addition, in any event involving biological weapons, the number of people actually ill and in need of hospital care would likely be exceeded by the number seeking care because they were fearful of being sick. (The Scud missile attacks on Israeli citizens during the Gulf War produced large numbers of people seeking medical care for symptoms of acute anxiety--symptoms that closely mimic the early effects of nerve gas.)

Additionally, in their initial stages, many of the diseases delivered by biological weapons resemble common illnesses. Rapid diagnostic tests for smallpox, anthrax, etc. would be most helpful, but even their availability would not obviate the need to distinguish the truly sick from the worried well. Hence, triaging affected individuals in order to best deploy limited drugs and equipment will require significant hospital resources and skilled staff. Moreover, in the event that a bioterrorist attack employs a contagious pathogen, health professionals must be protected from the diseases afflicting their patients, and patients must be prevented from infecting others. Yet most hospital infection plans are capable of managing only a handful of infectious patients.

No one knows how people would react to a disaster caused by a deadly pathogen, but it is likely that some health care workers would leave their jobs to care for their families; others would leave for fear of their own safety. Maintaining security at hospitals, health care centers, and pharmacies would pose great challenges since many hospital security staff are off-duty police officers who would presumably be needed elsewhere during the crisis.

At the same time, media coverage of modern epidemics (as has occurred with the West Nile Fever, Hantavirus, Swine Flu, Legionnaire's Disease, etc.) will have a profound influence on the response to a biological attack. It is easy to imagine the opportunities for misinformation or contradictory interpretations by various self-appointed or media-anointed "experts." The situation could certainly lend itself to fueling public mistrust, whereas providing the public with accurate, timely information that people not only believe, but act on, could literally save lives.

Planning a response to terrorist attacks or biological disasters must not neglect the social consequences of epidemics. Unlike most "natural disasters," deliberate epidemics may continue to produce victims over a period of weeks or months, and additional attacks must be anticipated. If the biological weapon is a contagious disease, fellow citizens may represent ongoing threats to public safety, or be perceived as such. Thus the attack would exact a physical and emotional toll on the whole population, but, again, especially on health care workers and family caretakers. Normal routines and commercial activity are likely to be seriously disrupted, possibly on a city-wide or regional basis and for an extended period. Proper attention to the psychological needs of people in crisis will be essential.

Historically, some disease control measures taken in times of public health emergencies have been at odds with, or perceived as violating, certain democratic principles and processes. For example, mandatory quarantine, enforced vaccination to limit disease spread, and imposition of martial law have been perceived as threats to individual freedom and the right to privacy, or as discriminatory actions against certain groups. During a crisis, communication failures among different communities and between government officials and citizens can create suspicions and resistance to public health response measures. Moreover, differing ideas of what constitutes proper response can also have long-term political consequences, contributing to distrust of government institutions and disengagement from the processes of representative democracy. A bioterrorist attack will undoubtedly raise many important political, legal, moral, and ethical issues involving civil liberties, the authorities of state and federal health officials, and liability in the event mass vaccination is necessary. An effort to identify and better understand such issues is important.

In conclusion, the best public health measures to protect, respond to, and defend against the adverse health effects of biological terrorism or disasters due to deadly pathogens are the development, organization, and enhancement of life-saving public health tools. Planning and training involving all organizations potentially involved in responding--from emergency managers to public health officials to hospital administrators and staff--is essential. Expanded public health laboratory capacity, increased surveillance (disease monitoring) and outbreak response capacity, and health communication and training, with focused public health preparedness resources at the state and local level, are necessary to ensure that we will be able to respond effectively to this unique "natural" disaster.

Eric K. Noji, Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia

A New Working Paper on the Future of Emergency Management

The Natural Hazards Center has added a new working paper to its Web site:

Working Paper #104: Emergency Management in the 21st Century: Coping with Bill Gates, Osama bin-Laden, and Hurricane Mitch, by Claire B. Rubin -- http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/wp/wp104/wp104.html.

In 1998 disaster researcher Claire Rubin published a working paper on the hazards we can expect in the future, What Hazards and Disasters are Likely in the 21st Century--or Sooner?, Natural Hazards Working Paper #99 -- http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/wp/wp99.html. Working Paper #104 comp lements that earlier essay by addressing other factors that will affect how we deal with future disasters--from new technology, to terrorism, to the internationalization of disaster management.

Although she focuses on problems, Rubin also cites positive changes in disaster management, such as the use of the Internet, that have aided emergency managers in recent years. Still, her primary message is that a key to effective disaster management remains adaptability in the face of ever-more-rapid change. She concludes with several recommendations to make adaptation easier: the formation of an "Expert Panel on the Future of Emergency Management" to serve as an advisory committee to the many agencies involved in the discipline; the development of a "National Strategy for Emergency Management"; and the promotion of an entrepreneurial climate and funding within the emergency management community to support the creation of new methods and new technologies.

A complete list of Quick Response reports is posted at http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/qr/qr.html. Printed copies can be purchased for $5.00 each, plus shipping charges ($4.00 for surface mail to any destination; and $9.00 for international air printed matter). Orders should be directed to the Publications Clerk, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, 482 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-6819; fax: (303) 492-2151; e-mail: janet.kroeckel@colorado.edu. Prepayment is required, and checks should be payable to the University of Colorado.

A Modest Price Increase

Although the Natural Hazards Observer is free to anyone within the United States, readers outside the U.S. must pay a subscription fee. In January 2001, the subscription rate will increase from $15.00 to $24.00. All subscriptions will begin anew on January 1, and subscribers will be billed accordingly.

For further information about this increase, or to subscribe or renew a subscription, contact the Publications Clerk, Natural Hazards Center, 482 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-6819; fax: (303) 492-2151; e-mail: hazctr@colorado.edu.

Introducing the Natural Disasters Roundtable

The National Research Council has established a Natural Disasters Roundtable as a "follow-on" activity to its former Board on Natural Disasters. The roundtable's mission is to promote communication among scientists, practitioners, and policy makers in order to identify critical issues related to the understanding and mitigation of natural disasters. Roundtable meetings, to be held three times a year in Washington, D.C., will be open forums focusing on specific areas. A steering committee has been selected to identify those topics, create the agendas, and recruit expert speakers. The first meeting of the Natural Disaster Roundtable will take place January 26, 2001. For more information see http://nationalacademies.org/naturaldisasters; interested persons can also contact Patricia Jones, Natural Disasters Roundtable, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20418; (202) 334-1964; fax: (202) 334-1961; e-mail: pjones@nas.edu.

Introducing the APA Landslide Project

Recent trends in the U.S. suggest that more and more lands subject to landslides and earth failures are facing development. Whereas the land-use implications of other natural hazards, such as earthquakes and flooding, have received a fair amount of attention by government, landslide hazards have not. Complicating this problem, landslide-susceptible areas cannot be easily identified because they result from a combination of factors. Moreover, although a number of successful techniques for identifying and mitigating landslide hazards have been developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency, this information has not always reached planners and other public officials dealing with the hazard.

To address these issues, the research department of the American Planning Association (APA) has embarked on a program to consolidate solutions from multiple disciplines to aid local planning. To launch this program and determine its scope and needed support, APA hosted a landslide symposium earlier this year in which participants proposed several products:

The APA plans to publish these products for a variety of audiences in a variety of ways, including an interactive Web site and CD-ROM.

Additional information about the APA Landslide Project is available from the Principal Investigator, Landslides Project, Research Department, American Planning Association, 122 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60603-6107; (312) 431-9100; fax: (312) 431-9985; e-mail: landslides@planning.org; WWW: http://www.planning.org/landslides/index.asp.

The Web site not only offers extensive information about this project, such as the draft table of contents for the proposed guidebook, but also information about landslides generally, including a computer simulation of an actual slide, links to a bibliography on landslides, and a page of links to other landslide information on the Web. Additionally, APA has created a "Landslides-L" mailing list for discussion about land-use planning for landslides, and subscription information is also available from the site.

Introducing the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative

The Global Earthquake Safety Initiative, established by GeoHazards International and the United Nations Center for Regional Development, focuses on helping cities around the world recognize and reduce the risk of loss of life due to earthquakes. Building on the work of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) RADIUS Project (see the Observer, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, p. 9), this new initiative has five objectives:

For more information about the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative, contact Carlos Villacis, GeoHazards International, 200 Town and Country Village, Palo Alto, CA 94301; (650) 614-9050; fax: (650) 614-9051; e-mail: villacis@pangea.stanford.edu.

[Adapted from Disasters, Preparedness and Mitigation in the Americas, a newsletter of the Pan American Health Organization]

On the Line

Mount St. Helens: What We've Learned 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago in late March, southwestern Washington's Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascade Range, awoke from a 123-year slumber. Following two months of precursory activity--including sustained energetic seismicity, phreatic [steam-blast] explosions, and rapid bulging of its north flank from magmatic intrusion--Mount St. Helens erupted cataclysmically on the morning of May 18, 1980.

This eruption caused the worst volcanic disaster in the recorded history of the United States, resulting in 57 deaths, scores of injuries, and economic losses exceeding $1 billion. Because it was thoroughly documented and received substantial media attention, the eruption and its aftermath ushered in two decades of heightened public awareness and expanded scientific studies, launching a veritable renaissance in vol-canology that continues into the 21st century.

The reawakening of Mount St. Helens happened while I was head of the Volcano Hazards Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and was thus responsible for directing the survey's scientific response to the eruption. The 1980 and subsequent eruptions of Mount St. Helens furnish many lessons, not only scientific findings germane to reducing volcano risk, but also lessons regarding the critical need for effective communication among scientists, emergency management officials, members of the media, and affected populations.

The Eruption

Seconds after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, the north flank of Mount St. Helens began to collapse, unleashing a powerful, laterally directed blast, comparable in some ways to the sudden removal of the cap from a vigorously shaken bottle of soda. This collapse produced a rockslide-debris avalanche of 2.3 cubic kilometers, the world's largest in historical time. Although it lasted less than five minutes, the lateral blast traveled at speeds of up to 1,000 kilometers per hour, extending out as far as 28 kilometers and devastating 600 square kilometers of land north of the volcano. This blast, much more powerful than any other in the volcano's history, was the principal cause of fatalities.

Ash fallout from the eruption affected more than 57,000 square kilometers in eastern Washington and neighboring states. The ash cloud drifted across the country in three days and ultimately circled the globe in about two weeks.

Within 10 minutes of the eruption's onset, the interaction of hot volcanic ejecta with snow and ice triggered lahars (volcanic mudflows) that caused widespread flooding and damaged roads, bridges, and other structures.

Several compelling lessons from the Mount St. Helens eruption must not be forgotten:

Anticipating the Eruption

When activity began at Mount St. Helens in late March 1980, the USGS began intensive monitoring in cooperation with the Geophysics Program of the University of Washington. Data clearly indicated magmatic intrusion high into the volcanic edifice and the growing instability of the bulge on the north flank, but it was impossible to predict the onset of the paroxysmal events of May 18. Nevertheless, the monitoring data indicated to scientists that a flank failure might trigger a large magmatic eruption. Indeed, the on-site scientific team explained this scenario to emergency management officials before May 1.

Volcanologists now regard any significant rapid deformation of a volcano, as was well documented at Mount St. Helens, as a warning of a potential sector collapse and lateral blast.

A Successful But Imperfect Response

Besides monitoring the volcano around the clock, USGS scientists also worked daily with the U.S. Forest Service, the principal land manager for Mount St. Helens, as well as two counties and other government agencies, to provide updates of potential hazards and advice on mitigation and preparedness measures. By April 1, the USGS had developed a large-scale hazards zonation map and related hazards assessment information that were essential for preparing the Forest Service's Mount St. Helens Contingency Plan (which was completed April 9) and for locating roadblocks and restrictions on public access. Had these measures not been taken, the eruption would have caused considerably more casualties.

However, while the USGS response to Mount St. Helens was successful overall, it was hardly perfect. Lack of equipment, along with logistical difficulties, meant geodetic measurements of the north flank (bulging at an average rate of about 1.5 meters per day) did not begin until mid-April, several weeks after the bulge was first recognized. We will never know how much difference, if any, earlier measurements might have made.

Why didn't the USGS and Washington State take more action before 1980? By repeating the baseline monitoring measurements that had been initiated in the early 1970s and by developing protocols for working with other agencies, private organizations, and the public, they could have prepared both earlier and better for a reawakening of Mount St. Helens. After all, the USGS knew of the potential hazards as early as the late 1960s. Moreover, in 1975 three USGS geologists (Crandell, Mullineaux, and Rubin) published in Science1 a long-term forecast stating that Mount St. Helens would be the most likely volcano in the Cascade Range to reawaken, possibly even "before the end of the 20th century." In 1978, Crandell and Mullineaux published a detailed volcano hazards assessment that received little notice, but after the onset of activity in 1980 this report was widely read by scientists and emergency management officials.

The Survey's lack of preparation in part stemmed from insufficient funds for additional work in the Cascades--repeated efforts to obtain increased appropriations for volcano hazards studies had all failed. After the 1980 eruption, however, funding for the USGS Volcano Hazards Program increased significantly and was more than sufficient to establish the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, to monitor Mount St. Helens and other Cascades volcanoes. The funding also expanded or initiated studies of other volcanoes in the U.S. The lesson is obvious and disturbing: justification for increased funding of volcano hazards studies is greatly strengthened--and perhaps only receives serious attention--following a volcanic crisis or disaster.

Ruiz and Pinatubo

Since 1980, scientists have made numerous advances in volcano monitoring. The scientific and public responses to two volcano crises outside the U.S.--Nevado del Ruiz (Colombia) in 1985 and Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) in 1991--underscore the lesson of Mount St. Helens regarding the need for effective communications among scientists, emergency responders, and the public.

On November 13, 1985, a very small amount of magma erupted from Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano, triggering destructive lahars that killed more than 23,000 people. This tragedy could have been averted; a hazards zonation map had been prepared a month earlier and scientists had provided adequate warning that went unheeded.

The Ruiz disaster was the impetus for the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior to produce Understanding Volcanic Hazards, a video that depicts the deadly outcomes of volcano disasters, and Reducing Volcanic Risk, a video that shows what communities can do to mitigate volcanic hazards.

The Ruiz experience also launched the Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) in 1986, which is jointly funded by the USGS and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Once officially invited, a VDAP team can quickly deploy a mobile volcano observatory to help host countries respond to volcanic crises.

In contrast to the 1985 Ruiz catastrophe, the response of scientists and emergency management officials to the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines saved thousands of lives and reduced economic loss by hundreds of millions of dollars. Fatalities directly attributed to Pinatubo numbered fewer than 300, thanks to the timely evacuation of 250,000 people. Scientists from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology and the VDAP team educated local authorities and populations about the eruption and its potential hazards using a draft version of the Understanding Volcanic Hazards video that convinced local officials to order evacuations and the people at risk to comply.

Averting Volcanic Disasters

Some trends of the past two decades continue into this century, including the continued development and improvement of real-time volcano monitoring networks and methods, particularly the use of satellite technology. Worldwide eruption frequency (on average, about 60 volcanoes are active each year) is not likely to decrease in the foreseeable future. Thus, with continued growth in world population, economic development, and urbanization, the global risks due to volcanoes will become more acute. However, even as we look forward to continuing advances in volcanology and hazards studies, the 1985 Ruiz disaster provides a tragic reminder that good science alone is not enough. The greatest payoff in risk reduction will come from increased focus on the societal and human issues that emerge during volcanic crises and from developing or improving communication among scientists, emergency managers, representatives of the news media, educators, and the general public. The major challenge--indeed, the goal--for volcanologists and other scientists is to prevent volcanic crises from turning into volcanic disasters.

Robert I. Tilling, Volcano Hazards Team, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California

1. Science, 1975, Vol. 187, No. 4175, pp. 348-411.
[Adapted and reprinted with permission from Geotimes, May 2000, © 2000, the American Geological Institute]

For further information about the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, contact the author at Volcano Hazards Team, U.S. Geological Survey, MS-910, 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025-3591; (650) 329-5235; fax: (650) 329-5203; e-mail: rtilling@usgs.gov or view the USGS Web site on volcanoes: http://volcanoes.usgs.gov.

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