• Gifts of cash may be best way to rebuild lives of disaster victims

    Historically, the orthodox approach to helping people in humanitarian emergencies has been to give them things – food, water, hygienic supplies and so on. There’s an argument for this approach, but also a very real risk: that we give people the wrong things. And the network of contractors and subcontractors often used to administer this “in-kind” aid is sufficiently complex and opaque that we can’t really tell how we’re performing. As researchers have begun conducting rigorous experimental tests of anti-poverty strategies (“randomized controlled trials”), seeking reliable answers to the question “what works?” a consistent finding has been that simply giving money directly to individuals works quite well. Multiple studies have found that when people in need receive cash and the freedom to spend it as they choose, the results are impressive.

  • Texas flood exposes serious weaknesses in high-tech warning systems

    The Memorial Day weekend flood in Texas was a test for regional flood warning systems employed by local and federal emergency agencies. Hays County officials issued three “reverse 911” notifications to residents residing in homes along the Blanco River. The National Weather Servicesent out flash flood warnings to registered local cellphones. Yet the disaster flood, which caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage in Blanco and Hays counties and killed more than a dozen people, exposed serious weaknesses in high-tech warning systems.

  • Fear no asteroid: An interview with astronomer Judit Györgyey-Ries

    Should we fear that someday a huge asteroid would fulfill one of the apocalyptic scenarios envisaged for Earth, when a space rock smashes into our planet causing a global disaster? Judit Györgyey-Ries, an experienced astronomer at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory becalms the worried doomsdayers with a scientific approach to the matter.

  • Floods as tools of war: Many floods in the Netherlands in past 500 years were deliberately caused during wartime

    A new study shows that, from 1500 until 2000, about a third of floods in southwestern Netherlands were deliberately caused by humans during wartimes. Some of these inundations resulted in significant changes to the landscape, being as damaging as floods caused by heavy rainfall or storm surges. The study shows that floods in the Netherlands were used as a weapon as recently as the 1940s. “Strategic flooding during the Second World War undertaken by the Germans remained purely defensive, while the Allied flooding of the former island of Walcheren in the southwest of the country sped up the Allied offensive,” says the study’s author.

  • Florida better prepared for hurricane season

    Florida’s coastal communities are far more prepared for hurricane season than they were a decade ago, when eight hurricanes swept through the state during back-to-back seasons causing $33 billion in insurance claims. The state’s coastal communities have added an additional 1.5 million people and almost a half-million new houses, but experts say the risk of catastrophic destruction has not increased because builders are doing a better job of constructing new homes with hurricane resistant materials.

  • Better flood-warning system

    On Memorial Day evening, Houston, Texas suffered massive flooding after getting nearly eleven inches of rain in twelve hours. Rice University civil engineering professor Philip Bedient is an expert on flooding and how communities can protect themselves from disaster. He directs the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) at Rice University. Bedient designed the Flood Alert System — now in its third version — which uses radar, rain gauges, cameras, and modeling to indicate whether Houston’s Brays Bayou is at risk of overflowing and flooding the Texas Medical Center. He says more places need those types of warning systems.

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  • Making building hover to protect them from earthquake

    Los Gatos California-based Arx Pax, creator of the Hendo Hoverboard and Magnetic Field Architecture (MFA), yesterday announced that it is integrating the ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning software into its patented three-part foundation system, which the company says is a more cost effective means of decoupling an object or building from the earth to provide real protection against earthquakes, floods, and sea-level rise. The company is now beta testing isolation of structures from unwanted earth movement.

  • Should I stay or should I go: timing affects hurricane evacuation decisions

    When a hurricane is gathering strength offshore, people in its possible line of fire still need to decide whether or not to evacuate to safer ground. Emergency managers are charged with ensuring the safety of the population. “Prepare for the worst” is probably a good philosophy in most circumstances, but not in the case of evacuation for a hurricane many days away, when the cost of mobilizing is high and the probability of it being needed is very low. The government and media also grapple with not wanting to be unnecessarily alarmist. The correct philosophy is “know what the worst case could be and be prepared to face it if it comes to pass.” When an evacuation order is issued, it’s usually in a very compressed time frame — but that’s ok as long as people are prepared. If people plan three to five days ahead, knowing that there is a small but real chance they will be asked to evacuate and a small but real chance of death if they do not, they can be ready when the definitive order comes in.

  • App offers St. Petersburg residents information on flood levels, storm surges

    Pinellas County, Florida, will unveil a new Storm Surge Protector computer application which would provide residents of St. Petersburg with realistic views of potential flood levels as the 2015 hurricane season approaches. The app will allow people to enter any Pinellas County address and see the property’s evacuation zone and get an animated view of the structure and the water levels to expect in the area under a range of hurricane categories.

  • California’s agriculture feels pain of harsh drought

    The California drought is expected to be worse for the state’s agricultural economy this year because of reduced water availability, according to a new study. Farmers will have 2.7 million acre-feet less surface water than they would in a normal water year — about a 33 percent loss of water supply, on average. Reduced availability of water will cause farmers to fallow roughly 560,000 acres, or 6 to 7 percent of California’s average annual irrigated cropland. The drought is estimated to cause direct costs of $1.8 billion — about 4 percent of California’s $45 billion agricultural economy. When the spillover effect of agriculture on the state’s other economic sectors is calculated, the total cost of this year’s drought on California’s economy is $2.7 billion and the loss of about 18,600 full- and part-time jobs.

  • Forest managers hampered in efforts to control costly wildfires by using prescribed burns

    Fighting wildfires is costly. The U.S. government now spends about $2 billion a year just to stop them, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This is up from $239 million in 1985. Forest managers would prefer to use prescribed burns every few years to help prevent costly wildfires and rebuild unhealthy ecosystems, but hurdles like staffing, budget, liability, and new development hinder them.

  • Summer tropical storms do not alleviate drought conditions

    Popular opinion says that tropical storms and hurricanes that make landfall mitigate droughts in the southeastern United States. This simply is not true, according to researchers. According to a NOAA report, 37.4 percent of the contiguous United States was experiencing moderate drought at the end of April – but “The perception that land-falling tropical cyclones serve to replenish the terrestrial water sources in many of the small watersheds in the southeastern U.S. seems to be a myth,” says one of the researchers.

  • Climate change, a factor in Texas floods, largely ignored

    Climate change is taking a toll on Texas, and the devastating floods that have killed at least fifteen people and left twelve others missing across the state are some of the best evidence yet of that phenomenon, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said in an interview last Wednesday. “We have observed an increase of heavy rain events, at least in the South-Central United States, including Texas,” said Nielsen-Gammon, who was appointed by former Gov. George W. Bush in 2000. “And it’s consistent with what we would expect from climate change.” Some Republican state legislators who had opposed including climate change forecasts in state agencies’ planning work, say they are rethinking their position. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) said that after last week’s flooding, he is taking the need for planning for extreme weather seriously. “I’ll certainly have it on my radar,” Hunter said. “When you see these strange weather patterns, it’s important to keep all of these things in mind.”

  • Winners and losers in California’s water crisis

    A recent article highlights the widening gap of inequality between the wealthy and the poor of California, specifically in relation to the State’s current drought. The authors discuss what has caused these inequalities to expand — the outdated and unsupervised water regulations still currently used, combined with decentralized local control means using and sourcing water comes down to the simple matter of what people can and cannot afford.

  • Debate in North Carolina over sea-level rise continues

    Climate change skeptics in the North Carolina legislature revised the forecast horizon of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), a panel of scientific and engineering experts set up by the state government to advised state agencies on coastal issues, from ninety years to thirty years. Infrastructure experts said limiting forecasts to thirty years does not make sense because large infrastructure projects are designed to last at least two or three times that, and hence must take into account conditions which will likely prevail well into the future. Local communities in the state say that since, in their own infrastructure planning, they are not bound by arbitrary limits imposed on state agencies by the legislature, they take a longer view of emerging coastal hazards – and plan accordingly.