Natural disasters

  • Ten years after the Boxing Day tsunami, are coasts any safer?

    Ten years ago we witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in history, when a huge earthquake off the coast of Sumatra triggered a devastating tsunami which swept across the Indian Ocean. An estimated 230,000 people lost their lives, and 1.6 million people lost their homes or livelihoods. The impact was greatest in northern Sumatra because of its proximity to the earthquake. Catastrophic shaking was followed within minutes by the full force of the tsunami. Thousands of people were also killed in distant countries, where the earthquake could not be felt. If they had received a warning of the approaching tsunami, they could have moved inland, uphill or out to sea, and survived. Future tsunami disasters are inevitable, but with better technology, education and governance we can realistically hope that a loss of life on the scale of the 2004 tsunami disaster will not happen again.

  • Speedy, agile UAVs for troops in urban missions

    DARPA aims to give small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) advanced perception and autonomy rapidly to search buildings or other cluttered environments without teleoperation. The program aims to develop and demonstrate autonomous UAVs small enough to fit through an open window and able to fly at speeds up to twenty meters per second (45 miles per hour) — while navigating within complex indoor spaces independent of communication with outside operators or sensors and without reliance on GPS waypoints.

  • Judge orders review of insurance companies’ processing of Sandy-related damage claims

    Several insurance companies contracted to handle Hurricane Sandy claims on behalf of the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are facing lawsuits filed by homeowners in New York and New Jersey, who claim that insurance firms improperly reduced flood-damage payments. More than 1,000 lawsuits allege that homeowners received less than they should have for storm- related damages because of altered engineering reports that insurance companies knowingly accepted as part of the claims-adjustment process. The judge described the work done by one engineering firm on behalf of an insurance company as “reprehensible gamesmanship.”

  • Ten years after Asian tsunami, too few early-warning buoys are deployed

    Ten years after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed more than 220,000 people across twelve countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Myanmar, some residents of villages close to the shores are uncertain of how they will be notified or how they will react to a future tsunami. Many of the villages affected by the magnitude-9.1 tsunami still lack ocean buoys that help detect tsunamis, sirens to alert residents, and a protocol for residents to follow when sirens are issued.

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  • Washington State seeks better responses to landslides

    The March 2014 Oso landslide in Snohomish County, Washington State, killed forty-three people. A state commission, including experts in emergency management, land planning and development, geology, and hydrology, appointed by Washington state governor Jay Inslee to determine how better to avoid and respond to landslides released seventeen recommendations on last Monday.

  • Helping coastal communities to visualize sea-level rise

    As part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) initiative to encourage communities to become more aware of the effects of climate change, the agency has awarded Marin County, California a $150,000 grant to engage residents in climate change issues by allowing them to visualize the effects of sea level rise. The grant will pay for two sophisticated viewfinders programed to envision how the landscape will appear in projected sea level rise scenarios, as well as how the landscape appeared in the past.

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  • L.A. water supply vulnerable to disruption by earthquakes

    Eighty-eight percent of Los Angeles’s water comes from the Colorado River, Owens Valley, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, passing through three major aqueducts and into the region. The aqueducts cross the San Andreas Fault a total of thirty-two times, making them vulnerable to the much anticipated Big One.A large temblor on the fault could destroy sections of the aqueducts, cutting off the water supply for more than twenty-two million people in Southern California.

  • Complaints grow about New Mexico’s handling of emergencies, disaster relief

    New Mexico’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM)wasformed in 2007 by consolidating the state’s Office of Homeland Security and the Emergency Management Division. It is responsible for coordinating emergency and disaster relief efforts with all levels of government, providing training to emergency managers, and analyzing security threats. DHSEM, however, has a history of failing to respond swiftly to disaster related requests, according to internal reports, e-mails, audits, and interviews with current and former employees.

  • Placing people in affordable homes within days, not years, after major storms

    On Monday, Housing and Urban Developmentsecretary Julian Castro toured the core of a house in Brownsville, Texas, as part of the RAPIDO project, which local officials hope will one day become the model for housing recovery after a major storm. The house is part of a $2 million pilot project which relies on low construction expenses and affordable labor to get people in affordable homes within days of a major disaster instead of years. While hundreds of affordable homes have been built since Hurricane Dolly and Ike destroyed a vast portion of the Texas Gulf Coast in 2008, many residents are still waiting for houses already funded with federal disaster money.

  • Better forecasts for rain-on-snow flooding

    Many of the worst West Coast winter floods pack a double punch. Heavy rains and melting snow wash down the mountains together to breach river banks, wash out roads and flood buildings. These events are unpredictable and difficult to forecast. Yet they will become more common as the planet warms and more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow. Mountain hydrology experts are using the physics behind these events to better predict the risks.

  • Be prepared: What to do if an asteroid is heading our way

    Last month, experts from European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Situational Awareness (SSA) program and Europe’s national disaster response organizations met for a two-day exercise on what to do if an asteroid is ever found to be heading our way. The exercise considered the threat from an imaginary, but plausible, asteroid, initially thought to range in size from twelve meters to thirty-eight meters — spanning roughly the range between the 2013 Chelyabinsk airburst and the 1908 Tunguska event — and travelling at 12.5 km/s. Teams were challenged to decide what should happen at five critical points in time, focused on 30, 26, 5, and 3 days before and one hour after impact.

  • Better defense barriers and technologies for better protection against floods

    Hurricanes are devastating. Aside from the high, sustained wind speeds, they usually bring with them heavy rain, which can quickly lead to the breaching of flood defenses in susceptible areas. Now, U.S. and U.K. researchers have reviewed hurricane flood defense barriers and technologies with a view to helping engineers find improved designs.

  • Coastal defenses could contribute to flooding with sea-level rise

    A combination of coastal defenses and rising sea levels could change typical U.K. tidal ranges, potentially leading to a higher risk of flooding, say scientists. The researchers wanted to find out how tides around the United Kingdom might respond to changes in sea level over the next century depending on the level of coastal defenses in place. Their study shows for the first time that local coastal defenses, such as sea walls, could cause tides to change dramatically. It suggests flood defenses need to be reassessed on an international scale as they may lead to an increased risk of flooding.

  • Congressional funding allows partial roll-out of Calif. seismic early warning system

    California officials applauded the U.S. Senate approval of the $1.1-trillion spending package, which allocated $5 million to fund expansion of the state’s earthquake early-warning system dubbed ShakeAlert.In 2015, a select number of schools will receive earthquake alerts to warn students and teachers to drop and cover before shaking begins, fire stations will be alerted to open their garage doors before electricity goes out and prevents doors from opening, and some hospitals will receive notice to suspend surgeries.

  • Power grids in coastal U.S. cities increasingly vulnerable as a result of climate change

    Cities such as Miami are all too familiar with hurricane-related power outages. A new analysis finds, however, that climate change will give other major metropolitan areas a lot to worry about in the future. Johns Hopkins University engineers created a computer model to predict the increasing vulnerability of power grids in major coastal cities during hurricanes. By factoring historic hurricane information with plausible scenarios for future storm behavior, the team determined which of twenty-seven cities, from Texas to Maine, will become more susceptible to blackouts from future hurricanes. The team’s analysis could help metropolitan areas better plan for climate change.