Edited Version May 3, 2000
EIIP Classroom Online Presentation

"USGS Information: Before, During, and After a Disaster."

Dr. Timothy Cohn
Science Advisor for Hazards
U.S. Geological Survey

Kathleen Gohn
Public Affairs Specialist
U.S. Geological Survey

Amy Sebring, Moderator
EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The original unedited transcript of the May 3, 2000 online Virtual Classroom presentation is available from the EIIP Virtual Library Transcript Archive. The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussions, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the presenter to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Classroom!

For the benefit of any first-timers, when you see a blue web address, you can click on it and the referenced Web page should appear in a browser window. After the first one, the browser window may not automatically come to the top, so you may need to bring it forward by clicking on a button at the status bar at the bottom of your screen. Then you will need to bring your chat window back to the top in the same way.

We will start with a presentation, and then follow with a Q&A session for your questions and comments. Right before we begin the Q&A portion we will review the procedure. Please do NOT send direct messages to the speakers or moderator as it makes it difficult for us to follow the discussion.

Our session today is titled "USGS Information: Before, During, and After a Disaster." Background information for today's session may be found at <http://www.emforum.org/vclass/000503.htm>.


We are very pleased to welcome Dr. Timothy Cohn and Kathleen Gohn from the USGS Office of the Director to tell us about USGS activities in the area of natural hazards.

Tim currently serves as Science Advisor for Hazards, and in his previous position as a staff scientist, co-authored more than 25 papers on methods for estimating flood hazards and other topics. Kathleen serves as Public Affairs Specialist, focusing on communications issues related to natural hazards. She was a principal organizer of the Public Private Partnership 2000 forum series.

Welcome to you both, and Kathleen, I understand you will start us off.


Kathleen Gohn: Thanks, Amy; Tim and I are glad to be here today.

The USGS is the nation's natural science agency, covering a range of disciplines --- geology, hydrology, cartography, geography, and biology. The USGS is committed to providing the scientific information the nation needs so we can live more safely on our beautiful but sometimes dangerous planet.

A recent USGS map shows the geographic distribution of some of the major hazards. Natural hazards really are ubiquitous.


Before we go any further, I want to define some terms and make an important distinction. We define a natural hazard as a geophysical event, like a flood, earthquake, hurricane, or landslide. A natural disaster is what happens when people and structures get in the way. That is, the hazard is what Mother Nature does; the disaster is how people experience it.

Other people define these terms differently. But the essential idea here is to differentiate the natural processes, many that are crucial parts of how our world works, from the consequences to people who live and build in harm's way.

As many of you know, people are paying a lot of attention to natural disasters these days. The costs are skyrocketing; the "CNN syndrome" means we hear about disasters practically all the time. As far as we can tell, the frequency of most hazards has not been increasing. It's the disasters that have gotten worse --- much worse, when you look at dollar losses.


Governments often tried to deal with hazards by controlling nature through dams and levees, for example. But that approach has too often turned out to be costly to our wallets and to the environment. So we are now looking for better ways to live on our planet. Tim and I talked about this in a recent article in Geotimes <http://www.geotimes.org>.

This brings up an increasing role for the USGS: To provide scientific information ---before, during and after a disaster -so people can make better decisions and reduce the human and economic costs of natural disasters. Of course, the USGS works with many partners --- FEMA, the National Weather Service, other federal agencies, state agencies, local officials, and private sector organizations --- to achieve this goal.

In a few weeks, we'll be releasing a report on Natural Disaster Information Systems, prepared by a working group under the Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction; Peter Ward, now retired from USGS, was the chair of the Working Group. The report will be on the web and will be linked from the USGS Hazards Theme page <http://www.usgs.gov/themes/hazard.html>.

Many people know the USGS best for our maps, particularly the 7.5 minute topo quads. These quadrangle maps cover the entire United States, generally at a scale of 1:24,000, which provides much of the detail needed by emergency response officials and organizations. The maps and digital data are available on the web or from our business partners <http://mapping.usgs.gov/mac/findmaps.html>.

Another program, which may be even better known to this group, is the national stream-gaging program. The USGS operates more than 7,000 stream-gages around the Nation. Flood data collected at the USGS stream-gaging stations are transmitted to State and local water managers and emergency managers, the NWS, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The NWS has the responsibility for forecasting floods and issuing warnings.

The USGS currently operates stream-gaging stations at 2,124 of the 2,929 NWS service locations on major streams and rivers in the conterminous United States. <http://water.usgs.gov/>. Stream-gage data also provide the long-term records needed for floodplain mapping and management.

However, funding for the stream-gages has been a perennial problem. The President's budget will allow the USGS to build 25 new stream-gaging stations, to reactivate 25 former stations, and to upgrade 100 existing stream-gaging stations <http://water.usgs.gov/hazards_initiative>.

The USGS earthquake-monitoring network, like the stream-gaging network, is a national program providing real-time data for engineers, land use planners, emergency managers, and others. The President's 2001 budget calls for a small increase to begin funding the Advanced National Seismic System.

In the first part of the system, 150 new seismometers will be installed in the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, Anchorage, and Salt Lake City. The new instruments will enable nearly instantaneous estimates of earthquake location, magnitude, and assessment of damage and will allow emergency responders to target their efforts to areas that suffered the greatest shaking.


We could also talk about USGS activities related to volcanoes, landslides, geomagnetic storms, coastal erosion, wildland fire, wildlife disease --- it's a long list! Perhaps it's best to stop now and go to your questions. But first, let me tell you about the USGS's listservers for news releases. The water and geologic hazards lists may be of particular interest. To sign up, go to the USGS news releases page at <http://www.usgs.gov/public/press/public_affairs/press_releases/index.html> and click on the USGS Listservers link.

Now, let's have your questions.

[Audience Questions /Comments]

Amy Sebring: Thank you for that introduction, Kathleen, and we can get into some more detail in response to questions. Audience, please enter a question mark (?) to indicate you wish to be recognized, go ahead and compose your comment or question, but wait for recognition before hitting the Enter key or clicking on Send. We now invite your questions/comments. While we are waiting, please note that all the links provided by Kathleen will be in the transcript that will be posted to the site for future reference.


Daniel Stowers: Kathleen, does the USGS have any links that deal strictly with hurricane storm surge mapping?

Kathleen Gohn: Dan, I don't know the answer but I will find out for you; maybe Tim can field the next few while I check.

Tim Cohn: Dan, I think FEMA has responsibility for maintaining the maps.

Kathleen Gohn: Dan, check the link for coastal storms at <http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/products>. There will be information there on products.


Amy Sebring: Tim or Kathleen, can you mention the flood mapping at this point, perhaps?

Tim Cohn: In general, floodplain mapping is coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We provide stream-gage data and topographic data that are used by FEMA and local communities to produce the maps.


Amy Sebring: Kathleen, did you want to add about the flood tracking charts?

Tim Cohn: I'll take that one. The USGS has also prepared flood tracking charts. These allow individuals and communities to track a flood as it moves downstream, and provide information about how high the water is likely to go (and when).


Amy Sebring: I understand there is a link to samples from the Flood theme on the Hazards page?

Tim Cohn: Yes, there is! Thanks, Amy.


Alan Choutka: Tim or Kathleen, is there a list of the new/reactivated stream-gage locations available on the web? And will the upgrades include rainfall data?

Tim Cohn: Yes. It is in one of the links Kathleen provided above.

Kathleen Gohn: <http://water.usgs.gov/hazards_initiative>.


Amy Sebring: Rainfall data, Tim?

Tim Cohn: Rain gages may be part of the upgrade, but I'm not sure.


O’Brien Daniel: FYI: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has produced the hurricane storm surge maps and are in the process of updating them. The contact is Alan McDuffie 910 251-4724.


Kathie Grant: What can emergency management do to help encourage funding for the stream-gage program? I find it invaluable, especially the rain gages at remote locations.

Tim Cohn: Our funding comes from the US Congress and the Administration. If you find our information useful, it won't hurt to let people know.


Galeeb FOCUS: To add an international dimension here, the USGS provides me with an excellent resource: the NEIC Near Real Time Earthquake List <http://gldss7.cr.usgs.gov/neis/bulletin/bulletin.html>. Keep it up! I use it daily to monitor earthquakes in Central Asia. Are there any plans to include other international monitoring for other types of hazards?

Tim Cohn: The USGS provides volcano monitoring on request through the Volcano Disaster Assistance program. The USGS is working on landslide issues in Central America connected with hurricane Mitch. The USGS also monitors volcanic ash plumes (US and Russian volcanoes) that pose a hazard to aviation.


Sheena Vivian: In the first slide 'Disaster losses are rising' the figures for those years are worldwide, correct?

Tim Cohn: Yes, the figures are global. Munich Reinsurance is the source.

Kathleen Gohn: It turns out to be very difficult to track the amounts of disaster losses.


Galeeb FOCUS: One thing that has come up in my area of work in Northern Pakistan is Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). Has the USGS done any research on prevention or mitigation of these floods? This type of situation also exists in North America --- I found a reference to a situation in Canada <http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/pgeorge/geomorphology/outburst.htm>.

Tim Cohn: The USGS has studied some pre-historic GLOFs. I'm not aware of any current monitoring or mitigation.


Steve Norfleet: Tim, do you have any comments on the natural disaster implications associated with anticipated rise in sea level over the next century?

Tim Cohn: Steve, it's a difficult question to answer. If you live near sea level, and some of our cities are near or below sea level (New Orleans is the example), then it clearly is a major concern.

Amy Sebring: Steve, please see our schedule, we will devote an entire session to related issues later this month, May 24th.

Kathleen Gohn: Our Director has been quoted as saying that New Orleans will be underwater in a century or so. So visit now!


Amy Sebring: Kathleen, I am interested in your work on the PPP 2000 effort. Is this ongoing, and are you aware of any US involvement with the successor to the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, the ISDR?

Kathleen Gohn: The PPP 2000 forum series has ended and Tim and I, along with other members of the working group are preparing a book that includes an overview and summaries of the 14 forums. For those who don't know the acronym, PPP 2000, was a joint effort between the US Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction, about 20 Federal agencies and the insurance industry, through the Institute for Business and Home Safety to look for ways to reduce disaster losses here in the US and worldwide. The ISDR is a fairly new organization that will continue the efforts, probably through the National Research Council, although SNDR may well be involved in a supporting role.


Avagene Moore: Kathleen, when will the overview and summaries of the PPP Forums be available and how/where?

Tim Cohn: I'll take this one: The summaries are available on the web at <http://www.usgs.gov/ppp2000/> . The book will also be on the web later this year.


Ray Pena: In you article, near the end, when you refer to the US government, do you mean the federal government or all governments (including state and local)?

Tim Cohn: If you are referring to the recommendations, I think they apply to all levels of government.

Kathleen Gohn: That was the point of the PPP 2000 series, that individual efforts weren't adequate and many levels of government as well as the private sector need to coordinate our efforts to resolve these increasing problems.

Ray Pena: I ask because your chief recommendation --- "...providing information people need to protect themselves..." --- is where a lot of us already spend a lot of our time.

Kathleen Gohn: At the Federal level, this information would include earthquake-shaking maps, etc. but clearly there is a critical need at the local and State level for more targeted information to help people help themselves.


Amy Sebring: Kathleen, just a suggestion to consider. I am subscribed to at least 3 of the press release list servs, you might consider doing a consolidated list with a target audience for those who are interested in disaster information in particular, perhaps.

Kathleen Gohn: That's a great idea, Amy. We'll look into combining the lists or offering a disaster list. It would be useful for us internally, as well!

Amy Sebring: Thanks. Other questions/comments?


Kathleen Gohn: Just FYI, the 20th anniversary of the Mount St Helen’s eruption is in a few weeks. We'll be using this opportunity to remind people of the progress that has been made in understanding volcanic processes. Just a little chance for educating the public.


Kathie Grant: I see the USGS very involved with emergency management at a local level, in some areas, but little involvement at other levels, even though I see lots of common ground. Comment, please?

Tim Cohn: I'm not sure exactly what you mean; but we're always looking for new partners to work with.

Kathleen Gohn: We do have good working relationships with lots of people at FEMA in the earthquake mitigation area as well as floods.


Amy Sebring: Speaking of funding, I see that there is a funding request in one of the fire bills for a "Hazard Support System." Is this a new system and what is the purpose of that system generally, Tim?

Tim Cohn: The Hazard Support System would involve using satellites to locate wildland fires, and possible volcanic eruptions from above. It's not yet operational, but it raises some interesting possibilities for future monitoring of hazards.


Avagene Moore: Will the USGS be involved with future GDIN efforts?

Tim Cohn: The USGS has been closely involved with GDIN --- the Global Disaster Information Network. We'll see where it goes after the election.


Christopher Effgen: I do wish that you would develop some kind of relationship with this forum, and other permanent public / private efforts regarding the development of USGS and it's capacity to provide information of importance to the public.

Tim Cohn: We'd love to!

Kathleen Gohn: We were very glad to join you today and hope for more interactions in future.


Amy Sebring: Tim, do you expect there will be increased emphasis on tsunamis now that the East Coast is perhaps threatened?

Tim Cohn: This has certainly gotten a lot of press in the last few days. We have not studied Atlantic tsunamis much. I expect we'll do more fieldwork in this area over the next few years. We need to gain some idea of how serious this threat is.

Kathleen Gohn: The scientific issues are still really up in the air (so to speak) and more work is needed even to determine whether the seafloor cracks that were found are active or are perhaps ancient features. As one of our scientists pointed out, we know more about the backside of the Moon than about the ocean floor and the potential hazards there.


Patrick Metts: How will you go about that?

Tim Cohn: Sonar mapping of the Continental Shelf, evidence of tsunamis on land.

Final Question:

Patrick Metts: Sonar mapping?

Kathleen Gohn: We can map the ocean floor using acoustic technology that has been done in great detail on the West Coast and around Hawaii, where we have found evidence of major landslides. Now we need to move those technologies to the Atlantic. There is more information at the coastal Web site that I gave earlier.


Amy Sebring: Thank you very much for being with us today, Tim and Kathleen. We very much appreciate your time and effort. Please stand by a moment if you can while we take care of some announcements.

Kathleen Gohn: It was great --- thanks!

Tim Cohn: Enjoyed it!

Amy Sebring: Avagene, can you tell us what's on for next week, please?

Avagene Moore: Thanks, Amy. Kathleen and Tim, my personal appreciation for the session today. Thank you both!

Next Wednesday May 10, the Virtual Library features Mitch Cooper, State of Texas Department of Health. Mitch will be talking about "Emergency Planning for Special Needs Facilities," a discussion that will benefit us all. Plan to join us next week and participate with any questions you may have for Mitch. That's all for now, Amy.

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ava and thanks, to all our participants today. We will adjourn the session for now, but you are welcome to remain for open discussion. You no longer need to use question marks.