Witness to a Flash Flood

by Amanda Pruzinsky

Amanda's view from inside during the flash flood

Amanda’s view during the flash flood

On Saturday, July 30, my boyfriend and I visited Ellicott City, Maryland to sightsee its historic downtown despite the rainy day.  No one had any way of knowing that an otherwise ordinary day would end in such devastation.  Everyone was chatting about the rain when an alarm hit our smart phones.  Another summer storm, another flash flood warning, everyone glances at their phones and continues on with their evening.

Its 8:11 p.m., only a few minutes after the flash flood warning to our phones.  The heavy rainstorm had turned into the warned flash flood in less time than I can comprehend.  Everyone is glued to the windows in the front of the restaurant yelling over the sound of the raging water, watching even after the basement filled with water, power went out, and alarms came on. We continued watching for over an hour as the river of brown water swept away cars, rolled huge dumpsters, toppled street signs, cut the power lines, and raged like it would last forever.

By 9:33 p.m., the flood retreated and we took to the street to find our car while rescue squads ran in groups down the hill with large yellow rafts. The streets were full of terrified people, all looking unbelievably at the vast holes in the streets and buildings, totaled cars, and wreckage strewn before us.

My heart goes out to all of the people who were there, for the homes and businesses destroyed, and to the families and friends of the people who lost their lives.

These types of weather events happen very suddenly and there is only so much one can do to prepare.  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an excellent resource for information on what to do in disasters, such as flash floods, and the agency has a downloadable FEMA mobile app as well. EPA also has helpful information, including natural disaster preparedness and response tips, flood resilience checklist, flood risk management resources, and flood cleanup resources for your home or businesses.

Hurricanes, severe storms, flooding, droughts, and wildfires are increasing in frequency, intensity, or length. Communities are taking action and investing in their continued safety.  EPA is partnering with other national and international programs, states, localities, tribes, and communities to develop policies and provide technical assistance, analytical tools, and outreach support on climate change issues.

On the news, I hear plans being discussed to rebuild Ellicott City to be even stronger and more resilient than before. In the height of all of the devastation, there is hope for the future.


About the Author: Amanda Pruzinsky is a physical scientist for the Water Protection Division in EPA’s mid-Atlantic region working to support all of the water programs with a focus on data management, analysis, and communication.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Technology for Community Resiliency

By Paul Lemieux

This week I was honored to participate in the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day. From finding an open gas station to finding a safe place to sleep at night following a disaster or finding a vehicle you can rent by the hour, participants shared a variety of amazing technology applications to help make communities more resilient in the aftermath of disaster.

Me giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House's Old Executive Office Building.

Paul giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House’s Old Executive Office Building.

While there were some great private sector tools from big innovators like Airbnb, Google, Microsoft, SeeClickFix, and TaskRabbit there were just as many amazing tools from government innovators, too.

An example of some of the government tools highlighted during the demo:

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced GeoQ, a tool that crowdsources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to assess damage over large regions. Developed in coordination with NGA, the Presidential Innovation Fellow Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other disaster analysts, GeoQ improves the speed and quality of disaster-related data coordination by using a data crowd-sharing framework. Programmers can use the existing services and add features to customize the GeoQ code for their own community.

The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) highlighted ShakeMap and other post-earthquake information tools that offer rapid situational awareness for disaster response and recovery. Using data from seismic monitoring systems maintained by USGS and its state and university partners, ShakeMap provides a rapid graphical estimate of ground shaking in an affected region on the web within minutes of an event. The maps and underlying data, which can be downloaded in numerous formats for use in GIS and other applications, are also the basis for ShakeCast—which enables emergency managers at a growing number of companies, response organizations, and local governments to automatically receive USGS shaking data and generate their own customized impact alerts for their facilities.

And I showcased EPA’s I-WASTE, a flexible, web-based, planning and decision-making tool to address disaster waste management issues. I-WASTE offers emergency responders, industry representatives, and responsible officials reliable information on waste characterization, treatment, and disposal options, as well as guidance on how to incorporate waste management into planning and response for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and animal disease outbreaks.

It is clear that there are a number of public and private organizations working together with individuals and communities around the country to ensure that together we are prepared and ready to respond to the next disaster we might face.

Watch a video of how I-WASTE can help your community, embedded below, or go to http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/homeland/clean-up.htm

Paul Lemieux, Ph.D. works on issues related to clean up after chemical/biological/radiological attacks and foreign animal disease outbreaks. Paul has also been working to develop computer-based decision support tools to aid decision makers in responding to wide-area contamination incidents. He is the Associate Division Director of the Decontamination and Consequence Management Division of U.S. EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Persevering in Sandy’s Wake

By Sophia Kelley

Hurricane Sandy is the first emergency response that I have been involved with since coming to the EPA and the experience has given me a new appreciation for the level of commitment and dedication of my colleagues. We, like thousands of others in the New York/New Jersey area, are continuing our efforts to recover from the impacts of the super storm. While all of us have been affected to some degree, EPA’s on-scene coordinators and other emergency responders reported to work and spent long days helping others rather than attending to their own homes that may have been damaged or lacked power. In addition, they often face hazardous situations while assessing chemical or oil spills and abandoned fuel tanks.

In emergency situations, the EPA typically works in collaboration with the lead organization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and with state and local governments to help protect public health and the environment before, during and after the event. From overflight surveys of the storm-damaged areas to supervising emergency scuba operations repair of damaged equipment at a wastewater treatment plant, the EPA has been involved in Sandy recovery efforts from all angles. For daily updates on our work, see: http://epa.gov/sandy/response.html.

View of a typical sand pile stored at Jacob Riis Park in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

My role has been more behind the scenes as I am assigned to communication efforts organized out of our response center in Edison, New Jersey. But last Friday I had the opportunity to visit Jacob Riis Park in Queens where the city is staging an enormous amount of the hurricane wreckage in what used to be the parking lot. Between two staggering towers of fetid debris, a battered green sign states, “This Way to the Beach.” A year ago I visited that very beach with my friend and played in the sand with her two little girls. I wonder if we’ll be able to return next year.

Now the sand is piling up in the parking lot. The storm deposited enormous quantities of sand in city streets. The city has cleared it and has possible plans for its beneficial reuse. Rather than simply carting it away with the other debris to a landfill, the idea is to sift the sand and then potentially use it at other locations. The EPA is assisting the city by sampling the sand to make sure it meets the criteria for reuse.

Since the storm the EPA has also been collecting household hazardous waste in the New York area. Crews are canvassing flood-impacted neighborhoods and will continue to pick up common household items such as paints, pesticides and household cleaners for separate management and disposal. Preventing such dangerous chemicals from mixing with the other trash is important for long-term disposal of the rest of the storm-related material.

Find out more about our household hazardous waste collection in NYC, visit: http://epa.gov/sandy/hazardouswastepickup.html.

If you have questions related to EPA’s work after Hurricane Sandy, please submit them in the comment section below or call our hotline, 1.888.283.7626.

About the author: Sophia is a public affairs specialist in her first year of the Environmental Careers Program. She has lived in Canada, Texas, Chicago, Poland, Central America, and now resides in Brooklyn.  Sophia has an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and recently earned an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Before joining EPA, she worked as a freelance writer, an itinerant teacher, and at a newspaper in Costa Rica.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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You Still Have Time To Get Ready

Haga clic en la imagen para unirse a la conversación en nuestro blog en español... ¡No olvide de suscribirse!

By Lina Younes

With NOAA’s revised hurricane season outlook for 2012 forecasting “above-normal” tropical storm activity for this year, I think it is timely to take several steps to get yourself and your family prepared before any hurricanes reach our shores. While the official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin begins on June 1st, September has proven to be the most active month for hurricane activity in the U.S. statistically speaking. So, what can you do to get ready?

A common sense approach to hurricane preparedness or any type of emergency is ideal. Develop your own emergency supplies kit. What should this kit have?

  • Flashlights
  • Batteries
  • Battery-powered radio
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Bottled water
  • Canned food
  • Manual can opener
  • Emergency phone numbers for your local utility companies and other basic services
  • First aid kit

Other tips for emergency preparedness:

  • If you take any medications regularly, have those prescriptions and other medical necessities on hand.
  • Store important family documents in a portable waterproof container. Keep that container on hand in case of an emergency evacuation.
  • Learn about hurricane evacuation routes in your area.
  • Have cash on hand.
  • Fill your car up with gas before the storm hits.

Don’t forget to get your home ready in anticipation of a storm.

  • Remove clutter around the house that can easily become storm debris once the hurricane hits.
  • Clean up the rain gutters and downspouts well in advance.
  • If you have any leaks in your home, repair them before the storm hits. They will only become worse with torrential rains and hurricane winds.

Furthermore, use technology to your advantage.  Now is a good time to sign up for text messages from FEMA to get regular updates via your mobile phone and social media platforms.  And, as we’ve mentioned before, preparation will help you to be ready for the unexpected in the event of a storm or any other environmental emergency.

Stay safe!

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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