Category Archives: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Amid flooding and rising sea levels, residents of one barrier island wonder if it’s time to retreat

The Washington Post, by  Frances Stead Sellers,  Nov. 9, 2019 PST

OCRACOKE, N.C. — On any normal late-fall day, the ferries that ply the 30 miles between Swan Quarter and this barrier island might carry vacationing retirees, sports fishermen and residents enjoying mainland getaways after the busy summer tourist season.

But two months ago, Hurricane Dorian washed away all signs of normalcy here. After buzz-cutting the Bahamas, the giant storm rolled overhead, raising a seven-foot wall of water in its wake that sloshed back through the harbor, invading century-old homes that have never before taken in water and sending islanders such as post office head Celeste Brooks and her two grandchildren scrambling into their attics.

Ocracoke has been closed to visitors ever since. Island-bound ferries carry yawning container trucks to haul back the sodden detritus of destroyed homes. And O’cockers — proud descendants of the pilots and pirates who navigated these treacherous shores — are faced with a reckoning: whether this sliver of sand, crouched three feet above sea level between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, can survive the threats of extreme weather and rising sea levels. And if it can’t, why rebuild?

“That’s the unspoken question. That’s what nobody wants to say,” said Erin Baker, the only doctor to serve this community of 1,000. “It’s a question of how do we continue to have life here.”

Scientists have long warned that Ocracoke’s days are numbered, that this treasured island is a bellwether for vast stretches of the U.S. coast.

“Virtually everyone from Virginia Beach south to the U.S./Mexico border is going to be in the same situation in the next 50 years,” said Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine affairs at Duke University. “And it’s only going to get worse after that.”

If Ocracoke’s ultimate prognosis is grim, Tom Pahl, the township’s county commissioner, remains committed to its recovery.

“Is this really sustainable? The answer is pretty clearly no,” he said. “But what’s the timeline? No one has been able to say, ‘You’ve got 15 years, 40 years, 100 years.’ The clear-eyed vision is resiliency then retreat.”

[As North Carolina focuses on getting ahead of hurricanes, some residents are hesitant to move]

The disaster has in some ways shortened people’s outlook.

“I don’t think we’re thinking that far ahead right now,” said Monroe Gaskill, 64, echoing in the distinctive island brogue the immediate concerns of many “ol’ toimers”: whether the island will be open in time for duck-hunting season later this month; where students will study next semester when they have to relinquish their temporary classrooms in the old Coast Guard Station; and what will become of all the displaced residents, who are holed up in rental units, once the tourists return next Easter.

Even as some houses are being bulldozed, neighbors are working together to raise others.

“Now I know there is no such thing as high enough,” said Janet Spencer behind the counter of the hardware store, which reopened without power right after the storm. She and her husband jacked up their home 18 years ago — just one cinder block too few to keep out Dorian. Still, she said, long-term residents won’t leave.

“It’s the only thing we know,” she said.

The home of Edward and Stella O’Neal is torn down due to damage caused by flooding during Hurricane Dorian in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
The home of Edward and Stella O’Neal is torn down due to damage caused by flooding during Hurricane Dorian in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Monroe Gaskill, a commercial fisherman and licensed hunter guide, said he thinks people on the island are more focused on their immediate concerns right now. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Monroe Gaskill, a commercial fisherman and licensed hunter guide, said he thinks people on the island are more focused on their immediate concerns right now. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

There are hazards everywhere, said Amy Howard, 47, a local historian and craft store manager, and hurricanes have shaped the culture of this storied village. She showed off the floorboards her great-grandfather cut out in 1933 to relieve pressure from mounting water and prevent the house from floating off its foundations. The building was raised in 1944 after a storm, and her father plans to elevate it further.

Alton Ballance, a descendant, like Gaskill and Howard, of the island’s earliest white settlers, has heard the call to retreat. “Time to get off that island!” one friend, an ocean scientist, has told him. “There may come a day when it’s not feasible to continue,” Ballance concedes, but for now he is methodically stripping out the old family home and installing new electrical outlets waist-high.

“It’s easy for people in government and sometimes in the media to target a small place like this,” Ballance said, rocking back and forth on a porch swing outside the room where his mother was born.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided support for rebuilding roads and other infrastructure. But a recent decision to deny residents individual assistance, which would have helped with temporary housing, has provoked ire when so many coastal communities received funds after hurricanes such as Sandy in 2012.

FEMA said it provides the funding only when state and local resources are overwhelmed.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has signaled his commitment to rebuilding. But the islanders’ sense of injustice reflects a broad dilemma, according to Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University — a lack of clarity about which parts of the nation’s threatened shoreline can and should be protected.

“There is no clear national plan,” said Young, so FEMA’s decision “comes across as arbitrary.”

While Young does not advocate mass migration, wetter storms are raising questions about using taxpayer money to rebuild coastal communities.

“At some point, there is going to be a breaking point,” he said, “when the public sector is either not going to want or to be able to afford to accept the risk.”

Meanwhile, the future of the Outer Banks is made more precarious by development, said Stanley Riggs, who devoted his career at East Carolina University to studying the state’s 10,000-mile coastline.

“We’re loving these islands to death,” Riggs said, constructing roads and bridges to bring in tourists and blocking the natural flow of tides and storms that over millennia have shaped the 175-mile string of shifting sand banks.

What remains of Highway 12 is piled up to be hauled away after flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
What remains of Highway 12 is piled up to be hauled away after flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

Riggs served on a state advisory panel that in 2010 predicted more than three feet of sea-level rise by 2100, prompting a backlash from lawmakers skeptical of climate change and developers.  A compromise bill, based on a shorter timeline, passed in 2012, even as the jeopardy has become clearer here: The coastline of Cape Hatteras, north of Ocracoke, is eroding rapidly, retreating by more than a mile since Hurricane Isabel in 2003; to the south, once-vibrant Portsmouth is a ghost town.

Sitting outside the makeshift classrooms, middle school science teacher Patricia Piland described how climate science has become real for her eighth-graders. Their curriculum this semester focuses on the hydrosphere, but she has moderated her message for students shell shocked by their narrow escape.

“One girl said, ‘So, we’re screwed.’ ” Piland recalled. “I told them I believe we can plan for sea-level rise.” Doing so, she said, will require working with nature rather than responding to the demands of developers.

Enrollment at the school has dropped from 174 to 157 since the storm, and Brooks, the post office head, is seeing the community fray slightly as families file change-of-address forms. “There will be more,” she predicted, weeping as she recalled the trauma of being trapped by rising water.

Some people who lost their jobs took off quickly. Others are still deciding. Tom Parker, 66, who moved here 20 years ago, wiped away tears as he sat under the live oak tree where he has made a steady income charging tourists $1 to have their photo taken among its gnarled branches.

“I’m tired of having this constant risk of having it all destroyed,” he said.

But for many people who come here to wait tables or clean motel rooms, Ocracoke remains a place of opportunity, not retreat. The storm was a setback for Idalid Maldonado, a seasonal worker already facing problems this year with her visa, but she hopes it’s only a temporary one.

She set down the wheelbarrow she has been using to lug the salt-stained contents out of guest rooms to ponder whether she will be back next summer.

“I don’t know,” Maldonado said. “I don’t know.”

About one-third of Ocracoke’s population is Latino, many of whom came like Maldonado to serve summer visitors and then were seduced by the gentle year-round rhythm of island life where children can roam free.

“We talked about moving, but here, it’s a special place,” said Gloria Benitez-Perez, whose husband is in the construction business and built their house on stilts. “We are going to be fine.”

A pile of debris grows in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
A pile of debris grows in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Local artists painted and displayed signs to boost morale in Ocracoke after Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Local artists painted and displayed signs to boost morale in Ocracoke after Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

But, like the shipwrecks that surface after storms, existing problems gained prominence following Dorian’s blow. Stanley “Chip” Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge, named after the fearsome buccaneer who was beheaded here, said there has been no full accounting of Dorian’s damage and of the impact on people living in sheds and trailers who are “the backbone of our service workforce.”

He advocates more building, not less, to support the “shadow economy” on which Ocracoke — and impoverished Hyde County — depend.

“What the island needs is affordable housing,” Stevens said.

Aid workers, meanwhile, comment on the extraordinary challenges of offshore construction. Every box of nails, each bottle of bleach and all the two-by-fours have to be driven out through low-lying country before being loaded for the almost three-hour ride across the Sound. Contractors face a round-trip commute of six hours or more, or they have to find a place to stay.

There is another, shorter, route out of Ocracoke.

North of the village, past the discarded cars and the corroded appliances, Highway 12 leads through the National Park’s windswept dunes to an isolated ferry terminal.

Dorian chewed up the tarmac. Only four-wheel drives are allowed to make the trip, tucking in behind a tow truck that leads over rutted, chassis-scraping sand to the waiting Hatteras ferry.

Once the road is passable — perhaps by late November — it will provide a lifeline. But it won’t restore normalcy or eliminate the sense that this little paradise is in limbo.

“The hard part hasn’t started yet,” said Baker, the island doctor, who is monitoring patients’ stress at the metal mobile clinic shipped in to replace her flooded facility. The hurricane that pummeled the Bahamas had reduced to a Category 1 by the time it swamped Ocracoke, she said.

“There’s a whole new level of fear for those who stay.”

Erin Baker, the only doctor in the community of 1,000, in front of her temporary clinic. Her facility was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Erin Baker, the only doctor in the community of 1,000, in front of her temporary clinic. Her facility was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
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    FEMA REPORT: Ensuring Rail Preparedness for Hazardous Materials Incidents

    Public document from FEMA
    [Editor: The seven recommendations appear on pages 4-7.  Pages 8-10 detail some interesting new technologies in responding to HAZMAT emergencies.  – RS]

    Background:

    US Department of Homeland Security - Federal Emergency Management AgencyThe RESPONSE Act of 2016 directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to establish the Railroad Emergency Services Preparedness, Operational Needs, and Safety Evaluation (RESPONSE) Subcommittee… to provide recommendations for improving emergency responder training and resource allocation for HAZMAT incidents involving railroads.

    Final Report And Recommendations

    Click to open the REPORT

    The final reportEnsuring Rail Preparedness: Improving Responder Training and Resource Allocation for Rail Hazardous Materials Incidents, contains seven recommendations that the NAC approved, based on proposed recommendations submitted by the RESPONSE Subcommittee.

     

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      FEMA Flood Maps: Valero oil train risks likely greater than previously known

      Benicia Industrial Park in high risk flood zone

      By Roger Straw, Benicia Independent, 6/12/15
      FEMA map - Benicia Industrial Park - Panel_634_PORTRAIT(1200)
      Click on map to enlarge

      On June 8, the City of Benicia notified residents and businesses that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has released a new set of flood hazard maps for Solano County. These maps delineate areas that are at risk for coastal flooding as identified through the San Francisco Bay Area Coastal Study. The new maps are released for public review for a 90-day appeal period ending September 7, 2015.

      The map above shows Benicia’s Industrial Park, with Lake Herman at the top.  This FEMA map shows utter vulnerability of the area proposed for Valero’s rail terminal off-loading racks.

      It is likely these maps will add yet another layer of risk to Valero’s proposal.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the City’s consultants will need even more time to weigh these risks before releasing the revised Draft Environmental Impact Report.  The report is currently scheduled for release on August 31, 2015.

      FULL SIZE COPY OF THE IMAGE ABOVE

      CITY OF BENICIA – 23-PAGE SUMMARY

      …MORE ON THE CITY WEBSITE

      THE BENICIA HERALD: Report on city’s climate change vulnerability calls for action

      City Media Release

      June 8, 2015

      The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has released preliminary flood hazard maps also known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) for Solano County. These maps delineate areas that are at risk for coastal flooding as identified through the San Francisco Bay Area Coastal Study. The new maps are released for public review for a 90-day appeal period ending September 7, 2015. The maps are expected to become effective in summer, 2016.

      Flood hazard maps indicate whether properties are in areas of high, moderate or low flood risk. In reviewing the preliminary maps, which are not yet adopted, many property owners may find that their risk is higher or lower than the current maps indicate. While the preliminary flood maps provide improved accuracy about flood risks based upon past data and modeling for future flood events, they do not project or account for potential impacts associated with climate change and sea level rise.

      Flooding is the most common disaster in the United States. Property owners in a high-risk flood zone are required to have flood insurance if they hold a mortgage that is secured by loans from federally regulated or insured lenders. Additionally, homeowners, renters and business owners are encouraged to look at the preliminary Flood Insurance Rate Maps to become familiar with flood risks in their community. These flood maps can help individuals and businesses make informed decisions about flood insurance options and flood protection measures.

      The new maps are preliminary and have not yet been officially adopted. The City of Benicia encourages residents and business owners to review the preliminary maps to learn about local flood risks and identify any concerns or questions about the information provided.  A public comment and appeal period will be opening on June 10, 2015 where property owners will be able to submit comments and appeals to FEMA regarding the maps’ accuracy. Following the appeal period, FEMA staff will prepare final maps, which are expected to become effective in summer, 2016. When the maps become effective, any related new insurance and floodplain management requirements will take effect.

      Owners of affected properties will be notified by a letter sent to the current owner of record. Affected property owners and interested others are invited to attend an open house meeting on July 8, 2015 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Liberty High School Gymnasium, 350 East K Street. Staff from FEMA and the City of Benicia will be on hand to provide information and answer questions. To learn more, contact the City of Benicia at 707-746-4240.

      The preliminary flood maps are available for viewing in the Community Development and Public Works Departments, located at 250 East L Street in Benicia. The City offices are open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. noon and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Maps are also available to view on the City of Benicia’s website by selecting the yellow “Flood Maps” tab on the left-hand side of the homepage http://www.ci.benicia.ca.us or at the Benicia Public Library, 150 East L Street, during the library’s regular hours of operation, Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m.

      To obtain information from FEMA directly, visit http://www.fema.gov/preliminaryfloodhaza…, call 877-FEMA-MAP (877-336-2627) or email FEMAMapSpecialist@riskmapcds.com.

      CONTACT: Graham Wadsworth
      Public Works Director/City Engineer
      (707) 746-4240

      ###

       

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        Wall Street Journal: Federal Worst Case Urban Disaster Planning for Oil Trains

        Repost from The Wall Street Journal

        Disaster Plans for Oil Trains

        Federal officials devise scenario involving a train explosion to prepare officials for the worst

        By Russell Gold,  April 13, 2015 7:54 p.m. ET
        Oil trains traverse Jersey City, N.J., where officials are concerned about the potential for a spill. Photo: Joe Jackson/The Wall Street Journal

        Imagine a mile-long train transporting crude oil derailing on an elevated track in Jersey City, N.J., across the street from senior citizen housing and 2 miles from the mouth of the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan.

        The oil ignites, creating an intense explosion and a 300-foot fireball. The blast kills 87 people right away, and sends 500 more to the hospital with serious injuries. More than a dozen buildings are destroyed. A plume of thick black smoke spreads north to New York’s Westchester County.

        This fictional—but, experts say, plausible—scenario was developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in one of the first efforts by the U.S. government to map out what an oil-train accident might look like in an urban area. Agency officials unveiled it as part of an exercise last month to help local firefighters and emergency workers prepare for the kind of crude-by-rail accident that until now has occurred mostly in rural locations.

        “Our job is to design scenarios that push us to the limit, and very often push us to the point of failure so that we can identify where we need to improve,” said FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre. He said a second planning exercise is scheduled in June in a suburban area of Wisconsin.

        WSJ-Widespread_Damage

        Jersey City’s mayor, Steven Fulop, said the drill showed participants that they need to improve regional communication to cope with an oil-train accident.

        “It would be a catastrophic situation for any urban area and Jersey City is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire country,” he said.

        Railroad records show that about 20 oil trains a week pass through the county that contains Jersey City, and Mr. Fulop said the trains use the elevated track studied in the FEMA exercise. Even more trains hauling crude pass through other cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

        Rail shipments of oil have expanded to almost 374 million barrels last year from 20 million barrels in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although low crude prices and safety issues have recently led to small declines in such traffic, trains carrying volatile oil from North Dakota and the Rocky Mountains continue to rumble toward refiners on the East, West and Gulf Coasts.

        Edgardo Correa, of Jersey City, N.J., beneath railroad tracks that pass by his home. Photo: Joe Jackson/The Wall Street Journal

        Several oil-train derailments have produced huge fireballs, including two in March in rural Illinois and Ontario. In 2013, a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed late at night in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

        Regulators worry more about a serious accident in a densely populated area. “The derailment scenario FEMA developed is a very real possibility and a very real concern,” said Susan Lagana, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. She said her agency was considering emergency orders to address such risks.

        Firefighters at the FEMA workshop in Jersey City discussed the difficulty of battling a crude-oil fire, which can be explosive and hard to extinguish. One problem: limited supplies of the special foam required to smother the flames.

        Jordan Zaretsky, a fire battalion chief in nearby Teaneck, N.J., who attended the presentation, said the scale of such an accident was sobering. “This isn’t a structural fire that we can knock down in an hour or two,” he said. “This is something we’d be dealing with for days.”

        Ideas discussed at the workshop included devising a system to allow local officials to know when an oil train was passing through, developing public-service messages to tell residents what to do in case of a derailment and providing more firefighters with specialized training.

        There have been many calls for changes to how crude oil is handled on the railroads, including new speed limits for trains and requirements to treat the crude oil to make it less volatile.

        Earlier this month, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board urged the rail industry and federal regulators to move more swiftly to replace existing tank cars with ones that would better resist rupturing and fire.

        A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for oil producers, said the companies are committed to “greater efforts to prevent derailments through track maintenance and repair, upgrades to the tank car fleet, and giving first responders the knowledge and tools they need.”

        The Association of American Railroads recognizes that “more has to be done to further advance the safe movement of this product,” a spokesman said.

        FEMA chose for the location of the derailment scenario a stretch of track adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike and about a mile from downtown Jersey City. One side of the track is industrial and includes an electric substation. The other side is residential.

        Edgardo Correa, a 59-year-old retired sanitation worker, lives in a house close to the tracks in Jersey City. He said he was aware that trains full of crude pass by his home. “It’s an alarming thing,” he said.

        —Joe Jackson contributed to this article.
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