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Joseph George Martin, Jr: October 11, 1943 – September 9, 2012

Pop Pop Dad Jeff Joseph

Three generations of Martin men following my Grandmother’s funeral, Philadelphia, 1999 (from left to right): our grandfather Joseph G. Martin, Sr; our father Joseph G. Martin, Jr.; my brother Jeff Martin; and me. Now only me and my brother are left….

Me and Dad at my graduation from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University-San Marcos) in 1993

Me and Dad at my graduation from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University-San Marcos) in 1993.

High School football star, Sharon Hill, Pensylvania

High School football star, Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania

My Father You Never Met

Today’s blog will have little to do with disasters or disaster research. Disaster Gestalt will return to regularly scheduled broadcasting tomorrow….

It was two years ago today that Joseph George Martin Jr., our  father, died suddenly in his sleep.  I remember that Sunday morning all too well as I had barely woken up when a glance at my phone jarred my senses.  There are some things that immediately telegraph that you are about to find out awful news.  Two policemen knocking on your door in the middle of the night would be one such event. Two voice mails and two text messages from my mother and brother asking me to call them as soon as I received  the message, at 8am on a Sunday morning, also falls into that category. Someone was dead or dying. And in some deep recess of my heart I already knew it was Dad.

So today on this second anniversary, I want to take a moment to write something about him, not for you my blog readers, but for my nieces and nephews-his grandchildren, and future great-grandchildren, who may one day read this.  As I anticipate this will be a bit too long for Facebook, and I am the one around here that pays the bills for this site, I just figured I will write something here.

My Dearest Alex, Ashley, Virginia, and Patrick:

Two of you are old enough to have many memories of my father/your grandfather,  which, if we are honest, made you not like him very much and tended to make you want to avoid seeing him if at all possible.  Two of you are probably too young to remember much of your grandfather.  It would be the usual thing for me to say I wished you had all known the younger rather than older version of my Dad.  But that is not what I want to say.  The increasingly reclusive, bitter, resentful and at times unpleasant man that was my father, more or less, in the final years of his life was every much a part of who he was as were the earlier years.  But it was not ALL of who he was, and I hope you never forget that fact when you speak about him, especially if you should ever speak less than well of him, or wish that he had been different than he was.

My father was often not an easy man to understand.  He did not show affection easily or without awkwardness.  Though he would talk about politics, sports, history, and such topics with ease …he almost never bared his soul and let his vulnerabilities show: there were not many “Father-Son” talks that I can recall.  But he was a father who played many a game of catch with us, whether football of baseball.  When I was in second and third grades I played baseball and  football. He did his best to coach my skills up…but I was never given the athletic gifts he and his brother had that made them excel in football, baseball, and I also believe track.  He must have sometimes wondered if maybe the son who was suppose to share his name and his father’s name, must have been accidentally switched at the hospital.  I was physically awkward, artistically talented, and intellectual. Becoming captain of the high school football team would never be a part of my future. But he tried to help improve my playing as best he could.  Mercifully I broke my arm in an unrelated incident at school early in the football season and remained sidelined in a cast for the rest of our games. I should also mention that on the day I broke my arm he immediately left Martin Bros. Camera Store, which he and Uncle Ed ran in north Dallas, to come pick me up in Plano in that red 1972 (?) Buick Centurion Convertible with the “Mafia Staff Car” license plate frame.  He then drove 50 miles to my  pediatrician’s office in Oak Cliff.

Speaking of the Buick, his pride and joy, I can remember the unfortunate bird that tried to dodge past the front that Buick on one of our summer driving adventures to visit his parents in Philadelphia: if only you could have seen the car pulled over to the side of the road with Dad removing large bird pieces and feathers from the grill and radiator. I  remember sitting in the front seat of the Buick when he would go to the bank drive-through to make the camera store’s deposits, and flirt with Mary..  I seem to recall that brother Jeff may actually have even driven that Buick once…though maybe I am wrong.  I certainly never got to drive it. He and Uncle Ed would take us to Texas Ranger games, and he always took his old red baseball glove in case a foul ball came near. And every time the Dallas Cowboys played the Philadelphia Eagles, you knew he had a bet going with Carl Hathaway, who owned the eponymous furniture store next door.  My first real job would be at Hathaway’s Furniture, and that first summer I would go into work and come home with Dad in his 74 Mustang Mach 1.  Once Dad felt my driving skills were such that I wasn’t going to get us both killed, he started letting me drive that Mach 1 down Central Expressway during rush hour.

And then there was that time, when we were very young, that your grandfather and his father had me and Jeff terrified that the Mattress Police were on their way to arrest us for unlawfully removing a mattress tag.  We were at Uncle Ed’s house in Carrollton (Ed even had a reel to reel stereo system…it was the 1970s after all….). I seem to recall at some point someone making a “woo-woooooo”  police car sound for added affect….I might be wrong on that detail- it was many years ago. I do believe I was in tears and it was Dad’s mom who finally put an end to the shenanigans. Yes,  once upon a time your grandfather smiled, laughed,  and had a sense of humor.

We ate submarine sandwiches and watched Monday Night Football.  We ate as a family. We had fish sticks on Friday nights. And you were not allowed to leave the dinner table until you cleaned your plate.

Sometimes there were rare moments of unexpected vulnerability: Dad asking after the closing of the camera store and the filing of bankruptcy if we thought he was a failure; telling me during a period when I struggled with depression and darkness that if anything ever happened to me he wouldn’t know what to do. He also had his love for animals, and if any animal managed to establish a homestead in the bushes or the woodpile, it was destined to eventually require sheltering in the  garage (“we wouldn’t want it freezing outside”) for a time before eventually becoming part of the pet family.  Our dog Lady simply appeared at our front door one Saturday morning and refused to leave. Years later I was with Dad when Lady collapsed in the kitchen from a pulmonary embolism and we rushed her to the vet for a second time that night. Your grandfather cried inconsolably when the vet told him “your doggy is gone.”

These memories and moments are but a few among thousands that  tell his story…they are now all that we have to keep his life in our hearts…..please try to learn and remember some of these anecdotes and stories before they are lost in time.  He certainly had his faults, maybe more, maybe less…who can say?  He even had a way of sounding angry or mad even if he wasn’t.  I remember when I was in college Dad calling and leaving a message on the answering machine in me and my best friend Randy’s dorm room.  Randy was there when I played the message, and he said, “Man, your Dad sounds pissed!” “No, he always sounds like that.” I replied.

Life didn’t turn out the way Dad hoped it would,  and over time the disappointments, resentments, sadness, depression, and medical issues took their toll.  Eventually it seemed he became a man who if you told him you just won the lottery, he likely would have just shook his head, grimaced, and spent the next 25 minutes telling you how bad it was to win the lottery. You could say that he bears responsibility for who he ultimately became…he could have tried harder and gave up too easily…and think what a shame it is that he wasn’t happier. I don’t know that much good comes from thinking like that: what is done is done, and “it is what it is.” I think it is only fools and the naive who  think  you can get through this life without having a collection of words that should have been said but left unsaid; wrongs left and never made right; hurts left unhealed; and slights that never received pardon.

I don’t think it was the case that he was unaware of what was happening to him….I think he just didn’t know how to stop it from happening.  And we didn’t know what to do to help pull him from the shell that was slowly enveloping him–though Jeff probably tried the most things..maybe there was nothing that could be done.  There is one more of his odd moments of insight and vulnerability I remember well.  Grandmom died in 1999, and I flew to Philadelphia  from England to be there for her funeral and stay a few days.  It was the first time in about four years I had seen Dad and even longer since I had seen Pop Pop.  Dad starts telling me one day how Pop Pop hasn’t spoken in a couple of years to his next door neighbors (it was a row house so they shared a common porch) of 30-40 years because of a disagreement involving shoveling snow. We had known the family next door since we were kids and Pop Pop told us now not to talk to them. Out of the blue, Dad tells me that he is worried that he might one day become like that…the way Pop Pop appeared to have become.  That he ultimately could not stop himself from becoming like that in the years that would follow–I would not judge him too harshly for that.

I believe our lives have trajectories, momentum, and inertia.  In the movie The Natural, Glenn Close’s character says, “I believe we have two lives: the life we learn with, and the life we live with afterwards.” When you are young it is much easier to alter that trajectory, change the path.  But as life and its experiences are continuously and ceaselessly added,  the momentum and inertia of  life slowly builds.  I think your grandfather would have phrased it slightly differently: “The shit starts to stick.” Eventually your life is no longer like a bicycle….it is a train that every day grows longer, every day goes faster. It becomes harder and harder to change the trajectory of your life, as well as the ultimate destination where that trajectory ends.  Even as you live in the present, your past has been constantly shaping your future.  If you don’t understand what I am saying at this moment in your life….wait until you are in your 30s or 40s then read this again.  I promise it will make more sense. Life, even for the most fortunate people, is not easy.  Though we saw him as our father, and you saw him as grandfather…..he was still a man, imperfect and all too human.

I think to truly love someone is to love them with their imperfections, not in spite of them. To love is also to forgive and sometimes if necessary, tolerate flaws and imperfections.  It means accepting who they are rather than focusing on who they are not. It may mean loving when someone is not acting particularly lovable. In loving and forgiving in this way, we acknowledge that we ourselves are flawed, imperfect creatures, worthy of forgiveness.  I was not the best son I could of been to Dad, and how can I expect forgiveness for any of my faults if I do not forgive whatever flaws Dad may have had.  That is why I believe showing our love to Dad means remembering and celebrating him, warts and all. At the end of the day I would rather have that flawed, imperfect, man around even if he was being a miserable son-of -a -bitch than to know he really is gone and we will never see or talk with him again in this life.

But that imperfect man did a pretty good job of raising me, Jeff and Sheryl, whom you would later know as either your father or your mother.  Dad made sure we never wanted for anything important (though if you asked him to bring home some batteries from the camera store he might forget once or twice and you might need to remind him before he finally brought them home). He expected the best of us in everything we did (“Don’t do anything half-assed”  he would tell me when I would help out at the camera store on Saturdays, cleaning and dusting the display cases for $5). He made sure we went to school and expected us  to make the grades we were capable of (and if you said you were too sick to go to school you had better have been near death….at age 17 I developed pneumonia after battling bronchitis for several months: one morning I was getting ready for school and started coughing up small amounts of blood.  I calmly called out “Dad, I don’t think I will be going to school today,” knowing what his initial reaction would be.  He came quickly from his room mumbling as if he might be annoyed and thinking “Oh, what is it now!”…….but as soon as he saw the blood in my sink his manner completely changed and he sent me straight back to bed and called the doctor to get me in that afternoon).

If you think my sister Sheryl is a pretty cool mom, and that my brother Jeff is a pretty cool dad…you should probably thank your grandfather for having played a role in that: it does not matter whether the lessons we learned were positive or negative; or whether they taught us ways we wanted to be like him or wanted not to be like him: HE taught us those lessons. In his way, he helped us find our path in this world.  After he died our stepmother gave us something he once wrote, expressing his uncertainty and doubts about whether he had been as good a father as he could have been, but he wanted each of his children to know how proud he was, and that he loved us very much.   He was a responsible man. He paid his bills, he paid his taxes, and he tried to take care of his debts. He was a man that never robbed, stole, cheated, or intentionally tried to inflict harm on others, nor did I ever see him take advantage of those weaker than him.  He called his parents almost ever Sunday night. His bark was ultimately much worse than his bite (it was when something you did made him very quiet that you knew you were really in trouble, or that you had deeply hurt him).

And I am sure that even to the last of his days, he would have gladly sacrificed his own life if that is what it required, to save the life of me, my brother, my sister, and you, his grandchildren….even if he might have grumbled or complained a little (…or a lot) while doing so…

Everyone always remembers the scene at the end of  Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner plays catch with his long-dead father.  But it isn’t just the playing catch that is so important in that scene- it is the fact that he gets to see and appreciate his father as the young man he never knew, whose life and dreams still lay ahead, not behind.  If you can’t do it now, I hope one day you are able to see and feel your grandfather in your mind’s eye as he is in his old football picture….not because you are trying to forget the man he was at other points in his life, but rather because you understand that picture is not just some old photograph: it is the image of a young man that was once just as real as you are right now reading this.  He had hopes and dreams and he probably thought life went on forever.  That young man was our Dad.  He was your grandfather.  I hope you will want to know and remember him, and one day tell your own children about his life.

I myself would have liked to have met him and played a game of catch with the football.

Dad, I hope you liked how I managed to work in references to The Natural and Field of Dreams…I thought you might appreciate that.  I love and miss you very much. Rest well.

Joseph III

I’m Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!!!!!

After some delay, here is the cover of my thesis, reformatted and typeset for ebook publication by Dissertation.com.

After some delay, here is the cover of my thesis, reformatted and typeset for ebook publication by Dissertation.com.  I am awaiting the final proof  to approve….


Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated…..it was more of a hibernation.

Last year was very eventful, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the not so good.  After a fantastic summer graduating and presenting at the Natural Hazards Workshop, I found it somewhat difficult to keep my feet to the fire…and I began to feel I was running out of ideas to write about, or that maybe my thesis wasn’t nearly as interesting or groundbreaking as I had imagined. My dentist did not help matters, as he pulled all 26 of my remaining teeth  in late September (in fairness, I had already known for over  a year it needed to be done due to advanced periodontal disease and decay, but tried to keep put it off for as long as possible ….).   This was followed by some time adjusting to life with the full dentures I will have until one day I can perhaps afford implants.  Things were also not helped by a change of internet service which inadvertently caused the loss of the three email addresses I used most  over the past three or so years for personal, academic, and other important correspondence. 

I knew I would return to academic matters eventually, just did not know when.

About 8 weeks ago I began to notice the urge rising in me to acquire new Web of Science data….and I began thinking maybe I should enroll in PhD courses at Capella to occupy me while investigating the possibility of entering the Jacksonville State University program in Fall 2015, or earlier if possible.  About 6 weeks ago I went to the UT Dallas library and downloaded the WoS output of articles on disasters and emergency management published in 2013 (about 5000) and started to see what the year looked like through the lens of the latest version of CiteSpace: CiteSpace III.  I also turned 46 years old…and decided I would like to earn my PhD before I turn 50,  or before World War III starts (which lately seems not such a far-fetched thing to worry about….). I also followed up and resubmitted the thesis to Dissertation.com as they had once said they would publish it but never went further than that……

Wait…anyone who still reads my blog probably does not want to know every detail….so let me just give the following status report as of this evening:

1) Tomorrow I begin my first PhD course through Capella University, begin two more in October, and attend my first PhD Colloquium in Orlando, FL at the end of December.

2) I am awaiting the final publication proof of my Thesis, which I completely reformatted and typeset for ebook publication through Dissertation.com.

3) I am preparing an article on the use and application of overlay mapping as a disciplinary visualization tool within Emergency and Disaster Management, using the data for 2013 I recently gathered.  I plan to start my academic publication career by submitting the article to PLOS Currents: Disasters when complete. Hopefully it will be good enough to be accepted.

4) Disastergestalt.com is alive again and open for business.

I would also like to take a moment and thank Dr. Eric Best at JSU for taking the time recently to speak to me, offer me some useful advice, and much appreciated encouragement.

And can everyone please just help keep the world sane enough for at least three (but I would prefer six ) years so I can get this PhD done before World War III starts….it would be appreciated.



















Gamma-Ray Bursts and the Patron Saints of Disaster Studies and Sciences

Artist's conception of what a gamma-ray burst might look like as it erupts from the collapsing core of a once-massive star...(http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2003/0618rosettaburst.html)

Artist’s conception of what a gamma-ray burst might look like as it erupts from the collapsing core of a once-massive star…the two jets erupting along a single plane is the burst.  Even a burst that lasts only a second or so releases more energy in that time than our own sun will release in its entire lifetime.(http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2003/0618rosettaburst.html)

The Patron Saints of Emergency and Disaster Management: Sisyphus, doomed to forever fail in his efforts to reach the top with his boulder; Cassandra, who was given the gift of perfect prophecy but cursed to never be believed; and Charlie Brown, ever hopeful but forever thwarted from football-kicking success.

The Patron Saints of Disaster Studies and Sciences: Sisyphus, doomed to forever fail in his efforts to reach the top with his boulder; Cassandra, who was given the gift of perfect prophecy but cursed to never be believed; and Charlie Brown, ever hopeful but forever thwarted from football-kicking success.

Today I am talking about gamma ray bursts and patron saints of the field.  There is a connection.  I promise.

If you have followed my blog for awhile, you might have noticed my fascination with gamma-ray bursts, one of my favorite, though statistically unlikely, scenarios for wholesale planetary destruction. The phenomenon of the gamma-ray burst fascinates me because of how such an event, which travels at near the speed of light,  plays with our concepts of what is the present and what is the past.  It is similar to the same amazement when I ponder the idea that when I am looking at the sun, I am not seeing it as it is now, but rather as it was approximately eight minutes ago.  

If the Earth were to be destroyed by a burst tomorrow, then that burst would have likely been travelling towards us for 500-5,000 years since it was first emitted from a dying star’s core  final collapse into a black hole or neutron star.  Yet the moment we first see the light of the burst is not only our first awareness that a gamma-ray burst has occurred, it is also our final moments of existence: a bit like someone being killed today by a bullet fired 50 years ago from the other side of the world.

I don’t bring up the topic of gamma-ray bursts today because I felt the need to explain my curious fascination with them.  In fact, I was minding my own business when  the topic recently came looking for me in two different contexts.

About three weeks ago Dr. Ilan Kelman was kind enough to visit my blog and offer a thoughtful reply to my criticism of the frequently expressed idea that there are really no  “natural” disasters, which Dr. Kelman extends to include the idea that there are also no  “natural” hazards either.  The gamma-ray burst figures rather prominently in the discussion as possible proof that not all hazards/disasters are caused/influenced by the decisions of humans.  Last week I was revisiting the topic of the bursts in writing a reply to Dr. Kelman’s comments.

That I should be revisiting the topic of gamma-ray bursts last week was made all the more amusing by the fact that only a few days before, on November 21st, scientists revealed that on April 27th of this year, Earth was hit by a gamma-ray burst.  And this was no ordinary burst.  Satellites and researchers around the world collected data on the brightest and most energetic gamma-ray burst ever discovered.  The burst bombarded our planet for an unprecedented twenty hours (most bursts last only fractions of a second to several minutes).  Based on calculations completed since the event, astrophysicists believe the burst to be the largest single release of energy since the Big Bang.

“Well, why are we still here, then?” I hear you wondering.  Lucky for us, this particular burst originated from a galaxy in the neighborhood of the constellation Leo approximately 3.6 billion light years away, 3.6 billion years ago.  Naturally, having traveled such a distance over the course of 3.6 billion years, the burst was far too tired by the time it arrived on April 27th to cause much trouble for  our atmosphere.  Had the same burst originated from within our own galaxy, there would have been no May this year….nor June, July, August, etc.,…ever again. April 2013 would most likely have been the last month in the history of a habitable Earth.

This brings me to what gamma ray bursts have to do with my suggestions for the field’s patron saints….

During a session on resiliency at the Hazards Workshop in July, Claire Rubin said she felt she was more pessimistic than other panelists regarding how much disaster resiliency we can really achieve in the near future.  I don’t think she was being pessimistic at all…I think she was being realistic.  I bring up the topic of gamma-ray bursts because it reminds me of a simple fact: time is always against us.  Yet, in our preparations and planning for disasters, we always seem to believe we have another day, another week, or even a few more years to get things right.  But, in terms of disasters, there will never be enough time, or resources, or money, to get things right.  There are just too many hazards, too many possible disasters.  We will always be behind the curve….Even if we think we have planned well for events we believe are probable, it will be one of the less probable events (an event we most certainly would have gotten around to better preparing for, if only we had more time and money…) that will catch us off guard.  

We play the lotto in reverse: everyday we don’t hit the jackpot is a win.  Most of the time, fortunately, probability says we won’t hit the disaster jackpot.  Eventually we will.  

My suggestions for patron saints are meant to remind us that the work of Disaster Studies and Sciences is without end.  The prevention of all disasters, on the whole, may well be largely futile.  Despite our best efforts, disasters, catastrophes, and cataclysms are likely to continue until the end of the human race.  But the attempt, however futile,  to prevent these events, and the suffering they cause,  is also necessary, noble, and very human.

Using the National Severe Storms Laboratory’s WDSS-II for Real-Time Tornado Path Tracking

Archive data from the NSSL's Warning Decision Support System-Integrated Information (WDSS-II) showing storm rotation tracks of rotating supercells across the Southeast on April 27, 2011

Archive data from the NSSL’s Warning Decision Support System-Integrated Information (WDSS-II) showing storm rotation tracks of rotating supercells across the eastern one-third of the U.S. on April 27, 2011, day 3 of the historic April 25th-28th Super Outbreak.  These are not the tornado tracks themselves, but rotation signatures of the parent storms. In real-time, these tracks can be used to roughly estimate tornado paths–any tornado  paths will run parallel and near to the rotation tracks.  

I have been very fortunate in my work with the Red Cross to have worked under individuals willing to embrace technology and explore new techniques for improving the difficult task of Disaster Assessment.  I have learned much from them.

On my first national deployment in 2011, which started out as a tornado disaster relief operation, and eventually transitioned into a flood relief operation, I had the pleasure to work under Lou Fuentes, a DA Manager from Illinois.  Lou, a veteran of Vietnam where he was a Huey door gunner, is no spring chicken (who says innovation and technological integration belong only to the young?).  He introduced me to the USGS stream gauges and how to incorporate them into Google Maps and Google Earth.  Lou would also introduce me to the idea of using Google Maps to build easily shared situation maps. Lou would later introduce me to Robert Althauser and the group of volunteers who would become the fledgling Red Cross Virtual Disaster Assessment Team (VDAT).

Through VDAT I have had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, Steve Klapp, a humorous and quietly brilliant Red Cross Manager out of Norman, Oklahoma.  Steve introduced me about two years ago to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) and its Warning Decision Support System-Integrated Information (WDSS-II), which provides a variety of real-time and archive severe storm Doppler radar data (both basic data and experimental measures) that can be displayed in Google Earth.  Through his use of real-time storm rotation and low level shear data, Steve has nearly perfected the process of estimating tornado paths as they happen, something that I am still learning (the use of the low level shear in this way is slightly different than ongoing work by NSSL and other meteorologists to find algorithms that use 0-2 km az shear to predict tornado formation- an example of this work can be found here).

I am not going to attempt to explain here how the path mapping is done, or how it can be done from almost any computer with an internet connection.  No, my intention today is simply to share some of the work Steve has done, and show some of what is possible in real-time Disaster Assessment…perhaps things, like me, you previously had no idea existed.

Here are the storm rotation tracks from the April 3, 2012 DFW Tornado Outbreak:

Storm rotation tracks

The white lines are Steve’s initial tornado path estimates, sent to me within an hour or so of the last tornado.  The red lines are the NWS’s  paths as found during damage surveys over the course of several days.  The storm rotation tracks and tornado paths do not correlate 1:1, nor are they expected to. It does, however, provide a rapid  and reasonably accurate snapshot of locations where attention should be focused.  Notice that almost all of the errors are false positives (rotation track but no tornado) which tells you that you are unlikely to find a tornado or significant damage somewhere there is no storm rotation track:

Combined Capture

Steve was also very busy this past May. Here are some images of the May 31st El Reno tornado as seen using WDSS-II’s real-time 30 minute maximum low level shear, and relative wind velocity data.  The white area in the first image indicates maximum low-level shear: the tornado’s current location.  The yellow pushpins show previous locations of maximum low-level shear.  Taken together, the pushpins show the path. The second two images are the relative velocity Doppler data…Steve told me he wasn’t sure at first he believed what he was seeing, so he confirmed it using the relative velocity– what he was seeing was an area of rotation near the ground (0-2 km) at least two miles wide.  He was, in fact, accurately capturing the tornado, which would eventually reach a record 2.6 mile width.

El Reno 1

El Reno 2

El Reno 3

This image shows final results: storm rotation track (wide white line); Steve’s preliminary track (blue line) and confidence intervals (narrow white lines); NWS preliminary track (red line)  

11-21-2013 12-53-38 AM

Here is the final path from NWS Norman:


What I have shown  is only a small sampling of the tornadoes Steve for which has used this method, which includes: 2011 Joplin tornado; 2013 Moore Tornado; November 17, 2013 Outbreak.

Considering that these tracks are generated within minutes to hours of the actual event, I would say Steve is on to something. Such accurate information so quickly can make for better impact assessment, damage assessment, as well as overall response planning.

If You Were Paying Attention to the Storm Prediction Center, the November 17th Tornado Outbreak Was No Surprise

If you are not familiar with the useful products of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC), the November 17th tornado outbreak may have caught you by surprise.  It shouldn’t have.  Here is an overview showing how the outbreak was forecast, using SPC products that are publicly available….

2:30 am (08:30 UTC) Friday,  September 15th, 2013: SPC issues its Day 3 Outlook (covering Sunday Sept 17th) showing a slight risk (15-30% probability of severe storms within 25 miles of any point in the area) over the upper midwest.  The appearance of Slight Risk area 48+ hours in advance should raise red flags that something big is possibly brewing

Sept 15 2013 230am

11:30 am (17:30 UTC) Saturday,  September 16th, 2013: SPC issues its Day 2 Outlook  showing the risk has now increased to Moderate (30-45% probability of severe storms within 25 miles of any point in the area) with a risk (10% or greater) for significant severe weather, which includes torndoes EF2 or stronger (the hatched area)….Moderate Risk areas on Day 2 Outlooks frequently become High Risk areas on Day 1, usually indicating a significant severe weather outbreak is imminent…

Sept 16 2013 1130am

11:56 pm,  September 16th, 2013 (05:56 UTC September 17th): SPC issues its Day 1 Outlook (which covers Sunday because Outlooks are dated and timed according to UTC/GMT/Zulu time) shows the risk has now become High….the 30% tornado probability (High Risk) should also make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, even if a one-in-three chance may not seem like much.  You must remember that tornadoes are really quite rare at any specific location in the United States. If we conservatively say the High Risk area’s average probability of a tornado on any given day of they year is 0.75%, then the tornado probability for today has increased 40 times! If I told you that tomorrow you were 40 times more likely to be in a car accident, you would probably decide to stay home….

Also, when the SPC talks of severe storm probabilities, they are not using it as an “all-or-none” prediction.  Because the probability is defined  by the SPC as the chance of an event within 25 miles of any point in the area, then the larger the area, the more likely the event will occur somewhere.  If the area is 250 x 250 miles, then a 10% probability translates into a range of actual outcomes: the area might see between 0 and 3 events.  The higher risk categories of Moderate and High Risk, and the associated probabilities,  also indicate the maximum intensity of severe events that may occur:  not only will there be more events, they are more likely to include the upper end of the intensity spectrum.  This means, in severe weather terms, hail larger than 2 inches in diameter, downburst winds in excess of 80 mph, and tornadoes EF-2 or greater.

Sept 16 9pm

2:09 am Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: SPC Issues first Mesoscale Discussion for the area indicating severe potential increasing and that a weather watch may be needed in the future…

11-19-2013 5-10-59 PM

7:00 am (13:00 UTC) Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: Latest Day 1 Convective Outlook shows High Risk of severe storms and tornadoes. Public Severe Weather Outlook statement also has been issued…

September 17 7am

7:47 am Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: New Mesoscale Discussion indicates Watch may be needed by mid-to-late morning for the area…. 

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8:40 am Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: PDS Tornado Watch #561 issued..

11-19-2013 5-13-12 PM

9:36 am Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: NWS Chicago issues first of what will become many Tornado Warnings issued by NWS Forecast Offices in the upper Midwest….

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 10:01 am Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: New Mesoscale Discussion indicates another Tornado Watch will be needed….

11-19-2013 5-12-14 PM

 11:20 am Sunday,  September 17th, 2013: PDS Tornado Watch #562 issued..

11-19-2013 6-40-31 PM

Joining the Bandwagon: The American Red Cross Embraces the “Disaster Cycle” and Resilience

Though I may gaze upon the Red Cross, as an organization, with some degree of amusement and cynicism, it does not lessen my support of its humanitarian mission....

Though I may gaze upon the Red Cross, as an organization, with some degree of amusement and cynicism, it does not lessen my support (best provided from the safety of a volunteer position) of its humanitarian mission….

Mississippi Disaster Assessment, May 2011

If you haven’t heard, the American Red Cross is currently “re-engineering” its Disaster Services.  This initiative should not be confused with the national “restructuring” that occurred throughout 2011 (in Texas, this restructuring consolidated the 8-10 existing Texas ARC Regions into four regions, each one larger than many states…on the very day the change took effect, mother nature celebrated the change with the start of the worst wildfires in Texas’ history). For some staff members, who have once again seen their job eliminated or merged into another position, resulting once again in the need to re-apply for their job, the end result of the two efforts has been similar.  With all of the recent restructuring/reorganizing/re-engineering, who could blame staff members for wondering if they should just plan on re-applying for their job every two years…  

In the brave new world of ARC Disaster Services, organization of services will be based upon the completely useful, but totally artificial, concept of the “disaster cycle.” So there will be Preparedness, Response, and Recovery functions, plus many of the old functions (logistics…operations management)  that don’t fit so neatly under just one of the three phases, all packaged under the new title of Disaster Cycle Management.   I did not realize there was a critical shortage of terminology in the field.  Emergency Management, Comprehensive Emergency Management, Integrated Emergency Management, Integrated Disaster Risk ManagementDisaster Management, Disaster Risk Reduction, Disaster Services, and other terms weren’t sufficient?   Now Disaster Cycle Management arrives to crash the party.  The term makes me think of disaster management and washing machines.   Needlessly coining new terminology is almost more than I can take, but….I think I can live with it.

Community resilience is also making its way into the language of ARC, and the staff member whom I serve as a Volunteer Partner, will soon sit in the newly created position of Regional Manager, Individual and Community Preparedness and Resilience. It worries me to see the concept of resilience appearing as a form of job title, when neither researchers nor practitioners are quite sure exactly what resilience is or is not, and how can it be quantified meaningfully.   And operationalization and quantification of resilience as a performance goal is what I fear ARC will do.  ARC likes to quantify and demystify the abstract…disaster magnitudes, for example,  are categorized into tiers based on ARC financial  expenditures for the disaster.  This makes sense.  

Sometimes, however, attempts at quantification to improve performance can interfere with the performance it was meant to improve.  In ARC Disaster Assessment, for example, one particular measure of good performance has been the percentage difference between our PDA (preliminary damage assessment) and the final damage totals (what we call the Detailed Damage Assessment).  Discrepancies exceeding a particular threshold (I seem to recall it being somewhere around 2-5%) is unacceptable.  

Adherence to this goal is so ingrained into DA Managers, that I have seen how concerned people appear to become if new information from the field results in substantial increases to the PDA total.  Such was the case during the 2011 Texas wildfires, when a DA field team spoke to a member of one town’s city council, which lead to the discovery of 80-100 destroyed homes that neither the city, county, state, nor local media were reporting.  As the person who was checking and rechecking damage estimates several times a day, as well as locating potential damage locations for DA teams to check, I could almost hear someone above me in the hierarchy asking, “Well…how do you miss 80-100 homes in your PDA????”  It really isn’t that difficult when you have multiple, rapidly changing, wildfires across something like 10,000 square miles.  One could even point out that wildfires (and perhaps river flooding as well) are, almost by nature, an expanding, evolving, type of disaster unlike the “over-and-done-with” destruction of most earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. 

Last year I also had a heated argument with a DA Manager during the April DFW tornado outbreak.   As I was unable to serve as DA Manager for the entire operation, I was asked to serve in that capacity, and assist in planning and maintaining situation awareness until the manager arrived later in the evening.  I would then hand over to him and he could hit the ground running.   I had spent the day of the outbreak, and most of the night, gathering damage reports from local media sources, confirming, and mapping known areas of damage, with the expectation DA teams would be going into the field first thing in the morning.  I discovered the next morning that this did not happen. The DA Manager  told me damage estimates from city and county officials are not acceptable sources for PDA damage numbers–they must come from DA field teams.  He preferred to spend nearly two days having DA teams go out to do a PDA survey, even when the general boundaries of the damage area were known.  He would then have those same teams go back to the same areas to begin the detailed assessment.  This makes little sense to me, as it wastes our most valuable resource: the time of the volunteers.  The entirety of the DDA could have been completed in 1-3 days, depending on how many teams were assigned.  The sooner the DDA is completed, the sooner the client caseworkers will have the information they need to assist disaster victims, and the sooner the damage assessment side of the operation can wrap-up and go home.

That is when I learned to tell myself, “However the Manager wants it done is the way it is going to get done.”

Of course, when damage is spread across vast distances, or information about possible damage locations and severity is lacking, then good PDA and needs assessment methodology is essential (and which there does not seem to be much written about–a side project I may undertake when I start a PhD program is to work on investigating the accuracy of different geographic sampling methods in estimating needs and damages in large-scale disasters).  The PDA is important, as these initial estimates will be used to scale the ARC response…though it is not the only information used.  In terms of process, a PDA/DDA percent discrepancy isn’t nearly as important as whether it adversely affected ARC response; what was the cause (or causes) of the discrepancy; and whether or not, or to what extent, the cause of the discrepancy is a DA performance failure that can and should be corrected.

A Preliminary Damage Assessment (in terms of ARC) is supposed to be exactly that….PRELIMINARY–it may change..it probably will change….that is the nature and the fog of disaster.  Whether it is damage assessments or resiliency indicators, when we are not careful, we unwittingly create systems that lead staff to serve not the actual process for which they are responsible, but instead some possibly arbitrary, or poorly constructed, marker of  performance of the process.

In the case of community resilience, if ARC does decide to create performance measures, I do hope someone checks that whatever measures are chosen actually do correlate to some degree with measures of community disaster recovery and long-term risk reduction.

Preliminary 5,000 Node Term Network Visualization From 1903-2013 Dataset

Network of 5000 most frequently occurring terms in the titles and abstracts of the 1903-2013 dataset source articles.

Network of 5000 most frequently occurring terms in the titles and abstracts of the 1903-2013 dataset source articles.

Density visualization of the same term network, showing a bimodal structure.

Density visualization of the same term network, revealing a bimodal structure.

Here is a first view of a 5000 node network of most frequently occurring terms in the titles and abstracts of the large, 34,000 record dataset.  

The term network provides an aggregate glimpse into how research interests in Disaster Studies and Sciences have been structured across the 110-year period.  As is immediately apparent, a substantial volume of the research space is occupied by work on seismic hazards and earthquakes.  Additionally, a distinction can be seen between the topics more of interest to pure seismology on the far right, transitioning into topics of more interdisciplinary interest as one moves to the left.

As one continues moving towards the left, other areas of hazard study are encountered, including tsunamis, volcanology, landslides/avalanches, floods, and meteorological events.  What is also found is something of a transitional area bridging the more natural science-oriented hazards branch to the social and medical science-orientation of the human dimensions branch: pure and applied sciences and technology, including optics, GIS, remote sensing, and decision-support systems.

It is near this area (near the center left of the network) one may be quite surprised to find homeland security.  However (and this came as a surprise to me as well), there is a substantial research body in both pure and applied sciences to topics with homeland security and/or emergency management applications, such as biosensors, nuclear weapons material detectors, explosive detectors, biological warfare agent detection, robust ad hoc communication networks, and more.

The center of the human dimensions branch is represented by the “disasters” hub.  Around this hub, one can find the research concerns of the geographers, sociologists, city and urban planners, political scientists, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists,  public health researchers, public administration scholars, and others. Some of these clusters are more well-defined than others, but all broadly focus on disasters as human events.

For those who would like to more closely explore the network visualization, you can download VOS Viewer here: http://www.vosviewer.com/download/.  You will need to download the map file (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7GBghcJr6aJaDc2TDF6NUFMaDg/edit?usp=sharing)  and network file (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7GBghcJr6aJM002cmtaSU5GcGc/edit?usp=sharing) OR the normalized network file (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7GBghcJr6aJRjRtQTRrR0lHTm8/edit?usp=sharing).

These files can then be used in VOS Viewer to generate and explore the network visualization in detail.

First Look: 34,000+ Disaster-Related Bibliometric Records Speak

This shows the distribution of journal titles containing articles in the current dataset of approximately 33,000 records, 1903-2013.

This shows the distribution of journal titles containing articles in the current dataset of approximately 34,000 records, 1903-2013.

This image shows areas where the density of publications is highest, and some of the journals that correspond to those areas.

This image shows areas where the density of publications is highest, and some of the journals that correspond to those areas.

Any reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated….

The past 6-8 weeks have been both hectic and productive….turned 45 years old…..my family finally placed the ashes of my stepfather in their permanent resting place…..upgraded my internet and satellite tv……bought a new car….I am getting all of my teeth replaced in a few days….and I have built and am currently refining a dataset of over 34,000 un-duplicated, raw,  Web of Science records related to disasters (mostly), 1903- May 2013.

This is not as easy as it may sound.  The dataset combines all of my previous WoS searches with the results of many new results pulled from WoS during August, including contents of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 1950-2013 (6,000 or so articles) .  The entire dataset was fed into both EndNote and CiteSpace to remove any duplicates, and to verify the number of records. The precise total number of records, if you wish to know, is 34, 553.  

This number will likely decrease somewhat in the future, as I have not yet started in earnest weeding out results that are not of at least minimal relevance to the study of disasters and hazards.

There are two dataset versions: 1) a raw dataset that except for some capitalization differences in some records that are the result of my decision early in my thesis work to make those records all uppercase, has not been edited; and 2) a standardized dataset that will, as best as possible, correct variations in author and source spellings that are widespread in WoS records.  

The standardized version is an ongoing, tedious, literally unending process that can only approach, but never reach, perfection.  At the present time I have standardized approximately 800 of the top 1200 Authors of the articles in the dataset.  This small task took approximately two weeks. Unfortunately for some names, particularly the Chinese and Taiwanese authors,  this appears nearly impossible using only surnames and initials.  Many of these authors share names and initials.  It may be necessary in some cases to use full names to distinguish between different authors.  I think I will tackle this issue at a later date.

My plan is to eventually standardize most of the top 3000 authors.  I will then move on to the authors of the cited references, then the sources in those references. This may well take up the remainder of the year.

From the dataset, here is the bibliographic coupling network of the 1200 most frequent authors of the 34,553 articles in the dataset using VOS Viewer…some clear clusters appear to emerge:

Bibliographic Coupling of Authors in the Dataset Using VOS Viewer.

Bibliographic Coupling of Authors in the Dataset Using VOS Viewer.

Density view of the network.

Density view of the network.

Here is the Bibliographic Coupling Network of Journals in the dataset:

BibSources1 Panorama


I am making both datasets publicly available. The raw, unedited dataset and the most recent Standardized dataset are both contained in a folder that can be accessed using this Google Drive link: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B7GBghcJr6aJM3NUOUJwWXFKZGs&usp=sharing .  I also intend to make an EndNote file available in the near future.

I will be posting more network images soon.  Also, please note my primary contact email has now changed to joseph.martin3@att.net.  You can still also reach me at jmartiniii1968@yahoo.com.

Catastrophe and Social Change, and the Pre-History of Disaster Studies and Sciences


This monograph is frequently identified as the first sociological, or social science, investigation of a disaster.  That does not make it the first disaster-related investigation…the distinction is important.  More importantly, as a “scientific” study of a disaster,  how good is it? ….you should decide for yourself. Click to view the entire monograph on the National Archives website.

Deacon 1918

You have probably never heard of this book, published in 1918…neither had I until last night….Prince cites it in his 1920 work.

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Ever heard of this article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, also in 1918, detailing the epidemiology and treatment of eye injuries in Halifax?….

Last night I went to the UT Dallas library to retrieve more Web of Knowledge/Web of Science (WoK/WoS) records.  Returning from the Hazards Workshop, I decided it was time to acquire more data, including all Earthquake Spectra articles in WoS (2003 to the present); articles that cite At Risk, Disasters by Design, and several other papers; and to perform a general search for articles prior to 1994 .   For retrieving the pre-1994 articles I decided to search for all articles in WoS with either disaster or natural hazard in the topic, published between 1900 and 1994.  This produced approximately 6500 records, of which about 6400 are not duplicates of records I already have.  Some of these will ultimately be found to be unrelated to disaster studies and sciences, which will likely result in perhaps 6200 new articles covering the formative years of the field.

I was rather surprised by the relatively large number of records found for the first half of the 20th century.  The oldest article retrieved with an identified author dates to 1903 (there were several others with anonymous authors, but I did not download these).  Even more surprising is the variety of fields contributing to the pre-1960 literature: Sociology, Social Work, Geography, Industrial Chemistry, Occupational Safety, Medicine, Nursing, Public Health, Psychiatry/Psychology, and Law. In reading many accounts of the development of disaster studies, little mention is made to the existence of works pre-Prince (a notable exception is Dyne’s 2000 article concerning Voltaire, Rousseau, and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake-he considers Rousseau to offer the first social science view of disasters) or post-Prince until the 1950s.  As research works,  it is likely many of these early works lack scientific or methodological rigor.  But then again, Prince’s 1920 work, by today’s standard, lacks scientific and academic rigor.  He fits his observations into the sociological theories of the day, without much concern for hypothesis testing, or even accuracy (he claims that Halifax was the worst disaster to befall a single community in human history; the 1900 Galveston “flood” does not count because the deaths obviously did not come from just a single community).  He did make some very good observations, however, for future researchers to investigate.

Much like the more recent literature of disasters, the early years seem presented in such a way that leads someone to think that virtually nobody, save for Sociologists, and perhaps a couple of Geographers or other social scientists, researched disasters.  This makes me a little irritable.

But it makes me very irritable to discover that, even in 2013 , sociologists still try to maintain a belief that Sociology (or Social Science, if they are more clever and do not want to appear so blatantly self-serving of their own disciplinary interests), is the exclusive home for the study of disasters (see Lindell’s paper in May’s Current Sociology that defines “Disaster Studies” as the social and behavioral study of disasters: http://csi.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/30/0011392113484456.abstract).  My own studies show that multiple liberal arts, social science, scientific, and professional disciplines have been a part of the intellectual landscape, growing more inter-connected with time.  In Prince’s monograph, his sociological study involved inputs from philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology.  It does not appear that in his day, disciplinary boundaries were as rigid as they have become today.

There is a harsh possible reality disaster sociology and geography might not want to consider: their way has failed.  In the fifty-plus years that they have, by their own admission, held the driver’s seat and positioned themselves as standard-bearers for the study of disasters, relatively little has been accomplished.  The field still lacks a widely accepted definition or conceptualization of disasters (Quarantelli, however,  has not let this small detail stop him from from advancing the argument that catastrophes are distinct from disasters….).  Despite all of the research, all of the the conferences, and all of the rhetoric; and despite the fact that today we live in a world that understands disaster processes better than ever before in the entirety of human history, we cannot stop the economic and human costs of disaster from rising around the world.  Their way and their answers have not worked. Trying the same thing again and again, thinking that just a little more effort is all that is needed, will not make a flawed approach work.

Something new is needed.

UPDATE: March 5- Presenting at Natural Hazards Workshop in July

Some of the volunteers from Islamic Relief USA, a National Partner of the American Red Cross, working hard in this past weekend's TX/OK Disaster Assessment exercise.  This is at the ARC Branch office in McKinney TX, where I introduced future DA Supervisors to the joys of running a small DA Operation...

Some of the volunteers from Islamic Relief USA, a National Partner of the American Red Cross, working hard at this past weekend’s TX/OK Disaster Assessment exercise. This was taken at the ARC Branch office in McKinney TX, conveniently located close to my home. At the exercise, I introduced future DA Supervisors to the joys of running a small DA Operation. I had the great pleasure of teaching a DA class to local IRUSA volunteers two years ago as part of a national initiative.

My apologies for my recent absence from the blog.

It seems I have many irons in the fire of late, and my blog writing has had to take a backseat to work (by day I am an assistant to a real estate agent), Red Cross, and continued projects related to bibliometric analysis of Disaster Studies and Sciences.  But I thought I would stop by and give an update on a few of the more (or less) exciting happenings of late….

1. Friday I received an email from Dr. Tierney offering me the opportunity to present at this year’s Natural Hazard Workshop in July! Of course I said “Hell yeah!”  I will be presenting my work on co-citation and KDViz as part of a “New Researchers” session.

2. This past Saturday I participated in a Red Cross Disaster Assessment (DA) Exercise that involved chapters all across Texas and parts of Oklahoma.  I do enjoy sharing my knowledge and experiences to help teach volunteers who are both new to DA, as well as those with experience who may one day be DA Supervisors.  But it is rather scary to think that after three years of DA, I am considered a DA “veteran”…once I have gone on a few more national relief operations as a DA Supervisor I will possibly be up for promotion to DA Manager, which might be even scarier…

3. After much frustration and trial and error, I am currently combining a variety of Web of Science and Scopus datasets together into a single dataset using several programs, including HistCite (which I had but had not explored very much as most of my work has been in co-citation.  I also thought it was only a trial version and really didn’t want to learn the program only to have to either give Thomson Reuters $200 more of my money or do without…then I discovered the software is now free!).  At  present the raw HistCite file contains over 12,000 unique bibliometric records from the disaster literature.  It will take a substantial amount of time to edit and suitably standardize enough of the dataset.  One of the benefits of HistCite is that it will allow me sometimes in the future to beginning the painstaking process of adding book records, including the cited references within.  The lack of scholarly books and their references is one of the drawbacks of WoS and Scopus databases (Google Scholar provides good book coverage but cannot currently provide data in a format suitable for use with KDViz software) .  HistCite will also perform direct citation analysis and visualization of the dataset, as well as calculate a variety of bibliometric statistics.

I will keep ya’ll updated on the progress.

4.  I have come across some rather interesting things recently that I intend to use as topics for some posts in the very near future.  One of these topics is the relationship in a digital age of blogs to formal academic/scholarly expression and the possible ways the relationship can be misunderstood, confused, misused, and abused.   It is because of this realization that I have recently added a disclaimer to the main page of this site.  I’ll be writing more about this soon.  My intention is to add one new post to the site each week. As much as I would like to be able to post more frequently, keeping to a weekly posting schedule is much more manageable in terms of time and energy.

So for next week, I think I will be writing about a particular article I found online, which raises questions about the wisdom of putting your unpublished works online, as well as showing “What Happens When Scholars Get Mad as Hell and Aren’t Going to Take It Anymore…”

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