Disaster
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SOUTHWEST IDAHO — With natural disasters hitting areas across the globe this year causing extensive damage and deaths, you may wonder, what's Idaho’s risk for a natural disaster?

Idaho ranks very low when it comes to risk, but it’s not immune to devastation. A big plus is that when Mother Nature strikes, the Gem State’s sparse population means the impact isn’t as great as it is in other parts of the U.S. and world.

Idaho’s most noteworthy natural disasters flooding, wildfires and earthquakes, according to a report released by the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. The IBHS helps regional areas deal with natural disasters when they become too much for local agencies to deal with.

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“Idaho is a good place to live, however the forces that make it beautiful often times can result in disasters,” IBHS Public Affairs Officer Robert Feeley said. “Idaho has always had a very close relationship to the earth and to our surroundings. Disasters are something that we prepare for and live with when they occur.”

Although Idaho seems disaster free, Feeley said the state ranks fifth in the nation for most earthquakes in any given year.

“Idaho is subject to flooding. We've had several severe flooding instances in our history,” Feeley said. “Wildfires are another significant threat to the state and there's seismic risk within Idaho and right next to Idaho. We've had two of the largest earthquakes in the continental United States.”

• The Borah Peak Earthquake of the 1980s, which killed two school children

• Hebgen Lake Earthquake of the 1950s, which occurred in Montana but affected Idaho.

An earthquake could cause a dam break and put the Treasure Valley in significant danger if the Lucky Peak Dam were to breach.

And volcanoes — such as the Yellowstone Volcano — outside of Idaho’s borders could wreak havoc if they erupted. Although that looms as a possible threat, Yellowstone Park experts say there should be plenty of warning time if should come to life.

“We're not in a position to say we're not at risk, because there are risk factors,” Feeley said. “In general Idaho has less disasters that impact peoples lives, although we do not want to give a sense of complacency.”

Agencies from the city to the federal level place importance on planning for disasters and encourage people to prepare on a personal level.

“We train and plan and conduct exercises on a continuous basis to be ready for disasters before they hit, that way we're ready when something does happen,” Feeley said. “We are in a support role to the jurisdiction that's impacted.”

When regional areas request support from the state, the governor can declare a state of emergency to assist the area. In turn, the state can request help from the federal government and the president can authorize FEMA to assist.

 

Local disasters, preparedness

Lt. Todd Herrera with the Canyon County Sheriff's Office serves as the county's emergency management coordinator. For natural disasters, he coordinates response on a local level.

“The biggest hazard that we could have is flooding,” he said referring to Canyon County's risk from the Boise River. “The highest probably is a windstorm, that happens the most frequently.”

Wildfires are also a concern in Canyon County, especially north of Parma, north of Middleton and in the Melba area, Herrera said.

Those are the types of disasters that cause less damage than more severe events like an earthquake, but are more likely to happen locally.

“Canyon County would appear to have a low hazard rating in the sense that it doesn’t seem like we have hurricanes or major disasters that can damage or hurt people,” Herrera said, “but citizens shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security.”

Southwest District Health spokesperson Laurie Boston said the agency has a Public Health Preparedness Plan, in place since 2002, to plan for natural disasters or other emergencies.

“We have both agreements and partnerships and plans in place,” she said. “We also have coordinated messages that we can get out to the public that are already on hand for any number of natural disasters or other emergencies.”

 

Flooding

Flooding regularly occurs across Idaho.

In fact, flooding is the most financially costly natural disaster in the state, Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security spokesman Robert Feeley said.

Floods have caused 18 federal disaster declarations in Idaho since 1953.

But flooding only accounts for one reported death in Idaho in the past 10 years, National Weather Service meteorologist Jay Breidenbach said.

Idaho's mountainous terrain, rain and snow storms and warm spring weather lead to snow runoff into rivers, said Dave Evetts, assistant director of hydrologic data with U.S. Geological Survey's Idaho Water Science Center.

Floods are costly, but Idaho's flood damage costs are on the lower end of the scale compared to other states. Idaho's flood damage costs about $27 million to $65 million dollars a year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some states' flood damages, such as California, Oregon, and Colorado, cost as much as $198 million to $682 million yearly.

Weather

Lightening storms and avalanches are responsible for more deaths in Idaho than flooding is. Idaho reported seven lightening deaths between 1990 and 2003, and Idahoans die in avalanches every year, Breidenbach said. Avalanches are risky because Idahoans enjoy skiing and snowmobiling in the back country, he said.

Snowstorms forced Idaho to declare a state disaster twice in the past five years, Feeley said.

Other costly weather events in Idaho are mudslides, which can block and damage roads, and minor tornados, Breidenbach said, but no deaths have been reported due to these events in the past 10 years.

Dam breach

Some rivers in Idaho, including the Boise and Snake rivers, are regulated by dams and reservoirs. Those man-made structures help control water levels, but also create a potential flood hazard because of possible breaching.

In 1976, the new Teton Dam breached and dumped approximately 80 billion gallons of water into Upper Snake River Valley which includes Fremont County. That killed 11 people and caused $2 billion of damage.

Spring flooding

As of Thursday, three counties in eastern Idaho — Jefferson, Bingham, and Madison — had been declared by the state as disaster areas due to flooding, Feeley said. “This year we have 20 percent more snow in the mountains than we did in 1997,” he said, a year that bad flooding hit Idaho. This year's late spring brings and rapidly rising temperatures could cause snow to melt more quickly than Idaho's reservoirs can contain.

The state is waiting to see if northern Idaho will similarly be hit with floods, he said.

Earthquakes

Just last month, Idaho experienced an earthquake. Because the level was a mere 1.9 on the magnitude scale, little was felt among southern Idaho residents where it hit.

With Idaho the fifth most active earthquake state in the United States, most are on a minute scale.

Although Idaho has not seen devastating effects since the Borah Peak earthquake since 1983, a catastrophic quake is possible today. Movement along some faults show the potential could hit a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale.

A “double threat” exists in Idaho, as small and large quakes are both possible, and smaller quakes can be just as tragic. Older, stonework buildings are at risk when these petite quakes strike.

Hot spots in the Bear Lake, Franklin, Caribou and Custer counties region fall in the Intermountain Seismic belt and show a high threat of earthquake activity. The belt extends from northwest Montana, along the Wyoming border, and down to Nevada.

Homeland Security is prepared to respond to earthquakes before they happen, Feeley said. Life safety is priority No. 1. Evacuations, shelters, urban search and rescue, and rebuilding are all on the agenda in case of disaster. However, the most important preparation begins at home.

“Here in Idaho there is a very strong family network,” Feeley said.

Anticipation in the home is where planning begins. Having a disaster supply kit and contact plan can be vital during an earthquake.

Wildfires

From the Big Burn of 1910 to Boise's deadly Oregon Trail Fire in 2008, Idaho has long been a dangerous wildfire location.

“Idaho has a high percentage of federal lands on it and a high percentage of land that's not developed,” Feeley said.

Also contributing to dangers associated with wildfires in Idaho is the movement of people into areas that were previously unpopulated, which increases the likelihood of damage to private property, Feeley said.

The size and frequency of wildfires has increased substantially across southern Idaho during the last 30 years, as cheat grass and other flammable weeds have displaced native plant communities. But nationwide the number of acres burned by wildfire decreased between 2004 and 2009, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The increase in wildfires in Idaho undermines range land health, depletes wildlife habitat and threatens farms, ranches and communities.

Idaho has one of the largest and most complex fire management programs in the federal Bureau of Land Management, protecting and managing wildfire on approximately 11 million acres of range lands and forests in central and southern Idaho. Volatile fuel conditions and difficult terrain make wildfire management in Idaho especially challenging.

Idaho's main wildfire season runs from May to about mid September. In that time the National Forests in the state bring in large seasonal workforces to fight fires, Boise National Forest public affairs officer Dave Olson said.

Recent disasters:

Jan. 12, 2010

7.0 earthquake devastates Haiti, kills as many as 85,000 people.

July 2010

Pakistan's floods last summer killed 2,000 people and affected 20 million, of whom 7 million remain homeless, officials say. At one point, one-fifth of Pakistan was under water, more than 10 feet deep in some places.

March 11, 2011

Japan hit by powerful earthquake and tsunami. In addition, damaged nuclear plants began to spew radiation into the surrounding environment. Death toll expected to exceed 10,000.

April and May, 2011

Cholera outbreak in drought-ravaged Somalia has claimed the lives of at least 85 people.

May 22, 2011

EF-5 tornado rips city of Joplin, Missouri, to shreds and kills more at least 130 people. If the National Weather Service agrees Wednesday's three deaths in Massachusetts are tornado-related, it would bring the year's U.S. toll to 522 and make this year the deadliest for tornadoes since 1953 when 519 tornado deaths were recorded.

May 29 and 30

Wildfires

Two wildfires have destroyed at least 12 homes on the outskirts of the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo. About 2.8 million acres have burned in the state since November.

Ongoing famine

Experts say famine is becoming an increasing problem around the world as a result of drought and climate change. According to the international aid agency Oxfam, 925 million people — one out of seven — are hungry, and the figure is likely to surpass 1 billion by the end of this year.

Compiled from Associated Press reports

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