How the experts calculate the death toll in disasters

The death toll in Japan has continued to climb since last Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, wrote the National Post blog "Posted" March 16 in a Q&A article. Official estimates suggest 10,000 people have died, although the police chief of the hard-hit Miyagi prefecture said this week he expects the toll to exceed that in his region alone. Official numbers released Wednesday confirm 4,314 deaths and 8,606 still missing. The National Post’s Aileen Donnelly asked Ali Asgary, professor in York University’s Disaster & Emergency Management Program, how death tolls are estimated and recorded after a catastrophe and why the figures vary.

Q: How are death toll estimates determined?

A:  Estimates come through computer models, or through expert judgment. In Japan they have a system called the National Disaster Information System that has all the information about population and infrastructure in different parts of the country. As soon as something happens, they can run the model and figure out how much damage and how many potential losses they might have…. As time goes on, the model could become better by receiving actual or real information, for example, the exact magnitude of the earthquake. When [computer modelling] is not available, like in developing countries, what they do is they rely on expert judgment, [which] is not as accurate.

Q: How do experts estimate deaths without a computer model?

A:  Rapid assessment is usually based on several factors: the population in the area that has been impacted and the damage or loss ratio for different earthquake magnitudes. This is a ratio they use for the number of casualties per different [earthquake] magnitudes in different physical environments. In Japan, another factor they often use is a ratio of number of fatalities to number of injured people. [The ratio there] is about 45, which means for every 45 injured people, you will have about one dead person…. These are the factors experts use. These are based on past experience, the existing population number and the building type and structure they have in the area. [Experts] might not need to go into the field to figure out how many people have been killed. They usually use the knowledge that they have about the area. But, by going there, it helps to make the estimate closer to the actual number.

Q: Why do you think the Japanese government has avoided releasing estimates?

A: Having an accurate estimation of dead people is not going to do a lot at this point. And that is probably why [the government is sticking] with the actual [count of] bodies. From an emergency management point of view, we look for the survivors and find out what their needs are and how we can help them…. I think people are cautious about providing numbers [now] because it’s not only an earthquake, it’s not only a tsunami, it’s a combination of different hazards hitting the country at the same time. Plus, we have the evacuation going on for the nuclear issues.

Glendon prof joins $2.5M-project to study North American francophones

The way French is spoken in places as diverse as Gatineau, Shediac and New Orleans can tell us a lot about how francophone communities evolved in North America, and it’s the subject of a major study beginning at the University of Ottawa, wrote the Ottawa Citizen March 17.

The $2.5-million project is led by Francine Martineau of the university’s French department, but includes 13 fellow researchers and 59 "partners" from Canada, the United States, France and Japan.

The seven-year plan is to study 400 years of family histories to examine how language has shaped communities and cultures.

"We are looking at three fields of expansion from France that are all basically located across the St. Lawrence, which is New France, Louisiana and Acadia," explained co-investigator Raymond Mougeon of York University [Glendon and the Centre for Research on Language].

"If we just focused on Canada, then we would miss some important components of North American francophonie, mainly Louisiana – and probably one of the most interesting colonial settings as well, because it involved not only colonization from France, but also secondary migration from Acadia – basically the French language continued to live, but in a completely different setting from the original."

According to Mougeon, the project team plans to reach beyond linguistics and also focus on history and sociology. The team includes experts in linguistics, anthropology, history, geography and computer science. "We believe that you can only understand the evolution of language if you can actually place it in its broader socio-historical setting," said Mougeon.

  • “The project’s focus is going to be on basically four centuries of history of French on the North American continent in three main colonial settings: Louisiana, New France, which is now Quebec, and Acadia,” said Raymond Mougeon of York University, in the Ottawa Sun March 16. The funding is from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
  • Mougeon also spoke about the new study, on CBC Radio Moncton, NB, March 17.

Better care aim of hospital research partnership

If you’re a patient at Southlake Regional Health Centre, there’s now a better chance you’ll be part of a research project, wrote the Newmarket Era March 16.

A partnership between the local hospital and York University will embed leading scientists from the postsecondary institution as researchers to work alongside hospital clinical staff and physicians, Southlake director of research Patrick Clifford said.

York professors Chris Ardern, Imogen Coe, Paul Ritvo and Lauren Sergio will be working on site when the initiative launches next month.

Ardern is a professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science [Faculty of Health] and is focused on research involving epidemiology of physical activity, obesity and cardio metabolic risk.

He is investigating the role of geospatial analysis to improve the surveillance of cardiovascular disease in York Region and is co-investigator on pre-diabetes detection and physical activity intervention and delivery program.

He will work with the hospital’s chronic disease department.

Coe, a biology professor [Muscle Health Research Centre and the Faculty of Science & Engineering], is working to develop more personalized approaches to disease treatment. She works with proteins that transport drugs used in cancer and cardiac care. Her research in Southlake’s cardiac care and oncology programs will examine how these proteins work in each individual.

Neuroscientist Sergio [Faculty of Science & Engineering] examines the effects of age, gender, neurological disease and past head injuries on the brain’s control of complex movement.

She will work with clinicians from Southlake’s chronic disease, emergency medicine and surgical programs.

Ritvo [School of Kinesiology & Health Science] specializes in behaviour and will serve as the research adviser, physical and mental health liaison and special projects scientist. His current research includes electronic health interventions, using cellphones, smartphones and online programs to alter the habits of diabetics and individuals with HIV and mental health issues.

He will work with Southlake clinicians to examine how innovative software applications and technology can help patients reduce health risks through healthy exercise, diet and improved medication administration.

York grad wants Markham council to condemn Israeli Apartheid Week

The Town of Markham did the right thing in standing up against Maclean’s magazine’s "Too Asian" article – now it’s time to take a similar stand against York University’s Israeli Apartheid Week. That’s the message behind a motion to be introduced to Markham council next week by Thornhill’s Ward 2 Councillor Howard Shore [BA ’86], wrote March 17.

Shore says he is "disgusted" that the University allows "acts of blatant antisemitism" such as Israeli Apartheid Week. "As a Jew, as an alumnus of York and as someone who knows first-hand what it’s like to live under constant threat of terrorism while living in Israel, I take this personally and so does the Jewish community," said Shore, who lived and studied in Israel for several years.

At the March 21 general committee meeting, he plans to introduce a motion condemning the event and asking that York prohibit it from occurring again on University property.

The University appreciates Shore’s concerns and York’s close working relationship with the town, said spokesperson Wallace Pidgeon [associate director, media relations]. He said the University has been meeting with Mayor Frank Scarpitti’s office and with the town’s economic development office, "letting them know about the hard work we’ve been doing speaking with students and the community about this issue."

York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri conceded that emotions often run high during Apartheid Week, and "political rhetoric and posturing often leads us away from our true task of meaningful academic discourse."

While York won’t tolerate any actions or forms of speech that are racist or that advocate violence or hatred, he said the University must remain true to its founding principles to be part of academic dialogue that contributes to new ideas.

The event has provoked controversy on campus in past years, but Pidgeon said this year’s event was quiet and respectful.

Fine arts grad specializes in illustrating Montreal Canadiens

The word "genius" gets bandied about too cavalierly these days, wrote reporter Mike Boon in Montreal’s The Gazette March 17.

It is not without hesitation, then, that I describe my great and good friend Josie Gold [BFA Spec. Hons. ’88] as a genius – which I do all the time in redirecting Habs Inside/Out readers toward her latest work at the Four Habs Fans (FHF) Internet site. Almost all the posts at FHF are illustrated by Gold, using Photoshop software to create wildly imaginative takes on hockey in general and the Canadiens in particular.

What distinguishes FHF, apart from wit and an elevated raunch quotient, is the dazzling originality of Gold’s work. She’s done about 600 hockey illustrations, and there’s nothing else like it on the ‘net.

Sun News Network: Rise and shine!

Veteran television host and former Miss Canada Neelam Verma [BBA Spec. Hons. ’98] has joined Sun News to host the network’s early morning news show “First Look”, wrote QMI Agency March 17, in a story about the graduate of the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Verma, who cut her teeth in journalism with CNN International in India, has gone toe-to-toe in interviews with heads of state, business leaders, celebrities and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Most recently, she hosted entertainment and current events shows for OMNI and Sun TV in Toronto.

Montreal-born and Toronto-raised, Verma has also lived in India and Egypt. She won the Miss Canada pageant in 2002 and finished in the top 10 at the Miss Universe pageant that same year.

Thinking green pays off for York team in TD challenge

Three groups of Canadian postsecondary students are leaving a green legacy on their campus for demonstrating they’re serious about environmental sustainability, wrote The Globe and Mail’s “Globe Advisor” March 16. TD Friends of the Environment Foundation today announced the winners of the fourth annual TD Go Green Challenge, a national competition inviting Canadian postsecondary students to explore and offer solutions to sustainability issues. This year’s competition focused on sustainability and environmental stewardship on campus.

Second place went to a team from York University’s Glendon College [and the Faculty of Environmental Studies], who will receive a $15,000 prize and a $15,000 grant to support on-campus tree-planting initiatives. Top honours went to a team of students from McGill University.

Second place: The Future of Our Forest: A Sustainability Vision for York University – York University

The challenge: Glendon Forest is in a state of degradation due to overuse. It is one of the last few wetlands home to globally rare amphibians in Toronto, and is an essential part of the Don Valley corridor that connects it to habitats downstream.

The solution: Revitalize Glendon Forest through a four-step process that could restore its role in ecological, educational and social vitality at York University.

Student members: Darnel Harris and Caitlin Langlois Greenham

Faculty sponsor: Jennifer Foster [Faculty of Environmental Studies]

Racist sign probed in Lakefield

Peterborough-Lakefield police are currently investigating the posting of a racist sign on the outside of a Lakefield business’ front door, wrote March 16.

The sign, reading "No Natives" was taken down this morning. The owner of the business, Mark Kennedy, 65, says he has no idea who [put] the sign on the door.

York University indigenous studies Professor Robin Cavanagh, who lives in Young’s Point, was on the scene. Cavanagh, who teaches a course in race and relations [Faculty of Environmental Studies] and is of Aboriginal descent himself, says he saw a picture of the sign on Facebook. Having been a customer at the restaurant, he went directly to the establishment to ask Kennedy about it.

"This is something that shouldn’t have happened," he says, adding he believes Kennedy’s assertion that he didn’t post the sign. "I’ve eaten here several times and have always been respected…I’ve always felt comfortable. I’ve never felt, in this small community, any racism." 

On air

  • Bernie Wolf, economics professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University and an expert on the auto industry, spoke about the impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on the supply of parts for North American cars, on CTV News March 16.