House Hearing on National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program

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Publication date: 
29 August 2014

“While earthquakes are inevitable, their consequences are not, and there is much that we can do as a Nation to improve public safety and our resilience to earthquakes and related hazards.” – David Applegate, Associate Director for Natural Hazards, U.S. Geological Survey

There was unanimity at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology that earthquakes pose a significant threat to millions of Americans throughout the United States.  Programs of four federal agencies to mitigate seismic risk were praised, accompanied by calls to reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP).

The July 29 hearing received testimony from eight witnesses: four senior federal officials, and individuals from universities, a state emergency management agency, and a private consulting firm.  All discussed earthquake risk and preparedness, seismic research, and the effectiveness of NEHRP’s cross-agency programs.

The authorization legislation for NEHRP expired in 2009.  It was established in 1977 with the enactment of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act.  The bill authorized funding for seismic-related programs within the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Geological Survey.  In addition to setting funding targets, the legislation established seismic programs within the four agencies.  In 1990 the Congress reduced NEHRP’s focus on earthquake prediction.  The legislation has been reauthorized four times since its enactment.

Actual funding for NEHRP programs within the four agencies is provided through appropriations bills.  In FY 2009 NEHRP programs at the four agencies received $130.4 million.  The following year funding increased slightly to $130.9 million, and has generally declined since.  FY 2013 funding was $121.4 million.

Several major topics were discussed during the ninety minute hearing.  The first was the widespread risk of earthquake damage, with Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) citing USGS research indicating that “in the next 50 years, 42 of our 50 states have a chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake.  There are 16 states in the U.S. that have a high likelihood of experiencing damage because they have sustained earthquakes with a seismic magnitude of 6 or greater.”   Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IN) made similar comments in his prepared opening statement, referring to the New Madrid earthquakes that occurred in 1811.  A 2011 simulation, he said, of a similar event in the region was sobering: “Around 100,000 people could die, over seven million could be displaced from their homes, and the direct economic losses alone could total almost $300 billion.”  Fifteen nuclear power plants are in this region.  Losses from Hurricane Katrina, for comparison, were in the range of $125 billion. 

There was agreement that NEHRP’s programs have provided considerable benefit.   Research has resulted in seismic engineering and building codes that have been, and will be, instrumental in mitigating shaking.  An important part of this activity has resulted in the strengthening of life lines – urban infrastructure such as water and gas mains and the electrical transmission system.  Education programs to alert the public to seismic risk and to response procedures have been put into place, such as the Great ShakeOut drills.  Improved first responder coordination has been supported.  Research on Earthquake Early Warning systems is being conducted.   While the witnesses recommended changes to be incorporated in the next version of NEHRP legislation they all agreed that the program has been important and effective and urged Congress to pass a reauthorization bill.

John Hayes, Jr., Director of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology addressed the reauthorization of NEHRP in his prepared statement:

“First, the agencies will welcome the reinvigorated partnership with the Legislative Branch of our government that reauthorization would reflect. This program, which has existed for over 35 years, is vital to all aspects of improving earthquake safety in our Nation. Earthquakes cross state boundaries, so that state-Federal partnership is vital. Solutions to earthquake-related problems can best be handled in a coordinated manner that crosses those boundaries. In addition, the engineering community that addresses almost all earthquake problems is composed of many small entities, not corporate giants, so that private sector mass is simply inadequate to address major challenges in hazard assessment and research. Federal leadership is critical to this endeavor.

“Second, as a practical matter for clarity of Congressional authorization for major natural hazard assessment and risk mitigation activities in the government, I believe it is most sensible to combine the legislation for the different hazards into a single bill. Particularly when the growing interests in broader resilience and multi-hazard activities are considered, a single authorization would enable the most efficient implementation of Congress’s intent.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Lipinski, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) addressed the importance of reauthorizing the NEHRP legislation in their prepared opening statements.  Johnson spoke of the advantages of a broader hazards bill.  In June 2013, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) introduced H.R. 2132, the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act which would reauthorize NEHRP and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program.  The bill, with five Democratic sponsors, was referred to three House subcommittees, one of which is the Subcommittee on Research and Technology. 

Chairman Bucshon did not discuss reauthorization in his opening comments, saying instead “Today’s hearing is a bipartisan effort to learn about NEHRP and understand the Nation’s level of earthquake preparedness. We worked across the aisle to bring together two panels of experts who can shed light on these important issues. I look forward to hearing from all of the witnesses on both of our panels to understand the work of the NEHRP agencies and how that work intersects with engineers, emergency managers and lifeline experts.”   Johnson referred to an agreement with Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to “work on a NEHRP reauthorization bill” adding “This hearing is a good first step in fulfilling that agreement.”