American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Hearings on National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program

Hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, April 10, 1997
Hearing of the House Committee on Science Hearing, April 24, 1997

Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space Hearing
April 10, 1997

Witness List:
Dr. Arch Johnson, Professor and Director of Research, Center for Earthquake Research and Information, University of Memphis
Mr. Richard Krimm, Executive Associate Director of the Mitigation Directorate, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Dr. Robert Hebner, Acting Director, National Institute for Standards and Technology
Dr. P. Patrick Leahy, Chief Geologist, U.S. Geological Survey
Dr. Christina Gabriel, Acting Deputy Assistant Director for Engineering, National Science Foundation

Subcommittee members present:
Dr. Bill Frist (R-TN), Chair
Senator Rockefeller (D-WVa)

Opening Remarks by Chairman Frist
Chairman Frist began his remarks by welcoming the witnesses. He reported that 38 states currently face a significant risk of earthquakes, and the probability of a moderate earthquake hitting the central US in the New Madrid Seismic Zone within the next fifty years is greater than 90%. These earthquakes cause "intense, sudden damage", and losses from such an event can total up to $80 billion. To find out more information on earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone, read the
Hazards in the Heartland, The New Madrid Seismic Zone article in the May issue of Geotimes. The recent damaging earthquakes in Northridge, California and Kobe, Japan have brought to the forefront the dangers of earthquakes.

Four agencies administer the National Earthquakes Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP): the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lead agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These agencies work together both to conduct research and to implement the results. The partnership has been criticized for lacking a strategy and clear goals, and Chairman Frist hopes these concerns will be addressed.

Opening remarks by Ranking Member Rockefeller
Ranking member Rockefeller echoed Chairman Frist's sentiments and views this hearing as evaluating "research for the benefit of saving lives."

Dr. Arch Johnson
Dr. Johnson, a constituent of Chairman Frist, testified that most earthquake research has focused on seismic hazards for large earthquakes. Other low frequency, high damage earthquakes, such as those that occur in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, have been neglected. Critical research in this area is going unfunded. He remarked that many faculty members don't even apply for grants anymore because they doubt they will receive one, and even if they do, it will be slashed to the point of being useless. He urged Congress to reinstate funding for the USGS, which was cut in half from $8 million to $4 million. New partnerships can effectively utilize this money in regional research centers.

When NEHRP began in 1977, its goal was to be able to predict earthquakes. We now know that is a much more difficult task than originally thought. NEHRP has still been successful and saves, not costs, money, as it already has greatly enhanced mitigation efforts and building codes. Dr. Johnson sees NEHRP as analogous to the war on cancer- the end goals have not been achieved, but the research has saved lives and continues to improve living conditions,

Dr. Richard Krimm, FEMA
Dr. Krimm began his testimony with an explanation of FEMA's role as the lead agency in coordinating projects and preparing a budget and reports to Congress. FEMA also offers $5.4 million in grants and technical assistance to states and multi-state consortiums. In March, FEMA began training representatives of state government on the use of HAZUS, a computer model that illustrates the effects of an earthquake on an area and various structures. FEMA is also working to encourage "disaster resistant communities" that more build to code regulations. This plan in part of an effort to move FEMA away from only responding to disasters. FEMA is conducting studies on the seismic performance of steel-frame buildings, which did not perform as expected in the Northridge earthquake. FEMA is also completing a triennial review of criteria for design and construction of buildings subject to earthquakes. Finally, at the request of OSTP, FEMA has issued a document, Strategies for National Earthquake Loss Reduction, which calls for more formal involvement by other federal agencies. These programs support NEHRP's belief that "earthquakes may be inevitable, but earthquake disasters are not."

Dr. Robert Hebner, NIST
Dr. Hebner testified NIST's mission is to "provide technical leadership for the Nation's measurement and standards infrastructure, and assure the availability of essential reference data and measurement capabilities." NIST frequently disseminates research information in the form of standards. Standards convey the results of earthquake research to builders and subsequently to the owners of the buildings. NIST also conducts problem-focused research and works with the private sector to define priority needs. Since 1970, post-earthquake research has been an integral aspect of NIST's program.

Dr. P. Patrick Leahy, USGS
Dr. Leahy began his testimony by noting that the "program has made a significant difference" and also that "much remains to be done." He praised the partnership aspect of NEHRP, believing it "leverages resources and tightens links between researchers and practitioners." The USGS is expanding its partnerships to include universities and multi-state groups as well as the insurance sector. The USGS role is "to monitor seismic activity, to identify and characterize earthquake hazards, to conduct research in support of improved hazard-assessment methods, to disseminate scientific data and information, and to demonstrate application of earth-science knowledge in effective loss-reduction strategies." USGS activities have contributed to improved land use planning, seismic engineering, earthquake preparedness, and earthquake disaster response. The USGS has also recently completed maps indicating the potential shaking hazard from an earthquake for the conterminous United States.

Dr. Christina Gabriel, NSF
Dr. Gabriel testified that NSF's main role is to support earthquake research through grants. This program is administered through the Directorate for Geosciences. NSF has supported more than 100 studies on the Northridge earthquake and is currently conducting a competition to determine three facilities to fund for five years. They emphasize "research to save lives."

Discussion Period
Chairman Frist was very interested in possible seismic activity in his home state of Tennessee and had a series of questions for Dr. Johnson. Dr. Johnson explained that several small, deep (>15 km) earthquakes had occurred. A discussion then ensued between Senator Rockefeller and the panel questioning the effectiveness of voluntary standards.

House Committee on Science Hearing
April 24, 1997

Witness List
Panel 1
Mr. Richard Krimm, Executive Associate Director of the Mitigation Directorate, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Dr. Robert Hebner, Acting Director, National Institute for Standards and Technology
Dr. P. Patrick Leahy, Chief Geologist, U.S. Geological Survey
Dr. Elbert Marsh, Acting Assistant Director for Engineering, National Science Foundation

Panel 2
Dr. David Simpson, President, IRIS Corporation
Dr. Kerry Sieh, Professor of Geology, California Institute of Technology
Dr. Joanne Nigg, President, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
Dr. Daniel P. Abrams, NEHRP Coalition
Dr. George Lee, Director, National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, SUNY- Buffalo

Members Present
Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS)
Rep. Thomas Ewing (R-IL)
Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN)
Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-MI)
Rep. Bill Luther (D-MN)
Rep. James Barcia (D-MI)

Opening Remarks
Rep. Pickering, who was chairing the hearing, opened with remarks concerning the amount of progress made in reducing loss from earthquakes. Like Senator Frist, he shared his concern with seismic activities in the New Madrid fault zone. He noted this week was National Science and Technology Week, and believes that it is important for Congress to support science, technology, and engineering, as they are "crucial to progress tomorrow."

Rep. Barcia congratulated the program on the "tremendous strides in earthquake hazard mitigation" it has made since its inception.

Testimony Panel 1
The testimony from the first panel was very similar to the testimony presented at the
Senate hearing . The full testimony of both panels is available from the House Science Committee web site

Panel 2
Dr. Simpson, IRIS
Dr. Simpson, representing the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and AGI member society Seismology Society of America , testified that we should view the Northridge and Kobe earthquakes as "warnings given" rather than "lessons learned", as a reminder that no modern US city has yet experienced a major earthquake. As part of that warning, funding for NEHRP, which has remained stagnant accounting for inflation for the past twenty years, should be increased. The current investment of less than $100 million per year is a small fraction of the loss suffered in a major earthquake. This funding could best be utilized in upgrading facilities for monitoring earthquakes as well as for the analysis, distribution, and archiving of data. Serious consideration should be given to substantial increase in NSF and USGS basic and applied research. Finally, funding for international programs should also be increased.

Dr. Sieh, California Institute of Technology
Dr. Sieh explained the dual role of earthquake geology as discovering the tectonic context in which earthquakes occur and determining the patterns in which earthquakes have occurred in the past. Sieh explained the important role research plays in balancing the costs of infrastructure upgrades and emergency preparedness against the possibility of an earthquake hitting. Many important questions still need to be answered by research, such as the probability of another earthquake hitting Los Angeles and which part of the San Andreas fault will generate our next great earthquake? Research activities must be undertaken now in anticipation of future earthquakes.

Dr. Nigg, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
Dr. Nigg explained the fundamental change in NEHRP from a knowledge-producing program to a program that focuses on implementing measures to reduce the effects of earthquakes. Nigg believes more social scientists should be involved with implementation. Additionally, substantial research must be undertaken in three main areas: the development of design techniques and building code elements for the retrofit and repair of existing buildings, the formulation of comprehensive methodologies for assessing social vulnerability from earthquake threats, and organization and policy research on effective knowledge transfer.

Dr. Abrams, NEHRP Coalition
Dr. Abrams testified in support of a systematic upgrading of test facilities. If engineers must rely on modest levels of experimental research in earthquake engineering, a high probability exists that future earthquakes will continue to reveal unforeseen problems with construction and standards. These investments can be returned one-hundred fold or more in terms of reducing economic loss from a single future earthquake.

Dr. Lee, National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research
Dr. Lee serves as Director of the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (NCEER), a multidisciplinary research consortium founded in 1986 by NSF. He cited several examples of ways NEHRP has advanced knowledge in earthquake hazards and accompanying risks and ways NEHRP has increased our ability to deal with them both. Peer reviewers have stated that NREER has accomplished more in its systems context than would have been accomplished by individual research.

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Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs.
Last updated May 5, 1997

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