American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

White House, Congress Rethink National Earthquake Strategy

The following Political Scene column, written by David Applegate and Murray Hitzman, appears in the February, 1996 issue of Geotimes. It is used with the permission of Geotimes:

For federal policymakers, the devastating 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe earthquakes were powerful reminders of the need for an effective national earthquake strategy. That need is amplified by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that the population in the most seismically active regions of the United States will double by the year 2010.

Given the immense cost of earthquakes and other natural disasters, both the Clinton Administration and Congress have been considering ways to improve this country's current strategy. Last fall, both the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) , through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released reports on this issue, and FEMA released its first-ever national mitigation strategy for all natural hazards. In addition, Congress has begun to consider legislation to revise the existing National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) and retool natural disaster insurance. All of this activity holds both a challenge and an opportunity for geoscientists, redefining th e role that they will play in the future.

The current national earthquake strategy was established by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977. This legislation created NEHRP as an interagency research effort aimed at improving our understanding of earthquake hazards and developing engineeri ng techniques that can reduce losses from earthquakes. Four agencies participate in the program: FEMA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Although it is widely acknowledged that NEHRP has produced great strides in scientific and engineering research, the transfer of this new knowledge to state and local mitigation, or risk-reduction, efforts has been slower than anticipated. General consen sus exists for the need to increase the transfer of knowledge gained through research into new state and local regulations, while at the same time conducting further research. The difficulty faced by NEHRP in improving building codes and increasing mitig ation capactiy points up a fundamental problem for any national earthquake strategy -- mitigation, like politics, is local. Coordination is difficult because most mitigation measures are undertaken at the state, county, and municipal level rather than by the federal government.

The OTA report, Reducing Earthquake Losses, was released in September, making it one of the last reports completed before that agency's demise. The report finds that NEHRP has provided significant advances in both the earth science and engineering aspects of earthquake risk reduction. It cautions, however, that the nation still has a large exposure to earthquake damage, due in part to a failure to implement known technologies and practices. OTA believes this failure, termed the "implementation g ap," results from NEHRP's approach of only supplying information. But the report acknowledges that it will be difficult to change this approach without altering federal law to mandate use of the research knowledge. OTA suggests that management and opera tional changes in NEHRP could increase efficiency and coordination but concludes that to properly address the implementation gap, changes will have to be made to federal disaster assistance and insurance, regulation, and financial incentives for mitigatio n.

The NSTC/OSTP report, Strategy for National Earthquake Loss Reduction, addresses many of these same concerns. The report was prepared by the National Earthquake Strategy Group, comprised of representatives from a broad spectrum of federal agencies and chaired by a geoscientist. The report outlines the goals for a new National Earthquake Loss Reduction Program (NEP), which is intended to build on the existing NEHRP framework and enhance coordination of effort and communication within the federal g overnment by including all federal earthquake research within the program. Whereas NEHRP agencies together have earthquake budgets of approximately $100 million, non-NEHRP earthquake research and mitigation efforts probably account for more than three ti mes that amount. Coordinating these federal programs is expected to identify redundancies -- thereby saving money -- and focus attention on the most pressing problems.

The ultimate purpose of the new program is to increase the transfer of research results to the user community. Research would focus on goals that can aid mitigation and save lives and property. The new plan designates FEMA as lead agency with responsibi lity for coordination among both current NEHRP agencies and other affected federal agencies as well as responsibility for inter-agency strategic planning. The report recommends that FEMA appoint a high-level director to be the point person for the progra m. A strong emphasis will be placed on educating the public about earthquake loss prevention and mitigation. Also, where NEHRP only focused on establishing building codes for new construction, the NEP addresses the need to improve the performance of exi sting buildings and lifelines. The new program would retain many of the broad principles that guided NEHRP but would also provide specific goals and targets for measuring progress and success.

The USGS would continue to play a key role; a central research priority is improving the knowledge of earthquake processes and effects. The NSTC/OSTP report also emphasizes the tremendous opportunity presented by new technologies, particularly the Global Positioning System, borehole strain- and tiltmeters, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). In particular, the report points to GIS-based map technology as the key to developing useful products from fundamental research.

In late October, in the wake of the OTA and NSTC/OSTP reports, the Basic Research subcommittee of the House Committee on Science held a hearing to discuss reauthorization of NEHRP. Across Capitol Hill, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) had already introduced l egislation, S. 1043, to reauthorize the program and create a private, non-profit Natural Disaster Insurance Corporation. Two House bills have been introduced to reform the disaster insurance system. One of these, H.R. 1856, garnered 257 cosponsors when it was introduced by Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.). The interest of a sizable majority of the House membership is a direct reaction to the huge cost of recent disasters. Losses from the Northridge earthquake totaled over $20 billion with insurance claims to pping $12 billion, and the 1993 Midwest floods had a total cost of over $14 billion. The White House has also focused on this problem, releasing a National Economic Council white paper on disaster insurance reform last summer.

Sticker shock is a powerful motivating force in Washington, and it has led to a renewed interest in mitigation, spearheaded by FEMA Director James L. Witt. Since its inception in 1978, FEMA has been primarily a reactive agency, cleaning up the mess after earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and floods. The Hazard Mitigation Relocation Act of 1993 marked a major departure from that pattern -- in the wake of the Mississippi flooding, the legislation provided funds for FEMA to relocate homes and bu sinesses off the flood plain. The payoff of such a strategy has been evident after subsequent flooding and led to a groundswell of support for other types of mitigation efforts. In December, a National Mitigation Conference held in Washington attracted nearly 900 attendees (many more than expected) to discuss implementation of the national mitigation strategy. In his opening remarks, Witt called the high cost of disaster assistance a disaster itself and vowed to accelerate efforts to emphasize mitigati on.

The high cost of disaster losses has been called a "disaster tax" by USGS Director Gordon Eaton, who used the concept during Congressional testimony to illustrate the high benefit:cost ratio of earthquake research. Arguments such as that helped Eaton con vince Congress to spare the USGS in the last budget cycle.

The increased emphasis on mitigation is a tremendous opportunity for geoscientists to get out the word that science is a public good. The renewed interest in mitigation suggests that people are listening. It is up to us to ensure that there is something for them to hear.

(Written by Dave Applegate, AGI Government Affairs, and Murray Hitzman, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, Washington DC 20500. Hitzman chaired the National Earthquake Strategy Working Group.)

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Last updated February 4, 1996

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