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Summary of NEHRP Reauthorization Hearings

Hearing on the Reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program
House Science Committee
House Subcommittee on Basic Research
February 23, 1999

The House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research held a hearing on the reauthorization of NEHRP on February 23, 1999. Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) opened the hearing by saying, "NEHRP is important. Since its inception in 1977, NEHRP has contributed greatly to our store of knowledge about the causes and effects of earthquakes and has helped reduce our vulnerability through engineering research and new building designs." Science Committee Ranking Member George Brown attended the hearing, remarking that he has "a vested interest in NEHRP," an understatement given that Brown sponsored the original 1977 bill and has been a leading supporter of the program through its history. Committee members heard from representatives of the four main agencies involved in NEHRP as well as two scientists in earthquake research centers. Their testimony is available from the House Science Committee website.

Michael Armstrong, Associate Director for Mitigation for FEMA, said that "earthquakes represent the largest single potential for casualties and damages from a natural hazard facing this country." He explained FEMA's two main roles within NEHRP: to serve as the lead agency and "to apply the results of research and technology development into effective earthquake loss reduction measures at state and local levels of government." Armstrong referred goals in the recent NEHRP strategic plan, "Using Knowledge to Reduce Earthquake Losses," that address this responsibility. They include: accelerate implementation of earthquake loss-reduction practices and policies; improve techniques to reduce seismic vulnerability of facilities and systems; improve the quality and use of seismic hazard identification and risk-assessment methods; and improve the understanding of earthquakes and their effects. He also spoke about future areas of emphasis in the strategic plan, which include emphasizing regional and community-based approaches to loss reduction, improve the experimental research infrastructure, and determine the costs and benefits of alternative mitigation strategies.

Dr. Pat Leahy, chief geologist of the US Geological Survey, spoke about the three-fold USGS role in NEHRP. The USGS produces products such as national seismic hazard maps and conducts earthquake hazard assessments for earthquake loss reduction. The second USGS role is to provide timely and accurate notifications of earthquakes and information on their location, size, and damage potential. To achieve this goal, the USGS monitors seismic events through the National Seismic System, which incorporates information from the USGS National Earthquake Information Center, National Seismographic Network, and 13 regional seismic networks operated by universities. The third role is to carry out studies and research on earthquake occurrence and effects. Leahy emphasized the need for funding of a "real-time seismic warning system," which was authorized under the 1997 NEHRP reauthorization.

Dr. Joe Bordogna, acting deputy director of the National Science Foundation, spoke about NSF's activities relevant to NEHRP, noting that NSF supports "numerous individual investigator and small group projects, two university consortia, and four university-based earthquake centers that advance NEHRP goals." He emphasized two main NSF projects in his remarks. The first addresses a provision in the 1997 NEHRP reauthorization legislation, calling for NSF to collaborate with other NEHRP agencies in developing a comprehensive plan for modernizing experimental earthquake engineering research facilities in the nation. Bordogna reported that the plan has been completed and calls for the creation of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. The project, which will be created over five years, will be "an integrated system of upgraded and new experimental research facilities for testing full size structures and their components and partial scale models." It will be a computer- connected network of facilities around the country that includes shake tables, reaction walls for pseudo-dynamic testing, centrifuges for testing soils under earthquake loads, and field testing facilities. Bordogna also spoke about the importance of the Global Seismographic Network, which is operated as a partnership between the USGS and the NSF-supported IRIS, the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology. This 100 station network is the primary method of locating, in near-real time, seismic events worldwide.

Raymond Kammer, director of NIST, spoke about NIST's role in NEHRP as conducting problem-focused research and development to improve codes, standards, and practices for buildings and lifelines. In addition, NIST works to promote better building practices among architects and engineers; encourages the implementation of research results into standards and building codes; and works to develop seismic standards for new and existing lifelines. He showed the committee videos explaining recent tests on shaking and using models to illustrate the type of research conducted.

Dr. Daniel Abrams, director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center, testified in support of NEHRP. He justified the expense of research by pointing out that "if research can reduce the loss from a single future earthquake by as little as 10 percent, the payoff on the research investment will be as much as a thousand times the annual research budget for earthquake research in this country." He pointed to the success of NEHRP in the development of "NEHRP Recommended Provisions for the Development of Seismic Regulations for New Buildings," which serve as the basis for the development of new national building code standards. He spoke about the need for future research using advanced computations capabilities, materials and structural control, and developing methods for conducting rapid damage and loss assessments immediately after an event.

Dr. Christopher Arnold, president of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, spoke about the importance of NEHRP, especially programs developing performance based seismic design, experimental research facilities, and problem-focused research. He testified on the need for social science research and application to determine ways to lessen the impact of earthquakes on people.

During the question and answer period, Smith remarked that he hoped to "increase authorization funding and also increase our bang for the buck." He asked what additional needs exist in seismic monitoring. Leahy responded that a recent assessment of the seismic monitoring system showed that it needs a major overhaul to take advantage of new technologies, especially in urban areas. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) asked about the effect of a major earthquake, similar to the one that occurred in 1812 near Memphis. Armstrong responded, "you can't control mother nature, but can control human nature." By controlling how and where we build and by using effective education campaigns, we can mitigate damage from major events.

Hearing on NOAA, U.S. Fire Administration, and NEHRP reauthorization
Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee
Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space
June 29, 1999

The June 29th hearing was held to discuss public safety issues in science and technology in the context of reauthorizing three federal programs:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), and the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP).  Representatives of NOAA and USFA, as well as the four agencies cooperating under NEHRP, came to testify in favor of continued support and justify their costs and budget requests.  Members of the Subcommittee recognized the significant impact that natural hazards have had on the life and property of US citizens and listened as the witnesses detailed their programs and roles in hazard mitigation.

Senators Present
Subcommittee Chair Bill Frist (R-TN)
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK)
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME)

Introductory Remarks
Frist had a brief opening statement in which he focused on public safety in the realm of weather, fire, and earthquakes.  He talked about preventing and mitigating disasters through weather forecasting before turning his attention to the U.S. Fire Administration, whom he commended for their focus on public education.  Frist also outlined the organization of NIST, USGS, FEMA, and NSF under NEHRP.  Snowe, who is not a member of the subcommittee, also had an opening statement in which she expressed her displeasure to NOAA Administrator James Baker on his recent decision to take a seat on the New England Fisheries Council from her home state of Maine and give it to New Hampshire.


Testimony from all panelists is available on the Subcommittee web page at

Panel 1: Dr. James Baker, Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, and Administrator, National Oceanic and
    Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce

Baker began by citing weather prediction as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, setting the stage for NOAA's budget requests into the 21st century.  With an impressive multi-media display, Baker demonstrated the current capabilities of weather prediction and modeling, and examples of "exemplary services during recent hazardous weather events."  He gave examples primarily from the recent rash of violent tornadoes that swept across the central plains, while emphasizing that approval of NOAA budget requests will improve weather forecasting accuracy and timeliness even further.  Frist, in the question and answer period, was most concerned with the role of private, commercial weather services.  Baker called their private sector relationship "critical to get the warnings out."  Frist also singled out a request for a new, large Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Research Lab computer.  Baker explained that the new computing power would increase forecasting ability and look at long-term change.

Panel 2:
Mr. Michael Armstrong, Associate Director for Mitigation, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Mr. Ray Kammer, Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Commerce
Dr. P. Patrick Leahy, Chief Geologist, U.S. Geological Survey
Mr. Richard A. Marinucci, Acting Chief Operating Officer, U.S. Fire Administration
Dr. Eugene Wong, Assistant Director for the Engineering Directorate, National Science Foundation

The second panel was primarily made up of witnesses from the four agencies cooperating under NEHRP, in addition to Marinucci from the USFA.  Marinucci spoke first and got the ball rolling with some grizzly statistics:  Fire kills more than 4,000 people and injures more than 25,000 every year.  The US fire death rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world. In the spirit of the natural hazards focus of the hearing, Marinucci also pointed out that fire fighters are an important part of the first response teams in any disaster.  He outlined the USFA budget request, saying the theme this year was on prevention and education.

As the agency that coordinates efforts under NEHRP, it made sense that Armstrong, as the FEMA representative, would be the first to speak from the remaining witnesses. Armstrong also started with statistics, explaining that "earthquakes represent the largest single potential for casualties and damage from a natural hazard facing the country."  He cited the $40 billion in costs associated with the Northridge earthquake, a moderate shake that occurred in California. According to Armstrong, the costs in dollars and casualties would be substantially higher yet if a large-magnitude earthquake were to hit a major urban area.  As such, argued Armstrong, reducing earthquake losses is a matter of national concern, hence the importance of NEHRP.

Raymond Kammer, director of NIST, was the next to take the floor.  NIST is involved with both NEHRP and the Fire Research Program, and as such Kammer was at the hearing to support both programs.  He explained: "NIST's legislatively mandated role in NEHRP is to conduct problem-focused research and development to improve codes, standards, and practices for buildings and infrastructure lifelines; to promote better building practices among architects and engineers; to work with national standards and model building code organizations to encourage implementation of research results; and to work with national standards organizations to develop seismic standards for new and existing lifelines."  Kammer offered examples of the type of work NIST has done, including coming up with retrofits for a type of systematic structural failure found in some buildings after the Northridge earthquake.

Patrick Leahy from the USGS started his testimony off with the statement that the Administration "strongly supports the reauthorization of NEHRP, a critical national program."  Leahy outlined the role the USGS has in NEHRP as follows: "To produce products such as earthquake hazard assessments and national seismic hazard maps for earthquake loss reduction; to provide timely and accurate notifications of earthquakes and information on their location, size, and damage potential; and, to carry out studies and research on earthquake occurrence and effects." Leahy gave a number of examples of programs that the USGS is involved in, from earthquake hazard assessment to seismic monitoring.  With regard to the latter, Leahy pointed out the large costs associated with upgrading the current monitoring network and stated that the current authorization levels were not high enough to meet monitoring needs.

Wong presented examples of the kind of work the NSF has supported in the past or is considering supporting in the future through NEHRP, focusing on the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES),  EarthScope, and the Incorporated Research Institutes in Seismology (IRIS).

Frist posed a few questions to the panel, initially addressing the shortcomings of seismic prediction.  Leahy said simply that we are "stuck."  He went on to clarify that the focus now is on mitigation, not prediction, although he was quick to point out that increased seismic monitoring would open new doors.  Frist was mostly interested in partnerships that have been developed between the federal agencies and the private sector and state and local governments.  All involved agreed that such partnerships have been important, particularly in disseminating information to the public.

Hearing on the Turkey, Taiwan, and Mexico Earthquakes: Lessons Learned
House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Basic Research
October 20, 1999

Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) hosted a hearing to explore the current status of the US earthquake research programs and how information gathered from these programs is distributed to the local communities.  In his opening statement the chairman said, “An earthquake of similar strength [to the Mojave Desert quake that hit on October 16] occurring in a heavily populated area in the US would result in catastrophic loss of life.  It is my hope that the lessons we learn studying earthquakes abroad will help us to be more prepared when it happens here.”

Witnesses at the hearing included:
Waverly Person, Director, USGS National Earthquake Information Center
Professor Thomas O'Rourke, representing the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
Professor Terry Wallace, President, Seismological Society of America
Battalion Chief Michael Tamillow, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Service

The complete written testimony of each witness, the hearing charter, and member statements are available at the House Science Committee website.

Mr. Person explained the role of the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) during the recent quakes and what had been learned from these events.  NEIC "rapidly and accurately determines the location and magnitude of significant earthquakes throughout the world."  During the September 21, 1999 earthquake to strike Taiwan, the USGS Global Seismic Network station in Taiwan and the US National Seismic Network stations throughout the US were able, within 13 minutes, to "locate the event and issue automatic, computer-generated e-mail, fax, and pager announcements of the events to critical offices and disaster relief agencies."  He explained that the high concentration of modern digital seismic recording instruments in Taiwan -- a network the USGS helped Taiwan to develop and build -- greatly helped to save lives after the quake.  The current US seismic network is much less concentrated and thorough than the Taiwanese system.  In concluding, Mr. Person requested that as the federal government continues to fund earthquake related research, it should also update and increase the seismic instruments in the US.

Mr. O'Rourke, a professor of engineering, discussed the vast structural damages that occurred in the August 17 and September 21 quakes in Turkey and Taiwan, respectively.  He said, "The two most pervasive images and lessons from both the Turkey and Taiwan earthquakes are 1) thousands of failures of non-ductile concrete buildings, and 2) surface faulting with critical facilities ruptured and unserviceable because they were intersected by severe fault movements."  None-ductile concrete buildings are ones in which the quantity of reinforced steel is not adequate to support the swaying movement of the building due to ground movement in earthquakes.  Many of these types of buildings collapse during earthquakes, often killing many of the people trapped inside, but it is also very important to understand the structures underlying buildings.  Mr. O'Rourke called for the US to develop an inventory of non-ductile concrete buildings and structures in seismically active areas and that "all citizens should have access to knowledge about the building they live and/or work in."

Terry Wallace gave information the geologists and seismologists have learned from the recent quakes, especially the North Anatolian fault in western Turkey.  The North Anatolian and San Andreas faults share several properties: "both are strike-slip, with a right-lateral sense of motion, and have total fault lengths of approximately 1000 km."  Also, both are complex fault systems that seismologist formerly thought limited the scale of quakes because the earthquake size was limited by the length of the fault segment.  But in the Turkey earthquake, "the fault ruptured at least four segments, challenging the previous assumptions.  The faulting appeared to jump over segment boundaries making the earthquake much larger than would be expected by the length of any given segment."  Mr. Wallace concluded by making three points: 1) to help reduce loses from earthquakes in the US we must use information gathered from quakes around the world; 2) seismology is a data-driven science that is fostered by the Advanced Seismic System;  and 3) basic research is necessary for hazard reduction.

Mr. Tamillow discussed his involvement with the Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) task forces in recent post-earthquake response.  "A US&R task force is comprised of 66+ personnel augmented by 25-30 tons of specialized tools, supplies and equipment" that can mobilize within six hours to respond to a mission.  These task forces can mobilize anyplace around the world, but the response can be delayed because of transportation issues and availability.  Once these teams arrive on the scene they conduct a series of rescue missions.  In his testimony, Mr. Tamillow said that these rescue teams need an "effective exercise program for large-scale response efforts to a severe earthquake to address" and identify complications so that they can implement better solutions.

Sources:  Hearing Testimony

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Scott Broadwell and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated December 17, 1999

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