Government Affairs Program SPECIAL UPDATE

Earthquake Program Reauthorization Gets Underway


This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies

IN A NUTSHELL: On February 23rd, the House Subcommittee on Basic Research held a hearing as the first step toward reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). New subcommittee chairman Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) expressed his support for the program and his hope to "increase authorization funding and also increase our bang for the buck." One of the scientists giving testimony stated that "if research can reduce the loss from 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." Two of AGI's member societies have sent out alerts to their membership encouraging them to express their views on NEHRP to Congress in order to keep the legislative ball rolling to successful enactment of a new bill.


The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) was created by law in 1977 as a long-term, nationwide, earthquake risk reduction program. Member agencies in the NEHRP are the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The main focus of these agencies under NEHRP has been research and development in areas such as the science of earthquakes, earthquake performance of buildings and other structures, societal impacts, and emergency response and recovery. Congress reauthorizes NEHRP every two years, and funds the program every year via the annual appropriations process. The current authorization for NEHRP expires October 1, 1999.

Hearing Synopsis

The House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research held a hearing on the reauthorization of NEHRP on February 23, 1999. Committee members heard from representatives of the four main agencies involved in NEHRP as well as two scientists in earthquake research centers. 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 also 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 throughout its history.

The testimony is available from the House Science Committee web site at: A somewhat expanded version of this update's hearing summary is available on AGI's web site at For more information on the last reauthorization effort, see:

Michael Armstrong, Associate Director for Mitigation at 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 to future areas of emphasis in the recent NEHRP strategic plan, "Using Knowledge to Reduce Earthquake Losses," which include expanding regional and community-based approaches to loss reduction, improving the experimental research infrastructure, and determining 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, testified 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 was a new plan calling for development over the next five years of a computer-connected network of experimental earthquake engineering research facilities around the country. 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 that agency's role in 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.

Dr. Daniel Abrams, director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center, 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 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.

Member Society Alerts

Two of AGI's member societies -- the Seismological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union -- have sent out alerts to their membership on NEHRP. The AGU alert states: "Seismic hazards are not priority issues for the new chair's district. Nonetheless, Smith listens carefully to well-reasoned arguments for supporting scientific research, especially if they come from Michigan residents. Now is the time to share your views about NEHRP and the importance of research into seismic hazards with the House Science Committee, especially the Subcommittee on Basic Research. Letters, faxes, and phone calls are still the tried and true ways to share your opinion with Members of Congress. For tips see the AGI web site at" The full text of the AGU alert is available at:

The alerts encourage geoscientists to communicate the value of seismic research supported by NEHRP to their representatives and also senators since a companion bill is expected to be introduced in the near future by Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN). They specifically encourage letters to the following House Science Committee leaders:

Honorable Nick Smith (R-MI), Chairman
Subcommittee on Basic Research
Committee on Science
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
202-225-6276 (ph), 202-225-6281 (fax)

Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Democrat
Subcommittee on Basic Research
Committee on Science
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
202-225-8885 (ph), 202-226-1477 (fax)

Honorable James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), Chairman
Committee on Science
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
202-225-6371 (ph), 202-225-0891 (fax)

Honorable George Brown (D-CA), Ranking Democrat
Committee on Science
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
202-225-6375 (ph), 202-225-3895 (fax)

Contributed by Kasey Shewey White and David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

Sources: American Geophysical Union, House Science Committee, Seismological Society of America

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

Posted February 5, 1999

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