Government Affairs Report: Current Status of Earthquake Hazard Reduction Legislation (6/99)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the June 1999 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

Congress is at work on legislation to reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) and expand federal efforts to reduce losses from earthquakes. As both population and wealth continue to flow into earthquake-prone areas of the United States, the costs of major earthquakes have skyrocketed in recent years. The higher those costs rise, the greater the potential value of geoscience data and research to save lives and protect infrastructure. As one witness put it at a hearing on the new NEHRP legislation: "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."


Since 1884, the United States has experienced over 30 major earthquakes resulting in significant financial losses and considerable loss of life. The damages associated with the 1971 San Fernando earthquake inspired the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish a committee to assess seismic hazards in southern California.  The committee’s charge was later expanded to appraise earthquake potential and consequences nationwide. The committee’s recommendations led to the development of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act, passed by Congress on October 7, 1977 as Public Law 95-124. The Act instituted NEHRP and assigned specific research and development responsibilities to the following federal agencies: the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which serves as the lead agency.

Earthquakes cause damages in four ways: ground shaking, surface rupture, ground failure, and tsunamis. Even though we have learned much about each of these mechanisms, every event seems to add to our experience. The October, 1989 Loma Prieta event taught us the dangers of building on unconsolidated fill as was done in the Marina District of San Francisco. The Northridge earthquake in January, 1994 exposed weaknesses in the knowledge of the consequences of strong ground shaking. The Northridge experience forced scientists, engineers, and policy makers to rethink building and infrastructure design in earthquake-prone areas.

Congressional Hearing

Because the current authorization for NEHRP expires on October 1 of this year, the House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research held a hearing concerning reauthorization of the program on February 23.  Representatives of the four NEHRP member agencies and two scientists from earthquake research centers presented testimony before subcommittee chair Nick Smith (R-MI). FEMA Associate Director for Mitigation Michael Armstrong spoke of implementing earthquake loss–reduction practices and policies. He set the tone for hearing by stating: "earthquakes represent the largest single potential for casualties and damages from a natural hazard facing this country." USGS Chief Geologist Pat Leahy mentioned earthquake notification information and the need for funding a “real-time seismic warning system.” Acting NSF Deputy Director Joe Bordogna described funding for numerous earthquake investigations at his agency. NIST Director Raymond Kammer explained improvements in building codes, standards, and practices. Daniel Abrams, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Earthquake Center, and Christopher Arnold, President of the Earthquake Research Institute, both testified in support of NEHRP and the importance of the program. The Seismological Society of America provided written testimony in support of developing the next generation of seismic networks.

Legislation Takes Shape

Following the hearing, Rep. Smith introduced H.R. 1184, entitled the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Authorization Act of 1999. The bill authorizes $469.6 million for earthquake readiness programs. In addition to a two-year authorization for Fiscal Years 2000 and 2001 for the four member agencies, the bill includes five-year authorizations for two new projects: the Advanced Seismic Research and Monitoring System and the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation.  For the advanced seismic system, approximately $33.5 million per year for five years is authorized for the USGS to expand and modernize seismic and strong motion instrumentation and operation of the network.  The USGS Director is also required to submit a five-year management plan for the system to Congress. The bill also authorizes NSF to establish a Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation to upgrade, link, and integrate a system of geographically distributed experimental facilities for earthquake engineering testing of full-sized structures and their components and partial-scale physical models.

The bill was reported out of the House Science Committee on March 25 with bipartisan support from Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and ranking member George Brown (D-CA), who sponsored the original 1977 bill and has championed the effort throughout its history. It passed the full House on April 21 by a vote of 414 to 3 and was sent over to the Senate for its consideration.

Although science enjoys full committee status in the House, that is not the case in the Senate where science is relegated to the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Subcommittee Chairman Bill Frist (R-TN) is the likely sponsor of companion legislation in the Senate, but with only two staff handling science issues for the subcommittee, the NEHRP bill must wait in line behind a number of other bills before coming up for consideration, probably not until mid-summer at the earliest.

Both the Seismological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union have alerted their memberships urging communication with their political representatives to support H.R. 1184. Those efforts should be concentrated on the Senate in the near term, but the ultimate fate of the new spending proposed in this bill rests in the hands of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Even if H.R. 1184 is enacted into law, it only authorizes spending on earthquake research, and subsequent appropriations bills will determine what actually gets spent.


Although people dating back to the early Chinese have been studying earthquakes for thousands of years, we still have no scientifically verifiable method for predicting earthquakes. If there are early warning signs, society has not yet discovered them. But if we cannot predict these events, we can still do a great deal to reduce losses from them. The advanced seismic network proposed in H.R. 1184 would make it possible to send out electronic warnings as an earthquake begins. Because electrons move faster than shock waves, computerized systems will have precious seconds in which to shut down gas lines, stop trains, secure hazardous materials, and power down generating stations. Long before an earthquake strikes, data from detailed geologic maps can be used to determine the ground-shaking potential at any given spot, information that can then be used to develop improved building codes, land-use zoning, and engineering design.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted July 13, 1999

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