Most Recent Action   106th Congress   Background   Hearing Summaries 

Natural Hazards Mitigation Policy (8-7-02)

Most Recent Action
With many western US states currently threatened by drought and fire, the US Geological Survey (USGS) held a briefing on July 18th to highlight its wildfire research programs and to demonstrate its GeoMAC fire-mapping website. Speakers at the briefing, entitled "Fighting Fire with Science," noted the USGS's long history of valuable pre- and post-fire research. In an effort to assist during fires, the USGS has coordinated a multi-agency partnership to provide near real-time Internet maps to fire coordinators. GeoMAC is an online interactive mapping system that provides current fire conditions in the US such as wildfire locations, acreage, and perimeters. Tim Murphy, from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), acknowledged the USGS's important contributions that have helped firefighters achieve a 99% fire-control success rate. Briefing co-sponsor Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) spoke briefly on the need to transfer lifesaving technologies such as personal GPS units and thermal imaging devices from governmental agencies to firefighters. (8/7/02)

On June 19th, a briefing entitled "21st Century Dust Bowl" was held to discuss the prediction, impacts, mitigation and policy of drought in the US. Speakers included Don Wilhite, Director of the National Drought Mitigation Center and the International Drought Information Center at the University of Nebraska, and Steven Running, Director of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana. Both spoke on the nature of droughts, including the roles droughts play in the creation of fuel for fires. Wilhite further touched on policy issues associated with drought preparedness and management. Running explained his work on drought analysis using satellite maps based on factors like vegetation and moisture levels. The briefing was sponsored by Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) and was attended by congressional staffers, federal agency employees, and other interested parties. (8/7/02)

On May 16th, the National Drought Preparedness Act of 2002 was introduced simultaneously in both the House (H.R. 4754) and Senate (S. 2528). The House bill was introduced by Reps. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) and currently has 50 co-sponsors. The Senate bill was introduced by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Max Baucus (D-MT) along with 11 other original co-sponsors. The purpose of this bill is to establish a National Drought Council under the jurisdiction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  This council would be charged with improving drought preparedness and mitigating response efforts. A FEMA-administered Drought Assistance Fund would "assist State, local, tribal, and critical service entities with drought-related activities; and...expand the technology transfer of drought and water conservation strategies." The legislation is backed by the Western Governors' Association, the National Governors' Association, and a dozen other groups. It is based on the work of a  National Drought Policy Commission, which was established by the National Drought Policy Act of 1998 (PL 105-199).  More background can be found at (7/2/02)

On May 22nd, during “Hurricane Awareness Week,” Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI) introduced legislation that provides $45 million over the next three years to the US Weather Research Program (USWRP) to improve severe weather forecasting. H.R. 4791 was referred to the Science Committee.  The USWRP is an interagency program composed of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the US Navy.  Specific areas of weather-forecasting improvement include: increased accuracy in the prediction of location, strength, and timing of hurricanes, winter storms, and rain storms; increased accuracy in flood forecasting; and improved 2- to 10-day forecasting. (6/12/02)

On October 11th, the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards held a hearing to receive testimony concerning research efforts into the prediction of severe storms, particularly on the subjects of flooding, hurricanes, and wind damage.  The witnesses addressed the need for emergency management officials to ensure that the public is adequately warned about storms and their effects, and the need for more research to improve severe weather prediction.  The three legislative issues  discussed at the hearing were H.R. 2486, the Tropical Cyclone Inland Forecasting Improvement and Warning System Development Act, introduced by Rep. Etheridge (D-NC); draft legislation by Rep. Moore (D-KS) dealing with research related to severe wind damage entitled "Hurricane, Tornado and Related Natural Hazards Research Act," (it was later introduced as H.R. 3592) and reathorization of the U.S. Weather Research Program (USWRP).  For more detail on this hearing, see the hearing summary below. (10/17/01)

Reps. Bob Etheridge (D-NC), Kevin Brady (R-TX), and Ralph Hall (D-TX) introduced legislation on July 11, 2001, to improve hurricane inland flood forecasting and develop a warning system for inland residents.  Named the "Tropical Cyclone Inland Forecasting Improvement and Warning System Development Act of 2001," the bill authorizes $1.15 million per year for five years to the National Weather Service (NWS), a division of  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to improve its forecasting, training, and education for inland hurricane flood events.  In a press conference on July 12,  North Carolina victims of Hurricane Floyd were on hand to describe their ordeal after the hurricane, which caused 48 inland deaths.  The victims stated that prior warning of the floods caused by the hurricane would have allowed them to better protect themselves and their property.  Rep. Brady also cited Texas' experience with hurricane and tropical storms, such as Tropical Storm Allison that caused unexpected levels of flooding in Texas in June 2001.  The bill recently received an endorsement from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) -- the Science Committee has jurisdiction over the legislation.  A news release announcing the press conference and the legislation is available at Rep. Etheridge's website. (7/13/01)

Legislation in 106th Congress
The year 1999 saw everything from a rash of tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma to flooding and wind damage from hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, especially in the Carolinas.  In response to these natural disasters and the drought that affected much of the nation's heartland last summer, several bills on disaster mitigation and insurance coverage were introduced during the first session of the 106th Congress.  Most of these bills amended the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to expand current pre-disaster mitigation programs to include small businesses, farmers, access to reasonable insurance, and decreasing costs associated with disasters.  At the end of the first session, there were close to fifty bills on disaster mitigation in Congress, but few of them have seen much action.

One exception to the congressional bottleneck was S. 388, a bill establishing a disaster mitigation pilot program within the Small Business Administration.  It was signed into law (P.L. 106-24) in April 1999.  Senator Max Cleland (D-GA) introduced S. 388 in February 1999; Representative James Talent (R-MO) introduced a companion bill, H.R. 818, later in the month.  Both bills moved quickly through the legislative process.  Soon, S. 388 superseded H.R. 818, and Sen. Cleland's bill went to President Clinton for his signature.  The Senate Committee on Small Business and the House Committee on Small Business have more information on both of these bills.

The Homeowner's Insurance Availability Act of 1999, H.R. 21, also escaped the bottleneck.  Introduced by Rep. Rick Lazio (R-NY) on January 6, 1999, the very first day of the 106th Congress, it has been the subject of several hearings.  The bill provides both federally funded reinsurance for state and private insurance and reinsurance programs through auctions. The legislation specifically states that it will not displace or compete with private interests. The program would affect insurance for private residences only.  Among other requirements, eligible state programs are required to put at least ten percent of net investment income into mitigation efforts. The insurance would only apply to single-event disasters with damages exceeding $2 billion and the state or private program's claims-paying capacity. The Secretary of the Treasury would also have to determine that the disaster constitutes a likely one in one hundred year event.  H.R. 21 also requires the Secretary to raise the minimum level of retained losses annually. The total amount paid out by the federal government in a single year would not exceed $25 billion. If claims were to exceed that amount, prorated portions would be awarded. Contracts would be limited to "fifty-percent of the risk of insured losses in excess of retained losses for States or regions." After subcommittee consideration, the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services passed this widely-supported, bipartisan authorization bill.  It is now on the House floor calendar.

H.R. 707 was the only other disaster mitigation bill that is on the proverbial fast track.  Introduced in early February 1999 by Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-FL), H.R. 707 amends the Stafford Act to require states to submit a detailed, comprehensive state program for emergency and disaster mitigation prior to receiving funds from FEMA.  The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure passed the bill out of committee on March 3, 1999, and the bill was placed on the House calendar for floor debate.  During floor debate, several amendments were introduced before the bill was passed in a 415-2 vote.  The bill was then sent to the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, which passed it on February 9, 2000.

On October 27, 1999, the House Banking Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity held a hearing on the Two Floods and You are Out of the Taxpayer's Pocket Act, H.R. 2728.  Representatives Doug Bereuter (R-NE) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the bill the previous month.  The bill amends the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act -- the authorizing legislation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and all of its programs -- to reform the agency's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  H.R. 2728 addresses properties that are repeatedly damaged in floods, which under current law are not charged the actuarial, risk-based rates for their flood insurance.  Under this new legislation, owners of repetitive loss properties, who refuse other FEMA flood mitigation measurers and have already been paid for two or more NFIP claims, would have to pay actuarial rates, saving millions of taxpayer dollars.  A summary of this hearing and other related mitigation hearings are available on the hearing summaries website.

The Senate passed H.R. 707, the Disaster Mitigation and Cost Reduction Act of 2000, by unanimous consent on July 19, 2000.  During floor debate, Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) introduced an amendment in the form of a substitution that completely changed the bill from the version that passed the House -- necessitating a conference between the two chambers to work out the differences.  Smith's bill transfers the power of many of the programs envisioned in the bill from the president (as it is in the version introduced by Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-FL) and passed by the House earlier in the year) to the Director of FEMA.  More information on the bill and the complete text of the different versions of the bill are available on the Library of Congress's Thomas web site(7/19/00)

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Emergency Management held a hearing on the cost effectiveness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) on July 20, 2000.  Nearly a year ago, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on HMGP that found in the last ten years approximately 15% of funds distributed by HMGP have been exempt from traditional cost-effective analysis.  The release of this report coincided with a subcommittee hearing on the same matter.  The July 20th hearing was a follow up to see how HMGP has incorporated the recommendations from the 1999 GAO report.  Summaries of both the July 20, 2000, hearing and the August 4, 1999, hearing on HMGP are available on AGI's Natural Hazards Mitigation and Insurance Hearing Summaries website. (7/20/00)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced on December 13th that the two agencies will partner as part of Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant CommunitiesProject Impact began as a pilot program in 1997, with seven communities, as a community-based pre-disaster mitigation program.  Currently there are more than 200 Project Impact cities in nearly every state.  According to the press release, the agencies will promote improved disaster recovery and mitigation in areas around the nation by applying "science to better understand and prepare for the natural events that cause natural disasters."  A copy of the Memorandum of Understanding  between the two agencies is available on the USGS website.

On October 30, 2000, President Clinton signed H.R. 707, the Disaster Mitigation and Cost Reduction Act, into law (P.L. 106-390).  The bill, originally introduced by Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-FL), would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to require  that states submit a detailed, comprehensive state program for emergency and disaster mitigation prior to receiving funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  During House floor debate on the bill back  in March 2000, two amendments were offered and approved by the House that would clarify language in the bill and require that FEMA hold a public comment period before "adopting new or modified policies that may result in a meaningful change in the amount of assistance a State or local community may receive."  The House passed H.R. 707 in a 415-2 vote.  Senate consideration of the bill was prolonged by the appropriation bills and an amendment in the form of a substitute that was offered by Sen. Robert Smith (R-NH).  More information on the Smith version and the Senate floor debate is available below. (11/4/00)

Other Legislation

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was established in 1979 when President Carter signed the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which authorizes much of FEMA's activities. The agency's mission is "to reduce loss of life and property and protect our nation's critical infrastructure from all types of hazards through a comprehensive, risk-based, emergency management program of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery."

Between 1989 and 1994, the president declared more than 291 disasters, and FEMA gave over $34 billion in assistance to disaster victims.  In order to decrease the federal costs of disasters and meet goals set out in the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), FEMA has incorporated pre-disaster, community-based mitigation into its restructured, refocused mission.  In 1996, the agency released its "National Mitigation Strategy," developed as a framework to help reduce the losses from natural disasters. The agency called upon all levels of government, individuals, and the private sector to build partnerships to address the plan's five major elements: Hazard identification and risk assessment, Applied research and technology transfer, Public awareness, training, and education, Incentives and resources, and Leadership and coordination. The National Mitigation Strategy includes a Mitigation Action Plan which describes actions all Americans should take to begin to reach the goals set out in the Strategy.

In Fall 1997, FEMA announced the launching of Project Impact, a community-based pre-disaster mitigation program. Seven pilot communities were chosen: Deerfield Beach, FL; Allegany County, MD; Oakland, CA; Pascagoula, MS; Seattle, WA; Randolph County/Tucker County, WV; and Wilmington/New Hanover County, NC.  Early in 1998, FEMA announced that the pilot program had been a success.  As a result, the agency was planning on opening one Project Impact community in every state by the end of the year. The Project Impact website includes information on ways for communities to reach the National Mitigation Strategy's goals.

For more information on developments during the 105th Congress, see

Hearing on Weatherproofing the U.S.: Are We Prepared for Severe Storms?
House Science Committee
October 11, 2001

Hearing Summary
The House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards hearing on weatherproofing the U.S. began with opening statements from Chairman Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI), Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC), and Rep. Dennis Moore (D-KS).  Ehlers outlined the major issues to be discussed stressing the importance of weather research and technology.  He stated that severe weather in the U.S. claims about 1500 lives each year and causes approximately $16 billion in damages.  Ehlers's goal is to improve communication, education, and outreach in order to reduce casualties and damage of potentially deadly storms.  Although Etheridge is not a member of the Subcommittee, he is very involved in the issues and requested to attend the hearing.  His short opening statements expressed the need for an inland flooding warning system, and introduced his legislation, H.R. 2486.  Moore, who is a member of the National Wind Hazard Reduction Caucus, gave a short opening statement as well, in which he introduced his draft legislation entitled the "Hurricane, Tornado and Related Natural Hazards Research Act."  The object of Moore's legislation is to achieve, within 10 years, a measurable reduction in losses that would otherwise occur to life and property from wind and related disasters.

The first witness was Dr. Chris Landsea, Research Meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division of the Atlantic Oceanographic Meteorological Laboratory, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Landsea laid the framework for his arguments by stating that the years 1995-2000 experienced the highest level of North Atlantic hurricane activity ever measured due to a warm phase in the Atlantic Multidecadal Mode, a north Atlantic and Caribbean Sea surface temperature shift between warm and cool phases that each last 20 to 40 years.  He then communicated the need for more accurate prediction capabilities to provide for more timely warnings for the rapidly growing coastal populations who suffer the most damage from increased storm activity.

Dr. Len Pietrafesa, Director of External Affairs for the College of Mathematical Sciences at NCSU, agreed that research is needed to improve prediction capabilities.  His testimony, however, was directed towards tropical cyclone impacts and the need to reduce the loss of life and destruction of property due to flooding, which according to Pietrafesa, is the nations "most injurious and frequent natural hazard."  He expressed his support for H.R. 2486 and told Congress that in order to weatherproof the U.S., additional funding is needed in the areas of research and technology.  Pietrafesa also pointed out the need for a new risk scale for estuary and inland flooding that would parallel the existing Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale and be easily understandable by the public.

The next witness was Dr. Steven L. McCabe,  a professor at the University of Kansas speaking on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).  McCabe began his testimony by calling on the federal government to provide research funding  "to help reduce the significant annual toll in casualties and property damage from windstorms."  According to McCabe,  ASCE supports the "Hurricane, Tornado and Related Natural Hazards Research Act", just as it supported its legislative predecessor, H.R. 5499.  The new legislation would create a coordinated federal windstorm and related hazards reduction research, development and technology transfer program that would work to reduce losses from wind related disasters.  McCabe concluded by stressing the importance of  improving the structural performance of buildings under wind loads, which would then resist other loading regimes, such as earthquakes and even blast loading.

Jack Hayes, Director of the Office of Science and Technology within the National Weather Service (NWS) and Co-Chair of the U.S. Weather Research Program (USWRP), gave his testimony, which focussed on the importance of the USWRP.  He reported that the program is working to expand the number of participant agencies to provide "the most comprehensive and cost-effective weather information possible for the nation."  Doug Hill, Chief Meteorologist at ABC's Channel 7 News, was the next witness on the panel.  Hill stressed the importance of the National Warning System and the need to develop a better, more regulated system for broadcasting warnings.  According to Hill, only one television station broadcast the warning system on September 24th when tornadoes hit the Washington, D.C. area killing two students.  In Hill's opinion, some towns are more prepared for severe weather than others, and D.C. is not prepared.

The last witness was Robert F. Shea, Acting Administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Shea described FEMA's multi-hazard approach to mitigation and talked about Hazards US or HAZUS, a multi-hazard loss estimation and risk assessment tool under development.  He said that HAZUS will be "invaluable to states and communities in establishing priorities on where to focus their available energy and resources."   Shea suggested that inland flood forecasting, a warning system, and outreach efforts to educate local meteorologists and the public combined with FEMA's flood hazards maps could result in saved lives.

Full text of written testimony can be found at the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards website.


Sources:  Federal Emergency Management Administration, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, U.S. Geological Survey,  Library of Congress,, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation website, and the House Science Committee

Submitted by Kasey Shewey and Margaret A. Baker, AGI Government Affairs; and AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Interns Althea Cawely-Murphree, Michael Wagg, Caetie Ofiesh, Catherine Macris, Sarah Riggen, and David Viator.

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

Last Updated August 7, 2002.

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