Summary of Hearings on the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP; 6-25-04)
The Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space met on June 24th to discuss the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 2608), more commonly known as NEHRP. Senator Brownback (R-KS) presided over the hearing and was joined by Senator Wyden (D-OR) of Oregon. All four witnesses testified that they were pleased with the language of the bill and saw no need to make any changes.
The major difference in the new bill has been the shift of NEHRP from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has since been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST is glad to be the lead agency for NEHRP, but will continue to work with the USGS, DHS, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) on the program. S. Sunder, representative for NIST, was concerned, however, that while they had the expertise and capability to take responsibility for NEHRP, they did not have much flexibility in their budget to accommodate the additional program. Sunder reported that NIST has approximately $2 million to contribute to the program, which will leave them $6 million short. They will be forced to depend on funding contributions from the three other organizations involved. Senator Wyden was skeptical of the role DHS would play in NEHRP due to their budget constraints and manmade disaster focus.
Dr. Applegate from the USGS proposed that an advisory committee be formed to provide stronger direction for all agencies involved in the NEHRP program. He also explained to Senator Brownback how NEHRP is providing assistance to other seismically active countries by creating a global seismographic network similar to the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) created for the United States. Currently, data is being collected around the world by the USGS and NSF funded research projects that will be combined with population data to generate a shake map, allowing foreign governments to know the extent and seriousness of an earthquake in a matter of minutes, not hours.
In preparation for reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), the House Science Subcommittee on Research held a hearing on May 8, 2003, to examine the program's current status. The hearing coincidentally occurred after two recent earthquakes in the eastern U.S., causing Subcommittee Chair Nick Smith (R-MI) to remind the audience that earthquakes are "not just a west coast problem" and that NEHRP has contributed significantly towards improving the nation's understanding of earthquakes. Testimony from the witnesses reflected positively on NEHRP's accomplishments, stressed the importance of improving funding to further the program, and critically examined the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) role as lead NEHRP agency. Formerly an independent agency, FEMA has been absorbed into the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since the last authorization of NEHRP.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) agreed with the witnesses that funding levels, which have declined by 40% in real dollars since 1978, are currently too low. She suggested to Smith that they send a letter to appropriators calling for improved funding to assure the proper resources for NEHRP. She added that the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) especially required aggressive funding. The lone federal witness, Anthony Lowe, Director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security that was formerly FEMA, commented that currently each NEHRP agency creates its own program budget, but the NEHRP strategic plan recommends the agencies coordinate their budgets with each other. Smith replied that according to the law, FEMA should have been leading and coordinating the NEHRP budget process all along.
The representatives and the witnesses raised concern over FEMA's handling of NEHRP. At the hearing, Lowe unveiled the 2001-2005 NEHRP strategic plan. The strategic plan was approved in 2001 by the other NEHRP agencies, but was first released by FEMA at the hearing. Both Lofgren and Smith voiced strong disapproval over FEMA's two-year delay. Lofgren went on to say that even after taking extra time with the strategic plan, it was lacking specifics. With the move of FEMA to the DHS, Lofgren questioned if FEMA is still the best lead agency for NEHRP. Smith suggested that the USGS might be a more appropriate lead, or perhaps a rotating directorate. Lowe responded that because DHS is an all-hazard agency, NEHRP is now "more at home than ever." He added that earthquake mitigation activities, such as improved building codes, have also increased protection from terrorist activities. He suggested that a research subcommittee within FEMA might help the agency better deal with the science aspect of the program.
The subcommittee asked the witnesses to comment on the future of NEHRP. Dr. Lloyd Cluff, Director of the Geosciences Department and Earthquake Risk Management Program at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, responded that over the years NEHRP has appropriately moved away from the goal of predicting earthquakes and towards mitigation. With this in mind, he said shake maps represent the future of NEHRP, but they require the extensive deployment of ANSS and greater financial support for the USGS. Dr. Lawrence Reaveley, Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah, re-emphasized the need for funding the broader program, but with more focused goals. Dr. Thomas O'Rourke, President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), agreed with the previous comments and added that in order to assure seismic safety, ANSS and the National Science Foundation's Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation should remain a priority. Cluff recommended increasing NEHRP funding three-fold as called for in the EERI Research and Outreach Plan. Lowe commented that the program should be geared towards the results of saving and protecting lives and property, and getting the strategic plan to work.
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern; and Ashlee Dere, 2004 AIG/AIPG Summer Intern..
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Last updated on June 25, 2004.