Natural Hazards Policy (12-08-08)

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Natural hazards are consequences of dynamic Earth processes. The nation faces risk from numerous hazards ranging from earthquakes, landslides, wildfires, drought, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes and tornadoes.  Natural hazards and their mitigation are of utmost concern to the public and to policy makers, for natural hazards endanger—and often claim—human life and property. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), natural hazards in the U.S. are responsible for hundreds of deaths per year. Furthermore, hazards cost tens of billions of dollars per year in disaster aid, property damage, and economic harm.

Recent Action

Great ShakeOut Shakes Up Southern California
At 10 a.m. local time on November 13, more than 5 million people “dropped, covered and held on” as a hypothetical 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked southern California. Had the quake been real, it would have caused around 2,000 deaths, 50,000 injuries, $200 billion in damage and other losses, and severe, long-lasting disruption. The Great ShakeOut drill was just one part of a larger effort to increase southern Californian communities’ resiliency to earthquake disasters. Experts report that the probability of a magnitude-6.7 or higher quake striking somewhere in California in the next 20 years is 99.7%. (11/08)

Visit the Great ShakeOut website at
Learn more about USGS’s ShakeOut Scenario at
Read EARTH Magazine’s coverage of the event at

Previous Action

ESA, CFARE, and SSSA Host Wildfire Briefing July 9, 2008
The Ecological Society of America (ESA), the Council on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (CFARE) and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) hosted a public briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building entitled “After the Fire: Approaches to Revitalizing Ecosystem Resources,” on Wednesday July 9, 2008. The three speakers included Dr. Norm Christensen, a forest ecologist from Duke University,  Dr. Dan Neary, a soil scientist from the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, and Dr. Stephen Swallow, a resource economist from the University of Rhode Island.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 46,655 fires in 2008 covering an area of 2,942,015 acres.  The speakers assured attendees that fire statistics are not the same as disaster statistics, and as Dan Neary related, “Fire is a normal situation. What we are concerned about is fire severity.”

Most forest fires fall within a historic range of variation (HRV). However in recent years there has been a large increase in the percentage of severe fires that are above that range. Whether from changing climate or fuel buildups related to policies of fire suppression, the new increase in these “megafires” alters soils, disturbs ecosystems, and affects watersheds. The increase in the number of megafires has also created more calls for mechanisms to reduce the number of forest fires.
Dr. Christensen cautioned that these more severe fires are still a small fraction of total fires and that “post-fire interventions are generally unnecessary and often counter-productive.” He indicated that post-fire logging operations can deprive the forest of regeneration capabilities, including restoration of wildlife habitat, nutrient regeneration and the retention of hydrologic and sediment loads. Fires within the HRV, Christensen asserted, are actually a healthy part of the ecosystem because plants and animals depend on occasional wildfires to support healthy habitats.
Mr. Neary’s presentation focused mainly on the high intensity fires which often do require intervention. Though still a minority of total fires, the “megafire” events have been “skyrocketing” in recent years compared with their former levels of frequency. Neary mentioned that the recent droughts and hot, dry weather may not be the main culprit for the severe wildfires and he attributed the change to a “huge fuel buildup.” The fuel buildup is sufficient enough to turn what might have been a natural event into something much more destructive. These more severe fires are causing significant land damage in terms of “erosion, soil degradation and ecosystem health.” The hot fires burn through the soil and can cause water repellency, watershed damage, gully formation and runoff effects that may lead to desertification of the area. A program known as BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) conducts post-fire remediation in highly damaged areas, but at a high cost. Mulching, check dams, log barriers, and seeding are among the techniques applied.

Dr. Swallow spoke about the economics of fire risks. He believes “U.S. fire crises derive from historic policies as well as community and individual choices that have raised fire risk and consequences.” Swallow asserted that people often choose to live in high risk areas and then advocate unhealthy suppression practices. What we need, he continued, is “education (which) reduces human denial about the reality of living with fire.” As for federal policy, Dr. Swallow believes, it should move beyond incentivizing fire fighting on an “acres treated basis” which only considers the volume of an area and not its value. This creates a situation where firefighters may deal with only the easiest and most accessible areas first rather than those most valuable or most critical. He recommended instead basing incentives not on volume but on priorities, focusing first on those areas that need the most immediate protection such as “high value watersheds, at-risk developments (and) sites of natural resource based tourism.” Swallow however also recognized the lack of data available for this recommended value assessment and advocated for increased investment in integrated research to improve decision making and resource allocation. (7/08)

Flood Insurance Reform and Map Modernization Act Passed by Senate
On May 13, the Senate passed H.R. 3121, the legislation allows for the continuation and reform of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) The legislation forgives the over $20 billion owed to the U.S. Treasury by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, initiates reforms to ensure that the program can continue to operate, and adequately identifies areas at risk to flood loss. The provisions of interest to geoscientists include the reestablishment of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, and coordination of the FEMA Director with the advisory council to establish an ongoing program to review, update, and maintain flood insurance program maps.

The legislation requires the impacts of global climate change on flood, storm, and drought and potential future impact of global climate change-related weather events, such as increased hurricane activity, intensity, storm surge, and sea level rise are taken into consideration. It requires that the most accurate data be used in mapping and maintenance, and that each map include certain elements to ensure consistency and accuracy. The legislation authorizes $400 million annually for mapping and removes the current 50 percent limit on state contributions toward map modernization. (05/08)

The full text of H.R. 3121 is available from Thomas at:

Senate Introduces Bill on Hurricane Research
With scientists predicting a very active hurricane season this year, the introduction of the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2007 (S. 931) is timely. The bill, authored by Senator Mel Martinez (D-FL) and co-sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Bill Nelson (D-FL), aims to improve hurricane preparedness, further hurricane research efforts, and facilitate cooperation between agencies during research, planning, and response efforts. S. 931 addresses the National Science Board's hurricane warning report recommendations and is a reintroduction of a bill from the 109th Congress. (04/23/07)

Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007
Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced legislation on March 26, 2007 to expand the breadth of coverage of the National Flood Insurance Program (H.R. 1682). The reform of the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create an appeal process for those insured by the program as well as a program to update flood maps. The bill also authorizes efforts to make the federal flood program more visible to those eligible but unaware of its availability. On June 12, 2007, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity invited flood experts to discuss the bill's attributes, but no action has been taken since that hearing.

FEMA Renews Flood Map Effort
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has enacted changes in the fee schedules, which will allow the agency to reduce the expenses to the National Flood Insurance Policy (NFIP). FEMA helps minimize expense by recovering more fully the costs associated with processing conditional and final map change requests; retrieving, reproducing, and distributing technical and administrative support data related to FIS analyses and mapping; and producing, retrieving, and distributing particular NFIP map and insurance products. In addition, FEMA continues to change and update Base (1% annual-chance) Flood Elevations for a host of communities around the country.


Droughts can have severe local, regional, and national consequences. Besides restricting water supplies for people and communities, droughts affect agriculture, transportation, energy, forestry, and ecosystems. Drought response in the U.S. is estimated to cost up to $8 billion per year. A recent government report noted that water shortages are expected to be a problem in 39 states over the next decade. According to the USGS, the ongoing drought in the West could be the biggest regional drought in 500 years.

The National Integrated Drought Information System Act of 2006 (NIDIS) was passed during the second session of the 109th Congress. The act authorized the appropriation of $81 million through fiscal year 2012 to serve three purposes: provide an effective drought warning system, coordinate federal research for such a system, and grow existing drought forecasting and assessment programs. The information system was established within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). A link to the full text of the law can be found here. Please consult the drought hazard webpage for the 109th Congress for more background on past drought policy.

Despite local efforts to mitigate flood hazards and federal regulation of development in flood-prone areas, flood damage has been increasing in the United States. Among the natural hazards, floods are the most costly. The damage they cause averages $5 billion per year. More information on flood hazards can be found here.

According to the USGS, there are about 500,000 detectable earthquakes in the world each year. Of these, about 100,000 are felt, and about 100 cause damage. Geoscientists are involved in numerous activities and research projects related to earthquakes, from incorporating new data into earthquake hazard maps to determining how the shaking produced during an earthquake affects man-made structures. For  more information about past policy action related to earthquakes, see the earthquake hazard specific policy page for the 109th Congress.

According to the USGS, while about a quarter of all major tornadoes have occurred in tornado alley, which includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and eastern Colorado, only nine percent of the major killers have occurred there. The majority of high fatality tornadoes in recent years have been in areas like the southeastern United States where tornadoes are rare. This fact showcases the importance of tornado preparedness, warning, and monitoring systems.

The tsunami hazard is greatest for the states of Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. The last great tsunami to affect the U.S. struck Alaska, California, and Hawaii in March of 1964, killing 122 people.

The Tsunami Warning and EducationAct was signed into law in December of 2006 and authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to expand and modernize the nation's current tsunami detection and warning system. Additional tsunami detection buoys and other monitoring and warning technology, a federal-state partnered mitigation program to prepare at-risk communities, and a tsunami research program are major components of the law. The law also directs NOAA to provide technical assistance to international partners, especially countries in the Indian Ocean, as they work to establish regional and global warning systems. A link to the full text of the law can be found here.

Multiple events related to volcanic activity are destructive. These include lava flows, lahars, ash falls, debris avalanches, and pyroclastic density currents. During the 1990s, volcanic activity around the world claimed between 560 and 1,300 lives, devastated two cities, created 520,000 refugees, and caused economic losses exceeding one billion U.S. dollars. However, structured crisis management programs and early evacuations saved thousands of lives.Mitigation of volcanic hazards is an important goal of the geoscience community, including the USGS.

Sources: United States Geological Survey.

Contributed by: Laura Bochner AGI/AIP Summer Intern 2008, Jill Luchner AGI/AIP Summer Intern 2008

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

Last updated on July 17, 2008.