The House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held a hearing to review the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) and the role of research and development in mitigating human and economic losses. The witnesses provided testimony on the priorities in reauthorizing NWIRP, which expires in fiscal year (FY) 2008, and the changes needed to improve the program. They also discussed advancement in wind hazard mitigation and knowledge transfer from research to building code practices.
When Congress passed the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act in 2004, it established NWIRP. NWIRP is a joint federal program between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The objective of NWIRP is to use coordinated research and development on wind hazards and mitigation methods to decrease the loss of life and property from windstorms.
The costs associated with windstorms are rising as an increasing number of wind hazards, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, affect populated areas. Chairman David Wu (D-OR) cited this year as being one of the deadliest for wind-related fatalities. Wu expressed his desire for more to be done to stop the loss of life and billions of dollars worth of damage occurring each year. NWIRP could achieve this, but has been unable to due to lack of funding and coordinated research. In FY 2008 an estimated $13.3 million was spent on activities that could be associated with NWIRP goals; however NWIRP did not receive any appropriations specifically for the program, despite being authorized to spend $25 million in FY 2008 alone. NWIRP has never been fully funded to authorized levels, and as of FY 2009 has still not received any NWIRP specific requests. Aside from the funding woes, the lack of coordination amongst the NWIRP agencies and with local governments has stifled the needed implementation of wind hazard research. As Ranking Member Phil Gingrey (R-GA) said, “Finding practical and effective applications for this research remains the biggest challenge that the NWIRP has today.” Both representatives looked forward to hearing recommendations for implementing and improving mitigation practices from the witnesses.
Dr. Sharon Hays informed the committee of the variety of complimentary activities the federal agencies like NIST and FEMA are conducting. She also brought up the 2003 RAND report commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The report had helpful disaster reduction recommendations that focused on long-term measures and research in an “all hazards context” that she broadly supports. Wu argued that the administration has given little attention to NWIRP, so the program is not as beneficial as it could be. Hays replied that funding decisions were made by the agencies, leading Wu to believe wind hazards were a low research priority. Hays disagreed, pointing to improved forecasts and increased warning times as evidence. When Gingrey asked her about the current level of cooperation between federal agencies, Hays response was that the all hazards approach would get all agencies to the table. She expanded on this, telling the representatives that the agencies have the data on windstorms, but that the information does not get to the local level. When asked by Wu what the federal government can do to facilitate the transfer, she indicated NIST would have a central role in the process.
Dr. Marc Levitan also agreed that NIST should be the lead agency in applying research to technology through education, training, and building practices. The biggest problem he saw with wind hazard research is lack of technology transfer. He agreed that NWIRP provides good mandates for cooperation, but it still needs better avenues for knowledge transfer. When Wu asked him why NIST is the optimal program he cited the success of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), drawing a parallel between NIST and NEHRP. He highlighted NEHRP’s ability to implement successful earthquake safe building codes in California. He also thought NIST has the ability to transfer the technology to the local level better than NSF. He believed NIST oversight is needed because wind is too technical to easily implement building codes, and there is no industry funding to facilitate the transfer out of the federal sector.
As for the focus for wind research, Levitan listed understanding the windfall environment, computational wind engineering to develop wind tunnel modeling, using remote sensing for windstorm damage assessment, assessing building performance, and retrofitting buildings for wind resistance. Representative Laura Richardson (D-CA) asked if the lack of funding for universities is affecting the problem. Levitan agreed that decreased funding means fewer professors and graduate students studying wind behavior. Therefore, there will not be the core workforce to address the issue in the future.
Ms. Leslie Chapman-Henderson was most concerned with retrofitting houses and enforcing updated building codes. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) asked her why there is a lack of building codes to establish wind resistant homes in high risk areas. Her answer corresponded with Levitan’s assessment. The challenge with wind is that it is so technical and hard to understand that there are often incorrect interpretations or applications of the risk. She gave an example of a code that has been adopted in home construction that was originally meant only for barns. People’s lack of understanding has led to poor policy. There is also resistance due to fear about the unknown costs of retrofitting and code compliance. If the research and technology transfer are made, people will know how to best more forward and ultimately save money in the end. Chapman-Henderson told Representative Adrian Smith (R-NE) that her organization has been drawing on the research of Levitan’s group to teach people smart building design and counter incorrect beliefs. She noted that the annual $1 billion losses to single family homes in Texas could be reduced 40-70% by a variety of smart retrofitting options.
All the witnesses advocated for increased knowledge of windstorms and improved mitigation practices as priorities in reauthorizing NWIRP. “Luck should not be the first line of defense when confronted with…threats,” said Chapman-Henderson, who backed Levitan’s support of NWIRP. She agreed that research, outreach, and implementation needed to be increased, especially the distribution of research findings. Wu said he will take into consideration the benefits of the “all hazards” approach. As Ehlers and some of the witnesses pointed out, NEHRP is a successful program after which NWIRP should be modeled. The committee recognized the need for research and development, and the benefits of data percolating down to local levels and manifesting itself in smart mitigation techniques. “Wind programs are the best opportunity to change the trend of increasing impacts from windstorms,” said Levitan.
Link to witness testimony found here.
In light of the “Great Flood of 1993” and the arguably even greater flood of 2008, the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee held a hearing to receive testimony from senators representing states gravely affected by the recent flooding and from members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stated “these tragic floods serve as a wake-up call.” She expressed her desire to learn more about the state of the levee systems and floodplain management in order for the committee to make informed policy decisions to improve flood and water infrastructure before another disaster. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) stressed the importance of infrastructure funding and planning ahead regardless of a suffering economy, thinking of the projects instead as economic development. Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) indicated that he has repeatedly fought the administration, trying to get them to rebuild the nation’s aging levee system. He credited the Midwesterners for taking matters into their own hands to prevent the disasters from being any worse than they have been, but said, “We’re not counting and waiting another 499 years for the next 500 year flood…they tend to come a little quicker than that.”
The opening statements made by the senators comprising the first panel of witnesses told of the damage in their home states as well as their pride for their constituents despite the frustrating situation in which they now find themselves. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) wanted to know what type and level of flood protection will be assured in the future so Iowans know where best to rebuild to avoid another disaster. “Haste is important here,” expressed Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) whose state has experienced nine federal disasters in the past year. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) wanted a comprehensive look at what is happening both at the federal and local level because this “isn’t just changes in the weather…[but] changes in the way we live, we build, and we develop” that are causing these problems.
During the second panel of witnesses, Brigadier General Michael Walsh and John Paul Woodley Jr. discussed the nation’s levee system and the needs of the USACE. Woodley emphasized communication, safety, and management measures including improved building codes, land use planning, and water management structures. He outlined the numerous programs to address floods and levee safety that the USACE has been involved with since the 1990s. His goal now is to look at how those programs work together to improve their efficiency and affectivity. There still needs to be more analysis done on the levees and thorough documentation of the national levee system. It is a shared responsibility, Woodley reminded the committee that “we all need to work together to address these complex issues.” Walsh described how the USACE will coordinate an interagency task force to address rapid and reliable responses to floods. His two goals are: better plans for evacuation and preparedness, and accurate forecasting.
Boxer questioned the second panel about the progress of inspection, how evaluations were being conducted, and what sort of timeframe the USACE has for its operations. She also wanted to know the status of private levees. She stated that most levees overtopped in Walsh’s area were privately owned and wanted to know if USACE supports a comprehensive assessment of all levees, including working on non-federal levees. The entire panel agreed with evaluating all levees, but reminded Boxer that current funding only covers federal levees. Boxer asked the USACE to provide her with an estimate of the funding needed to increase coverage. Lastly, she questioned Woodley about the effects of climate change and loss of wetlands. Woodley conceded that loss of wetland areas has been making floods more extreme. As for climate change, he pointed out that a member of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is on the USACE Water Resources Board, so climate change science is being considered in assessments and decision-making. Woodley pointed out that it is “practically impossible for absolute protection…engineering is not going to protect [people] if the water is 11 ft. above previous levels…Levees are human structures [that] will develop weaknesses…They are holding back enormous forces of nature.” Boxer appreciated his frankness and requested that he review the Galloway Report, commissioned by the Clinton Administration after the flooding in 1993, in order to tell the committee if the report remains valid, how much has been implemented, and what needs to be improved or still completed.
Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE) finished the question and answer portion by asking how to best communicate flood risk in order to reduce the risk. Major General Don Riley described a new program that links a variety of risks to Google Earth maps, allowing the public to type in their address and see what the likelihood is for flood and other hazard damage to their home. Riley also highlighted the USACE’s partnership with the auto industry, since that industry is one of the forerunners at effectively communicating risk.
Woodley concluded that the next goal is figuring out if it is better to relocate people and return land to a floodplain, or to continually rebuild areas after floods. The USACE will continue their assessment and evaluation of the nation’s levee system and will return in six months with a report including better plans, recommendations, and funding needs.
The link to witness testimony can be found here.
Subcommittee Members Present:
The Subcommittee on Energy and Environment (Energy) and the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education (Research) held a joint hearing to discuss the current state of the nation’s hurricane research and future developments and to hear testimony on H.R. 2407, the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2007 (NHRI). “It goes without saying that there is a need for research to better understand hurricanes so that we can continue to improve our forecasting and warning capabilities to save lives and to make our communities more resistant to hurricanes to reduce property damage,” opened Energy Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX).
The devastating effects of hurricanes in recent years led to the creation of a National Science Board (NSB) task force “to evaluate and make recommendations for ways to improve the nation’s hurricane-related research activities”. In 2007, NSB published a report, entitled “Hurricane Warning: The Critical Need for a National Hurricane Research Initiative”, that was the basis for H.R. 2407. The legislation calls for coordinated research efforts of federal agencies, universities, and other relevant institutions led by NSF and NOAA. The research goals stated in the legislation are to understand and predict hurricanes, their impacts, and the nation’s vulnerabilities; and to create a National Infrastructure Data Base (NIDB) and an integrated National Hurricane Research Model (NHRM) that will “facilitate the transfer of research knowledge to operational applications”.
In their brief opening statements, the representatives all emphasized the need to invest in research and preparation. Energy Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-SC) also wanted the witnesses to explain the monetary returns on the NHRI investments, after he reiterated the NSB findings and goals of the bill. Research Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) was “particularly interested in hearing how the social and behavioral sciences can contribute to our understanding of the ways individuals and entire communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters”. Lastly, Research Ranking Member Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) underlined how essential improved building standards are for improving community resiliency.
Ros-Lehtinen cited another big problem in hurricane response is the frequency of warnings, deeming “the margin of error is too large.” With too many false warnings the effectiveness is decreased, and people fail to respond to the early alerts. Inglis followed up on this topic during the question and answer period, asking Dr. Jack Hayes about the limits of predicting hurricanes. Hayes defended NOAA’s abilities noting that forecasting has improved by a factor of two and that the technology is continuing to improve. Still, he admitted that NOAA is best at only real-time forecasting and does not understand the rapid intensity change phenomena to aid in advanced warnings.
The second panel consisted of professors and scientists in the field. All the witnesses agreed with the overall goals and language of the bill, and testified to the relevance of different aspects. Dr. Jack Hayes promoted NOAA and the capability of the agency to provide expertise and coordination of all the research except in creating the NIDB, which would need another federal agency. When asked by Chairman Lampson where NOAA needed help or what roadblocks where in the way, Hayes responded that making observations during storms have been difficult and that making alliances with NASA, NSF, etc. is a difficulty that would be beneficial to overcome.
Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier calls the NSB report an “urgent warning” that was motivated by the energy infrastructure at risk in the Gulf and aimed “to address [the challenges] in a holistic manner.” “It is important to note that the hurricane is not a weather problem alone but rather a weather-driven problem that must be studied in a multi-disciplinary fashion,” explained Droegemeier. He expressed that communicating information to the public was the most important priority, when Chairman Baird asked where extra funding was most needed.
The cost benefits and overall value of an integrated and improved hurricane research system was elaborated upon by Dr. Shuyi Chen. According to Chen, the lack of accurate intensity forecasting was the main shortfall to current hurricane models. The key improvements to the system that can be assisted by the NHRI are: providing more accurate forecasts, assessing potential human and monetary losses, bettering communication between federal and state governments, transferring research findings between institutions, training next-generation scientists, and educating the vulnerable residents of the new findings. When asked the same question by Chairman Baird about where to put extra funding, Chen’s response was “forecasting of wind.” Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) asked the witnesses whether wind or water did the most damage during a hurricane. Contrary to Hayes’ answer, Chen believed wind to be the most damaging. Dr. Stephen Leatherman and Dr. David Prevatt also claimed that the destruction was mostly caused by wind, followed “by subsequent water damage” Prevatt elaborated.
Prevatt was a strong proponent of increased building standards, citing that “90% of homes are inadequately prepared.” Part of the inadequacy is due to unenforced codes while lack of knowledge is another part. The highest priority to reduce monetary and property loss is to know when buildings fail, how winds impact structures, and to have more trained engineers. Ehlers quizzed Prevatt about current building code status, inquiring if we have sufficient information to begin improving buildings. Prevatt consented that we have a limited understanding, but enough to start. However, enforcement of building code standards is hard especially when construction is based on traditional practices carried on from generation to generation. Prevatt cited his own life as an example, “When deciding with my wife whether to buy a new stove or reinforce the roof, you can guess which one wins.” Part of the goal of the NIDB, as stipulated in the bill, will be to “make effective recommendations for improved building codes and urban planning practices” in order to tackle some of these issues.
Another prospective on building construction comes from the insurance industry. Leatherman described hurricanes as leading to an “insurance melt-down”. He is interested in working on hurricane loss reductions and housing techniques by improving insurance risk, windstorm, coastal vulnerability, storm surge, and social impact models. In response to Chairman Baird, Leatherman advocates for extra funding to go towards full-scale testing of houses. This request led Ehlers to question if full-scale testing was really needed in order to make any progress at all. To this, Leatherman insisted that it is still not known how buildings fail.
The full-text of H.R. 2407 is available from Thomas here.
Committee Members Present
Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) began his opening statement by saying “at a time when parts of the country are devastated by floods, others are devastated by wildfires.” The current wildfire season, Bingaman elaborated, has been very active. Major wildfires have occurred from coast to coast, and budgets, firefighters, and natural resources will likely be strained for the rest of the season. He noted that this year’s high level of wildfire activity continues the high levels of activity seen in recent years.
However, while there has been an increase in wildfire activity, there has not been an increase in preparedness. That is why, Bingaman said, “During the last eight years, we have experienced an average of more than four times as many days where the agencies were at-risk of running out of fire-suppression resources than we did during the previous 10-year period.” Bingaman ended his statement with a call for action on climate change, claiming climate change legislation would act as a mechanism to further wildfire preparedness. “The incredible increase in fire activity we have seen clearly is associated with climate change,” he said. “As a result, we now spend billions of dollars more on wildfires than we did just 15 or 20 years ago, and we are losing more and more homes to fire as well.”
In his opening statement, Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) concurred that wildfire activity has been on the rise. From the time he was elected in 1972, Domenici said, the total acres burned has gone from 2-3 million acres a year to 8-9 million acres a year. Furthermore, bemoaned Domenici, out of the 154.8 million acres burned over this period, 58.5 of the acres have burned in the past seven years. In all, an area slightly larger than the state of Utah has burned. Additionally, as the area burned has increased, the area treated has decreased. “We are spending more time managing less and burning more,” Domenici stated.
Mr. Cason provided data on the fire activity of 2007 which was, he claimed, “above normal by many standards.” In 2007, over 9 million acres burned in more than 85,000 incidents including about 5.7 million acres of federal land in 16,000 wildfires. Cason added that there were extreme fires in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho in the summer of 2007 with six of the year’s largest fires taking place in these three states. In all, 2,900 homes were lost to wildfires.
As for the rest of the 2008 wildfire season, Cason said that “above normal significant fire potential is expected for portions of southern California, the Southwest, Western Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, Alaska and Florida in June. And from June until September, there is “significant fire potential” for portions of California, the Southwest, Western Great Basin, and Rocky Mountains. Cason said that the DOI and USDA are preparing for the predicted wildfire conditions by working to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of firefighting resources.
Mr. Rey focused on the aviation aspect of wildfire fighting and preparedness. He mentioned that the agencies are currently developing an Interagency Aviation Strategy for the future obtainment and management of wildfire-fighting aviation resources. Rey said that “we put out 98% of the fires we want to extinguish.” Nevertheless, he said, “the agencies will continue to face challenges outside of our control such as the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, and climatic and ecological changes. These have made the protection of life, property and natural resources from wildland fire more complex, demanding, and expensive.”
Domenici asked the first panel about the role of increasing amounts of underbrush in forest fires, to which Rey responded that the underbrush is providing fuel for the fires. Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) asked how the “bark beetle issue” contributes to the forest fire problem. Rey asserted that the bark beetle infestation is “pandemic” and contributing to the spread of wildfires. He suggested that, to address the infestation, the federal government should partner more strongly with state and local governments. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Rey and Cason to address the increasing price of gasoline and aircraft fuel. Wyden said his sense was that, with “fuel prices going through the stratosphere,” firefighting might be jeopardized. Cason replied that the agencies are not exactly in a bind because there are price escalators built into their operating budget estimates.
Mr. Thatcher and Mr. Judd’s testimonies were devoted to retention and staffing levels of the wildfire firefighting corps. Thatcher discussed the attrition rates for firefighters in the federal program. Of the over 4,000 general staff firefighting positions planned nationally for the 2008 firefighting season, 363 are vacant, Thatcher said. The effect of a general staffing shortage is that there are “minimally qualified individuals” being placed in positions for which they are not qualified.
The subject of qualifications is also a concern in the area of fire management. Because of a change in policy in the 1990’s, the minimum education requirement for people in fire management is a college degree; however, many experienced fire managers do not have college degrees. These workers are consequently being forced out of their jobs. Thatcher lamented this “professionalizing” of fire management, saying “fire management is a highly specialized profession. You don’t learn to fight fire in a classroom; you learn it on the fire lines working under more experienced firefighters…and it is from the fire lines, not from academia, that folks come by this hard-won experience.”
The “mass exodus” of firefighters from the federal firefighting program to non federal programs was a point that Thatcher and Judd touched on. Thatcher claimed that “experienced fire personnel are being pilfered by the private sector leaving openings [the agencies] have to fill rapidly.” Judd noted that the exodus is occurring because the private sector offers firefighters better pay and benefits.
All in all, the two witnesses said, wildfire fighting’s personnel issues mean that the agencies are not optimally prepared for the wildfire season.
Ms. Miley represented the private sector. The goal of the private sector in wildfire fighting, she said, is “to complement rather than compete with the existing agency resources.” According to Miley, up to 40% of fire resources are provided by private wildland services. These resources are used when the federal agencies are depleted. Miley stated that in 2007, private firefighters were dispatched to 19 states. For the upcoming season, the private sector has about 10,000 trained firefighters not including the aerial firefighting personnel.
During the second question and answer period, chairman Bingaman asked for clarification as to why federal firefighters are being lost to the private sector. Mr. Judd responded that, for firefighters, the “initial intrigue is pay and benefits.” But in the federal program, there is a “lack of recognition and caring, and these things also justify their decision to leave.” Bingaman’s follow-up inquiry was whether there is a lack of moral throughout the workforce. Judd said “absolutely…there is no agency support for these firefighters.”
Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Ranking Member Jerry Costello (R-IL) gave brief opening statements about the importance of the national flood plain remapping and their interest in hearing the testimony and advice of the many witnesses, including their colleagues from the House of Representatives on the first panel.
The first panel of witnesses included five members of the House of Representatives and each described the flood plain remapping in their districts. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) noted that Grand Rapids built a one foot above 100-year flood level levee system and has been told by FEMA that the system does not meet the three foot above flood level requirement. Thus the system does not qualify as protection and all residents will be required to get high-cost flood insurance because of flood risks. Grand Rapids is talking with FEMA about the system and the revised flood maps.
Representative John Boozman (R-AR) discussed problems with levee certification in his district. By law, the Army Corps of Engineers is required to certify a levee can meet flood risks before FEMA can include the system as protection on a flood map. Unfortunately this process can take a long time and although the Corps can contract the work to private companies, these companies cannot assume the liability associated with levee certification and therefore cannot really help. The delay means that areas will be mapped as high flood risk until certification is complete and this will cost residents and businesses additional fees for insurance.
Representative Candice Miller (R-MI) raised concerns about FEMA using old data to determine current flood risks and about inequities in the system. She noted that lake levels are dropping in the Great Lakes region, but FEMA wants to raise the baseline flood elevation level because of older data. She also noted that since the National Flood Insurance Program began in 1978, 10 states have received $1.5 billion more in pay-outs then they put into the program, while Michigan has put in $120 million more than it received in insurance claims. The average premium for residents in the 10 states is $223 while the average premium for Michigan residents is $257. She noted that states where there has been flooding year after year keep allowing residents to rebuild again and again and these states are “using FEMA as their own personal ATM machines”.
Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) noted that Sacramento is considered to have the highest flood risk of any major city in the U.S. She expressed concern about the Corps new standard for levees which is based on historical data plus Monte Carlo simulations to determine probabilities. She requested more scrutiny and explanation of the new analysis, more flexibility in Corps permits for levee upgrades and more flexibility in paying flood insurance premiums.
Representative John Hall (D-NY) noted that several communities in his district will be remapped as within flood risk, requiring flood insurance. He requested that FEMA give communities more than 90 days to appeal updated flood maps, so they have enough time to complete their own studies and respond.
The second panel of witnesses consisted of federal agency representatives and some private citizens. Mr. Stockton testified that the Corps has concentrated efforts on non-structural approaches to flood management like flood plain zoning, flood insurance, warnings and evacuations. He also noted that the authority to determine how land is used within flood plains and to enforce flood-wise requirements resides with the state and local governments. Given this complex arrangement, Stockton said it is important that federal and non-federal agencies collaborate to help communities and that the public is educated about flood risks. He then described the Corps role in FEMA’s flood map modernization program. The Corps conducts studies and prepares maps for the flood map program and they also do levee certification.
David Maurstad from FEMA told the subcommittee that the National Flood Insurance Program is in its 40th year, ensures 5.5 million people from 20,400 communities and provides over $1 trillion in coverage. FEMA produces the flood risk maps used to determine insurance necessity and rates and in 2003 began a flood map modernization program to update the over 92,000 paper maps. FEMA hopes to complete new or updated digital maps for about 65 percent of the land area, which covers about 92 percent of the population at flood risk, by 2010. About 33 percent of the counties have levees shown on their current flood maps and FEMA is asking these communities to provide all of the information about these levees that is needed to assess their flood risks and to provide proof of levee certification. FEMA does not evaluate, certify or study levees, but instead relies on communities or other federal agencies to do this.
Given that Subcommittee Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) requested an update on the Washington DC-Potomac Park levee, Maurstad concluded with a brief summary which indicates the complexity of the flood map process. The Corps-Baltimore District notified the National Park Service and DC that the Potomac Park levee on the National Mall and thus on Park Service property, was deficient. The Corps is responsible for the levee, but has not received funding to fix the deficiences, so FEMA cannot consider the levee as protective and has issued modified flood maps for DC showing higher flood risks in the areas behind the levee. DC has appealed for changes to the map, but is unlikely to receive any changes without a special exception or emergency funding to fix the levee.
Mr Sterman focused his testimony on levee problems near St Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The levees, built by the federal government, have been declared deficient and three Illinois counties are raising $180 million through sales taxes to repair the levees. He noted that the deficiency rating was a sudden and unexpected problem, that it takes time to raise the capital to fix the problem and that by law, between 65 to 100 percent of the cost of repairs should be covered by the federal government, but the counties cannot wait years to try to get such funding. He stated that the federal government “is de facto abandoning its responsibility under the law”.
Mr. Larson provided a specific list of recommendations from the Association of State Flood Plain Managers. Given that many of the paper maps were already 10 to 20 years old before FEMA began the map modernization, it is essential that “true risk mapping” be completed as soon as possible. He also called for more funding for mapping and levee programs, more integration of federal/state/local approaches to flood risks, more assistance for communities where maps show increased flood risk because of deficient levees or other reasons, and more adequate operation and maintenance of levees.
The question and answer period provided some interesting ideas and comments from the subcommittee members and the witnesses. Chairwoman Norton asked Maurstad a series of interesting questions. First, should there be a universal standard for flood risk or should it vary depending on what you are trying to protect to which Maurstad responded that there needs to be some uniform standard for FEMA although this only needs to be a minimum standard. Second, should the requirements for appeal be more flexible to which Maurstad responded there was enough flexibility to accommodate community needs. Third, does FEMA have enough funding for the flood insurance program to which Maurstad responded it is as adequate as funding for other federal programs and they are now in debt by $17.3 billion because of hurricane Katrina losses.
Representative Michael Arcuri (D-NY) wanted to know if areas with higher population density should be given priority for funds for levee repair and flood risk reductions. He noted that his district in New York has counties with no funding while counties across the border in Pennsylvania have funding. Maurstad responded that funding was based on risk, data and flood claims and he would have to look into the specific concerns in New York.
Representative Charles Dent (R-PA) then asked how FEMA dealt with jurisdictional issues related to the causes of flood risk, specifically high capacity reservoirs in New York that could cause flooding in Pennsylvania. Maurstad responded that FEMA is not involved in jurisdictional issues only risk assessment.
Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) asked why FEMA has not instigated a three strikes and your out policy for people who make more than three flood insurance claims for property that is rebuilt in the same flood-prone area. Maurstad responded that there is a “severe repetitive loss process” in which a “valid mitigation offer” is made by the government and if the homeowner turns down the offer, the premiums are increased by as much as 50 percent. He noted that about 8,000 of the 5.5 million policyholders fit into this category and cost the most money to the flood insurance program.
Several members of the subcommittee, particularly Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton and Nita Lowey (D-NY) were highly critical of the structure and planning of FEMA’s emergency response to future disasters relative to the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There were many pointed questions about redundant positions between DHS and FEMA, the ability of FEMA to communicate with DHS and with communities and other issues that contributed to problems during hurricane Katrina. There was concern that some requests from Congress to remove redundancy and improve communications had not been acted upon.
No specific conclusions were drawn from the hearing, partly because there was much discussion of local issues and partly because there are many details of the programs that need more explanation and/or more integration.
Chairman Mark L. Pryor (D-AR) stated that the “threat is real” that a major earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone could cause much more damage than a similar earthquake occurring in the seismically-active Southern California region. He referenced the series of strong earthquakes that occurred along the New Madrid seismic zone in 1811 and 1812, which included earthquakes so powerful that they caused the Mississippi River to run backwards, and shaking was felt 1,000 miles away, famously causing bell towers in Boston to ring. The New Madrid seismic zone directly affects eight states (Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Alabama and Louisiana). Chairman Pryor said that Katrina had cost $130 billion so far, but a major earthquake along the seismic zone could cost much more than that. He emphasized the need for assessment and hazard plans, and noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is supposed to complete training preparation for a major earthquake along the New Madrid seismic zone.
Mr. Glenn M. Cannon, Assistant Administrator for Disaster Operations at FEMA, testified that his agency is working on a Catastrophic Disaster Planning Initiative which identifies high-risk areas, estimates losses in the event of a disaster, and finds and addresses shortfalls of current disaster planning. He stated that many other organizations, private and public, are involved in the initiative. He stressed the importance of organizations working together to plan for a disaster, noting that 44 million people are in the affected area, and 12 million are in “high-risk” areas. Mr. Cannon emphasized the value of educating the at-risk public so individuals know what to do in case of an emergency.
Jack Hayes, director of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) testified on hazards reduction in the New Madrid seismic zone. NEHRP is a multi-agency program including FEMA, NIST, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and United States Geological Survey (USGS). The NEHRP works to better understand earthquakes and develop ways to prepare for them. To better understand earthquakes, research must be done. NSF supports research as well as public education and outreach, and has three national earthquake research centers. The USGS also conducts earth science research and monitors earthquake activity. FEMA translates the research information into plans and policies to help protect citizens. Beginning in 2004, NEHRP has submitted annual reports to Congress and formed an advisory committee on earthquake hazard reduction. With the increased funding obtained in fiscal year 2007, NEHRP has for the first time the resources to provide leadership, organization, and enhanced effectiveness across the four agencies..
Dr. David Applegate of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) testified that a reoccurrence of events such as the three earthquakes in 1811 and 1812 with moment magnitudes estimated between 7.5 and 8.0 could be major disasters. He explained that an earthquake on a fault at the center of the continental plate, such as the New Madrid seismic zone, creates much more damage than the same magnitude earthquake would on a fault on the edge of the continental plate, such as in Southern California. More damage is caused because the Earth’s crust is older and colder in the center of the plates, which allows better energy transfer and thus more intense shaking. He said large earthquakes along the seismic zone like those that occurred in 1811 and 1812 have happened at least two other times. USGS has predicted that the chance of an earthquake with a moment magnitude 7.0 or more occurring in the next 50 years is seven to ten percent, and the chance of an earthquake with a moment magnitude of 6.0 or more occurring in the next 50 years is 25 to 40 percent.
Dr. Applegate also explained the current status of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS). After an earthquake, the system will send information out to emergency response organizations, governmental agencies, media, and the public. Within 20 minutes after an earthquake estimates will be available on the magnitude of the earthquake and the number of people and areas affected. Dr. Applegate stressed that the public needs to know the potential hazards of a large earthquake along the New Madrid seismic zone. He said that “while earthquakes are inevitable,” their consequences are not.
Chairman Pryor asked Mr. Cannon about the status of a federal contingency plan report for the New Madrid seismic zone. Mr. Cannon replied that FEMA has an interim contingency plan that is a draft only. The report has not been released because it is not complete. He stressed that the interim plan is “not a planning product, just what we would do in the event” of a major earthquake along the seismic zone, and is “basically the same [procedure] as if we had a terrorist event next week as well.” Mr. Cannon said the final contingency plan will take “more than a year” to complete. By 2011, FEMA should have a final plan and preparation exercise completed. Chairman Pryor stated that additional funding should be given to research on earthquake effects and preparation in the area. He also stated additional concerns about the affects an earthquake could have on interstate commerce, and possible insurance problems if people do not have the correct earthquake insurance to cover the shaking, flood, fire, and landslide damage that could occur.
David Maxwell from the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management testified on the state of earthquake preparedness in Arkansas. The department is establishing and implementing an earthquake preparation program within Arkansas as well as preparing for out-of-state issues that would affect Arkansas. Mr. Maxwell stated that public outreach and education were important aspects of the plan, as well as planning and mitigation. He said there is always work to do in preparedness, especially in this region where the overwhelming public mentality is that an earthquake will not occur. Above all, Mr. Maxwell said the public living in the seismic zone needs “awareness and self-preparation.”
Callen Hays, the Crisis Management Coordinator for Memphis Light, Gas, and Water, testified on the earthquake preparation the utility company is undertaking. He said they were planning mitigation of pipelines and networks in the event of a large earthquake on the New Madrid seismic zone. A risk assessment study estimated $56 billion in losses if a large earthquake occurred in the region, with $15 billion in losses for the utility companies alone. He estimated it may take months to restore pipelines and electricity after a large seismic event, and if damage was bad enough all the mitigation planning may do nothing to help restore utilities faster. In preparation Memphis Light, Gas, and Water is replacing all cast-iron pipes with polyethylene, which is more flexible. The utility company has also moved its headquarters into a seismically retrofitted building so in the event of an earthquake they can keep working without delay. All necessary emergency communications are also housed in this building. Another major program implemented by the utility company is public education and outreach. To help provide the public with potentially life-saving information, the company provides classes and television programs on how to prepare for an earthquake.
Chairman Pryor asked what could be done to surmount the major hurdle of “selling the need for preparedness” to the public in the region. Mr. Maxwell replied that public service announcements and town hall meetings were two approaches that have been used in the past. He also said his department wanted to try new avenues such as YouTube, the video sharing website, to get people’s attention. He said it was a challenge to get their message heard.
Chairman Pryor also expressed concern that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may propose to eliminate the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) next year. Mr. Maxwell said those grants are used to fund part of his agency and pay the local emergency managers in each county. The necessary funding covered about $3 million in costs this year alone. Chairman Pryor said that a loss of EMPG would cause “considerable detriment” to emergency policy in the New Madrid seismic zone, which Mr. Maxwell said was “putting it mildly.”
Potential for large-scale damage and losses is huge in the New Madrid seismic zone, in part because its location causes many residents to be unaware or skeptical of the possible danger of earthquakes. But an earthquake in the area could cause extremely widespread damage and severe losses. Public outreach is a major concern, and organizations such as FEMA, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, and Memphis Light, Gas, and Water are trying to educate residents on what they can do to keep themselves and others safe in the event of a major earthquake. Planning and mitigation, including large-scale exercises designed to find weaknesses in preparation, are being completed by all levels of government and private organizations. Collaborative efforts are especially helpful because many states will likely be affected by an earthquake in the area. Maintaining funding levels for research, monitoring, emergency preparations and education is important to allow federal and state agencies to continue and improve upon their preparation efforts.
The standing-room-only hearing chamber contained a large representation of Code Pink activists advocating increased support for rebuilding efforts. Upon walking in, Ray Nagin, a witness and the mayor of New Orleans since 2002, showed support by flashing a peace sign to the activists.
Chair Mary Landrieu (D-LA) opened the hearing by restating the mission for the ad hoc subcommittee, which was to build a "better disaster response mechanism." She kept her comments to a minimum, and expressed her frustration with the sluggishness of FEMA funds and four- and five-fold underestimations of rebuilding costs. Ranking Member Ted Stevens (R-AK) expressed his thanks for holding the hearing, but had no other opening remarks.
The first panel consisted of Ray Nagin, Kevin Davis, President of St. Tammany Parish, and Henry Rodriguez, President of St. Bernard Parish. Although the local officials each provided separate, unique testimony, all three had similar messages of frustration with FEMA officials. Citing a host of anecdotes from their interactions with agency representatives, they affirmed that the FEMA workforce had widespread and frequent turnover and it was almost always populated with non-local staff who were unfamiliar with the dynamics of the situation. Davis described FEMA officials as typically "inexperienced and not knowledgeable." These conditions, he said, led to reversed rulings and contradictions on the part of FEMA that would delay or stop rebuilding efforts. In his testimony, Rodriguez painted a particularly disturbing picture of the troubles facing the Gulf Coast. Of the parish's 27,000 homes in August 2005, only five were able to be lived in after the storms. Nearly two years later, less than half of the former population has returned to St. Bernard Parish. "We're still working out of trailers," he said.
Chair Landrieu began the question and answer session by focusing her inquiry on the status of utilities in each of the jurisdictions. All three officials said that water, sewer, and electricity were functioning at near 100%. However, all three warned that the utilities were all on shaky ground because they were using alternative temporary solutions to provide services. "We are still dependent on vacuum trucks" to transport sewage said Rodriguez. He cited the vacuum truck spending bill at $60 million so far. "That $60 million could have been spent on rebuilding processing plants," he said. "Something's wrong." Responding to another of Landrieu's questions, Nagin said that he and FEMA officials would get into arguments about pre-Katrina conditions and would struggle to prove the functionality of infrastructure before Katrina. Davis echoed similar concerns when he rhetorically asked, "why do I have to prove to anyone that I was totally destroyed? The parish is totally devastated." To this, Landrieu agreed that there were problems in FEMA. "FEMA monitors their own appeals," she said, there is "no objective, independent process" to reconcile differences between federal and local claims.
During his question and answer session, Ranking Member Stevens said "what you need is an arbitration process" modeled after the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. Landrieu concurred and Rodriguez added that he thought Congress should follow up on that. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) asked if the struggles with FEMA were bureaucratic difficulties or actual resistance on the part of the agency. Nagin said it was the former. Pryor then asked if there had been a full-time FEMA team in the region over the last 22 months. "Every couple of months we seem to have deal with a new FEMA representative," said Nagin. Rodriguez added that "the only thing consistent about FEMA is inconsistency" and advocated a change in command of the relief management. He went on to say that after hurricane Betsy in 1965, a similarly destructive storm, the Army Corps of Engineers came to help. In "September '65, Betsy hit, by December we were enjoying Christmas," Rodriguez said.
The second panel of witnesses featured Colonel Jeff Smith, Executive Director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Bryan McDonald, Executive Director of the Mississippi Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal, and Mark Merritt, former FEMA official and current Senior Vice President of Response and Recovery at James Lee Witt Associates. Smith began by citing another anecdote of stalled reconstruction efforts due to contradictory rulings by FEMA, which caused administrative backup for over a year. McDonald continued with similar frustrations of administrative backup. "FEMA has generated more than 14,000 PWs," he said. He advocated that "[we] address changes to leave this process better than we found it." Merritt compared some of his experience with his disaster management in the 1990s when he worked at FEMA. He stated that there are "not enough experienced people on FEMA." This is "not fair to parishes or staff," he said.
Stevens opened the question and answer period by mostly stating his own thoughts on the crisis. "We're dealing with a disaster the size of France and Germany. We need a command structure that is different than FEMA here." Stevens finished by saying, "you need a new Marshall Plan, not FEMA." In her remarks Landrieu addressed the effectiveness of current fund allocation. Smith said that "at least 75 percent of PWs are grossly undervalued." Landrieu emphasized Congress' need to know how large allocations are underestimated.
The third and final panel featured James Walke, Director of the Public
Assistance Division of the Disaster Assistance Directorate at FEMA.
In his testimony, Walke described the process of the PW process and
reported that 88% of PWs in Louisiana and 61% of PWs in Mississippi
have been obligated. In her question period, Landrieu questioned the
significance of the statistics by asking what percentage of the PWs
were agreed to not only by FEMA officials, but by state and local
officials as well. Walke responded by saying that most were concurred
with by state and local officials. Out of over 30,000 PWs in Louisiana,
only 200 have been appealed, he said. Landrieu countered by saying
that small towns have tremendous pressure to accept any federal money
provided to them. She continued to press Walke during the question
and answer period about third-party arbitration, improving new infrastructure,
and staffing protocol. Much of Walke's testimony was left for later
submission of official written testimony.
Lieberman acknowledged the past failures of FEMA, noting that Hurricane Katrina dealt a blow to the American public's confidence in their government's ability to protect them, but stated that he was "confident that FEMA today is much stronger than it was on 9/11 or after Katrina." He continued to praise the newly strengthened FEMA, mentioning the committee's thorough investigation and report after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina that led to overhauls of FEMA.
Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) seconded Lieberman's comments in a showing of bipartisan faith in FEMA's new management. She stated that FEMA is indeed "obviously" prepared for the 2007 Hurricane season. Both Collins and Lieberman expressed confusion at calls for FEMA to be removed from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "I have been troubled recently to hear that there are some people who are still calling for FEMA to be taken out of the Department of Homeland Security. I believe that would be a big mistake," he stated. Collins pointed out that the committee "conducted the most in-depth investigation" of FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, including 24 hearings and over 800 interviews. Collins stated her belief that the detailed report and ensuing Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (S.3721) have properly overhauled FEMA to allow it to deal more effectively and efficiently with national emergencies within the frame of the DHS. There is now "unified command across all levels of government," she said, while noting that there is still "a lot of work to do."
Collins briefly mentioned the past failures of FEMA, including "colossal leadership failure at all levels," and "failure to evacuate those who could not evacuate themselves." She also noted the extreme amount of fraud and abuse, estimating $1 billion was improperly distributed. R. David Paulison, Administrator of FEMA, cited FEMA's new web-based system that minimizes identity fraud, allowing only entitled victims to claim federal money. "You are not going to stop 100 percent of the fraud, but we can stop a lot of it" he stated.
Paulison went on to describe the agency's new proactive approach. "We are not going to wait for a state to ask for assistance," he stated, while reassuring the committee that FEMA will also not step on a state's authority. He mentioned that shortly after the recent tornados that devastated Greensburg, Kansas, FEMA sent in supplies and personnel before the area was declared a disaster area. "Why wait for the paperwork to be signed before we move in," he questioned.
Lieberman noted the relative small scale of Paulison's example of the Greensburg tornados, and asked about FEMA's ability to deal with "a natural catastrophe like Katrina" as opposed to smaller natural disasters. Paulison mentioned new evacuation plans, "particularly in the gulf states," would help greatly with another devastating hurricane. He noted that shelter and transportation gaps are being identified and fixed, and "pre-landfall evaluations" will allow funds to be used in areas before the storm hitting land. He also cited FEMA's greatly improved logistics and ability to track personnel and supplies.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) stated that "FEMA is stronger today than it was when Katrina hit," but questioned whether it is "strong enough to respond to a catastrophic disaster." She compared Hurricane Katrina to a disaster of "biblical proportions," and asked Paulison about how FEMA has improved to better deal with major disasters. Paulison cited a unified command system, new leadership including eight regional directors, and an improved ability to track people and goods. "Our logistics system is light years ahead of where we were three years ago," he continued, adding that FEMA is trying to "tap into third party systems," such as FedEx, to keep track of supplies. He mentioned that FEMA has started to plan for possible future catastrophic events, including a major earthquake in the New Madrid fault zone area. He also cited housing as a current weakness, saying "FEMA should not be in the long term housing business, HUD should be."
Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), asked if National Guard strength is diminished, especially considering ongoing wars in the Middle East. Michael P. Jackson, Deputy Secretary of the DHS, fielded the question. "We have found, and the National Guard leadership believes that they will be able to adequately support [DHS and FEMA]," Jackson answered.
The committee was impressed with the overhaul of DHS and FEMA. They
seemed confident that FEMA is prepared to deal with major disasters,
and at least partially prepared to deal with catastrophic disasters.
"I would say this has been a very reassuring report," Lieberman
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Linda Rowan, AGI GAP Director; Corina Cerovski-Darriau, 2008 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Laura Bochner, 2008 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Elizabeth Landau, 2007 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern; Paul Schramm, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; and Sargon de Jesus, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on July 28, 2008.