Natural hazards are consequences of many different dynamic Earth processes. These consequences manifest themselves as numerous risks to humans, including: drought, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and wildfires. This page will cover legislation to research, prepare, and mitigate these natural hazards. It will also include action taken to fund or promote agencies and programs responsible for hazard work like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP), and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). For more information regarding hazard legislation, visit the Hazards Caucus Alliance website.
UN, Worldbank Outline Efficient Paths to Disaster Preparedness
Climate change could increase monetary losses from natural disasters by as much as $68 billion, according to a report, Natural Hazards Unnatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention, released by the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank. The majority of these losses are described as preventable, including a portion of the $185 billion expected from non-climate related disasters. The 250-page report provides case studies of effective disaster planning, arguing that effective disaster preparedness can be achieved at minimal or no additional cost. The report advocates for more information on hazards, such as maps of floodplains and active faults, reduction in deforestation, and increased public transportation.
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USGS Chairs International Charter for Space and Major Disasters (10/10)
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) held a board meeting of the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters in Washington, DC, from October 4 to 7. The Charter is a global collaboration of public and private entities that operate satellites and provide free and open access to data in the assistance of disaster response. During the Gulf oil spill, for example, the European Space Agency deployed its ENVISAT to image the extent and spread of the spill. The Charter already includes agencies from the U.S., India, China, Europe, and six other nations. The addition of agencies from Russia, Germany, Brazil, and South Korea was discussed at the meeting. Russian membership in particular would add considerable new resources. The Charter board discussed a need to increase its visibility within the global science community, as it offers an excellent data resource. The USGS will serve as the chair of the Charter for the next six months and is joined on the Charter by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
For a list of member agencies, recent activations, and the text of the Charter, see the Charter’s web site.
Disaster Roundtable Discusses Use of Satellites for Disaster Response (7/10)
The Disasters Roundtable of the National Research Council’s Division on Earth and Life Studies held a workshop to develop a vision for the future use of remote sensing technologies before, during, and after natural disasters. Panelists from both the data production and data user communities discussed how to use collaboration, public engagement, and data sharing to bridge the gap between technologists and end users of natural disaster data. Stuart Gill of the World Bank stressed that there is need to “look at the entire disaster cycle,” and use remotely sensed data to prepare for natural disasters instead of solely using data in disaster response. In order to do this, some panelists argued for development of specific technologies such as full spectral capacity, while others argued for finding ways to better utilize existing platforms. The group agreed, however, that it will be important to pursue greater integration of remote sensing data to reduce risks so that disasters can be avoided in the future.
For more information on the Disasters Roundtable, visit the website.
Hazards Caucus Alliance Holds Briefings on Drought, Hurricanes (6/10)
The Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance in cooperation with the Congressional Hazards Caucus held briefings on drought policy and hurricanes on June 30th. The drought briefing compared the 1992 Australian National Drought Policy with U.S. drought policy development and implementation. More information, including PDFs of presentations, can be found here.
The hurricane briefing, with introductory remarks from Congressional Hazards Caucus Co-Chair, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), discussed hurricane potential in the Gulf of Mexico and the possible impact on the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. For more information, including presentation PDFs, can be found at the website.
Italian Scientists May Face Manslaughter Charges for 2009 L'Aquila Quake (6/10)
Seven senior Italian scientists and officials, employees of the Italian National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) and the Civil Protection Department, are under investigation and may face charges of manslaughter for failing to warn the city of L’Aquila before an earthquake hit in March 2009. Days before the earthquake, the scientists and officials attended a meeting of the Major Risks Committee with L’Aquila officials where it was decided that a series of small tremors did not necessarily signal an imminent hazard, although it was noted that a large earthquake was not impossible. On April 6, 2009, the city was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the middle of the night, collapsing stone buildings that lacked reinforcement and killing 308 people.
INVG has written an open letter of support for the Italian scientists to the President of Italy, urging the charges to be dropped. The letter reads, “The allegations against the scientists are completely unfounded. Years of research worldwide have shown that there is currently no scientifically accepted method for short-term earthquake prediction that can reliably be used by Civil Protection authorities for rapid and effective emergency actions.” As of June 24, over 5,000 people, including many geoscientists, have signed the letter.
Avalanche Mitigation Legislation Passes Committee (6/10)
On June 21 the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed the Federal Land Avalanche Protection Act (S.2907). The bill establishes an avalanche protection program to identify and inform the public about the potential for avalanches on federal lands and provides grants for research to improve avalanche forecasting, prevention, detection and mitigation. The bill would authorize new projects to reduce the avalanche threat to transportation, utilities, and communications, and to ensure the availability of adequate artillery and explosives required for avalanche control. Grants for the research and development of alternatives to military weapons for avalanche control are also authorized in the bill.
USGS Holds Briefing on Citizen Science and Earthquake Risks (5/10)
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) held a congressional briefing on Citizen Science and Earthquakes: Reducing the Risk through the Power of People, which focused on how citizen and agency action along with innovative tools can reduce the damage and loss of life caused by a large earthquake in the U.S.
John Hooper, Director of Earthquake Engineering at Magnusson Klemencic Associates, and Mark Benthien, Director of Communication, Education and Outreach at the Southern California Earthquake Center, discussed issues related to earthquake preparedness. Hooper focused on the importance of strong building codes, as illustrated by the stark difference between the number of buildings destroyed in the January 12 earthquake in Haiti and the February 27 earthquake off the coast of Chile. Benthien highlighted the success of earthquake drills in California and noted the upcoming Great California ShakeOut on October 21, 2010, and a ShakeOut planned for the central U.S. to mark the bicentennial of the New Madrid earthquake in April 2011. ShakeOut studies, scenario reports, videos and more are available from the USGS.
David Wald, a Seismologist at the USGS, showcased post earthquake information systems, including Did You Feel It? and ShakeMap. Wald also discussed the Prompt Assessment of Global Earthquake Response (PAGER) application, which provides immediate estimates of the number of people exposed to severe shaking following an earthquake, a useful tool for emergency response organizations. These tools and more can be found here.
Congressional Hazards Caucus and Alliance Host Volcano Briefing (4/10)
A scheduled briefing on volcanic hazards drew additional attention in the halls of Congress after Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland erupted about a week before the briefing and spewed huge amounts of volcanic ash that disrupted aviation over Europe for days. The briefing featured Tom Murray, a volcanologist from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory, Chris Nye, a volcanologist with the Alaska Geological and Geophysical Survey, Jay Wilson, an emergency manager from Clackamas County, Oregon and Leonard J. Salinas, a flight dispatcher from United Airlines.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, co-chair of the Congressional Hazards Caucus offered opening remarks at the briefing and mentioned the National Volcano Early Warning System bill (S. 782) that she introduced with Alaska’s junior senator, Mark Begich. Representative Don Young (R-AK) has introduced similar legislation in the House (H.R. 4847).
The legislation would authorize $15 million annually for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS). NVEWS is a proposed national-scale plan to ensure the 57 most dangerous and under-monitored volcanoes in the U.S. are properly monitored by upgrading existing networks, installing new networks, and creating a 24/7 watch office and national volcano data center to provide timely and accurate hazard forecasts to reduce risk to life and property.
The presentations of the speakers are available at the Hazards Alliance web page, www.hazardscaucus.org
House Introduces Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Bill (3/10)
Representative Don Young (R-AK) introduced the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (H.R. 4847) in the House this March. The legislation would authorize $15 million annually for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS). NVEWS is a proposed national-scale plan to ensure the 57 most dangerous and under-monitored volcanoes in the U.S. are properly monitored by upgrading existing networks, installing new networks, and creating a 24/7 watch office and national volcano data center to provide timely and accurate hazard forecasts to reduce risk to life and property.
The plan was developed by the USGS Volcano Hazards Program and its affiliated partners in the Consortium of U.S. Volcano Observatories. This is parallel legislation to the Senate bill (S. 782) introduced by the Alaskan Senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D), which is currently awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
House Passes Hazards Legislation (2/10)
By a vote of 335 to 50, the House passed the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2009 (H.R. 3820) on March 2. The measure re-authorizes the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) with two significant changes. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would become responsible for organizing post-earthquake investigations, a task currently performed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). A new Interagency Coordinating Committee on Natural Hazards Risk Reduction, chaired by the Director of NIST would oversee the NEHRP, the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) and other federal research for natural hazard mitigation. The NEHRP coordinating committee would be eliminated and the external advisory committees for NEHRP and NWIRP would report to the new Interagency Committee. The Interagency Committee would include NIST, USGS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The measure will now be referred to the Senate for consideration.
Chilean Earthquake and Tsunami Resources (2/10)
A magnitude 8.8 earthquake offshore of Maule, Chile on February 27, 2010 caused significant damage and generated a tsunami that caused devastation primarily along the Chilean coast and nearby islands.
The U.S. government supports national and global earthquake and tsunami alerts, modeling, risk assessments and research. The U.S. Geological Survey has primary responsibility for earthquakes and provides general information about the Chilean event through its Earthquake Hazards Program web site. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has primary responsibility for tsunamis. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center provides warnings, including a Chilean tsunami warning. The NOAA Center for Tsunami Research provides more information about the Chilean tsunami modeling and data.
The National Science Foundation supports basic research on earthquakes and tsunamis including Rapid Response Research (RAPID) to better understand natural hazards and help to reduce risks. Much of this work is conducted through the Geosciences Directorate, Office of International Science and Engineering (for hazards outside the U.S.) and Engineering Directorate. Currently there is an opportunity for rapid research on the magnitude 7.0 earthquake just offshore of Haiti.
The USAID, an independent government agency that receives overall guidance from the State Department, handles foreign assistance for people recovering from disasters. USAID coordinates international work, including work on natural hazards such as the Chilean earthquake and the Haitian earthquake.
Non-profit organizations such as the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the American Geophysical Union provide information about earthquakes, particularly research and assessments of risks.
The media has provided coverage of the recent earthquakes and tsunamis. One particularly interesting article is a NY Times “Room for Debate Blog” on the question “Are We Prepared for an 8.8 Quake?”, where geoscientists, engineers and others discuss earthquake risks in the U.S.
Haiti Earthquake Update (1/10)
On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti causing significant devastation. The geoscience community, as individuals and organizations, has come together to provide information about the underlying geoscience and ways to help Haiti.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides continuing information about the earthquake, aftershocks, tectonics, structure and future risks. The National Science Foundation is sending a team of geoscientists led by Eric Calais from Purdue University to investigate the earthquake and provide future hazard assessments. See the NSF press release for some details. The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) has a Haiti Earthquake Clearinghouse web page with information about earthquake engineering issues and updates from a team of engineers who will investigate the damage and provide recommendations to reduce future risk.
The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has a web page with information and links to useful resources. AGU will also organize a congressional briefing with several partners about the Haiti earthquake for policymakers in February. The Geological Society of America has made all published papers on the tectonics and seismicity of the Haitian area available for free on their web page.
NEHRP Re-authorization Update (1/10)
The Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the re-authorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). A focus of the hearing was the lower authorization levels recommended for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2009 (H.R. 3820). Chairman Jim Costa (D-CA), Ranking Member Doug Lamborn (R-CO), Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) expressed support for the program and concern about the reduction in authorization levels. Two witnesses, David Applegate, Senior Advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards, USGS and Stuart Nishenko, Chair, Government Relations Committee, Seismological Society of America presented testimony explaining the importance and value of NEHRP.
Letters of support from the American Geological Institute, the Seismological Society of America, the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists, the Association of American State Geologists, the Oregon State Geological Survey and others were acknowledged and included as part of the official record.
Volcano Early Warning System Passes Committee (12/09)
The National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring Systems Act (S. 782), introduced by Alaskan Senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D), would authorize $15 million annually for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to continually monitoring all 169 potentially hazardous volcanoes in the U.S in real-time.
The bill will codify the USGS National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System (NVEWS) program already established to monitor volcanic activity and warn citizens of impending danger. The measure will organize, modernize, standardize, stabilize, expand and unify the current monitoring system to simplify coverage of all U.S. volcanoes.
New Interactive Tsunami Site from WHOI (12/09)
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) launched a new flashy, fact-filled, and comprehensive tsunami information site that teaches everything from tsunami science to how researchers monitor them to how to survive one. Interactive maps, firsthand accounts from survivors, diagrams, and tsunami videos are just some of interesting and useful information on the site.
Visit the site at: http://www.whoi.edu/home/interactive/tsunami/
Army Corps Liable for Worst Flooding During Katrina (11/09)
A U.S. district court judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was liable for some of the worst flooding after Hurricane Katrina, marking the first ruling to hold the USACE liable for damage from a natural disaster. The judge found the USACE did not properly maintain a shipping channel, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), which in 1988 had been deemed a threat to human life. The MRGO is called a “hurricane highway” that focused floodwater into eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.
The ruling gives six individuals and one business a total of $720,000 in compensation and more claims are likely. As it is, 490,000 claims, amounting to about $500 billion in damages, have been filed against the government already. The actual government liability will remain in limbo for some time though as the USACE appeals the ruling and the whole process remains tied up in the courts.
There appears to be no real winners in this situation. Members of Congress do hope this ruling will lead to better planning, design and maintenance of projects by the USACE.
Read the NY Times story about the ruling online.
Geologist Averts Rockslide Catastrophe (11/09)
A small, early morning rockfall in the Ocoee Gorge in Polk County, Tennessee had repair crews out working to clear the roads at the beginning of November. Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) geologist Vanessa Bateman drove to the site from Nashville to investigate. She heard noises coming from the hillside and immediately ordered an evacuation of people and heavy equipment away from the site. Within a half hour of her warnings, a large rockslide occurred right where the crew had been working and was videotaped by a local news crew.
The video of the rockslide shows the power and damage they can cause. The slide essentially split Polk County in half, making the distance by road from one side of the slide to the other over 120 miles. The slide is expected to take months to clean up. This recent event has highlighted the importance of the TDOT Rockfall Mitigation Program that identifies sites of potential slides, assigns a hazard rating, and works to prevent them from occurring. Although the slide resulted in major transportation difficulties and a hefty clean-up, the residents of Polk County can be grateful to Bateman for preventing this inconvenience from being a tragedy.
Study Shows Dam Contributed to Wenchuan Earthquake (11/09)
A recent scientific study suggests that a Chinese dam built less than a mile from a well-known major fault may have triggered the 7.9 magnitude Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, killing more than 69,000 people and leaving almost 18,000 missing. The authors of the study “Did the Zipingpu Reservoir Trigger the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake?” (requires subscription) created a two-dimensional model to evaluate how the Zipingpu Reservoir, holding 320 million tons of water, changed the stresses on several nearby faults. The authors of the study state that there is a lack of data from before the dam was built in 2005 to make a definite link between the dam and the earthquake, but estimate that the increased stress created by the reservoir was enough to hasten the occurrence of the earthquake by tens to hundreds of years. Chinese officials insist that the reservoir had nothing to do with the Wenchuan earthquake.
Congressional Hazards Caucus Holds Coastal Erosion Briefing (11/09)
The American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America, in coordination with the Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance and the Congressional Hazards Caucus, held a briefing entitled “Eroding Coastlines: Geological and Societal Impacts of Extreme Storms, Wetland Loss, and Sea Level Rise”. The briefing featured talks by geologist John Boothroyd, oceanographer Abby Salanger, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) project manager James Titus.
Boothroyd displayed storm damage to the Outer Banks and vulnerability on the Rhode Island coast while Salanger demonstrated coastal losses on the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Katrina using lidar before and after storms to observe changes in coastal elevation. Both pointed out the potential for storm damage to amplify with climate change, the important role wetlands play in storm mitigation, and considered beach “nourishment” to be a long term maintenance expense.
From the EPA, Titus revealed the muddy legal waters concerning ownership of beaches and other coastal landforms, most of which has yet to be settled. A quagmire of federal, state, local, and common laws often features conflicting and ambiguous language to which makes it difficult to govern these areas.
NRC Says Nuclear Design Cannot Withstand Natural Hazards (10/09)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) informed Westinghouse that its AP1000 Shield Building, designed to protect the nuclear reactor’s primary containment from severe weather and other hazards, failed to meet design standards. The company will have to make modifications to the design so it can withstand events like earthquakes, tornadoes, and high-winds in order for its full application to continue, though the NRC will continue to evaluate the remainder of the company’s reactor proposal.
Read the NRC press release can be found here.
NEHRP and NWIRP Reauthorization Passes Committee (10/09)
On October 21, 2009 the Natural Hazard Risk Reduction Act of 2009 (H.R. 3820) was unanimously voted out of the House Science and Technology Committee. H.R. 3820 includes reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) with some changes. The new bill includes an emphasis on social science research and decreases in authorization levels. In addition, the bill introduces a new interagency coordinating committee on multi-hazards. This new committee will look at hazard research across disciplines and agencies as well as coordinating the NEHRP and NWIRP programs. It would increase the number of federal agencies involved at the coordinating committee level above the current NEHRP committee.
Two amendments were added in committee, one by Representative David Wu (D-OR) to broaden the social science language within the National Science Foundation (NSF) section of the bill to give the agency more flexibility to carry out social science research. The amendment also makes sure the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cooperates at the local, state and federal levels. Lastly it makes it clear that NOAA is responsible for developing wind hazard maps, but is not responsible for maintaining them. The second amendment came from Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) to add the understanding of the wind impact on water to NOAA’s responsibilities.
NEMA Holds Briefing on Mitigation (9/09)
The National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), in conjunction with the Congressional Hazards Caucus and Alliance, held a briefing to discuss the merits of shifting to mitigation focused versus disaster management focused hazard programs. Moderated by Senator Mary Landrieu (R-LA), the meeting focused on a white paper (PDF) recently issued by NEMA to provide recommendations on effective U.S. mitigation efforts. The white paper was released in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and numerous other organizations to outline the importance of mitigation efforts aimed at building disaster resiliency across the nation. NEMA calls the paper, and the preceding collaborative effort, a successful example of the power of Federal, State, local, and organizational cooperation to call attention to disaster preparedness.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and representatives of the insurance and building code industries praised the white paper recommendations and further explained the value of mitigation efforts. Specific topics included the economic pay off of mitigation versus disaster management, a hazard research facility under construction in South Carolina, and a community in Washington State which avoided disaster thanks to its pre-earthquake mitigation efforts. NEMA is the professional association of emergency management directors in the Unites States.
USGS Grants for Volcano Monitoring (8/09)
The U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) announced American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funding for volcano monitoring grants. Grants are available for repair, replacement, or modernization of volcano monitoring and reporting capabilities. This includes equipment, field observations, sampling, geologic mapping, GIS-based hazard assessments, computer-based research, data archiving, and creation or preservation of jobs. Applications are due September 14, 2009 at 4pm EDT. All applications must be submitted through grants.gov, where the full announcement is also available.
Great ShakeOut Briefing Held For Congress (7/09)
On July 29, 2009 Dr. Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey, along with Gary Sturdivan of the East Valley Water District and Stephen Sellers of the California Emergency Management Agency, spoke on Capitol Hill about “Disaster Preparedness: Lessons from the Great Southern California Shakeout”. Over 5 million people participated in the ShakeOut last November, the largest disaster preparedness drill in U.S. history. The congressional briefing was sponsored by the Geological Society of America (GSA), American Geophysical Union (AGU), Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), and Seismological Society of America (SSA) in cooperation with the Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance and the Congressional Hazards Caucus.
Congressional Hazards Caucus Wildfire Briefing (7/09)
On July 6, 2009, a briefing on “Climate Change & the Science of Safeguarding our Communities from Wildfires” was held by the Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance, the National Fire Protection Association, and the American Geophysical Union. The topic of discussion concentrated on the wildland/urban interface, where communities are at the greatest risk of wildfire. Speakers included Tom Harbour of Fire Aviation & Forest Management at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Roger Pulwarty of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Susan Cutter of the Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute University of South Carolina, Samuel Manzello of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Michele Steinberg of the National Fire Protection Association. More about the briefing can be found on the Hazard Caucus Alliance page here.
Earthquake Program Gets Hearing as Other Hazards Considered (6/09)
The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) is up for reauthorization at the end of fiscal year 2009. The House Science and Technology Committee Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held a hearing before writing reauthorization legislation on June 11, 2009. The committee members and witnesses praised the program, especially the restructuring that occurred in 2004 to make the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) the lead agency of the four agency joint program. During the hearing, Chairman David Wu (D-OR) also wondered if a multi-hazards program would be a better approach to research and mitigation.
The last reauthorization of NEHRP in 2004 (P.L. 108-360) also created the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP). The NWIRP program is supposed to be modeled after NEHRP, but as of yet has not produced the same caliber of results. Both are under consideration for reauthorization, and it is unclear if the House Science and Technology Committee will try and incorporate a multi-hazard program as well. NWIRP reauthorization has already been introduced in a separate bill (H.R. 2627) from Representative Dennis Moore (R-KS). H.R. 2627 names NIST as the lead agency, as opposed to the original authorization which named the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Hazard mitigation funding, as opposed to relying on recovery funding after a disaster, is also the idea behind the new bill introduced by Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS). His bill to establish grants for pre-disaster hazard mitigation enhancement (H.R. 3027) would authorize $500 million in grants over 5 years. The legislation is a response to the first Obama Administration report on climate change that links greenhouse gases to increasingly damaging natural hazards.
Weather Mitigation Research Bill Approved (5/09)
On May 20, 2009, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the Weather Mitigation Research and Development Policy Authorization Act of 2009 (S. 601). The bill, sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) would establish a weather mitigation research program within the National Science Foundation (NSF), establish a working group composed of representatives from state and academic institutions, and establish a weather mitigation grant program to fund research at state agencies, academic institutions and non-profit organizations. The bill would authorize $25 million per year over five years for these programs.
The bill is based on recommendations of a 2003 National Academies report entitled “Critical Issues in Weather Modification Research”. The report is available at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10829
The full text of the bill is available from Thomas at: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:s.00601:
Wildfire Funds in War Supplemental (5/09)
The House and Senate appropriators have approved a war supplemental spending bill for fiscal year 2009 (H.R. 2346) that includes $250 million for wildfire suppression. The funds for wildfire suppression would only be used if the $1.6 billion appropriated for fire suppression in 2009 is depleted. The purpose is to create a back-up fund for fires late in the season that are otherwise not covered. In the past few years the increase in costly wildfires has caused firefighting agencies to take millions from other programs, a disruption policymakers hope to avoid with this supplemental reserve fund. The Senate also included $843 million for the Army Corps of Engineers. This additional money is intended to improve the agency’s response to a variety of natural disasters, including wildfires.
Committee At The National Academies To Develop NEHRP Strategic Plan (5/09)
A National Research Council committee has been charged with developing a roadmap for implementing the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) strategic plan submitted to Congress in 2008. Based on this strategic plan, the committee will determine what needs to be done, the approximate cost, and which activities are priorities in the short-term.
NEHRP is an interagency program with input from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). At a National Academies meeting on May 7, 2009 the committee was updated on each agencies role in NEHRP and what programs are currently underway.
NIST is the lead agency and has the primary responsibility for NEHRP planning and coordination. NIST conducts applied earthquake engineering research to provide the technical basis for building codes, standards, and practices. It is responsible for working with FEMA and others to implement improved earthquake-resistant design for new and existing structures.
FEMA is primarily involved with research and development implementation, outreach and education, coordination on a regional level with states, and mitigation and rebuilding efforts post-disaster. FEMA has some successful public awareness programs underway, like QuakeSmart for helping small businesses. However, FEMA has to overcome the challenges of decreased funding, employees, visibility, and cooperation between state and federal legislation in order to implement what NEHRP requires.
USGS is the monitoring, reporting, and warning agency for NEHRP. As a lead hazard research agency, the USGS uses many of its programs to aid NEHRP. The primary program is the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS). In the 2009 stimulus package the USGS got $30 million for earthquake monitoring, of which close to 70 percent will be used to modernize ANSS. The USGS also collects and analyzes data which can be used to help with building codes, urban hazard maps, and multi-hazard demonstration projects like The Great Shake Out. The National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, originally established by NEHRP in 1980, was also reinstated in 2006 with an updated charter to work towards the NEHRP goal of an earthquake resilient nation.
NSF funds grants through the geoscience and engineering directorates for fundamental research in earthquake science, geotechnical engineering, and structural resiliency. NSF also has opportunities for rapid response grants to conduct research immediately following a disaster. They are involved in maintaining many seismic research facilities like IRIS and UNAVCO.
The success stories of this research can be found on the NEHRP site. Information on the role of the committee can be found on the National Academies site.
Murkowski Introduces Volcano Early Warning System Bill (4/09)
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (S. 782) on April 2, 2009 along with Senator Mark Begich (D-AK). The bill would establish the proposed system within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) by upgrading existing networks, installing new networks on unmonitored volcanoes, and creating a 24/7 watch office and national volcano data center with a budget of $15 million per year. The USGS would be required to coordinate its activities with the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, FEMA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to achieve the primary objective of increasing community resiliency to volcanic threats through education and early warning.
The need for such a program was documented in a 2005 report by the USGS of the current volcanic threats and gaps in monitoring capabilities for 57 dangerous and under-monitored volcanoes. The Alaskan volcano Mount Redoubt, which began erupting on March 22 and continued throughout April to disrupt air traffic and threaten an oil storage facility, was listed as 1 of those 57 volcanoes.
Largest Tornado Research Project Starts In May (4/09)
More than 100 scientists and staff from the federal government, universities, and non-profits, equipped with research vehicles and mobile radars, will study the origin, structure, and evolution of tornadoes starting in May 2009. The Verification of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2, or VORTEX2, is an about $10 million joint project between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is the largest tornado research project in history and will last for two tornado seasons. This is an expansion of the original VORTEX project, which improved severe weather warnings. VORTEX2 will build on the previous work, using advances in technology to collect more detailed storm data to understand why tornadoes form and how to more accurately forecast and track them. For more information and to see updates on the project, visit the project website.
House and Senate Introduce Wildfire Bill (3/09)
The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act (H.R. 1404), is a bipartisan piece of legislation aimed at creating a separate federal fund dedicated to fighting catastrophic, emergency wildland fires. The rising cost of fire suppression is dominating agency budgets as fire seasons are extending and becoming more intense. In the past few years the Forest Service has been depleting its firefighting funds before the end of the season, forcing a transfer of funds from other agencies or programs to cover the costs. Creating a separate reserve to supplement expenditures on costly fires will allow agencies to use their existing budgets for core missions as well as for pre-disaster mitigation strategies that allow them, as Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) put it, “to slowly get ahead of the curve, by spending money up front to protect communities, restore natural processes, and manage public lands properly.” Included in the legislation is a mandate for the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to submit a long-awaited cohesive wildland fire management strategy to Congress. The FLAME Act is also consistent with the Obama Administration’s proposed wildfire reserve fund.
The legislation was introduced on March 10, 2009 by Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Grijalva of the House Natural Resources Committee, It moved quickly to the floor of whole House where it passed by a vote of 412-3 on March 26. The measure is now with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where relatively rapid consideration is expected.
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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.
Drought is a persistent and abnormal moisture deficiency that has adverse impacts on water supply, water quality, hydropower, vegetation, soils, animals, and people. It results from large-scale disruptions of atmospheric circulation patterns that may persist for months or years. All droughts originate from too little precipitation (i.e., meteorological drought), but vulnerability is increasing as land- and water-use patterns change. Droughts may also be getting longer and more intense.
The National Integrated Drought Information System Act of 2006 (NIDIS) was passed during 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 Administration (NOAA). More information about NIDIS and droughts can be found on the U.S. Drought Portal.
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. Earthquakes alone can cause significant damage, but earthquakes in Alaska, California and Hawaii which have precipitated landslides, tsunamis and fires caused the highest number of casualties. 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. The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) was created as part of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977. It has been continually reauthorized in subsequent years to reduce earthquake-related losses through improved design and construction methods and practices, land use controls and redevelopment, prediction techniques and early-warning systems, coordinated emergency preparedness plans, and public education and involvement programs.
An earthquake is a sudden slip on a fault that is caused by stress buildup in the crust. It is most often caused by the tectonic movement of crustal plates but can also be precipitated by volcanic or magmatic activity. An earthquake releases energy in the form of seismic waves that can cause shaking and damage over large distances.
Flooding poses tremendous danger to both people and property. On average, floods kill 100 people per year in the U.S. During recent years, floods and flash floods have caused billions of dollars in damage each year. They are among the most common and widespread of all natural hazards. Even more importantly, they are the number one weather-related killer. A flood can happen anywhere–along the Mississippi, in New England, even in the desert.
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.
The impact of hurricanes in the United States is an average of 20 deaths and $5.1 billion per year (excluding the 2005 season). On average ten tropical storms form during the Atlantic hurricane season, with 6 becoming hurricanes and 2-3 becoming major hurricanes. However hurricane activity in the Atlantic is cyclical, on a multi-decade scale. Since the mid-1990s, activity has increased sharply and this period of heightened activity could last another 10-20 years.
Hurricanes are tropical cyclones with winds that exceed 64 knots (74 miles per hour) and circulate counter-clockwise about their centers in the northern hemisphere. Hurricanes form from complexes of thunderstorms whose surface winds tap and concentrate the moisture available from a warm ocean (warmer than 81° F). As a hurricane nears land, it can bring storm surges, torrential rains, high winds, and tornadoes. Hurricanes occur in coastal states, though flooding and tornadoes can occur inland.
In 2005, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking hurricane season, which included the costliest storm in history. Hurricane Katrina caused about $96 billion in damage, displaced about 770,000 people, killed an estimated 1330, and wreaked havoc that New Orleans is still recovering from today. Though the hurricane was deadly, most died from subsequent flooding rather than directly from storm surge or high winds.
Two thirds of the U.S. population resides in counties or parishes that have areas susceptible to landslides. Landslides destroy property, disrupt traffic, and cause injuries and deaths. Nationally, landslides cause 25-50 deaths each year and up to $2 billion in losses annually, according to the American Red Cross. They are a common phenomenon in all 50 states.
A landslide is the downslope movement of rock and soil that occurs when the force of gravity exceeds the resistance of the underlying earth. Factors that cause landslides include water saturation, erosion, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, alternating freezing and thawing of ground and poor land development activities. They are also a typical secondary effect of wildfires because the loss of vegetation can lead to rapid erosion and unstable ground during heavy rain.
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 9 percent of the major killers have occurred there. In recent years, the majority of high fatality tornadoes have been in places where tornadoes are rare. This fact showcases the importance of tornado preparedness, warning, and monitoring systems across the U.S.
A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. In an average year, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the United States, resulting in 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries, according to the NOAA. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction, with damage paths as wide as a mile and as long as 50 miles and wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Destruction of homes, crops, and utility infrastructure cost the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
The tsunami hazard is greatest for the coastal states along the active Pacific Rim: 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. Though rare, historical accounts prove there is potential for a massive tsunami. Education and basic emergency planning are key to mitigating a tsunami related disaster in the western U.S.
The Tsunami Warning and Education Act (H.R. 1674) was signed into law in December of 2006 and authorized 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. NOAA maintains an educational tsunami website to update the public about the hazard and NOAA’s tsunami programs.
Lava flows, lahars, ash falls, debris avalanches, and pyroclastic flow are all potentially dangerous events related to a volcanic eruption. Volcanic activity around the world claims lives, devastated cities, created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and caused economic losses exceeding one billion 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.
The U. S. is home to 169 young volcanoes of which 55 are considered threatening to life and property. Most of these occur in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Hawaii. Sufficient monitoring can predict an eruption weeks to months in advance and aviation authorities can be warned of dangerous plumes within minutes. The predictions come from the 5 USGS volcano observatories that monitor and assess volcanic hazards. In 2006, these observatories issued more than 1000 public advisories about current conditions at U.S. volcanoes. More information can be found at the USGS volcano website.
Wildfires are unplanned events that can cause the loss of lives and property. They include escaped prescribed burns, human-induced fires, and fires ignited by natural causes. According to FEMA nine out of ten wildfires are caused by people, though lightning is a significant natural cause. Most wildfires are extinguished while still relatively small. The 3% of wildfires that do escape early detection and suppression account for 95% of the fire-related costs, damages and home losses. Annual wildfire losses, including building destruction and declines in lumber production and tourism, cost the federal government and insurance companies can be billions of dollars. After a wildfire there is a greater risk of subsequent landslides where burned hills and mountains have weakened soils that are more likely to erode rapidly in normal to heavy rainfall.
The U.S. experiences almost 100,000 wildland fires each year which burn an area about the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Federal agencies spend a couple billion dollars each year to suppress wildfires.
Sources: AGI's Monthly Review
Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Rachel Poor, and Linda Rowan, Government Affairs Staff; Merilie Reynolds, AGI/AAPG Fall 2008 Intern; Joey Fiore, AGI/AIPG Summer 2009 Intern; Mollie Pettit, AGI/AAPG Fall 2009 Intern; Elizabeth Brown, 2010 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Elizabeth Huss, 2010 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Kiya Wilson, 2010 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; and Matthew Ampleman, 2010 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern.
Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Natural Hazards in the 110th Congress, and the Hazard Caucus Alliance webpage.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on January 6, 2011