Summary of Hearings on Natural Hazards Policy


  • January 20, 2010: House Natural Resources Committee Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Hearing on "H.R. 3820: Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2009" 
  • July 28, 2009: Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Hearing on “Weathering the Storm: The Need for a National Hurricane Initiative”
  • July 21, 2009: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing on “The Preparedness of Federal Land Management Agencies for the 2009 Wildfire Season”
  • June 11, 2009: House Science and Technology Committee Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Hearing on “The Reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program: R&D For Disaster Resilient Communities”
  • May 19, 2009: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing titled "Recommendations of the National Committee on Levee Safety"

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House Natural Resources Committee Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Hearing on "H.R. 3820: Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2009"
January 20, 2010

Dr. David Applegate
Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards, U.S. Geological Survey
Dr. Stuart Nishenko
Chairman, Seismological Society of America Government Relations Committee

Committee Members Present
Jim Costa, Chairman (D-CA)
Doug Lamborn, Ranking Member (R-CO)
Rush Holt (D-NJ)
Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a legislative hearing on the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2009 (H.R. 3820). H.R. 3820, introduced by Representative David Wu (D-OR) of the House Science and Technology Committee, includes reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). The bill proposes to reauthorize NEHRP at lower funding levels than previous years. Of particular concern for this committee, the bill specifies about a 20 percent decrease in funding for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one of the four agencies contributing to the NEHRP.

Chairman Jim Costa (D-CA) and Ranking Member Doug Lamborn (R-CO) praised NEHRP for limiting the number of earthquake related deaths in the U.S., especially after the disaster in Haiti. Lamborn expressed concern that all the money going towards climate change programs is taking away from the important hazard programs at the USGS. Chairman Jim Costa (D-CA) expressed his disappointment in the cut, saying that the “U.S. Geological Survey earthquake programs are instrumental to facing this threat.” Costa listed several organizations and individuals who have also expressed their disappointment at the cuts. These included the American Geological Institute, Seismological Society of America, Southern California Earthquake Center, Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Stanford Seismologist Dr. Beroza, and the Association of American State Geologists.

The witnesses described USGS’s role in NEHRP, particularly in relation to the completion of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS). The major concern of the witnesses was the inability to complete the seismic network with decreased funding. “ANSS is a flagship program that’s never received full funding,” said Seismological Society of America Government Relations Chairman Stuart Nishenko. Currently the ANSS is only 25 percent complete, even after the recent boost in funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), explained David Applegate of the USGS. Nishenko explained that as it stands now, “if authorizations are reduced, and appropriations stay fixed with respect to fiscal 2009 levels, there is limited leeway in the budgets to handle unforeseen emergencies.” However, he worried the reduction might be even greater since appropriators have consistently funded the program at only 60 to 70 percent of the authorized amount.

Chairman Costa asked where a $20 million decrease to the proposed USGS NEHRP budget would be most acutely felt. Applegate reiterated that ANSS would not reach full implementation without the funding. He also explained that a decrease limits the USGS’s ability to provide quick response information to earthquakes, information like what was used to assess the damage in Haiti. If ANSS had been fully funded over the years, Applegate said we would have full implementation and an early warning system in place. Nishenko added that NEHRP would also have better urban seismic hazard maps with diminished uncertainties. With ANSS being such a crucial component of earthquake hazard monitoring and warning systems, Costa asked Nishenko if ANSS should have a separate authorization. Nishenko thought it should.

Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) was concerned that without full funding the Eastern U.S. would be left out. Applegate assured Holt that the USGS has top priority, at-risk urban centers from coast to coast, but consented that meeting the budget shortfall would benefit the East Coast.

Costa wanted to make sure the U.S. was utilizing the best science and employing international scientific collaborations. Applegate felt the USGS is doing a good job of learning from other countries’ experiences and best practices, and has particularly good working report with Japan, Turkey and Mexico. In addition, the USGS is partnering with academic institutions in the U.S.

Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) asked about NEHRP as a model for other multi-agency program coordination. Nishenko explained that NEHRP Interagency Coordination Committee has “the heads of the four NEHRP agencies sitting at the table with a representative from OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and a representative from OSTP [White House Office of Science and Technology Policy]...has shown significant degree of interest and involvement by the administration in earthquake activities in the United States. Just having those folks in the room talking about issues and having that highest level of organization and commitment has been a real shot in the arm for these programs.” The ability to coordinate among agencies has been very helpful in synthesizing the individual budgets, Nishenko told Lummis.

Costa concluded that the committee “will do everything we can to ensure that Americans in the future are provided with the upmost level of early warning and notice and types of protection that we can ensure. Realizing that today, sadly, we cannot predict earthquakes, but we know for certain they will occur.”

The written testimony of the witnesses and the full video archive of the hearing are available from the committee web site.


Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Hearing on “Weathering the Storm: The Need for a National Hurricane Initiative
July 28, 2009

Dr. Kelvin K. Droegemeier
Co-Chairman, Task Force on Hurricane Science and Engineering, National Science Board
Dr. Richard W. Spinrad
Assistant Administrator, Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Dr. Gordon L. Wells
Program Manager, Center for Space Research, University of Texas at Austin
Ms. Leslie Chapman-Henderson
President and CEO, Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Inc. (FLASH)
Mr. Franklin W. Nutter
President, Reinsurance Association of America

Committee Members Present
John D. Rockefeller IV, Chair* (D-WV)
Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Ranking Member (R-TX)
Bill Nelson, Acting Chair (D-FL)
David Vitter (R-LA)
Mel Martinez (R-FL)

*Not present, but published an opening statement

On July 28, 2009, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on “Weathering the Storm: The Need for a National Hurricane Initiative.” Bill Nelson (D-FL) spoke of the importance of considering hurricane research and preparedness, citing 2,000 hurricane related deaths in the U.S. since 2003 and 66 percent of insurance costs attributed to natural disasters. David Vitter (R-LA) echoed this sentiment saying we need to better understand when and where storm surge will occur, have better hurricane response measures in place, and consider the economic impact these storms have on the nation. Nelson asked the witnesses to submit their prepared statements for the record and to treat the hearing as a dialogue.

Nelson cited that between 1987 and 2006 the nation experienced $187 billion in losses due to hurricanes and $19 billion in losses due to earthquakes. He asked the witnesses to comment on why hurricane research receives less funding than earthquake research when they represent a much greater percentage of loss. Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier of the National Science Board responded that hurricanes are unique because of their “totality” and called them “a weather-driven social science problem.” He said there is a need to look at the question of how predictable hurricanes are and then where to invest money to prepare for them. Mr. Franklin Nutter of the Reinsurance Association of America told Nelson that there should be more investment in hurricane research given more Americans are moving to the coasts, and while there has been a steady number of geophysical events in recent decades, there has been a steady rise in the number of climatological events.

Nelson then asked the witnesses if we are making progress in reducing hurricane impacts. Dr. Richard Spinrad of the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responded that through satellite support, enhanced modeling and observations, and research they have been able to make dramatic improvements in hurricane track forecasts. However, he said they are not as good at predicting the intensity of hurricanes and need more research to improve, especially for rapidly intensifying hurricanes. Spinrad said they should make more coupled investments with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and with the social sciences. He added that the public should understand their two to three day forecasts are very good, but they should include a “tone of uncertainty” so they are aware the forecasts are not perfect. Wells told Nelson there is always a question of when people should evacuate before a hurricane. He said if they wait until 24 hours before, they are likely to end up stuck in traffic. They could also over-evacuate as has been seen in Texas when they evacuate between 48 and 72 hours ahead of time. Put simply, he said, there is no good solution right now.

Nelson asked Spinrad about what NOAA will do if their Gulfstream-IV jet, used for hurricane research, is down during a storm. Spinrad said the Air Force can provide them with C-130 planes or they can use high-altitude balloons that can obtain almost as much data as the Gulfstream-IV.

Mel Martinez (R-FL) wanted to hear about mitigation efforts and particularly if anything has been done about manufactured homes that are prone to more damage in hurricanes. Ms. Leslie Chapman-Henderson of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Inc. (FLASH) told him that there have been “pockets of success” with improving building codes that can ensure manufactured homes can better withstand hurricanes. There has also been some success in implementing mitigation programs that ensure new homes meet building code standards. However, she said, these programs are “desperate for funding” and are now competing for funds with weatherization programs. She said we cannot focus on weatherization as a solution, but we need to be “holistic” in our approach by developing a system where there is a national model or system that improves information sharing at levels from developers to building coders to citizens. Chapman-Henderson asserted that this would result in insurance and energy savings. She added that new manufactured homes “are so much better” than older manufactured homes in holding up to hurricanes, but people still need to evacuate.

Vitter asked Spinrad about what hurricane research programs are priorities for NOAA. Spinrad said the three most important areas of research are observation, data assimilation, and modeling. In terms of observation, they need to improve their measurements of heat content in the ocean and of low level winds. NOAA is testing unmanned aircraft to complete such observations on a regular basis. In modeling, they want to increase the resolution in the models and bring the grid size down to 5 km or 1 km, and to increase investments in high performance computing. For data assimilation, they want to work more with academia to find the best techniques possible to get their observations into the models.

Vitter followed up by asking where they have seen the most improvement and where improvement is most achievable. Spinrad said they have already seen significant improvement in the accuracy of track forecasts and should be able to improve even more. He said they should be able to improve extended forecasts, but accuracy is a challenge. Spinrad said their goal was to improve their forecast capability by 50 percent within 10 years as part of the Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Project (HFIP) established last year.

Vitter asked Dr. Gordon Wells of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin what models have been able to show about protecting coastal property and resources. Wells said they have been able to use modeling to see the best combination of “hard options” or “soft options,” which are different mitigation actions, to determine the best scenarios for protection when the hurricane makes landfall. They have been able to do this using data from observed storms or storms they have created themselves. He added that they need to compare social and physical risks in determining where first responders are sent as a result of these model runs.

Nelson asked Nutter, “How can stronger building codes reduce economic loss?” Nutter said there was no doubt that “forecasting saves lives,” but there would have been a 50 percent reduction in loss from Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992 if the 2004 Florida building code had been in effect. He also highlighted the importance of preparation for immediate response after a storm.

Nelson asked Spinrad about what he predicts for the 2009 hurricane season now that there is evidence of a new El Nino event. Spinrad said that he could not really predict the number, but El Nino normally diminishes the number and intensity of hurricanes. He said NOAA has determined there is a 50 percent probability of 9 to 14 named storms. Spinrad said they should look at the midseason outlook that will be published by NOAA on August 6 with better predictions than at the beginning of the season, and warned not to be complacent since August and September are usually the most intense hurricane months for Florida.

Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) asked Wells about what he learned from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and what could be done better in the future. Wells said he saw the importance of utilizing a highly adaptive computing resource and in sharing resources with NOAA. In the future, he said they will need to better visualize the likely outcome of the storm in the model for the public so they can “access personal risk” and evacuate sooner or take better precautions before the storm hits.

Hutchinson asked Droegemeier about her bill, S. 601, that would establish weather mitigation research programs and for his thoughts on weather modification. Droegemeier said that when considering weather modification it is important to have good forecast models, understand how to implement changes to the weather, understand the unintended consequences that may result, and understand the legal and ethical issues that will arise. He added that it is “time for the nation to get serious about weather modification” and called for more research. Spinrad indicated that they need to understand the weather system before they attempt to modify the system and understand the unintended consequences that could result to ecosystems. Hutchinson said that she thinks it is important to start gathering data before deciding to pursue weather modification, but we need the data.

Nelson asked Droegemeier about the relationship between climate change and hurricanes. Droegemeier responded that it is a “two-way street” in that they each affect each other. He said that they have seen a shift to more intense hurricanes in recent years with the power of the hurricane being greater. On the other hand, hurricanes can change ocean currents and have long term impacts on the climate. He said there needs to be ongoing research so they can better understand the relationship. Nelson asked Nutter about how the insurance industry is dealing with climate change. Nutter responded that he has seen an interest in the industry to better understand the science and called it “critical” to understand what climate change can do. He also acknowledged that European insurance companies are still taking the lead on this through public research.

Nelson concluded by asking the witnesses about how they could get senators from non-coastal states to take interest in hurricane research. Chapman-Henderson said that it is important to remind them that hurricanes have economic impacts on the nation and they cause damage throughout the U.S., and not just on the coasts. Wells responded that much of oil refinery activities take place in Texas and throughout the Gulf Coast, so damage to the industry will certainly affect gas prices for everyone in the country. Spinrad highlighted the fact that more than 95 percent of exports and imports in the U.S. are by sea, and hurricanes do not just hit land but affect large sections of the oceans.

 Testimony from the panelists, Committee Chair, and Ranking Member, as well as a video of the hearing can be found here.


Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing on “The Preparedness of Federal Land Management Agencies for the 2009 Wildfire Season”
July 21, 2009

Panel I
The Honorable Rhea Suh
Assistant Secretary, Policy, Management, and Budget, Department of the Interior
Mr. Jay Jensen
Deputy Undersecretary, Natural Resources and the Environment, Department of Agriculture
Ms. Patricia Dalton
Managing Director, Natural Resources and the Environment, Government Accountability Office

Panel II
Ms. Leah MacSwords
President, National Association of State Foresters
Chief Max Peterson
Former Chief, Forest Service

Committee Members Present
Mark Udall (D-CO)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Lisa Murkowski, Ranking Member (R-AK)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
John Barrasso (R-WY)

On July 14, 2009, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on “The Preparedness of Federal Land Management Agencies for the 2009 Wildfire Season.” A main focus of the hearing was on the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement, or FLAME Act (S. 561 and H.R. 1404). H.R. 1404 has passed the House and the Senate is considering S. 561, which does not include last minute amendments to the House version of the bill. These amendments included provisions to use National Guard air resources to help fight fires and requiring written notice to adjacent landowners of prescribed burns on Forest Service lands. The main function of the FLAME Act would be to establish a supplemental funding source specifically for catastrophic emergency wildland fire suppression on federal lands.

Acting chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) opened the hearing stating that as fires have become “more frequent and more extreme” land management agencies have repeatedly been forced to spend more than they were budgeted to fight fires, which results in borrowing from fire prevention programs. He asserted that these “quick cash schemes never solve the problem” and the FLAME Act will “prevent the forest lands and taxpayers from getting burned.” Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said that fire suppression has become “the tail that wags the dog” in land management agencies and firefighters have become first responders in other emergency situations besides wildland fires “when they shouldn’t be.” She suggested that the changes made by the House to H.R. 1404 are “unacceptable” and she is concerned with the President’s 2010 budget request for wildland fire suppression.

Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh of the Department of the Interior (DOI) testified that with climate change, persistent drought, and increased hazardous fuels buildup wildland fires will continue to increase and the wildland urban interface (WUI) will be a “priority” in fighting fires because of the potential loss of life and property. She testified that the 2009 wildfire season to date has been “moderate,” with areas in Washington, California, and the Appalachian Mountains most at risk. She said that DOI supports the FLAME Act if amended to have “a contingency reserve as outlined by the President’s budget.”

Mr. Jay Jensen of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) testified that we are “entering the critical period” of the fire season and “more and larger fires are likely” in the future. He said we have spent $1.5 billion annually in the last five years to fight fires and “we need to fix the situation” by operating within an appropriate budget. Jensen said that we must focus by investing in fire prevent and forest rehabilitation.

Ms. Patricia Dalton of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that it is possible to protect communities while trying to save money. She recommended “less aggressive” firefighting strategies that would involve four key strategies, including developing a comprehensive wildland fire suppression strategy, developing a cost containment strategy, clearly defining who pays the cost of fires that cross jurisdictions, and mitigating the cost of fire on other agency programs.

Wyden asked the panelists why about 2 percent of wildland fires take up 80 percent of suppression costs. Jensen responded that these are “catastrophic” fires which are very large, very intense, and are capable of resisting initial suppression by firefighters. He added that addressing how to prevent these fires is the key to keeping suppression costs down.
Wyden also pressed the panelists about what will be done differently to address fire suppression, citing efforts to reduce fuels as ineffective. Dalton responded that focus on long term management will be important. She said fuel reduction can be effective if they focus in locations that are most likely to result in catastrophic fires instead of covering the maximum number of acres. Jensen reiterated her point saying it’s “quality acres, not quantity acres” and it will be beneficial to work with community protection programs. Wyden asked for more specifics on this topic within 30 days saying “we have gone round and round on this” in the past and we need to “get it right.”

Murkowski asked the panelists about the “mismatch” between the President’s 2010 budget request for fire suppression and “the real need.” Suh responded that funding needs are determined using 10-year averages to predict wildland fire levels in any year, and that she believes the President’s budget request “is an excellent first start” to provide a baseline for funding. Murkowski also asked about the Forest Service using National Guard airplanes to fight fires since they have a reduced number of planes. Jensen responded that it is part of the solution but the Forest Service needs to have its own air resources because they cannot count on the National Guard alone. Murkowski also wanted to know about what the cost would be of notifying homeowners about prescribed burns as dictated in H.R. 1404. Jensen replied that it would require a significant investment to comply with that part of the law and “may be a burden.” He added that the current process for notifying the public about prescribed burns “seems to be working well.”

Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked the panelists about the challenges for states like New Hampshire whose land management budgets suffer because of fires. Jensen said that the ability of an agency “is severely impacted” by fire suppression costs, and money is taken from forest health and forest legacy programs to make up for limited firefighting funds.

Shaheen also asked the panel about the cost of addressing climate change within forests. Suh responded that that impact “varies by state,” but cited bark beetle infestations in Colorado as evidence where climate change is impacting forests and fire suppression costs. She said that we need to have a “more robust strategy” to manage hazardous fuels and to develop an adaptation strategy. John Barrasso (R-WY) continued on this point saying that the Forest Service did not allocate stimulus funds to Wyoming to combat the significant threat of bark beetle infestations in the state. Jensen responded that they are not finished allocating funds from the stimulus and that stimulus funds will help rural communities address the beetle problem.
Shaheen asked about the role of biomass in managing wildfires. Jensen responded that biomass is a “key part” in addressing the problem and can result in the creation of green jobs. He added there is a need to involve the private sector in this effort.

Ms. Leah MacSwords of the National Association of State Foresters gave her support to the Senate version of the FLAME Act. She suggested  the use of 10 year averages to predict fire seasons is “out of date” and not useful because catastrophic fires “are not average fires.” She supported contingency funds being established as in the FLAME Act for fire suppression that would use past averages of emergency funds needed and would not be the only source of suppression funds. MacSwords testified that she did not support the “House amendments that significantly changed the bill.”

Chief Max Peterson, former chief of the Forest Service, testified that the Senate version of the FLAME Act is a “good solution” to the problem of funding fire suppression. He said that an average fire season never really happens so it is not a good way to handle planning for wildland fires. He spoke of his concern in the House version of the bill with the provision to notify absentee landowners about prescribed burns since landowners can change frequently and letters to owners are “unnecessary and slow down” the process.

Murkowski commented that less funding would be needed for fire suppression if prevention works. MacSwords responded that the cost of suppression should be reduced if fuels reduction works. Peterson added that they “need to do something about thinning” because establishing a biomass program could have “potential benefits” and could result in forest products.

Mark Udall (D-CO) asks MacSwords why so many groups have come together to work on this issue. She responded that everyone has a stake in what happens and that each group has some interest in preserving forest products, natural beauty, recreation, or environmental quality. He asked both panelists about the best way forward in addressing wildland fire suppression and its funding needs and if they would prefer the Senate version of the FLAME Act over the House version. Peterson said he “would fully support the Senate version,” and MacSwords echoed this statement.

Testimony from the panelists as well as a video of the hearing can be found here.


House Science and Technology Committee Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Hearing on “The Reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program: R&D For Disaster Resilient Communities”
June 11, 2009

Dr. Jack Hayes
Director, National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Mr. Kenneth Murphy
Immediate Past President, National Emergency Management Association (NEMA); Director, Oregon Office of Emergency Management
Professor Thomas O’Rourke
Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Engineering, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
Dr. Michael Lindell
Professor of Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning, Texas A&M
Dr. James Robert Harris, P.E.
President, J.R. Harris & Company

Members Present
David Wu, Chairman (D-OR)
Adrian Smith, Ranking Member (R-NE)
Paul Tonko (D-NY)

On June 11, 2009 the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held a hearing in preparation for the reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), which is funded through the end of fiscal year (FY) 2009. The committee and witnesses praised the work of NEHRP as well as the beneficial changes to the NEHRP program during its last reauthorization in 2004 when the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) took over as the lead agency and the Interagency Coordinating Council (ICC) was created. Ranking Member Adrian Smith (R-NE) “commends NIST and the participating NEHRP agencies for their efforts to strengthen coordination and visibility of NEHRP in recent years.”

Chairman David Wu was enthusiastic about this successful program. However, he was concerned about the “stovepipe approach” federal agencies use for disaster mitigation. He stressed that hazard prediction research, emergency preparation, and building codes work have been typically separated by individual hazard when significant overlap exists. Wu hoped that NEHRP could be a model for a coordinated effort against wind, tsunami, and fire hazards. The multi-hazard, interagency approach as well as cross discipline research became a theme for the hearing.

NEHRP was created in 1977, and is charged with developing hazard reduction measures, promoting adoption of these developments, and improving understanding and effects of earthquakes on buildings, infrastructure, and communities. NEHRP is currently led by NIST in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and National Science Foundation (NSF).

The five witnesses from government, industry, and academia all supported NEHRP reauthorization, and funding at the full authorization levels. As the Director of NEHRP Dr. Jack Hayes put it, “Earthquakes are inevitable, but earthquake disasters are not.” Mr. Kenneth Murphy of NEMA asked for more geological and seismological research to try and achieve an early warning system, or at least a better understanding of earthquakes. Engineering Professor Thomas O’Rourke of Cornell University called NEHRP an “incubator for technology and policy beyond just earthquakes.” Dr. Michael Lindell of Texas A&M stressed more focus on the social aspects of disaster response, and singled this out as a multi-hazard research area. Dr. James Robert Harris, an engineer long involved with NEHRP, feels that the program has succeeded in cooperation due to the work of the ICC.

The three committee members quizzed the panel on how NEHRP research and development could overlap with other hazard mitigation efforts and the social sciences. Lindell was a big proponent of cross-collaboration, particularly in the social sciences. He pointed out studies combining hurricane and tsunami research that allowed application of hurricane knowledge to tsunami procedures. His recommendation was to change the structure of research to encourage scientists to work outside of their disciplines, instead of the current structure that trains scientists in the intricacies of their fields and does not promote cross-disciplines interaction.

O’Rourke responded that all infrastructure systems are interconnected and need to be addressed as such. He finished by saying that the “real civil infrastructure are people,” and they need to be included in the system. Hayes continued on the topic of interconnected systems, talking about the cascading effect of one hazard catalyzing another. This creates a common interest across multiple hazards. However, that is an area of research that Hayes feels has not been completely studied. Still, as Murphy pointed out, earthquakes are a “no notice disaster” which makes for a unique planning situation. Despite having overlap with some hazards, earthquakes are fairly unique in their low frequency and current lack of predictability.

Wu was adamant about raising public awareness. “The key to successful mitigation of any and all potential hazards is a coordinated and effective public education program,” said Wu. Lindell agreed that too many people are unaware and unprepared, making them rely on post-disaster assistance. Murphy pointed out the role of NEHRP in public education of citizens and tourists, again stressing the importance of the science especially from geologists and seismologists.

Wind came up as a secondary topic of particular interest to Wu. The National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) was authorized as part of the last reauthorization of NEHRP, and would ideally function similarly to NEHRP. NEHRP has made great strides in improving building codes and implementing them, especially in what Harris called the “tough sell” areas where the risk is low. Despite being a more complicated process than wind loading, Harris claims seismic provisions are much easier to understand due to the extensive work completed by NEHRP. Wu wondered what spurred this, especially with the higher frequency of wind disasters. Harris continued that a more complicated process drives more research and development, and therefore results in better, more prolific codes. Wu was concerned with the reasoning since wind hazards are a prevalent safety issue, asking if “on a per dollar basis, wind resistance codes deliver more return.” Harris responded affirmatively.

Smith briefly brought the climate change debate into the building codes discussion by asking if climate change was compromising building codes. Harris responded that the smallest carbon footprint would be to make buildings more resistant so they are not continually being rebuilt. He warned it may be more carbon intensive at the onset, but the overall lifecycle carbon footprint will be less. Smith clarified that Harris was encouraging flexibility and a longer outlook in the carbon cycle, to which Harris responded, “Yes.”

Wu continued to try and understand how various hazards translate into large-scale disasters. He asked Lindell how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could have been different depending on location and other factors. Lindell used Hurricane Andrew, a stronger storm which caused less fatalities and disruption, as an example. He cited the heightened “hazard exposure” New Orleans faced as the reason for the discrepancy. With building codes to raise buildings at or below sea level and measures to combat social vulnerability, like transportation and options for people to evacuate, the damage could have been lessened.

O’Rourke’s point was that “natural hazards never went to college,” they never had the option to specialize. Therefore, integration is key to mitigate natural hazards as a whole. He suggested a National Research Council study of integrated hazards programs to determine how best to mitigate hazards in an integrated, efficient process. With a fully funded program, O’Rourke felt NEHRP could be used as a cornerstone for a multi-hazards approach. Murphy stressed that reauthorization will keep the research moving forward, and make us stronger as a nation. As Wu said to conclude his questioning, “Information is important and the opportunity to think about it is very very precious.”


House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Water Resourcesand Environment Subcommittee hearing titled "Recommendations of the National Committee on Levee Safety"
May 19, 2009

Mr. Eric Halpin, Special Assistant for Dam and Levee Safety, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington, DC
Mr. Larry Larson, Executive Director, Association of State Floodplain Managers, Madison, Wisconsin
Mr. Steve Fitzgerald, Chief Engineer, Harris County Flood Control District, Houston, TX
Mr. David Conrad, Senior Water Resources Specialist, National Wildlife Federation, Washington, DC
Dr. Leslie Harder, Jr. Senior Water Resources Technical Advisor, HDR, Inc. Folsom, CA
Mr. Andy Haney, Public Works Director, City of Ottawa, KS

Committee Members Present
Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chairwoman (D-TX)
John Boozman, Ranking Member (R-AR)
Robert Latta (R-OH)
Anh Cao (R-LA)
Phil Hare (D-IL)
Tom Perriello (D-VA)
Donna Edwards (D-MD)
Dina Titus (D-NV)
Grace Napolitano (D-CA)
Todd Russell Platts (R-PA)
Brian Baird (D-WA)

On May 19, 2009, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee conducted a hearing to receive testimony regarding the status of levees across the U.S. The discussion was focused on the recommendations from the National Committee on Levee Safety (NCLS) report (PDF), which was formed in accordance with section 9003 in the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.

The alarm bell was rung early in the hearing regarding the questionable structural integrity of many of the nation’s levees, as Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and several guest panelists shared findings from the NCLS report. Nationwide, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) monitors 2,000 levees covering 14,000 miles as part of its Rehabilitation and Inspection program. Although monitored by USACE, not all of these 2,000 levees were constructed by the federal government. Since 2007, the USACE monitoring program has rated 114 levees unacceptable, indicating that a levee has one or more deficiencies that may prevent it from functioning as designed. What compounds the issue of levee safety, however, is that up to 100,000 miles of non-federal levees have not been inventoried or studied by USACE. Many of these levees are over 50 years old and protect urban areas that were once agricultural lands. The committee also identified the lack of national safety standards for levees, and wide variations in state and local standards and policies for levee design, construction, and maintenance  as problems hindering levee integrity.   

Although the NCLS report provided a comprehensive list of recommendations, several of the panelists shared their concerns with its content. Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) added to the discussion that “there is so much we do not know about levees in America.” He noted that for homes in floodplains, there is a 26 percent chance that a flood will occur during the life of a 30-year mortgage. Mr. David Conrad noted that the scope of levee safety is too limited for long-term flood protection. Conrad also indicated that emerging impacts to levees from climate change are “alarming,” as climate models predict many areas of the country having more intense rainfall, which would cause floods beyond the design capacity for levees. Dr. Leslie Harder stated that “We are at a critical junction in our nation’s history” with the growing threat to the population from crumbling facilities and infrastructure. Harder also pointed out that mandatory, risk-based flood insurance would be the fastest way to finance new levee repair programs.

Mr. Larry Larson recommended that if the federal government is going to be solely responsible for rehabilitation of the nation’s levees, a national standard should be set to make all structures fit for a 500-year flood event. Mr. Andy Haney, who represented the American Public Works Association (APWA), offered several recommendations set forth by APWA, most notably that USACE should be retained as the administrator of the National Levee Safety Program (NLSP). To do this, it should be allocated an appropriate budget and staff for carrying out the massive task of improving the conditions of levees nationwide. By having USACE as the lead agency, Haney noted greater consistency and standardization would be used than if individual communities were solely responsible for the task.

Boozman asked the panel about the implications of making flood insurance mandatory and also quizzed the panel as to how other nations handle areas prone to high-risk floods.    
Mr. Steve Fitzgerald responded that like most insurance policies, there are many variables to consider for determination of insurance rates. He also noted that populated areas in floodplains not even protected by levees also complicate the issue in assigning rates to customers. Regarding the approach other nations take, Fitzgerald used the Dutch as an example. The Dutch government sets standards and policy the engineers comply with, whereas in the U.S., engineers decide what is technically feasible or adequate without a directed national policy. Larson added to Fitzgerald’s comments, “The engineering isn’t the problem, it’s the laws and regulations” that are the reason for the poor state of the levee infrastructure today. Conrad added that “there is a risk in building the notion that the federal government will take care of us. The fundamental problem is that there is a lot of development in dangerous locations in recent years.” He further advised that there needs to be “fundamentally better management, and federal incentives and disincentives” for construction of homes and business in the most high-risk flood areas. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) asked the panel how flood insurance should best be structured in order to “prevent cherry-picking from flood insurers.” Harder responded that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the “only player in the game” when it comes to flood insurance, because most insurance companies do not deal with floods. He recommended that additional insurance plan 3s implemented by the federal government regarding floods be built on FEMA’s current program.

Anh Cao (R-LA) asked the panel, “How do we deal with everything instead of just one item at a time” in regards to flood catastrophe prevention. Conrad noted that “the situation has been developing nationally for a long time” and suggested respecting the natural behavior of river systems. Conrad also suggested to Cao that the whole gulf coast region be treated as a natural system in order to better mitigate impacts from floods and storm surges. Harder added that USACE is spending $15 billion alone on repairing and improving levees in New Orleans, but cautioned “at the end of the day, New Orleans will be vulnerable to some extent.” Chairman pro tem Brian Baird (D-WA) made a politically charged comment to these expenditures as he pointed out that compared to the repair costs of New Orleans levees ($15 billion), Baird’s home state of Washington received $18 million in federal aide for volcano monitoring. This statement was in partial response to the criticism of federal spending on volcano monitoring by Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) in the minority rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s joint session speech in February 2009. 

Written and oral testimony from the chairwoman, ranking member, and panelists can be found here, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing.



Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Government Affairs Staff; Clint Carney, 2009 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern; Stephanie Praus, 2009 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.

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

Last updated on January 27, 2010.