AGI Home | About AGIContact UsSearch 
     
 
 

Printable Version

Summary of Hearings on Natural Hazards Policy

(07/31/12)

  • July 25, 2012: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Hearing on “Drought Forecasting, Monitoring, and Decision-making: A Review of the National Integrated Drought Information System”
  • June 19, 2012:Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies
  • May 17, 2012: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Hearing on “Stemming the Tide: The U.S. Response to Tsunami Generated Marine Debris”
  • December 13, 2011: House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Hearing on H.R. 2512 and H.R. 3479
  • July 28, 2011: Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommitee on Financial Services and General Government Hearing on “Federal Disaster Assistance - Are We Weather-Ready?”
  • June 8, 2011: Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Hearing on Emergency Readiness

Back to policy page



House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Hearing on “Drought Forecasting, Monitoring, and Decision-making: A Review of the National Integrated Drought Information System”
July 25, 2012

Witnesses:
Roger Pulwarty
Director, National Integrated Drought Information System, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
J.D. Strong
Executive Director, Oklahoma Water Resources Board
James Famiglietti
Professor and Director, Earth Systems Science, University of California-Irvine
Gregory Ballard
Mayor, City of Indianapolis
Patricia Langenfelder
President, Maryland Farm Bureau

Committee Members Present:
Ralph Hall (R-TX), Chair
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member
Lamar Smith (R-TX)
Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)
Jerry McNerney (D-CA)
Dan Benishek (R-MI)
Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)
Paul Tonko (D-NY)
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)
Larry Bucshon (R-IN)
Andy Harris (R-MD)

On July 25, 2012, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hosted a hearing to review draft legislation to reauthorize the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) and evaluate the state of drought forecasting, monitoring, and decision-making. The NIDIS Reauthorization Act would authorize $13.5 million per fiscal year from 2013 through 2017 for the NIDIS program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The National Integrated Drought Information Act (P.L. 109-430) established NIDIS in 2006. NIDIS was tasked to create an effective early warning system, coordinate and integrate federal research pertaining to droughts, and build upon existing forecasting and assessment programs.

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) began the hearing with a description of the current state of drought within the United States. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor run by NIDIS, over 70 percent of the nation is classified as abnormally dry, half is experiencing moderate to extreme drought, and one third is under severe to extreme drought conditions. The drought conditions are having negative impacts on corn and soybean crops. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack designated 75 percent of country farmlands as drought-stricken areas, with 88 percent of corn and 87 percent of soy crops affected. Current drought conditions are the worst since the Dust Bowl years during the 1930s and the great droughts of the 1950s. Pointing to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, Chairman Hall asserted that droughts are not necessarily attributable to climate change because they have been afflicting North America for thousands of years and are part of the natural climate cycle. He reviewed the goals of NIDIS to proactively manage drought risk, create a drought portal and early warning system, establish a forum for stakeholders to discuss drought related issues, and provide decision support services for drought management purposes. Chairman Hall said funding for NIDIS will expire at the end of this year if not reauthorized.

In her testimony, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) denoted the impacts of the current drought on the Texas economy, from negative impacts on agriculture and tourism, to shortfalls in cooling water supplies for power plants and increased wildfire frequency. Although the “onset of drought is slow” and the “destruction is sprawling,” Johnson asserted that droughts need to be recognized as extreme weather events. She highlighted the need to explore the relationship between global climate change and drought frequency and severity, claiming that to ignore the potential linkage is “irrational and irresponsible.” Ranking Member Johnson concluded that she hopes to see the bipartisan support of NIDIS spread to other climate related programs.  

Roger Pulwarty, director of the NIDIS program at NOAA, began the witness testimonies with an outline of the four main elements supporting NIDIS goals. One component is “Coping with Drought” research, which provides research grants to assess the impacts of drought on ecosystems, water resources, and agriculture and for development of mitigation strategies. Climate Test-bed research is done to improve climate forecasts and stream flow observations for watershed systems. The U.S. Drought Portal is a web-based tool that closes the information gap by providing credible and easily accessible data. The final element Pulwarty described is the Regional Drought Early Warning Information Systems (DEWS), which recognize regional drought variability and develop decision making strategies accordingly. Currently, DEWS is operating in the Upper Colorado River Basin, being developed throughout the state of California and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin, and is planned to expand to the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, Carolinas, and Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Pulwarty emphasized that NIDIS relies on data coordination with other agencies, including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service SNOwpack TELemetry (SNOTEL) sites, the Department of the Interior and United States Geological Survey (USGS) Water Census, streamflow and reservoir level data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program (COOP). Pulwarty concluded that the key to future success is creating a “sustained national system of credible, consistent, and authoritative observations.” He informed the committee that advancement of NIDIS will depend on developing an understanding of the role of precipitation in ending drought, collaboration between researchers and the public to enhance the use and value of NIDIS, the spread of monitoring tools to more regions, and the establishment of private sector partnerships.

Mayor of Indianapolis Gregory Ballard testified in regards to the severe impacts of the current drought on his district. He told the committee that weekly drought data from the U.S. Drought Portal has been used extensively by Indianapolis’s water utility, Citizens Water, to determine if advanced water conservation efforts are necessary. NIDIS helped Mayor Ballard decide to enact mandatory water restriction bans on water intensive activities, which led to water usage decreases of up to 58 million gallons per day. He emphasized the difficult economic burden of the water use restrictions on local businesses and homeowners and said the sooner Indianapolis is aware of drought conditions, the sooner the local government can inform citizens and plan water conservation strategies. Ballard said he supported the reauthorization of NIDIS to improve drought prediction tools. 

In his testimony, J.D. Strong of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board discussed the challenge of coping with a “creeping disaster” such as drought. He emphasized the need to focus monitoring on state, regional, local, and tribal scales to understand when a drought begins and prevent society from falling into the common, water wasteful “hydro-illogical cycle.” Strong then described local and regional drought mitigation efforts. Since its establishment in 1957, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board has utilized 120 mesonet climate monitoring stations, real-time data on precipitation, temperature, and soil moisture, streamflow information from the USGS Cooperative Streamgaging Program, USACE reservoir data, and Landsat thermal imaging of evapotranspiration to reduce the multi-billion dollar impacts of drought. He noted that NIDIS Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) teams have “established a more coordinated and effective drought monitoring network.” He applauded the U.S. Drought Portal, saying it has made access to necessary drought information much easier. Strong recommended that Congress add language to the reauthorization legislation to require a firm deadline for developing early warning systems and drought prediction strategies. He concluded that NIDIS can help “save both money and lives.”

Director of Earth Systems Science at University of California-Irvine James Famiglietti told the committee that current investment in drought forecasting tools remains “far too small.” Famiglietti said the nation’s ability to monitor and predict the state of the water cycle is “well behind” because of deficiencies in hydrological modeling assets, poorly integrated water observations, and lack of a national water monitoring network. He said the ability of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) GRACE satellite and Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission to identify areas of water stress and map changes in surface water storage is essential to improving drought management capabilities. Congressional support of NASA satellite programs, more computer simulation models, and improved knowledge of national hydrogeology, bathymetry of rivers and lakes, and stream discharge could position the U.S. as a world leader in characterizing and predicting all aspects of the water environment. Famiglietti concluded that “water is on a trajectory to rival energy in its importance.”

In her testimony, President of the Maryland Farm Bureau Patricia Langenfelder informed the committee that the current drought will impact the lives of every agricultural producer and consumer. More than 54 percent of the country’s pasture and rangeland is classified as in poor or very poor condition, with the corn crop experiencing its worst decline since the drought of 1988. She commented that dry pasture conditions are forcing many ranchers to thin cattle supplies, the effects of which will take years to reverse. Langenfelder expressed the importance of NIDIS data, which allows the USDA to make more informed adjustments to weekly crop progress reports and monthly production reports. She said she supports the reauthorization of NIDIS because it provides the nation’s farmers, ranchers, and agricultural market with effective and timely data on drought conditions and impacts.

Chairman Ralph Hall began the question and answer period by asking the panel if NIDIS provides all needed drought information and if there are areas for improvement. Mayor Ballard responded that NIDIS is a major component of city planning used by the homeland security system and emergency operations centers in his district. Strong and Langenfelder suggested NIDIS start to improve long-term drought prediction capabilities to support mitigation efforts up to a year in advance. Chairman Hall then asked about the accuracy and level of scale of NIDIS drought forecasting. NIDIS Director Pulwarty replied that the seasonal forecasts are reliable, particularly with predictions of El Nino and La Nina conditions; however, climate changes such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and Atlantic Decadal cycles make longer-term forecasting more difficult.

Ranking Member Johnson mentioned NOAA’s 2011 State of the Climate Report and an American Meteorological Society publication, which examines the potential linkages between climate change and extreme weather events such as drought. She expressed her disappointment in blocked investments into climate change research and said mitigation depends on understanding the contribution of climate change to drought severity and duration. Strong responded that long-term predictions of climate variability “would be great,” but NIDIS should improve short term accuracy first. Representative Johnson questioned the role of NIDIS in water planning and management. Pulwarty told her that NIDIS tries to ensure that federal and state drought plans are developed before the onset of a drought event and assimilate local drought and water data.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked if NIDIS is receiving enough investment from the reauthorization legislation and if there were practical improvements that could made within the program. Famiglietti said NIDIS will require more funding if the program is going to improve modeling systems. The panel said enhanced forecasting, greater coverage of early warning systems, interconnected state programming, and increased education and awareness would all improve NIDIS.

Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) inquired about the possibility of integrating global climate change data into the mission of NIDIS. Famiglietti said it is essential that satellite data of floods, agriculture, and changes in surface water storage is integrated with ground observations and computer simulation models. He added that water cycle models can improve understanding of snowpack, soil moisture, streamflow, and groundwater trends and better inform water planning decisions.

Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) stated some crop prices have reached record highs, such as corn at $8 per bushel. Langenfelder added that farmers have been forced to cut back on livestock due to increased prices for feed. Representative Harris suggested that NIDIS could help predict grain prices and alleviate the adverse impacts of drought on farmers and consumers.

Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA) asked how the United States could become a world leader in water management. Famiglietti said this would require Congressional support of NASA, NOAA, and the National Science Foundation research efforts, development of a national water model for streamflow and water availability observations, organization of public-private partnerships, and establishment of a reliable budget for NASA satellite programs.

Representative Dan Benishek (R-MI) questioned the accessibility of NIDIS data by farmers and ranchers. Langenfelder responded that most farmers are up to date with the latest technology and stay informed through the online drought portal and agricultural reports. Pulwarty added that NIDIS has programs in place to help communities become familiar with drought information services and create “drought ready communities.”

Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) described the reductions to USDA cooperative extension services in the FY 2013 budget proposal, which would significantly impact specialty crop communities in Oregon that rely on extension services for information. Pulwarty said NIDIS could help remediate this impact by providing essential data to agricultural communities through the Department of Interior’s regional Climate Center based out of Oregon State University.

In response to Representative Paul Tonko’s (D-NY) question on adaptation strategies, Strong described adaptation as a function of regional climate centers that hinge on the accuracy of data and potential climate scenarios. Pulwarty added that the major role of the eleven regional DEWS is to increase capabilities for drought preparation. Representative Tonko then asked about the status of the USGS streamgage networks. Famiglietti said streamgages are essential to collection of water data and that USGS programs are “invaluable and could use your help.” Strong and Pulwarty emphasized that consistent funding of USGS and NASA programs is essential because NIDIS relies on local monitoring and observational data from other agencies.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said the nation should rely more on “hard data” and less on computer models. He mentioned the water resource problems occurring in California and the need to have established water alternatives such as desalination. 

Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) commented that “we are fooling around with mother nature.” She concluded the questioning period by asking how forecasting and monitoring can be utilized to prevent droughts. Panelists responded that the integrated network of data compiled through NIDIS can help raise awareness in communities about water availability and the threat of drought, and encourage people to be proactive about conserving water. 

For opening statements, witness testimonies, and an archived webcast of the hearing, visit the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee web site.

-NEH


Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies
June 19, 2012

Witnesses:
Murray Hitzman
Chairman, Committee on Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies, National Research Council
Professor of Economic Geology, Colorado School of Mines
Bill Leith
Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake & Geologic Hazards, U.S. Geological Survey
Susan Petty
President and Chief Technology Officer, Altarock Energy, Inc.
Mark Zoback
Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University

Committee Members Present:
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chairman
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Member
Mary Landrieu (D-LA)
Joe Manchin (D-WV)

On June 19, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to discuss the findings of a recently released National Research Council (NRC) report on induced seismicity. The report, titled Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies, was released on June 15. In 2010, Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) requested that Steven Chu, Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), conduct a study to assess energy technologies’ potentials to cause earthquakes. DOE then requested NRC’s Board on Earth Sciences and Resources (BESR) to complete the report. Bingaman’s original request came shortly after a group of seismic events near a waste water disposal site in Guy and Greenbrier, Arkansas. Earthquakes occurred in Basel, Switzerland in 2006 and 2007 that have been linked to a nearby geothermal plant. Several other moderately sized seismic events have recently occurred in Youngstown, Ohio and Texas that may be linked to waste water injection wells.

Geoscientists have suspected since the 1920s that injecting fluid into the Earth can cause faults to slip. Earthquakes as high as magnitude 3.7 near geothermal plants like The Geysers in California during the 1970s and 1980s made more Americans aware of this potential hazard. The NRC report confirmed that certain energy development technologies do have the potential to cause earthquakes, though they can rarely be felt by humans. Fluid injection and extraction is cited as the main cause of induced seismicity from energy technologies.

Bingaman began his opening statement by outlining the different energy production methods which were assessed for their seismic potential. The report covered geothermal energy, carbon sequestration and storage, waste water disposal from hydraulic fracturing and enhanced oil recovery. All of these methods involve pumping liquid or gas deep into rock formations. He reported the findings of the report saying the potential for seismicity is there but, “only a small percentage [of energy-related injection and extraction activities] have created earthquakes at levels noticeable to humans.”

The chairman said that methods such as hydraulic fracturing, which inject a relatively small volume of fluid over a short period are very unlikely to cause earthquakes. Much higher volumes of waste water from drilling or hydraulic fracturing are injected into the ground over a longer period for storage and this is much more likely to induce seismic activity. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the process of capturing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants and injecting it as a supercritical fluid into permeable formations or depleted oil and gas reservoirs. This method is thought to have seismic potential, but there are few sites actively sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide to acquire data from.

Bingaman emphasized that the “risk for earthquakes … is minimal” and that no technology-induced seismic event has “caused significant damage to life or property.” He echoed the report’s claim that with “appropriate proactive measures” the risk from induced seismic events can be managed.

Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) agreed with Bingaman and the report on the relatively low levels of risk posed by induced seismic events. She reproached members of the media for “sensational” headlines on induced seismicity and thanked the witnesses and those who wrote the report for the “reality check.” Though the risk is “remote,” Murkowski was quick to point out that no one “should be dismissive of this discussion.”

The ranking member emphasized that “drilling is perhaps not the issue,” instead risk comes from “injection of water or carbon … where pressures have become destabilized.” She said she is thankful that with so many methods of energy production involving the deep earth the hazards are “barely noticeable to humans.” Murkowski stressed the importance of deciding “whether that sort of seismicity is avoidable and manageable.”

Murray Hitzman, a professor at Colorado School of Mines and chairman of BESR’s Committee on Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies, testified that energy development, like underground nuclear testing, mining and dam reservoirs, can be a source of induced seismicity. The report found that induced seismicity from injection and extraction of fluid “is caused in most cases by change in pore fluid pressure and/or change in stress in the subsurface in the presence of faults.” This knowledge is important but he added it does not aid in predicting the magnitude or occurrence of induced seismic events.

Hitzman explained that the risk of inducing seismicity is governed by fluid balance. The volume of fluid injected should be as close as possible to the volume of fluid removed. The report found that induced earthquakes with the largest magnitude did not maintain this fluid balance, though Hitzman clarified this as a statistical observation. He suggested the relationship could serve as an important meter to measure the risk of induced seismicity from a project.

Hitzman then outlined the findings for the major energy technologies assessed in the report. He said geothermal energy production usually maintains a constant fluid balance within the Earth. “Vapor-dominated” and “fluid-dominated” geothermal production usually results in quick cooling of subsurface rocks, which Hitzman said could cause induced seismicity. Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) have caused low magnitude induced seismicity in all EGS projects in development.

Hitzman testified to the low risk of induced seismicity for conventional oil and gas sources and shale gas recovery. He stressed that the possibility of induced seismicity for these methods comes from the disposal of waste water. Though the majority of waste water wells do not result in induced seismicity, Hitzman said there is a “causal [link] between the injection zones and previously unrecognized faults in the subsurface.” He explained many of the well-documented seismic events near waste water wells occurred over a long period of time and involved a large volume of fluid.

The potential for CCS sites to induce seismicity was “difficult to accurately assess” with a limited amount of large scale sites in production. Hitzman testified that because large amounts of fluid are injected but nothing is extracted, the fluid balance relationship would suggest large-scale CCS sites could carry a high risk of induced seismicity.

Bill Leith, an advisor of geological hazards for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), explained in his testimony that the greater number of earthquakes in the Eastern and Central U.S. could be a result of induced seismicity. Leith said the August 2011 5.8 magnitude Mineral, Virginia earthquake was naturally caused, but other events do not have a known cause and induced seismicity should be considered.

To understand induced seismicity, Leith recommended research focus on the differences between injection procedures which cause earthquakes and those that do not and how those procedures can be altered; if injection or an induced seismic event can increase the likelihood of a larger, natural earthquake; the distribution and maximum magnitude of an induced earthquake; and the possible damage from an induced earthquake. Leith stressed industry cooperation in research.

He expanded on the “data gap” and echoed the report’s recommendation that “data related to fluid injection... should be collected by state and federal regulatory authorities in a common format and made publicly available (through a coordinating body such as the USGS).” Leith explained “To meet these increasing demands, we have increased research efforts within our current budget” and said the Obama Administration asked the USGS “to address potential environmental, health, and safety issues associated with hydraulic fracturing.”

Susan Petty, President and Chief Technology Officer of Altarock Energy, testified that induced seismicity has become a major concern for scientists in the geothermal, mining and oil and gas industry. She cited a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study which found 2 million megawatts of energy can be recovered from 2 percent of domestic geothermal resources. She explained that industry knows more about operation and selection of sites from past problems with induced seismicity related to geothermal energy production. EGS “relies on controlled induced seismicity,” according to Petty, to create fractures where heat can be extracted.

She explained that the magnitude of an earthquake determined by the Richter scale only partly influences whether the event can be felt on the surface. Depth of the slip, types of rock above the event and structural integrity of buildings on the surface contribute to the “ground shaking” people will feel on the surface. She said, “It would be better to talk about the risk of ground shaking” than the energy released by the actual event.

She noted that the mining industry has “long had regulations to address induced seismicity.” Petty emphasized the importance of the industry educating the public on the dangers of induced seismicity. She said it has been “difficult … communicating the information it [the NAS report and others on induced seismicity] contains to the public.” Petty said that public outreach has shown that groundwater contamination is a much larger concern for most people.

She stressed the need for scientists with effective communication skills to properly brief the public and regulators on the complex tectonic nature of any site. Petty said much of the misunderstanding regarding this issue comes from miscommunication between scientists from industry and the press.

Mark Zoback, a professor at Stanford University, focused on induced seismicity hazards from waste water injection and carbon capture and storage in his testimony. He began by agreeing with Leith’s assessments that recent earthquakes in the Eastern and Central U.S. could be linked to induced seismicity from energy technologies and that these practices could contribute to the advancement of faults at critical stress.

When discussing waste water injection, Zoback explained that fault identification is not required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in site characterization. He outlined steps to reducing the risk of induced seismicity. He cautioned that fluids should not be injected into areas with brittle rock and the injection site and injection rate should be selected to minimize the change in pore pressure of the target formation. Seismic monitoring arrays should be in place at a site, and procedure should be in place to reduce injection or shut down a site if induced seismicity could become problematic. Another method is to simply reuse waste water for other hydraulic fracturing projects, rather than disposing of it. He said this method was a “welcome development.”

Zoback referenced one of his recent papers published on June 18 in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science titled “Earthquake Triggering and Large-Scale Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide” and discussed the difficulty in implementing enough CCS sites around the world large enough to properly combat greenhouse gas emissions. A large site injection site greatly upsets the fluid balance because large volumes of fluid are injected while essentially none is extracted. He clarified that the concern is not a large destructive earthquake, rather a breach of the reservoir’s seals in a CCS site leading to a release of the stored carbon dioxide. Zoback said a CCS site would have to leak less than 1 percent of its carbon per thousand years “to achieve the same climate benefits as switching to renewable energy sources.” Natural earthquakes could cause this leak just as easily as induced earthquakes.

Zoback raised concerns that the large amounts of sequestered carbon necessary to “have a beneficial affect on climate change” would likely result in induced seismicity which could cause a leak in the site. He questions if a large enough site could even be found for the 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year needed to be stored to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Bingaman asked the panel who would define the practices necessary to avoid sites where induced seismicity could occur. Hitzman responded that the committee did not make a recommendation but it would be most beneficial to bring together members of industry, academia and the government to define safe procedure. Murkowski asked Leith about the specific changes needed to ensure greater seismic monitoring at the USGS. Leith explained that in addition to the hundreds of additional portable monitoring systems needed, many more geoscientists and analysts would be required to make sense of the data. The ranking member further qualified that because waste water injection is a low cost operation, not much mapping is done. Zoback agreed, clarifying that most injection wells do not cause earthquakes, but agreed that more monitoring was necessary.

The Department of Energy Carbon Capture and Sequestration Program Amendments Act of 2011 (S.699) was a main focus of questioning. This bill would provide liability insurance for groups attempting CCS projects if the site was approved by the DOE and there is no carbon leakage. Murkowski and Bingaman both asked if it was “premature” to provide this kind of support if the method would not sufficiently reduce carbon dioxide. Hitzman explained that more would have to be known about the size of the site, and Zoback argued that a large site could be affected by induced or natural earthquakes of any size. He said CCS should not be relied upon to completely reduce greenhouse gases, but could be a minor source of reduction.

Witness testimonies, opening statements, and a webcast of the hearing can be found on the committee’s web site.

-SJG


Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Hearing on “Stemming the Tide: The U.S. Response to Tsunami Generated Marine Debris”
May 17, 2012

Witnesses:
David Kennedy
Assistant Administrator, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
Cari Thomas
Director of Response Policy, United States Coast Guard

Subcommittee Members Present:
Mark Begich (D-AK), Chair
Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Ranking Member

Full Committee Members Present:
Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

On May 17, 2012, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing to discuss the monitoring, collaboration, and prevention efforts needed to avert debris originating from the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami from reaching the West Coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program (MDP) and the United States Coast Guard have been collaborating with communities, universities, local authorities, and other federal agencies to address this issue.

Chairman Mark Begich (D-AK) opened the hearing with an overview of the Tohoku tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011. The tsunami swept 5 million tons of debris out to sea, 1.5 million tons of which has been driven by ocean currents toward the West Coast of North America. Begich summarized the reports of debris, which have washed up along the coast of Alaska and Washington. After classifying the problem as “a slow motion environmental disaster”, he told the witnesses he looks forward to hearing what national plans have been made to stop the progression of the debris and to clean it up.

Ranking Member Olympia Snowe (R-ME) commended the efforts Japan put in place to control debris flow, but noted that tsunami debris is still posing safety and navigational hazards on the West Coast. She emphasized “devastation exhibits we can always do better to prepare.” Snowe continued by citing the Trash Free Seas Act of 2011 proposal (S. 1119) by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) to reauthorize the NOAA Marine Debris Program. The Marine Debris Program would be cut in the president’s fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget request.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) highlighted the importance of debris control efforts to her constituency by telling the witnesses that $10.8 billion are generated yearly from the Washington coastal economy. Speaking for the Senate and her state, she declared that “we all want to know what the plan is, but we are not getting the answers that we need.” Cantwell said she wants to ensure all surveillance data is available to scientists and emergency management planners and eliminate the attitude that the tsunami data is top secret. Cantwell told the committee, “Information should be made available to everyone so we can plan.”

During his testimony, David Kennedy told the committee that MDP is leading efforts to assess and reduce the impact of the debris.  He summarized the steps MDP has taken including community-based removal programs, interagency collaboration, ocean circulation modeling, analysis of high-resolution imagery, and implementation of workshops to develop a rapid response protocol. Kennedy assured the committee it is highly unlikely that any of the debris is radioactive. In conclusion of his testimony, he stressed that “comprehensively responding to this debris will take substantial resources….it is critical that we have complete engagement at every level.”

Rear Admiral Cari Thomas stated the duties of her division in the Coast Guard for developing instant management policies for hazardous chemical clean up. Thomas underlined the importance of collaboration, informing the committee that the “Coast Guard and NOAA actively work and plan together.”She summarized the Coast Guard’s deployment of missiles on April 5, 2012 to destroy the uncontrolled Japanese fishing vessel, which threatened navigation of U.S. transportation vessels. 

During the question and answer period, Begich asked Kennedy what he thought the role of NOAA would be in the clean up and whether or not they had the appropriate funds. Kennedy responded saying NOAA does not have the funds or the authority to mount the clean up.

Snowe followed by asking what proportion of the 1.5 million tons of debris could reach West Coast shores. Kennedy said there is essentially no research done on how much of the debris will remain floating on the ocean surface. The volume is dependent on the type of debris. He said high windage items will reach the shores, but uncertainties remain on heavier items such as construction debris. Snowe expressed concern from this comment and questioned why MDP experienced a proposed budget cut from $6.3 million to $3.9 million. 

Cantwell’s primary concerns were related to data access. When she asked if NOAA had access to all necessary satellite imagery and records, Kennedy responded that there are ongoing discussions with the military to try and get to the level where NOAA would have access to every U.S. satellite imagery database, including those used for national security purposes. He reassured the subcommittee that NOAA’s monitoring is not being “done in a vacuum.” They are collaborating with academic communities, including University of Washington and University of Hawaii.

Chairman Begich articulated similar concerns about interagency communication between scientists and the Department of Homeland Security. Kennedy agreed, stating that NOAA is doing the best they can but are stepping into an unfamiliar arena. Begich asked about high windage items such as plastics and Styrofoam, the residence time of these items in the ocean, and whether or not they could be classified as hazardous materials. Kennedy told the committee this is a major concern because plastic could be entrained in ocean circulation patterns and “will be around for a long time.” Thomas said these types of items are not considered hazardous and do not fall under the authority of the Coast Guard.

Thomas mentioned the Oil Spill Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-380) when Snowe asked about the involvement of coastal communities and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the debris clean-up and monitoring efforts. According to Thomas, the law requires strategies that include local involvement and education processes to help communities understand what to expect in the case of an oil spill or other hazardous material event, and how to address any associated problems. Snowe asked the panel about the time required for the planning process and how the West Coast states recognized the problem. Kennedy said NOAA is unsure about the length of time necessary for debris control efforts, but the willingness of all parties is required if progress is to be made. In terms of state recognition he said it varies a little, with Alaska, Washington, and Hawaii exhibiting the greatest concerns about incoming debris.

Chairman Begich closed the discussion with a statement on the necessity to highlight the needs for MDP. He continued by targeting NOAA with his statement “Maybe NOAA needs to rethink how they are approaching debris.”

Majority statements, witness testimony, and a web cast of the hearing can be found on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation web site.

-NEH


House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Hearing on H.R. 2512 and H.R. 3479
December 13, 2011

Witnesses
John Anderson
Seismological Society of America
John Ebel
Director, Weston Observatory, Boston College
Mike Pool
Deputy Director, Bureau of Reclamation
Accompanied by
David Applegate
Associate Director of Natural Hazards, United States Geological Survey
Andy Hafen
Mayor of Henderson, Nevada
Barry Conaty
Holland and Hart, LLP

Subcommittee Members Present
Mark Amodei, Acting Chairman (R-NV)
Rush Holt, Ranking Member (D-NJ)
Glenn Thompson (R-PA)
Gregorio Sablan (D-MP)
Bill Johnson (R-OH)

Full Committee Members Present
Ed Markey, Ranking Member (D-MA)

Other Members Present
Joe Heck (R-NV)

On December 13, 2011, the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing to discuss two pieces of legislation. First, the Three Kids Mine Remediation and Reclamation Act (H.R. 2512) was introduced by Congressman Joe Heck (R-NV) and would provide conveyance of the 1,262-acre "Three Kids Mine Project Site" outside of Henderson, Nevada from the federal government to the Henderson Redevelopment Agency. The Henderson Redevelopment Agency would pay the adjusted fair market value of the conveyed land and the federal government would be released from “any and all liabilities or claims of any kind arising from the presence, release, or threat of release of any hazardous substance, pollutant, contaminant, petroleum product (or derivative of a petroleum product of any kind), solid waste, mine materials or mining related features” at the site in existence on or before the date of the conveyance. Second, the Natural Hazard Risk Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 3479), introduced by Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL), contains the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Reauthorization Act of 2011. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) is a longstanding partnership between the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NEHRP’s lead agency, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology passed H.R. 3479 in a full committee markup on December 1 though all committee Democrats voted against the bill. Democrats argued that the authorization levels in H.R. 3479 would not provide the necessary funds to implement the essential programs at the four federal agencies. Without sufficient authorization levels, there is concern that resiliency would suffer and future losses would be greater.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed a Senate version of the measure, the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act (S. 646), on May 5, 2011 with higher authorizations that match with the needs of the programs and previous authorizations. The Committee on Natural Resources, since it has jurisdiction over the USGS, will decide whether to hold a markup on the bill. If both measures are approved by the House and the Senate then the chambers will need to meet in conference to work out the differences between the bills.

Acting Chairman Mark Amodei (R-NV) opened the hearing by describing the two bills and welcoming Representative Joe Heck, the primary sponsor of H.R. 2512 who represents Henderson, Nevada. Referring to H.R. 3479, Amodei called the hearing “an important next step in bringing this legislation to the floor.” Ranking Member Rush Holt (D-NJ) spent more time discussing the potential effects of the lowered authorization level for the USGS in H.R. 3479 in his opening statement. He pointed out the nearly 35% reduction in authorization for the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program and said it would “prevent or delay…the completion of the Advanced National Seismic System.” He continued, “I have serious concerns that reauthorizing the earthquakes hazard program at the level proposed in this bill could reduce research and monitoring of earthquakes and potentially lead to greater costs to taxpayers down the road.”

John Anderson of the Seismological Society of America (SSA) and former director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory testified that SSA “strongly support[s] the reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.” He mentioned that SSA is “concerned about reductions in the authorization levels of the included NEHRP agencies” and in particular, those of the USGS, but recommended passage even if these differences in authorization levels could not be resolved. Anderson told the committee that funding and completing the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) should be a priority as the public expects the best information about earthquake hazards. The more uncertainties ANSS can eliminate, the more refined seismic hazard maps will become, which will lead to a reduction in the costs associated with meeting building codes. The USGS external grants program is another way to reduce uncertainties by providing funding to researchers at universities that work to improve the nation’s seismic hazard maps. Referring to a finding from the 2008-2009 USGS Director’s Scientific Earthquake Studies Advisory Committee, Anderson said that ANSS has been “the highest scoring major information technology capital investment made by the Department of the Interior.” He concluded by requesting the committee to maintain steady investments because a “modest, steady effort is a better approach than a crash program to try to make up for lost time when a large, but foreseeable, earthquake occurs.”  

John Ebel made the case for regional earthquake funding by telling the committee how cuts to USGS programs have had implications for his seismic observatory at Boston College and for the safety of New England. The USGS has indicated that it will end funding for regional earthquake monitoring in New England at the Weston Observatory due to an expected decrease in NEHRP funding. He told the committee how modest funding can “reduce the seismic risk in an area of the country that has a population in excess of 14,000,000 people, that has experienced several damaging earthquakes throughout historic time, and that has cities and towns with many old buildings that have little earthquake reinforcement sitting on soils which are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking.” He finished by calling for the USGS to support local seismologists at regional seismic monitoring networks across the country and asked the committee to increase appropriations for the USGS.

David Applegate, Associate Director of Natural Hazards at USGS, did not deliver a testimony but did submit one for the record, in which he described USGS’s earthquake activities and said the Department of the Interior “strongly supports reauthorization of NEHRP.”

Mike Pool, Andy Hafen, and Barry Conaty all gave their testimonies in support of H.R. 2512 though Pool had some concerns about specific details of the conveyance and other technical details such as a potential conflict with the River Mountains Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Chairman Amodei began the question and answer period by asking Ebel what percentage of USGS funding goes to external grants. Ebel responded that USGS can provide funding to universities and other researchers through external grants and through regional seismic networks. Amodei wondered if the USGS engages in partnerships with primary users of the national seismic hazard maps to help fund them, particularly the insurance industry. Applegate told Amodei that USGS values its partnership with FEMA, NIST, and NSF but does not currently receive funding for developing national seismic hazard maps from the insurance industry.

Full committee Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA) asked Ebel to explain the repercussions of reduced USGS funding levels for Weston Observatory. Ebel again described the benefits of regional earthquake monitoring networks and reminded Markey how continued observation and research can help determine where and how often large earthquakes may occur in the future. Markey shifted focus to the effects of NEHRP and earthquake monitoring on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s ) regulations. Ebel pointed out that the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Louisa County, Virginia experienced twice the amount of shaking it was designed for in the August 2011 magnitude 5.8 Mineral, Virginia earthquake and that NRC’s seismic safety requirements need to be updated to account for new findings made by seismologists and geophysicists over the past few decades. Markey asked whether the NRC should be making 20-year license extensions to plants who have reached their 40-year lifespan or if they should at least be retrofitted for seismic hazards to account for new seismic hazard maps. Ebel agreed that the NRC needed to reassess their seismic safety requirements.

Gregorio Sablan (D-MP) asked several questions relating to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) after praising the USGS’s earthquake activities as a program that “saves lives and money.” First, he requested Applegate direct the USGS to include territories on its earthquake hazard web site which currently only lists states. Second he asked Applegate the status of CNMI’s seismic hazard map which Applegate said is currently in review and should be out in early 2012.

Glenn Thompson (R-PA) asked Applegate about how the USGS used funds from the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, P.L. 111-5). Applegate responded that $19 million went to installing instruments for ANSS, $16 million went to the Global Seismograph Network, and $5 million went to deploying geodetic instruments. Outside of the Earthquake Hazards Program, USGS spent $15 million of the ARRA funds they were given on installing state-of-the-art and replacing out-of-date volcano monitoring equipment and the rest on retrofitting streamgages, improving Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) capability, and on improving various outdated facilities. Thompson asked if the USGS was surprised by the magnitude 5.8 Mineral, Virginia earthquake. Applegate pointed out that the Central Virginia Seismic Zone is shown as having elevated risk on the national seismic hazard map, “so in that sense, it was not a surprise.” Thompson and Applegate discussed partnerships the USGS could engage in to help advance the missions of NEHRP, and Applegate told the committee about the successful 2011 Great Central U.S. ShakeOut exercise that involved nearly 100,000 participants. ShakeOut exercises occur in Oregon, California, Guam, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah every year and help educate the public on how to respond to earthquakes and give state and local officials an opportunity to test their response plans.

Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked the witnesses if there is any evidence that earthquakes are getting stronger and more frequent. Applegate told the congressman that while evidence shows there is no indication that earthquakes are stronger or are occurring more frequently, there is an increase in vulnerability at the intersection between natural hazards and the built environment.

Chairman Amodei, Thompson, Heck, Markey, Johnson, and Sablan all had questions for Hafen, Conaty, and Pool about H.R. 2512 in addition to their questions about NEHRP. Chairman Amodei ended the hearing by quipping that, as a nation, “we can run but we can’t hide” from earthquakes and asked the USGS to continue to seek out partnerships with industry.

The hearing webcast, opening statement, and witness testimonies can be found on the committee web site.

-WMB

Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government Hearing on “Federal Disaster Assistance - Are We Weather-Ready?”
July 28, 2011

Witnessess
Kathryn D. Sullivan
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce
James Rivera
Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Disaster Assistance, U.S. Small Business Administration
David C. Trimble
Director, Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Government Accountability Office
Donald J. Wuebbles
Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois
Franklin W. Nutter
President, Reinsurance Association of America

Subcommittee Members Present
Dick Durbin, Chairman (D-IL)
Jerry Moran, Ranking Member (R-KS)

The Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government held a hearing on July 28, 2011 discussing federal disaster assistance. The hearing focused on ways to improve federal disaster assistance allocation and perhaps ways to mirror private insurance methods.

Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the hearing with a quote from Bob Dylan, “You don’t have to be a weather man to know which way the wind blows,” acknowledging that the public is aware of the natural disasters that continue to occur. In the first half of 2011, federal assistance totaled $1 billion for eight disasters. He stated weather patterns are becoming “worse, violent, and even catastrophic.” Durbin said that federal government funding for catastrophic events has been “sporadic” and not strategically focused on the changing weather patterns. He cited that government disaster relief could total $7 trillion (with inflation) over the next 75 years. Durbin also submitted for the record an article published on July 22, 2011 in Science Magazine, “Redesigning Flood Insurance.” In his opening statement, Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-KS) stated the need to “carefully review how government plans for disasters,” doing so in a “fiscally responsible way.”

David Trimble testified that in the past 40 to 50 years, heat waves, regional droughts and other climate events have been increasing. He urged the need for a better risk management strategy in order to adapt to these changes, saying “the cost of inaction could be greater.” Trimble summarized the main points of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on climate change adaptation. The GAO reported that the federal government is increasing their focus on climate change adaptation; past decision methods are not effective; effective government efforts must be coordinated among agencies; and adaptation requires legislation that cuts across traditional boundaries.  
In her testimony, Kathryn Sullivan spoke on the role of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She stated their purpose is to predict climate events, observe them in real time, and prepare the public for those events. Sullivan testified NOAA has made “enormous strides” in weather and climate prediction. Improvements in numerical modeling have been very beneficial, yet she mentioned changing population trends have presented challenges in improving predictions. She told the committee how the cities of Chicago and New York City are adapting and preparing for climate change using data provided by NOAA. She stressed NOAA works closely with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) to reduce redundancy in data acquisition.

James Rivera testified on his experience administering the Office of Disaster Assistance (ODA) in providing loans for small businesses, homeowners, and renters after a disaster. He described that since the office was formed in 1953, they have given 1.9 million loans for more than $4.9 billion. As a result of the recent spring floods and tornado events, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has given out $220 million in low interest loans. He explained that the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 (2 U.S.C. 661-661f) requires the president to include in the annual budget long term estimates for federal loans. The estimates for disaster loans are created based on data from historical disasters. Current models use data from 1992 to present to determine future loan needs. SBA also receives estimates from NOAA and their predictions for upcoming disaster seasons. Rivera cited improvements in the office’s efforts to increase the public’s disaster preparedness through monthly webinars and online resources. They have also increased the number of staff at disaster centers and have updated their cyberinfrastructure. Additionally, they have reduced the time required to process claims.

In his testimony, Donald Wuebbles spoke on the current research within academia and the scientific community. He cited that $32 billion in damages have been attributed to disasters that occurred from January 2011 to mid June. Wuebbles indicated that the U.S. is seeing more extreme weather events in recent decades than in the past and that analysis is beginning to show a much stronger link between changing severe weather patterns and overall climate change. Furthermore, climate analyses indicate that extreme weather is likely to become more frequent if reductions in greenhouse gasses are not made. He reminded the subcommittee scientists agree climate change is happening largely because of human activity. He further stated “there is not debate in the scientific community, based on peer reviewed literature” regarding the validity of climate change and the impact of human activities.   He urged the committee to recognize that the “future lies largely in our hands” and the choice to act upon climate change or to standby, “is ours.”

Franklin Nutter testified on behalf of the private sector reinsurance industry. He spoke of the industry’s shift towards a “forward looking and more proactive approach” to disaster insurance. Nutter said that while the increases in claims due to weather catastrophes can be attributed to changing climate patterns, it is important to note that a major factor is also the changing demographics. The public is continuing to move to areas most prone to hazards. Nutter also stated the insurance industry’s belief that long-term solutions should be lead by “mitigation and adaptation” efforts. The insurance industry has found that retrospective loss-modeling is ineffective and that a proactive future modeling is needed. It has now shifted towards a proactive probabilistic model which includes a hazard component populated by teams of scientists (from National Science Foundation and NOAA); an engineering component specifying what structures are in the region of interest; and a financial component that provides cost analysis on potential losses. Nutter recommended this type of approach to the committee and the federal government. 

To clarify a chart Nutter submitted which projected spring 2011 could become the ninth most costly world insurance loss event adjusted for inflation, Durbin asked how Nutter believed these recent events will affect the way insurance is written. Nutter described that some insurance agencies have “pulled back” from high risk areas, denied coverage, or did not reinsure customers. Additionally, the insurance industry is not seeing these extreme weather events as outliers, but rather acknowledges them as a pattern along with the movement of people to the high risk areas. Rivera explained that the funds allocated to SBA disaster loans are primarily based on short-term seasonal and annual predictions. However, SBA does consider historical data to do long term assessments. Unlike the private sector, SBA cannot price risk; it is held to a maximum four percent interest by statute.

Durbin explained that currently, the government resolves incorrect predictions through deficit emergency funds. However, in order to reduce deficit spending on disasters, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform suggests that predictions should be based on the past 10 years, excluding the highest and lowest outliers. If disaster spending for any given year is less than predicted, the funds “roll-over” to the next fiscal year. Durbin asked witnesses if the proposed method is effective. Nutter answered that the insurance industry “has learned some time ago that that’s not an adequate way” of doing business. Furthermore, he said, private industry cannot afford to hold $18 billion in debt like the National Flood Insurance Program and must therefore rely on forward thinking and predictions rather than historical data. He also cited that national crop insurance has been profitable because of its alliance between the private sector and government. 

In an attempt to cast aside the political climate change debate, Durbin was looking to see whether academia has a consensus about man’s impact on global warming. Wuebbles stated that there is agreement within the scientific community. He cited specifically that scientists agree that over 90 percent of glaciers are melting. Additionally, “the data is very strong” that weather patterns are changing. Wuebbles also said that within peer-reviewed papers there is agreement on the fact that humans are having an impact on climate; any papers that argue differently do not make it through the review process because they have typically misinterpreted the data. Following this, Durbin asked, “Mr. Nutter, do you buy that?” Nutter responded that he did, citing that many insurance companies are “pulling back” from high risk areas or are increasing insurance premiums. Wuebbles added that oceans have a large heat capacity therefore they react much slower to climate change. Keeping that in mind, he stressed that the current changes are from emissions years ago and warned that the emissions of today will still have an affect years to come.  

Durbin expressed frustration that “we’ve stopped talking about this on Capitol Hill. We decided that the debate over global warming was too contentious, too politically charged, and too divided for us to have any meaningful conversation about what to do with it.”  He felt it is “a big mistake” to step away from those conversations, saying Capitol Hill is “overlooking the obvious” and he hopes the subcommittee was able to raise an issue the rest of Capitol Hill is not discussing.
           
An archived webcast of the hearing can be found on the committee’s website, though no written testimonies or opening statements are available.

-EMD

Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Hearing on Emergency Readiness
June 8, 2011

Witnesses
Panel 1
Craig Fugate
Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Rand Beers
Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Protection and Programs Directorate

Panel 2
Mark Riley
Chief of Staff, Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, State of Louisiana
David W. Vice
Executive Director, Integrated Public Safety Commission, State of Indiana
Eddie Hicks
International Association of Emergency Managers-USA President and Director of Morgan County, Alabama Emergency Management
Ron Lane
Director, Office of Emergency Services, San Diego County, California

Committee Members Present
Mary Landrieu, Chairwoman (D-LA)
Dan Coats, Ranking Member (R-IN)
Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Jon Tester (D-MT)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
Jerry Moran (R-KS)

With the United States currently battling disasters and recoveries in 40 states, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security held a hearing on emergency management communications. The hearing is intended to review the current status of the emergency management operations and in particular, communication systems.

Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-LA) began the hearing with an opening statement emphasizing the importance of “real time” communication before, during, and after disasters. Landrieu stated, “The recent unprecedented flooding, tornadoes, and wildfires here in the United States are reminders that this federal government must continue to be a reliable partner, with state and local governments as well as with our private partners.” She further acknowledged that these partnerships are essential in maintaining command and control of the situation as well as ensuring that devastated areas are able to recover and rebuild in an intelligent and timely manner. Emphasizing the budget condition the U.S. is currently witnessing, evaluation in the field is needed to allocate the dollars wisely. In his opening remarks, Coats agreed with Landrieu in stating that the U.S. has challenges ahead and serious decisions are to be made concerning the potential shortfall in funding.

Craig Fugate, the Administrator of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), began his testimony by stating the progress local and state communities have made in rapid first response efforts. These efforts were recently put into action when the devastating tornado struck Joplin, Missouri. Because of communications between local and state communities, agencies in Missouri and surrounding states were able to respond quickly and start the recovery process immediately. Fugate added that sometimes your neighbor may be able to provide the fastest response but only if prior planning has been made.

The Under Secretary of National Protection and Programs Directorate, Rand Beers, began by describing the three organizations that are responsible for emergency communications, the Office of Emergency Communications, the National Communications System, and the Office of Infrastructure Protection. He emphasized the creation of the communication network, National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP), which allowed Gulf Coast state officials to communicate with one another and the Coast Guard. This network demonstrates the effectiveness of the National Protection and Programs Directorate offices and FEMA.

Landrieu started the questioning by asking Fugate how close FEMA is to getting a “capability assessment of readiness” for communities throughout the nation. Fugate answered by asking, “What is the national level we have to build to? How big is big?” Many questions still surround the ability to create a system measuring the readiness of communities. An assessment by FEMA will be presented to the subcommittee within a week. Once this assessment is put into place then emergency responders can measure the damage and manage it accordingly. Landrieu asked Beers if progress of first responder grants is being made regarding the recommendations set forth by the Office of the Inspector General. Beers responded that progress is being made and mock situations have been planned in “testing” urban and rural communities’ timely responses to these situations. To date, all urban areas have achieved the minimum goals set and rural areas are yet to be tested.

Ranking Member Dan Coats (R-IN) proceeded to ask about the results of the simulated major earthquake in the New Madrid fault zone. According to Fugate, this was one of the largest exercises ever held and there was significant local participation. This simulation proved to be successful as the tests and instruments used in this trial were later implemented after the devastating tornado hit in the Joplin, Missouri. In attempts to reach more people in emergency situations, Coats asked if social media is being used. In FEMA, Fugate stated that more people are moving towards mobile devices and FEMA is taking some actions to keep up with the public. FEMA is implementing PLAN (Personal Location Alert Networks), a network that will alert and warn people in a crisis through text-like messages on cell phones. Government officials will be able to target specific geographic areas through cell towers. So far 200 carriers are participating in PLAN. Social media is not as easy for emergency responders and thus the National Protection and Programs Directorate must still use land mobile radios because of its secure network and ability to have constant connection.

Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) were interested in disasters in their states. They were interested in the budget and in FEMA’s needs. Fugate noted that if there is a large scale disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, disaster relief funds will diminish rapidly and response to these disasters requires a substantial amount of resources. As Cochran stated, “We don’t want to you be shy by sitting there and not asking for the funds that we need in our states that have been hit hard by these storms.”

In the second panel of witnesses, Mark Riley stated in his testimony that more money should be invested in educating officials and citizens and preparing emergency readiness programs locally. This process will engage individuals in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery and in turn reduce federal costs for FEMA. David Vice commented on Project Hoosier SAFE-T (Safety Acting For Everyone-Together), a state funded system to make interoperable communications affordable and available to all Indiana communities. However, the success of this project has now resulted in reaching system capacity which puts a hold on adding additional agencies, and the funding is currently not there to add capacity. Eddie Hicks said in his testimony that communications are vital before, during, and after a crisis. He also stated that FEMA has responded to the Alabama tornadoes more efficiently than in past disasters. Ron Lane said that the government investments in local homeland security support have led to a prepared nation.

Landrieu asked each witness how each state would react to funding cuts of 20 to 30 percent for FEMA. All agreed that a lack of funds will affect the capabilities and sustainability of local communities and the equipment for operability. Landrieu concluded that the subcommittee appropriations bill will reflect the needs of the nation with regards to emergency management.

Written testimony from the witnesses and an archived webcast is available from the subcommittee hearings page.

-VAB

 

Contributed by Geoscience Policy Staff, Victoria Bierwirth, AIPG/AGI Summer 2011 Intern; Erica Dalman, AIPG/AGI Summer 2011 Intern; Nell Hoagland, AIPG/AGI Summer 2012 Intern; and Stephen Ginley, AIPG/AGI Summer 2012 Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on July 31, 2012.

 
 

  Information Services |Geoscience Education |Public Policy |Environmental
Geoscience
 |
Publications |Workforce |AGI Events


agi logo

© 2014. All rights reserved.
American Geosciences Institute, 4220 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22302-1502.
Please send any comments or problems with this site to: webmaster@agiweb.org.
Privacy Policy