Natural Hazard Policy (1/14/13)

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Natural hazards are consequences of multiple different dynamic Earth processes. These consequences manifest themselves as numerous risks to society and the environment, including: drought, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and wildfires. This page covers policy about understanding, preparing for, mitigating and adapting to natural hazards. It covers agencies and programs responsible for hazard work such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP), and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). For more information regarding hazard legislation in the U.S. Congress, visit the Hazards Caucus Alliance website.

In the 112th Congress, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology passed the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 3479) to reauthorize NEHRP and support a wind hazards program, but it failed to make it to the House floor. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed a Senate version of the measure, the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act (S. 646), but it was never brought to the floor for full consideration by the Senate. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring Program Act (S. 566) but it did not pass through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Recent Action


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Previous Action

Hall and Boren Introduce Bill to Reauthorize NIDIS (09/12)
On September 21, 2012, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Representative Dan Boren (D-OK) introduced the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2012 (H.R. 6489) which would  reauthorize the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) through 2017.

NIDIS, first authorized in 2006, consolidates and distributes drought-related data across the federal government on an ongoing basis. The bill encourages further development of drought early warning systems. In addition, the bill calls for an analysis of the implementation of NIDIS to date and would identify monitoring, research and forecasting needs to amplify the predictive capability of early warning systems.

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Drought is a persistent and abnormal moisture deficiency that has adverse impacts on water supply, water quality, hydropower, vegetation, soils, animals, and people. It results from large-scale disruptions of atmospheric circulation patterns that may persist for months or years. All droughts originate from too little precipitation (i.e., meteorological drought), but vulnerability is increasing as land- and water-use patterns change. Droughts may also be getting longer and more intense.

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

The National Integrated Drought Information System Act of 2006 (NIDIS) was passed during the 109th Congress (H.R. 5136, Public Law 109-430). The act authorized the appropriation of $81 million through fiscal year 2012 to serve three purposes: provide an effective drought warning system, coordinate federal research for such a system, and grow existing drought forecasting and assessment programs. The information system was established within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which maintains a web page with drought information. More information about NIDIS and droughts can be found on the U.S. Drought Portal.

An earthquake is a sudden slip on a fault that is caused by stress buildup in the crust. It is most often caused by the tectonic movement of crustal plates but can be initiated by volcanic or magmatic activity. An earthquake releases energy in the form of seismic waves that can cause shaking and damage over large distances. See the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program page for more information.
According to the USGS, there are about 500,000 detectable earthquakes in the world each year. Of these, about 100,000 are felt, and about 100 cause damage to communities. Earthquakes can cause primary damage or earthquakes can initiate secondary damage through landslides, tsunamis or fires. Geoscientists are involved in numerous activities and research projects related to earthquakes, from incorporating new data into earthquake hazard maps to determining how the shaking produced during an earthquake affects man-made structures. The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) was created as part of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 (S. 126, Public Law 95-124).

NEHRP was reauthorized in 1997 (S. 910, Public Law 105-47), 2000 (H.R. 1550, Public Law 106-503) and in 2004 (H.R. 2608, Public Law 108-360). It was last reauthorized with the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 2608), which became law in October of 2004 (Public Law 108-360). The program aims to reduce earthquake-related losses through improved design and construction methods and practices, land use controls and redevelopment, prediction techniques and early-warning systems, coordinated emergency preparedness plans, and public education and involvement programs.

In the 111th Congress, the House passed the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2010 (H.R. 3820) to reauthorize NEHRP and support a wind hazards program, but it failed to make it out of the Senate. It proposed to shift post-earthquake investigations from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and form a new Interagency Coordinating Committee on Natural Hazards Risk Reduction that would oversee NEHRP, the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) and other federal research for natural hazard mitigation.

A flood is the inundation of a normally dry area resulting from a variety of natural and human-induced causes, such as heavy rain, snow melt, severe storms, hurricanes, breaches of levees or dams or poorly designed development. A flood can happen anywhere—along the Mississippi, in New England, or even in the desert.
Flooding poses tremendous danger to people and property. They are among the most common and widespread of all natural hazards. Even more importantly, they are the number one weather-related killer. On average, floods killed 64 people per year in the U.S. from 2000-2009. Floods are the most costly of the natural hazards. During recent years, floods and flash floods have caused nearly $6 billion in damage each year.

Despite local efforts to mitigate flood hazards and federal regulation of development in flood-prone areas, flood damage has been increasing in the United States. See the FEMA Flood Hazards page or NOAA Flood Watch for more information.

Hurricanes are tropical cyclones with winds that exceed 64 knots (74 miles per hour) and circulate counter-clockwise about their centers in the northern hemisphere. Hurricanes form from complexes of thunderstorms whose surface winds tap and concentrate the moisture available from a warm ocean (warmer than 81° F). As a hurricane nears land, it can bring storm surges, torrential rains, high winds, and tornadoes. Hurricanes occur in coastal states, though flooding and tornadoes can occur inland.

The impact of hurricanes in the United States is an average of 20 deaths and $5.2 billion per year. On average ten tropical storms form during the Atlantic hurricane season, with 6 becoming hurricanes and 2-3 becoming major hurricanes. However hurricane activity in the Atlantic is cyclical, on a multi-decade scale. Since the mid-1990s, activity has increased sharply and this period of heightened activity could last another 10 to 20 years. FEMA maintains a web page on hurricane preparedness and NOAA has a National Hurricane Center site.

In 2005, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking hurricane season, which included the costliest storm in history. Hurricane Katrina caused about $96 billion in damage, displaced about 770,000 people, killed an estimated 1,330, and wreaked havoc that New Orleans is still recovering from today. Though the hurricane was deadly, most died from subsequent flooding rather than directly from storm surge or high winds.

A landslide is the downslope movement of rock and soil that occurs when the force of gravity exceeds the resistance of the underlying earth. Factors that cause landslides include water saturation, erosion, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, alternating freezing and thawing of ground and poor land development activities. They are also a typical secondary effect of wildfires because the loss of vegetation can lead to rapid erosion and unstable ground during heavy rain.

Two thirds of the U.S. population resides in counties or parishes that have areas susceptible to landslides. Landslides destroy property, disrupt traffic, and cause injuries and deaths. Nationally, landslides cause 25-50 deaths each year and up to $2 billion in losses annually, according to the American Red Cross. They are a common phenomenon in all 50 states. Landslide preparation information can be found from FEMA's web site, and the USGS maintains a page with research information and outreach.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. In an average year, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the United States, resulting in 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries, according to NOAA. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction, with damage paths as wide as a mile and as long as 50 miles and wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Destruction of homes, crops, and utility infrastructure cost the U.S. an average of $1.1 billion every year.

According to the USGS, while about a quarter of all major tornadoes have occurred in tornado alley, which includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and eastern Colorado, only 9 percent of the major killers have occurred there. In recent years, the majority of high fatality tornadoes have been in places where tornadoes are rare. This fact showcases the importance of tornado preparedness, warning, and monitoring systems across the U.S. The FEMA Tornado page provides safety tips, and NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has information on tornado watches and warnings.

Tsunamis, mistakenly called “tidal waves,” are a series of enormous waves that can travel at hundreds of miles per hour and crash into land with heights of 100 feet or more. Usually generated by an underwater earthquake, tsunami waves travel outward in all directions from the area of origination. Submarine landslides, volcanic eruptions, or meteorite impacts may cause tsunamis.

The tsunami hazard in the U.S. is greatest for the coastal states along the active Pacific Rim: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. Though massive tsunamis are rare, historical accounts prove there is potential for one in the U.S. The last great tsunami to affect the U.S. struck Alaska, California, and Hawaii in March of 1964, killing 128 people. A magnitude 9.2 earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska near Anchorage—the largest recorded earthquake in the state—caused the tsunami. Education and basic emergency planning are the keys to mitigating tsunami related disasters in the western U.S. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains an educational tsunami website with information on preparedness and the agency’s tsunami programs.

On December 26, 2004 a magnitude 9.2 earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra in the Indian Ocean triggered the most devastating tsunami in recorded history, killing more than 280,000 people and causing an estimated $10 billion in economic losses in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and several other southeast Asian nations. In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. assessed its own tsunami preparedness and responded with legislation to strengthen it. In May 2005, President Bush approved an emergency spending bill (H.R. 1268) that included more than $20 million in funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to enhance the nation's tsunami warning capabilities.

The Tsunami Warning and Education Act, introduced as S. 50 and passed as H.R. 1674, was signed into law in December of 2006 (Public Law 109-424). The measure authorized NOAA to expand and modernize the nation's current tsunami detection and warning system. Additional tsunami detection buoys and other monitoring and warning technology, a federal-state partnered mitigation program to prepare at-risk communities, and a tsunami research program are major components of the law. The law directs NOAA to provide technical assistance to international partners, especially countries in the Indian Ocean, as they work to establish regional and global warning systems.

Lava flows, pyroclastic flows of hot ash and volcanic gas, ash falls, and lahars and debris avalanches are all potentially dangerous events related to volcanic eruptions. Volcanic ash composed of glass and minerals can disrupt aviation activity and worsen air quality. Lahars are slurries of mud, volcanic debris and water that can bury or destroy everything in their path.

Annual volcanic activity around the world claims lives, devastates cities, creates hundreds of thousands of refugees, and causes economic losses exceeding $1 billion. However, structured crisis management programs and early evacuations have saved thousands of lives. Mitigation of volcanic hazards is an important goal of the geoscience community.

The U.S. is home to more than 169 young volcanoes, of which 55 are considered threatening to life and property. Most of these occur in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Hawaii. Sufficient monitoring can predict an eruption weeks to months in advance and aviation authorities can be warned of dangerous plumes within minutes. The predictions come from the five USGS volcano observatories that monitor and assess volcanic hazards. In 2006, these observatories issued more than 1000 public advisories about current conditions at U.S. volcanoes. More information can be found at the USGS volcano program and the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism project.

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in spring 2010 reminded the international community of the aviation risks volcanoes pose. The volcano in southeast Iceland, also known as Eyjafjöll, began erupting in late March for the first time since 1823 and continued to erupt on a smaller scale through late May. A second phase of eruption began on April 14 and generated ash plumes that blew east to Europe. The plumes resulted in 20-80% decrease of airline flights for as much as a week, and more than 100,000 flights were canceled after the ash plume caused aviation authorities in many parts of Europe to close their airspace for several days.

In the 111th Congress, policymakers attempted to pass legislation to strengthen warning and monitoring systems in the U.S. Alaskan senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich introduced the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (S. 782) and Representative Don Young (R-AK) sponsored the House version (H.R. 4847), but neither made it to the President’s desk. The bills would have established the National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS) within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) with a budget of $15 million per year. NVEWS is a proposed national-scale plan to ensure the 57 most dangerous and under-monitored volcanoes in the U.S. are properly monitored by upgrading existing networks, installing new networks, and creating a 24/7 watch office and national volcano data center to provide timely and accurate hazard forecasts to reduce risk to life and property.

Wildfires are unplanned fires that can cause the loss of life and property. They include escaped prescribed burns, human-induced fires, and fires ignited by natural causes. According to FEMA, nine out of ten wildfires are caused by people with lightning as the leading natural cause. Though most wildfires are extinguished while still relatively small, the 3% of wildfires that do escape early detection and suppression account for 95% of the fire-related costs, damages and home losses. Annual wildfire losses, including building destruction and declines in lumber production and tourism, can cost the federal government and insurance companies billions of dollars. After a wildfire there is a greater risk of subsequent landslides where burned hills and mountains have weakened soils that are more likely to erode rapidly in normal to heavy rainfall.

The U.S. experiences almost 100,000 wild land fires each year that burn an area about the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Federal agencies spend more than $1.6 billion each year to suppress wildfires. FEMA has a page on wildfire preparation.

In 2009, the House passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act (H.R. 1404), a bipartisan piece of legislation aimed at creating a separate federal fund dedicated to fighting catastrophic, emergency wild land fires. It was prompted by the rising cost of fire suppression that was depleting the Forest Service’s firefighting funds, forcing funds to be transferred from other agencies. The legislation failed to make it past the Senate (S. 561). However, the House and Senate appropriators in 2009 approved a war supplemental spending bill (H.R. 2346) for fiscal year 2009 that included $250 million for wildfire suppression that would serve as a back-up fund for fires if the money appropriated for fire suppression in that year was depleted.

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy Staff.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Natural Hazards in the 112th Congress, and the Hazard Caucus Alliance webpage.

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

Last updated on January 14, 2013