Natural Hazard Policy (1/14/13)
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.
Hall and Boren Introduce Bill to Reauthorize NIDIS (09/12)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Last updated on January 14, 2013