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Milestones in Earthquake Research
Robert M. Hamilton

This year, the first national program for earthquake research turns 25. More importantly, Congress will consider its reauthorization in the upcoming session. Launched by Congress in 1977, the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or NEHRP, brings together four federal agencies in an effort to reduce losses from earthquakes. As we look to its future incarnation, it is worth keeping in mind what led to the program in the first place.

Moreover, the NEHRP birthing process may offer some lessons that may be helpful in planning similar efforts in other areas. Although what follows is set down in chronological order, the reader will quickly recognize that the process is far from linear.

The buildup to NEHRP started after the great Alaskan earthquake in 1964. The devastation that occurred even in a sparsely populated area demonstrated the potential for enormous losses in other parts of the United States. Students of earthquakes seized the opportunity to plan programs aimed at better understanding the causes and effects of earthquakes and at reducing losses. A series of reports came forth.

First out, in 1965, was a report calling for $137 million over 10 years to improve monitoring for the purpose of detecting earthquake precursors. Called Earthquake Prediction: A Proposal for a Ten-Year Program of Research, the report was prepared for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) by the ad hoc Panel on Earthquake Prediction chaired by seismologist Frank Press, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1968, another ad hoc working group — this one chaired by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) director at the time, William T. Pecora — proposed $220 million over a 10-year period: $37 million for geological and geophysical field studies, $80 million for instrumentation of fault zones, $23 million for physical basis of earthquakes, $59.7 million for earthquake engineering, and $20.6 million for miscellaneous projects (including tsunamis, heat flow, tide gauges, and earthquakes and fluid injection). Pecora’s committee, called Ad Hoc Interagency Working Group for Earthquake Research, prepared its report, Proposal for a Ten-Year National Earthquake Hazards Program: A Partnership of Science and Community, for both OSTP and the Federal Council for Science and Technology (FCST).

The next year, the National Academy of Sciences published Earthquake Engineering Research, which also called for a 10-year program but suggested even more funding: $380 million. Introducing a new perspective, it also suggested including $30 million for addressing economic and social aspects. The Academy’s Committee on Earthquake Engineering Research, led by earthquake engineer George W. Housner of Caltech, submitted the report to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Although these reports laid out substantial research programs, they did not yield additional funds. A clear problem was that the reports were seen as representing competing communities of interest. In an attempt to produce a unified approach, in 1970, OSTP convened a Task Force on Earthquake Hazard Reduction under the lead of Karl V. Steinbrugge, an investigator of earthquake damage. In putting forth 28 high-priority recommendations, the task force noted that the earlier reports had particularly addressed the fields of seismology, geology and engineering, whereas their report added attention to the socio-economic fields. They indicated no funding level.

The Alaskan earthquake especially stirred visions of expanded earthquake research programs at the federal level of government. USGS established the National Center for Earthquake Research in 1965 in Menlo Park, building on its substantial capabilities in earthquake geology and crustal studies. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) predecessor organization established the Earthquake Mechanism Laboratory in San Francisco to augment its role in seismic observatory operation, including the Worldwide Standardized Seismograph Network, earthquake information, strong ground motion monitoring, and geodetic surveying. USGS and NOAA competed vigorously to stake out a lead-agency position for earthquake research.

The competition among the disciplines and between the agencies, combined with the waning concern after the Alaskan earthquake, contributed to a lack of budgetary attention to the earthquake threat.

Then, the San Fernando earthquake in 1971 awakened interest. The federal agencies dusted off the old plans and sought increased funding. But, again, the effort flagged as the scenes of collapsed freeway overpasses and hospitals faded from the television and print media.

Nevertheless, in 1972, the Comptroller General of the United States reviewed the various reports, as well as some others, and concluded that the country needed a national earthquake research program. However, he viewed the fragmented responsibility, lack of coordination, competition and duplication between NOAA and the USGS as significant problems and suggested that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should do something about it. OMB picked up the challenge and in 1973, the NOAA earthquake programs were moved to USGS as a new Office of Earthquake Studies, which also brought together USGS seismologists and geologists.

Another important development in the early 1970s was that geographer Gilbert White founded the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The creation of this center was an important step in bringing social scientists together with physical scientists and engineers in a congenial forum.

What followed was an unlikely series of events that would appall those who favor a logical approach to program development. In 1975, evidence was presented, based on reanalysis of level-line data, of land uplift north of Los Angeles centered on Palmdale. Because co-seismic land uplift was associated with both the 1964 Alaskan and 1971 San Fernando quakes, the bulge was considered ominous. Although the existence of the “Palmdale bulge” was later called into question, with a possible explanation being aggregate error in the data, it nevertheless came to the attention of then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller directed his science advisor (who was also head of NSF) Guy Stever to convene a panel to recommend expanded earthquake studies. The panel, headed by earthquake engineer Nathan Newmark of the University of Illinois (hence, the Newmark-Stever committee) issued the 1976 report Earthquake Prediction and Hazard Mitigation Options for USGS and NSF Programs, which specified three options for increased funding. Without going through the usual budget process, USGS and NSF received increases of about $20 million each. The NSF share was mostly directed toward earthquake engineering.

On the legislative front, what followed the San Fernando earthquakes were hearings and new bills. California’s Senator, Alan Cranston, drafted a bill (S. 1174) to establish a national earthquake research program, which passed the Senate in 1976 but failed in the House on a tie vote. At least two other bills were drafted on the House side. Then, in the 95th Congress, after the new funds had already been provided, Congress swung into action and passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 (Public Law 95-124). President Carter directed OSTP to follow up, resulting in the 1978 report Earthquake Hazards Reduction: Issues for an Implementation Plan, prepared by the Working Group on Earthquake Hazards Reduction under Steinbrugge’s lead.

In 1979, an executive order established the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which merged several federal agencies. FEMA was tasked with the difficult challenge of implementing earthquake knowledge and leading the earthquake effort with NSF, USGS and the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These are the agencies that are part of NEHRP today. Thus, 14 years after the Alaskan earthquake, NEHRP was launched.

This story should not end without mentioning another important event. Although the development of NEHRP played out largely around NSF, USGS and NOAA, it did not escape notice that numerous other federal agencies have earthquake-related programs and interests. NASA’s monitoring programs and all federal construction agencies are examples. To address the omission of these important earthquake-related activities, OSTP convened the National Earthquake Strategy Working Group, which issued Strategy for National Earthquake Loss Reduction in 1995. Not surprisingly, the OSTP report recommended a new National Earthquake Loss Reduction Program that would coordinate earthquake interests across the whole federal sector.

The report also called attention to an “implementation gap,” noting that much earthquake knowledge was not being put into practice, largely because land use and building practices are controlled at the local level where other interests often dominate.

Looking back on the events that led up to NEHRP, one may draw some general lessons. One, which is widely accepted these days, is that integrating all the relevant disciplines for addressing an important issue is an essential approach; not doing so wastes a lot of time and effort. Another is the importance of considering implementation of knowledge together with advancing the frontiers of knowledge; they should move ahead hand in hand. And finally, as the Palmdale bulge story shows, sometimes a good cause gets a boost for the wrong reason.


Hamilton is currently the deputy executive director of the Division on Earth and Life Studies at the National Research Council. A seismologist, he is a former Chief Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and headed the USGS Office of Earthquake Studies when it was established in 1973.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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