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Congress Re-examines Earthquake Policy
David Applegate

Etched into the wall of the House Science Committee's hearing room are words from Proverbs: Where there is no vision, the people perish. No doubt, the sentiment seems overwrought for the committee's more mundane business, but it is entirely appropriate when the subject at hand is the nation's vulnerability to earthquakes.

On May 8, the committee's Research Subcommittee held a hearing to assess the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), which coordinates federal research, monitoring and mitigation activities in four agencies: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). This summer, the Science Committee will consider legislation to reauthorize NEHRP, as has been done periodically since the program was established in 1977. First, they must decide what needs to change.

Most of the witnesses were experts drawn from outside the federal government. Although in their testimony they applauded the program's accomplishments, they also expressed serious concerns. Tom O'Rourke, president of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, summed it up in his testimony: "The most significant limitations affecting NEHRP are leadership and the eroding level of funding."

Coordination has long been the Achilles' heel of NEHRP — coordination not only among the four agencies but also with other federal agencies and the myriad of state, local and nongovernmental entities involved in earthquake loss reduction. Back in 1980, FEMA was given lead status for NEHRP, a year after President Carter created the agency to coordinate the federal government's disaster response (read more on NEHRP history in Geotimes, March 2003).

The biggest change in the program since its last reauthorization in 2000 is the inclusion of FEMA, formerly an independent agency, within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The implications of this shift were raised in testimony by Robert Olsen, who was the first head of the California Seismic Safety Commission and whose involvement with NEHRP goes back to its inception: "How the leadership responsibility will be performed within the new and huge DHS is of some concern to the earthquake community."

Witnesses did not call for abandoning FEMA as the lead agency, noting that it was the only agency directed at management rather than research. Indeed, several emphasized the potential leverage afforded by FEMA's new home. Lloyd Cluff, the director of Pacific Gas and Electric's Geosciences Department, suggested it "gives NEHRP an exciting opportunity to be part of a much larger effort to protect the nation against not only other natural hazards, but human threats as well. Transferring the knowledge from the successes achieved in earthquake hazard reduction to help minimize other threats will result in compounding the movement toward improved security from all hazards for our nation."

Cluff's testimony certainly represents the promise of the new arrangement. But the problem is focus, and it is a problem that predates FEMA's transfer. At the hearing, FEMA unveiled the program's newly approved strategic plan for the years 2001 to 2005. That's right: a vision for a period of time that is already over halfway gone. The plan was completed in 2000 and received fairly quick approval from the other three NEHRP agencies, but it only emerged from FEMA in time for this congressional presentation.

Although the witnesses did not call for abandoning FEMA, the representatives present at the hearing clearly considered it an open question whether there are other viable candidates for a lead agency. In terms of dollars spent, the USGS has the largest stake. It is also well positioned to bridge the gap between the fundamental research cultures at NSF and NIST and the implementation-oriented culture at FEMA.

One of the major obstacles for USGS has been its location in the Department of the Interior, a public-land steward with a mission that does not coincide well with protecting the lives of urban dwellers. But the Survey's mission mismatch and bureaucratic burial at Interior may pale in comparison to FEMA's predicament unless, as O'Rourke's testimony suggested, there is a "strong and dedicated group within DHS to provide oversight for and to administer the program."

The bucks stop here

The Science Committee can address the coordination and leadership challenge in a reauthorization bill, but the second issue O'Rourke raised — funding erosion — reflects the limitations of the reauthorization process. Support for NEHRP programs has shrunk by 40 percent in real dollars since the program's inception. Although the decreased purchasing power has affected all agencies, subcommittee chairman Nick Smith (R-Mich.) expressed his particular disappointment with the low level of funding for the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS), a major USGS initiative launched by the last NEHRP reauthorization in 2000.

ANSS would concentrate dense arrays of sensors in high-risk urban areas to measure the level of ground shaking as well as the response of buildings and other structures (Geotimes, October 2002). The real-time data from these sensors can then be used to provide shaking intensity maps and other tools that emergency managers, engineers and local officials can use during and in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake. Although authorized as a five-year, $170 million program, ANSS has never received more than $4 million a yearx, and the president has requested half that amount for fiscal year 2004.

O'Rourke asserted: "Every year that we delay the deployment of ANSS we run the risk of missing the opportunity to record the shaking. … Putting the instrumentation in after the next earthquake will be too late."

Some of NEHRP's funding woes are structural. As several witnesses pointed out, the four agencies are funded by three separate appropriations subcommittees, and they each go through a different section of the White House Office of Management and Budget. At no single place in the federal budget are they brought together as a fiscal entity, obscuring the very existence of a coordinated program. As Rep. Smith noted in his opening statement: "The low visibility of the program has also limited its success."

While these structural problems are real, their removal is not likely to result in large increases to NEHRP. A review of its funding profile over the past 25 years reveals only one significant increase, which came after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the impact of which was intensified by the media coverage generated because it disrupted the World Series. Even the 1994 Northridge earthquake that caused $40 billion in damage to the Los Angeles area produced only a small, one-time increase in NEHRP funding.

In 1995, an earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and in damage totaling $100 billion. Will it take a U.S. catastrophe of this scale for us as a nation to make the minimal investments needed to deploy existing technology where it can do the most good? Without vision, the people will perish.


Applegate is the American Geological Institute’s (AGI) Director of Government Affairs and Editor of Geotimes. E-mail him at: applegate@agiweb.org.

For more, visit the Government Affairs Program Web site.


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