Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE November 1996

Geoscience and Natural Hazards Policy: Bridging the Gap

A news article in the Sept. 13, 1996, issue of Science explored China's efforts over the past several decades to develop empirical methods for earthquake prediction. In addition to a large cadre of scientists overseeing seismic networks and observatories, tens of thousands of citizens have been mobilized to collect a wide variety of data in the hope of finding a reliable set of earthquake precursors.

Over the years, the Chinese State Seismological Bureau (SSB) has had a number of notable successes as well as a much higher number of failures. The Science article tells the story of one of the worst failures, which took place in the early morning hours of July 28, 1976, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated the city of Tangshan, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. Although the SSB had not issued a prediction, officials in neighboring Quinlong County ordered a major mobilization based on anomalous data collected by the bureau -- data that suggested that a large quake was imminent. They distributed information, established round-the-clock monitoring, and in many cases ordered people to sleep outdoors. Out of the county's population of almost half a million, only one death (a heart attack) was reported despite the collapse of 7,000 buildings and damage to 180,000 others.
The geoelectric data that led Qinglong County administrators to take precautions were only recently published in the West by Jean Chu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who was formerly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others in the Journal of Geophysical Research (June 13, 1996). This 20-year lag shows how slowly the wealth of SSB data has become available to Western researchers. From a scientific standpoint, the jury is still out on how useful the data will to be at illuminating the underlying processes that cause these precursors. But increased access to such a large dataset holds tremendous potential for real progress.

Natural hazards and public administrators

The divergent fates of Tangshan and Qinglong County highlight the uneven relationship between scientific research and its implementation in the public policy process. The societal benefits of geoscience research are no more clearly defined than in the area of natural hazards, yet there is a continuing disconnect between scientists and those who must take actions based on their results.

This disconnect is greatest in developing countries where technological and communications barriers prevent the efficient transfer of scientific information to public officials. In many of these countries, natural disasters routinely produce death tolls in the tens of thousands; finding ways to translate scientific information into public policy is of critical importance.
That task is being undertaken by the U.N. Global Programme for the Integration of Public Administration and the Science of Disasters. This mouthful of a program was developed as part of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. Chu acts as a consultant to the program and is helping its director, Jeanne-Marie Col, to organize a workshop on earthquake management, which will be held this December in Beijing. The workshop will seek ways to improve the access of local officials in developing countries to information on earthquake hazards.

Challenges on the home front

Without the barriers to information transfer faced by developing countries, the United States has made great strides in earthquake preparedness, flood control, and volcano monitoring. But even here, the translation of scientific advances into improved public policy cannot be taken for granted. Every success has a failure to match.

The Mississippi floods of 1993 and 1995, for example, repeatedly demonstrated the value of regional access to floodplain maps prepared using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology for coordinating emergency efforts. Despite this success, many flood-prone counties still rely on outdated floodplain maps that are only kept on file locally and do not reflect recent urbanization and land-use changes.
The challenge for the geoscience community is to educate public administrators on the value and benefits of geoscience information and natural hazards research. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) new emphasis on natural disaster mitigation presents a great opportunity. Instead of focusing only on cleaning up the mess after a disaster strikes, FEMA's mission now includes a strong emphasis on planning and preparedness. Last December, the agency released its first national mitigation strategy, reflecting that emphasis (see "Political Scene," February 1996).
Geoscientists may view an improved understanding of the geologic environment and underlying processes as an obvious requirement for hazard mitigation. But strong input and involvement from the geoscience community is needed to ensure that FEMA and its state counterparts include improved scientific understanding in their mitigation efforts along with better building codes and emergency response planning.

A legislative opportunity

Legislation introduced by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) during this past session of Congress provides another opportunity to strengthen the connection between geoscience and public policy. S. 1043 would reauthorize the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, which created the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), and expand its focus by adopting a multihazard approach with a strong emphasis on mitigation. The reauthorization effort stalled because the bill also tried to reform natural disaster insurance -- a subject that proved politically too hot to handle.

An amended version of the Stevens bill is sure to receive serious consideration in the next Congress regardless of which party is in control. The Association of American State Geologists and others have worked with Stevens' staff to craft the bill so that it explicitly recognizes the role of geoscience in hazard mitigation. The American Geological Institute supports this effort and is seeking broader community involvement in this issue.
But while negotiations were taking place on the Stevens bill, Congress was cutting funds for the U.S. Geological Survey's external earthquake program that supports universityresearchers. Convincing legislators of the need for geoscience research in this area remains an uphill battle. Fortunately, half of the funds cut in fiscal year 1996 were reinstated in the fiscal year 1997 budget.
In cutting out this external program, legislators reasoned that they should fund internal programs first in a time of shrinking budgets. In fact, the opposite approach makes more sense. Agencies can stretch limited resources by reaching out to academic and private sector partners and to state and local governments.
More work is needed both here and abroad to bridge the gap between research and implementation. We cannot wait for enlightened administrators to seize the opportunities that already exist. Instead, the geoscience community must argue the merits of it case -- and repeatedly.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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