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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Basic Research Subcommittee Hearing on the Reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP)

February 23 , 1999

Earthquakes represent the largest single potential for casualty and damage from natural disasters. Reducing this loss potential is a matter of national concern, lawmakers told.

The Basic Research Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science held it's first hearing of the 106th Congress on the reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), with its new Chairman, Nick Smith (R-MI) presiding.

The NEHRP program was created in the late 1970s and was last authorized by P.L. 105-47 through FY 1999, at a level of $111.8 million. NEHRP is focused on earthquake research, as well as earthquake mitigation. These efforts are executed by four federal agencies. They include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) of the Dept. of Interior; the National Science Foundation (NSF); and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the Dept. of Commerce. FEMA is the designated lead agency for NEHRP. The witness list for the hearing can be found at the bottom of this summary.

FEMA outlined the its two roles as part of the NEHRP program; being the lead agency, and applying the results of research and technology development into effective loss reduction measures at state and local levels of government. Mr. Armstrong outlined FEMA's vision, which he said was based on achievements of all NEHRP agencies. He also explained FEMA's strategic plan for supporting loss reduction activities, developed in concert with the other NEHRP agencies, noting the high level of cooperation and coordination among the agencies. He also took a moment to complement the other NEHRP agencies, specifically noting that the NSF earthquake engineering centers will benefit state and regional partners.

USGS said the willingness of the non-federal sector to work in concert with NEHRP agencies has been not only gratifying, but tells us that our message about earthquake hazards is getting out. Dr. Leahy then discussed USGS's three main roles as part of the NEHRP program: to produce products for earthquake loss reduction; to provide timely and accurate notification of earthquakes; and to carry out research on earthquake occurrence and effects. He ended by describing areas of concern he hoped would be addressed in the new authorization. Specifically, he said seismic monitoring in the U.S. suffers from inadequate instrumentation and lack of sufficient long-term support, and that the current authorization level is not adequate to address the problem. He also stressed that because of the complexity of scientific and technical issues, USGS would benefit from sustained advice and guidance from outside experts.

NSF's participation in NEHRP is consistent with its policy of integrating NSF's activities with those of other agencies when it facilitates the achievement of national goals, in this case reducing deaths, injuries and property damage caused by earthquakes Dr. Bordogna said. Dr. Bordogna noted that NSF is involved in enabling knowledge creation and the education of future professionals - activities that make earthquake hazard mitigation possible in the nation. He further noted that NSF supports numerous individual investigator and small group projects, as well as two university consortia, and four university-based earthquake centers that advance NEHRP goals. Other NEHRP-related activities he noted included programs involving earthquake research facilities, post-earthquake investigations, international cooperation, and information dissemination. Dr. Bordogna concluded his comments by focusing on the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) and Incorporated Research Institutes in Seismology (IRIS). He stated that this past November, the NSB gave its approval for NSF to include the cost of initiating the development of NEES in its FY 2000 budget request, noting that there is an estimated NSF investment of nearly $82 million over the next five years.

NIST's role in NEHRP is to conduct research to improve codes, practices and standards that will allow buildings and lifelines to survive earthquakes. Mr. Kammer noted that NIST works very cooperatively with the other NEHRP agencies. He highlighted some of NIST's recent work as part of NEHRP describing successful partnerships.

Dr. Abrams, representing the Illinois earthquake engineering center, one of three new centers funded by the NSF, said there is a pressing need to continue earthquake research at an accelerated rate, taking advantage of new technologies, because even moderate future earthquakes can result in significant economic loss. He said if research can reduce economic loss by 10% for a single earthquake, the payoff for the research investment will be 1000 times the annual research budget for engineering research. He noted that research supported by NSF through NEHRP over the past 22 years has resulted in enhanced seismic safety and improved preparedness measures, among other things. He also noted that through the NEES program, funded by NSF, researchers would be able to discover traits in seismic response that presently can only be observed following an earthquake. He said that future seismic research on earthquakes would need to include research on related hazards such as fire, landslides and floods.

Dr. Arnold, representing the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), said NEHRP provides research-based technical information and advice, which, he noted, is an appropriate role for a federal program. Dr. Arnold said NSF has provided valuable support resulting in insight into a wide range of research on societal and technical issues. He said construction must undergo significant change in order to reduce dollar losses and advocates performance-based design. NEHRP has been supporting the drive towards performance-based design with NIST and NSF providing much of the basis for it. He said NEES is a particularly interesting program because it represents a new approach by NSF of managing earthquake research. The direction of this project has obvious important implications for experimental research. He said engineers will embrace the ability to do simulation research. He further noted that social science issues are also an important part of earthquake research.


Questions from Chairman Smith centered on coordinating activities between the NEHRP agencies, problems with seismic monitoring, and how NEES will benefit earthquake research. Mr. Armstrong said that in the past two years there have been five formal meetings between the agencies, at the most senior level, as well as many informal committee and task force meetings. Dr. Leahy said that USGS has assessed the nation's seismic monitoring capabilities during the past year and determined that the system needs an overhaul. New equipment is needed along with long-term support for institutions involved in network operations, as well as increased coordination in terms of direction. Dr. Bordogna noted that the NEES project will cost around $81.9 million over five years and was created to address the pressure for the U.S. to develop the largest shake table in the world a few years back which, he said, would have cost approximately $200 million. The idea with NEES is use the Internet and computation to simulate structures shaking and have all researchers be able to access this through the Internet. NEES will build a network that takes advantage of existing facilities. Mr. Kammer added that model simulation has the potential for helping to design new buildings and assist with retrofitting.

Ranking Minority Member E.B. Johnson centered her remarks on how to save structures and how to interact with the private sector to disseminate information. Mr. Armstrong spoke about the FEMA pre-disaster mitigation initiative. This is a public/private partnership that gives grant dollars to local governments to shape initiatives with local chamber of commerces', local businesses, etc. Dr. Leahy noted, among other things, USGS's National Earthquake Information Center, an Internet site which provides earthquake information.

Mr. Gutknecht was concerned about areas not necessarily prone to earthquakes and how they can prepare. Dr. Abrams noted that this is a matter of cost/benefit analysis with Mr. Armstrong adding that it's where you build that creates hazards, so public awareness is crucial and states are doing a good job of creating better building codes and identifying vulnerable structures.

Mr. Etheridge touched on international aspects of earthquake research, to which all witnesses noted international aspects of their programs, while Mrs. Morella, among other issues, addressed social and economic concerns. Mr. Arnold noted here that engineering decisions must be bases on cost/benefit analysis to reduce economic impact.

Witness List

Michael J. Armstrong
Associate Director for Mitigation
Federal Emergency management Agency

Dr. P. Patrick Leahy
Chief Geologist
U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

Raymond Kammer
National Institute for Standards and Technology
Department of Commerce

Dr. Daniel Abrams
Mid-America Earthquake Center

Dr. Christopher Arnold
Earthquake Engineering Research Institute