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NSF & Congress

House Research Subcommittee
National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program

May 8, 2003

The House Subcommittee on Research heard testimony on the status of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) in preparation for reauthorization of the program later this year. NSF is one of four agencies involved in the hazards mitigation effort, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Witnesses were Anthony Lowe, Administrator of the Federal Insurance Mitigation Administration; Robert Olson, President of Robert Olson Associates and former chairman of the California Seismic Safety Commission; Lloyd Cluff, Director for Geosciences and Earthquake Risk Management for Pacific Gas and Electric Company; Thomas O'Rourke, President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute; and Lawrence D. Reaveley, Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah. Priscilla Nelson, Senior Advisor in NSF's Directorate for Engineering, was not a witness but submitted additional testimony.

The committee acknowledged the achievements of the NEHRP program over the last 25 years, but expressed concerns about both administration of the program and the lack of progress in implementation of NEHRP innovations by end-users.

The witnesses then summarized their statements. While Mr. Lowe addressed strategic and management plans for NEHRP, the remainder of the witnesses stressed the need for an increase in currently flat NEHRP funding, an increased emphasis on implementation of research findings, and an independent panel to oversee NEHRP activities.

Following the testimony, Chairman Nick Smith asked what the balance should be between funding research and implementation. Witnesses responded by advocating an increase in the amount of funds allocated to applied, rather than basic, earthquake mitigation research.

Mr. Smith then asked how to encourage private interests to participate in implementing NEHRP recommendations. Witnesses suggested that private interests need greater motivation to implement NEHRP recommendations, and that an increased emphasis on applied NEHRP research would speed the transfer of technology. Several witnesses stressed that enforcement of existing codes at the local level was the most serious issue preventing implementation of NEHRP recommendations.

Representative Zoe Lofgrenthen stated that she would be circulating a letter to the appropriations committee to ask that more funds be committed to NEHRP. She also questioned whether FEMA is the appropriate lead agency for NEHRP, since the agency's focus is not on science. Mr. Lowe countered that FEMA's strength is that it is an "all-hazard" agency and mentioned that FEMA is considering developing a research subcommittee with chair moving among the member agencies. The committee also expressed concern that funding for the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) has never approached authorized levels.

Mr. Smith also asked about the costs of implementing NEHRP recommendations in new and existing structures. Dr. Reaveley estimated that the cost for a new building would be increased by only 2-3%, although expenses for retrofitting existing buildings can reach 20-100% of the cost of building a new structure.

In their final remarks, Drs. Cluff and Olson advocated raising NEHRP funding to the level suggested by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. This increase would raise the level of NEHRP funding $358 million per year for the first 5 years, or three times the current level. This echoed a previous remark by Dr. O'Rourke, and was consistent with all witnesses' calls for increased NEHRP funding.