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Earthquake and Windstorm Mitigation Opportunities Gauged by Science Committee

JAN 31, 2024
The House Science Committee is considering updating two multi-agency hazard reduction programs dedicated to earthquakes and windstorms.
lindsay-mckenzie-2.jpg
Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
Earthquake Anchorage Alaska 2018

Highway workers and spectators look at a car stuck on a section of an off-ramp that collapsed during an earthquake in 2018 in Anchorage, Alaska.

(Dan Joling/AP)

Members of the House Science Committee underlined the importance of research to mitigate the effects of earthquakes and windstorms during a Jan. 30 hearing held to inform potential updates to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP).

Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) described the devastating impact of tornadoes on his home state of Oklahoma, stating his particular interest in how the work of NWIRP can save lives. There were 74 tornadoes in the state last year, Lucas said, including one that killed a high school classmate of his.

Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) noted that all members of the committee represent areas that have been affected by natural disasters and highlighted her personal experiences. “I grew up in California, and all of us who grew up and live there are very aware of the threat of earthquakes. I vividly recall the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook San Jose in 1989,” Lofgren said.

Though NEHRP has achieved “great success in substantially decreasing loss of life and injuries” and improving seismic risk assessments, Lofgren said more work should be done to improve early warning systems.

“We don’t currently have the capability to predict the exact time, location, and magnitude of an earthquake,” Lofgren said. “Even a few additional minutes of warning could mean the difference between life and death. We’ve seen this already with ShakeAlert, the earthquake early warning system, which can give a few seconds warning before a strong shaking is felt – this could make a difference in operating rooms.”

Research and Technology Subcommittee Chair Mike Collins (R-GA) said that mitigation research can help confront the rising costs of natural hazard recovery. “We know that research pays off,” said Collins, citing a National Institute of Building Sciences estimate that every $1 spent on adopting the latest building code requirements saves $11.

Congress created NEHRP in 1977 and last revised the program in 2018. NWIRP is younger, created in 2004 and last updated by Congress in 2015. The formal legislative authorization for each program has expired, though that does not prevent them from continuing to function.

Both NEHRP and NWIRP are overseen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and their lead agencies include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Representatives of each agency except NOAA testified at the hearing on recent achievements of the programs.

Jason Averill, deputy director of the engineering lab at NIST, said that both programs have informed meaningful changes to building codes and standards. For example, a NIST study of severe damage caused by a 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, helped inform new standards for buildings to withstand tornadoes that have now become part of the national building code, Averill said.

Edward Laatsch, director of the safety, planning, and building science division at FEMA, emphasized the economic impacts of mitigation measures, citing the National Institute of Building Sciences study referenced by Collins.

Gavin Hayes, earthquake hazards program coordinator at USGS, outlined NEHRP’s success in developing the National Seismic Hazard Model, which estimates the probability of ground-shaking events across the U.S. USGS recently updated the model to comprehensively assess seismic risks across all 50 states for the first time.

Susan Margulies, head of the Engineering Directorate at NSF, highlighted her agency’s role in supporting infrastructure for earthquake and windstorm research, such as the recently upgraded Shake Table at the University of California, San Diego, and the Wall of Wind facility at Florida International University.

NSF also recently allocated $15 million to establish the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center (CRESCENT), a multi-institution center led by the University of Oregon dedicated to studying the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia Subduction Zone. Asked by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) how research from the center will inform mitigation planning, Margulies said that a partnerships committee will be meeting this summer to discuss how to quickly disseminate research findings to local and tribal government officials, utility representatives, engineers, teachers, and others.

Committee members have so far not introduced legislation to update the programs, and they gave little sense at the hearing of what specific proposals they might include. Committee members did introduce bipartisan legislation to update NWIRP during the previous Congress, but it did not advance.

Meanwhile, legislation to update NEHRP was recently introduced in the Senate by Sens. Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The bill recommends that Congress provide the program about $175 million per year for the next five years, an increase from the program’s fiscal year 2022 budget of $162.5 million.

(Correction: This article has been updated to note that the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center is led by the University of Oregon, not Oregon State University as originally reported. OSU is a partner in the center.)

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