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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Earthquakes: Risk, Detection, Warning, and Research

Peter Folger
Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy

The United States faces the possibility of large economic losses from earthquake-damaged buildings and infrastructure. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has estimated that earthquakes cost the United States, on average, over $5 billion per year. California, Oregon, and Washington account for nearly $4.1 billion (77%) of the U.S. total estimated average annualized loss. California alone accounts for most of the estimated annualized earthquake losses for the nation.

A single large earthquake, however, can cause far more damage than the average annual estimate. The 1994 Northridge (CA) earthquake caused as much as $26 billion (in 2005 dollars) in damage and was one of the costliest natural disasters to strike the United States. One study of the damage caused by a hypothetical magnitude 7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas Fault in southern California projected as many as 1,800 fatalities and more than $200 billion in economic losses. An issue for the 112th Congress is whether existing federally supported programs aimed at reducing U.S. vulnerability to earthquakes are an adequate response to the earthquake hazard.

Under the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), four federal agencies have responsibility for long-term earthquake risk reduction: the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). They variously assess U.S. earthquake hazards, deliver notifications of seismic events, develop measures to reduce earthquake hazards, and conduct research to help reduce overall U.S. vulnerability to earthquakes. Congressional oversight of the NEHRP program might revisit how well the four agencies coordinate their activities to address the earthquake hazard. Better coordination was a concern that led to changes to the program in legislation enacted in 2004 (P.L. 108-360).

P.L. 108-360 authorized appropriations for NEHRP through FY2009. Total funding enacted from reauthorization through FY2009 was $613.2 million, approximately 68% of the total amount of $902.4 million authorized by P.L. 108-360. NEHRP agencies spent $126.6 million for program activities in FY2011, slightly less than FY2010 spending of $131.2 million. Also, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA; P.L. 111-5) provided some additional funding for earthquake activities under NEHRP. What effect funding at the levels enacted through FY2010 under NEHRP has had on the U.S. capability to detect earthquakes and minimize losses after an earthquake occurs is difficult to assess. The effectiveness of the NEHRP program is a perennial issue for Congress: it is inherently difficult to capture precisely, in terms of dollars saved or fatalities prevented, the effectiveness of mitigation measures taken before an earthquake occurs. A major earthquake in a populated urban area within the United States would cause damage, and a question becomes how much damage would be prevented by mitigation strategies underpinned by the NEHRP program.

Legislation introduced during the 112th Congress (S. 646 and H.R. 1379) would make changes to the program and would authorize appropriations totaling $906 million over five years for NEHRP. Ninety percent of the funding would be designated for the USGS and NSF, and the remainder for FEMA and NIST. In the Senate, S. 646 was reported out of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on May 5, 2011; H.R. 1379 awaits further action in the House.

Date of Report: September 2, 2011
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: RL33861
Price: $29.95

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