PDF _ RL33861 - Earthquakes: Risk, Monitoring, Notification, and Research
19-Jun-2008; Peter Folger; 24 p.

Update: Previous releases:
January 16, 2008
February 2, 2007

Abstract: Close to 75 million people in 39 states face some risk from earthquakes. Seismic hazards are greatest in the western United States, particularly California, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii. The Rocky Mountain region, a portion of the central United States known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and portions of the eastern seaboard, particularly South Carolina, also have a relatively high earthquake hazard. Compared to the loss of life in other countries, relatively few Americans have died as a result of earthquakes over the past 100 years. The United States, however, faces the possibility of large economic losses from earthquakedamaged buildings and infrastructure.

Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 1994 Northridge (CA) earthquake was the costliest natural catastrophe to strike the United States; some damage estimates were $26 billion (in 2005 dollars). Estimates of total loss from a hypothetical earthquake of magnitude more than 7.0 reach as high as $500 billion for the Los Angeles area. The May 12, 2008, magnitude 7.9 earthquake in Sichuan, China, has raised some concerns about the possibility of a similar devastating earthquake occurring in seismically active and densely populated parts of the United States, such as California.

Given the potentially huge costs associated with a severe earthquake, an ongoing issue for Congress is whether the 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, send notifications of seismic events, develop measures to reduce earthquake hazards, and conduct research to help reduce overall U.S. vulnerability to earthquakes.

Congress established NEHRP in 1977, and its early focus was on research that would lead to an improved understanding of why earthquakes occur and to an ability to predict their occurrence precisely. Understanding has improved about why and where earthquakes occur; however, reliably predicting the precise date and time an earthquake will occur is not yet possible. Congress most recently reauthorized NEHRP in 2004 (P.L. 108-360) and authorized appropriations through FY2009. The 2004 reauthorization designated NIST as the lead agency to create better synergy among the agencies and improve the program. Congress may wish to determine whether the reorganized structure has yielded expected benefits for the program. Appropriations for NEHRP have not met levels authorized for the past four years, falling short by an average of 31% for FY2005 through FY2008. What effect funding at the levels enacted through FY2008 has had on the U.S. capability to detect earthquakes and minimize losses after an earthquake occurs is not clear.

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Topics: Risk & Reform, Federal Agencies

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