7.4: The Federal Government and Earthquakes

• 7.4.1: Introduction
The study of earthquakes is such a large-scale problem, with so many implications, that it seems impossible for the national government not to become involved.
• 7.4.2: Historical Background
For most of recorded history, earthquakes were regarded as unpredictable calamities, acts of God—not subjects for government involvement except for dealing with the consequences. This began to change in 1891 when a killer earthquake devastated a large section of western Japan at the same time Japan was gearing up its economy to become an equal partner and competitor with Western countries. After the 1891 earthquake, the Japanese government authorized a long-term earthquake research program.
• 7.4.3: The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP)
Two earthquakes in 1975 strongly affected the decision to increase the involvement of the federal government in earthquake studies. The first was the Haicheng, China, Earthquake in February 1975, which had been predicted by the Chinese early enough to reduce greatly the loss of life, although it was not recognized at the time that the Haicheng earthquake was part of an earthquake swarm. The second was an earthquake in August 1975, close to the Oroville Dam, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
• 7.4.4: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had its beginnings in 1950 with the establishment of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a response to the growing nuclear threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In its implementation role, FEMA contributes to developing standards in new construction and retrofits, and to applying engineering design knowledge to upgrading building codes.
• 7.4.5: U.S. Geological Survey
More than two-thirds of NEHRP funding is spent internally to support USGS scientists in regional programs, laboratory and field studies, national hazard assessment programs, and the operation of seismic networks, including the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network operated with the University of Washington, the Northern California network operated with the University of California at Berkeley, and the Great Basin network operated with the University of Nevada-Reno.
• 7.4.6: National Science Foundation (NSF)
The National Science Foundation (NSF) receives about 30 percent of NEHRP funding, divided into two areas, administered by two directorates within NSF. The largest amount goes to earthquake engineering, including direct grants to individual investigators. Part of the budget goes to three earthquake-engineering research centers in New York, Illinois, and California. The Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) in Richmond is operated by the University of California at Berkeley.
• 7.4.7: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the old National Bureau of Standards and part of the Department of Commerce, had received the least amount of funding of the four agencies comprising NEHRP. Its main role had been in applied engineering research and in code development. Its initial budget for earthquake research was less than $500,000 per year and stood at$1.9 million.
• 7.4.8: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
The agencies discussed in this section are not part of NEHRP. Yet two of them contribute significantly to earthquake research because of their technological focus on the sea (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA) and space (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA). There are, of course, many informal working relationships between these agencies and NEHRP, but the lack of formal structure can lead to a lack of focus.
• 7.4.9: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
When LANDSAT cameras returned images of the Earth from space several decades ago, it changed our perspective forever. Faults such as the San Andreas were viewed in unprecedented clarity, and other, previously unknown earthquake-producing structures were also revealed. The Geodynamics Program at NASA was developed to take advantage of the new space platforms as a means to learn about the Earth, including plate tectonics, mineral resources, and an understanding of earthquakes.
• 7.4.10: Other Federal Agencies
Earthquake research by other non-NEHRP agencies principally involves the earthquake safety of those critical facilities that are their responsibility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission of the 1960s, has sponsored research into earthquake hazards related to the safety of nuclear power plants. With a nuclear power plant at St. Helens, the NRC was the first federal agency to take a direct interest in evaluating the earthquake hazard in the 1970s.
• 7.4.11: The Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network
Although this network is operated by the University of Washington, it is discussed in this chapter because most of its funding comes from the federal government. A smoked-paper seismograph was installed in Science Hall on the University of Washington campus in 1906, the first seismograph in either Washington or Oregon. Various faculty members in the Department of Geology transmitted earthquake information to the federal government (Weather Service).
• 7.4.12: Role of the Canadian Government
The government of Canada, through the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), which is part of the Department of Natural Resources Canada, is responsible for virtually all earthquake monitoring in Canada as well as the collecting and archiving of earthquake data, routine analysis of data, and provision of earthquake information to the public. The GSC is responsible for earthquake research and the production of earthquake hazard maps for use in the National Building Code.
• 7.4.13: Getting the Word Out to the Public
Scientists and engineers in the NEHRP program and in other federal agencies in the United States and Canada have made great advances in the understanding of earthquakes and of how to strengthen our society against future earthquakes. But how well has NEHRP and the Geological Survey of Canada succeeded in getting their research results out to society at large? Educating the public was one of the objectives of the original Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977.
• 7.4.14: Summary and a Word about the Future
NEHRP, NASA’s Earth Systems Enterprises, and NOAA’s Tsunami Mitigation Program are mission-oriented, applied programs, not basic research programs. In the words of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Maryland), this is strategic rather than curiosity-driven research. And yet NEHRP has been responsible for fundamental discoveries not only about earthquakes but about how the earth deforms and behaves through time.