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Monday, December 5, 2022

GAO Calls for a National Assessment to Improve Earthquake Resilience

The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) has goals outlined in its most recent Strategic Plan for fiscal years (FY) 2009-2013 for the improvement of earthquake resilience in communities nationwide. However, officials from the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) told a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review that a national risk assessment has not been done to identify improvements and remaining gaps in resilience. 

GAO found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has initiated some efforts to identify improvements by tracking the status of building code adoption; developing the use of logic models to better understand the public’s awareness of earthquake risk reduction; and assessing communities’ resilience to natural disasters. 

However, a representative from one tribal association and eight of nine tribal officials in northern California told GAO that there is little outreach from FEMA informing them about how to strengthen earthquake resilience. For example, tribal officials said they were not informed about guidance and provisions for improving resilience for new and existing buildings and lifelines. Tribal officials added that when they need information on guidance or other earthquake risk reduction measures, they sometimes rely on information obtained from internet searches. In addition, the representative from the tribal association told us that since there was no outreach by FEMA, they contacted FEMA’s regional office in September 2021 to inquire about the NEHRP program and whether tribal governments were eligible for the NEHRP Earthquake Assistance grant.

FEMA said that one of its regions conducted outreach with tribes in 2021 to help them understand their earthquake risks, along with the other major hazards, and measures they can take to mitigate the risks. For example, through the hazard mitigation planning process and community meetings, FEMA Regional staff met with a Pacific Northwest tribe to help them understand their earthquake and tsunami risks and vulnerability.62 As a result of this outreach, the tribe received a Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant in the amount of $2.8 million to build an evacuation tower.

The NEHRP agencies are currently working to update the Strategic Plan FY 2022-2029. According to NIST officials, the new plan will have four long-term goals: advance the understanding of earthquake processes and their consequences; enhance existing and develop new information, tools, and practices for protecting the nation from earthquake consequences; promote the dissemination of knowledge and implementation of tools, practices, and policies that enhance strategies to withstand, respond to and recover from earthquakes; and learn from post-earthquake investigations to enhance the effectiveness of available information, tools, practices, and policies to improve earthquake resilience.

However, 19 selected stakeholders told GAO they were not involved in the process of identifying updates to the strategic plan’s research priorities. Some said it would be beneficial to see research priority given to social sciences to better support their mission areas. For example, officials from a state emergency office told GAO they would like to see social science research prioritized so that more information becomes available for educating populations in high seismic areas about ways to prepare for disaster events so that they are not fearful about what will inevitably happen. Another stakeholder from a state geological survey agency told GAO it would be beneficial to see more research on unmapped faults to help them understand the extent of the locations of where faults or fractures are happening in the state. Thirteen of the 19 stakeholders (three state emergency management agencies, one U.S. territorial emergency management agency, and nine tribal governments) are located in areas identified as high risk to earthquakes.

GAO says that by conducting a national risk assessment, NEHRP would gain greater awareness of earthquake resilience improvements and be better positioned in planning long-term goals and objectives toward closing remaining gaps. The government watchdog also notes that involving stakeholders in strategic planning would help ensure that mission, goals, and strategies are targeted at the highest priorities.

GAO’s report makes seven recommendations:

  • The Director of NIST should, in collaboration with FEMA, NSF, and USGS and in coordination with federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments and stakeholders, conduct a national risk assessment to identify the progress made by communities to strengthen earthquake resilience since 2015, and the gaps in resilience that remain. 
  • The Administrator of FEMA should develop and implement a plan to increase awareness among tribes about earthquake risk reduction initiatives. 
  • The Director of NIST should, in collaboration with FEMA, NSF, and USGS, assess and determine if additional actions are needed to obtain input from state, local, territorial, and tribal governments and stakeholders on research priorities that align with community and stakeholder needs. 
  • The Director of NSF should, in collaboration with NIST, develop strategies to better communicate NEHRP’s priorities to research entities. 
  • The Director of NEHRP should, in collaboration with FEMA, NIST, NSF, and USGS, follow leading practices to develop performance measures linked to priority research outcomes, and to track and monitor research to ensure research priorities are being met. 
  • The Director of NEHRP should, in collaboration with FEMA, NIST, NSF, and USGS, follow leading practices to identify and leverage the program’s resources needed to achieve research priority outcomes. 
  • The Director of NIST should, in collaboration with NSF, document and implement a comprehensive plan to better ensure that all state, local, territorial and tribal governments and stakeholders are aware of the mechanisms and practices used by NSF and NIST for disseminating research. 

Each agency concurred with the recommendation(s) applicable. For example, FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA) Planning and Safety Division, as well as FIMA’s Earthquake and Wind Programs Branch, will collaborate with FEMA’s National Tribal Affairs Advisor to develop culturally sensitive and relevant products to communicate earthquake risk effectively. DHS stated that once complete, a strategic communications plan will also support the distribution of these products.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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