May 18, 2015

Ranking Member DeFazio's Opening Statement at hearing on "Pacific Northwest Seismic Hazards: Planning and Preparing for the next disaster"

Statement of
The Honorable Peter DeFazio
Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management
Hearing on “Pacific Northwest Seismic Hazards:  Planning and Preparing for the next disaster

May 19, 2015


Thank you, Chairman.  I want to welcome all of today’s witnesses and thank them for their testimony.  Given recent earthquakes in Nepal and the ensuing catastrophe, this is a very timely and important hearing.

In particular, I would like to welcome Dr. Scott Ashford, Dean of Oregon State University’s College of Engineering.  Dr. Ashford worked closely on the State of Oregon’s earthquake resilience plan. His research focus on reducing earthquake losses and improving the resilience of infrastructure systems after an earthquake will provide valuable information to the Committee.

The United States Geological Service (USGS) estimates that 75 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 42 states. Oregon is one of those states, and is at risk from several different types of earthquakes.  But our greatest risk is from the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches from northern California up into British Columbia. It is the mirror image of the subduction zone off the coast of Japan that caused the magnitude nine earthquake and resulting tsunami in 2011. Historically, the Cascadia subduction zone slips every 300 years or so causing major earthquakes. The last quake was in 1700 and evidence suggests it was a magnitude 8.7 to a 9.2.  January of this year marks the 315th anniversary of the last major Cascadia earthquake.

Experts agree that Oregon is due for another major earthquake. Forecasts include a ten percent chance of a magnitude eight to nine quake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the next 30 years. Others predict a 35 - 40 percent chance of a major quake on the south end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the next 50 years.

A Cascadia earthquake will likely be catastrophic with the potential of triggering a tsunami. The USGS estimates that over 22,000 people live in Oregon’s tsunami inundation zone and even more enter the zone daily for employment purposes. The next big Cascadia quake will likely cause massive damage.  Critical lifelines, such as power, natural gas, roads and bridges, water and sewer systems, emergency buildings, and communications over large parts of California, Oregon and Washington will likely be damaged, complicating response and recovery efforts.

A catastrophic earthquake is not hypothetical.  It is a not a question of if an earthquake will happen.  It is a question of when. That’s why this Nation needs to start taking this threat seriously and begin to prepare for the event. There is a saying that “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” In order to minimize the impacts of an earthquake, we need to start investing in the Nation’s infrastructure to ensure it can withstand seismic activity or at the very least minimize potential damages and economic disruption.

We can save lives and prevent injuries by taking common-sense mitigation strategies. We already require new federal buildings to meet seismic standards that are incorporated in building codes. But right now, whether an existing federal building meets seismic standards is only one of many factors considered in determining whether a building should be repaired or altered. In high earthquake risk areas, this should be a prominent factor.

Buildings repaired or rebuilt after a disaster with FEMA funds are subject to state and local building codes. This is sufficient if the state or local government has adopted codes with seismic standards and enforces those codes. But adoption of such codes is uneven amongst and within states, as is code enforcement. If federal funds are going to be used to repair or replace critical infrastructure, FEMA should have the authority to require that those buildings are designed to withstand seismic activity in high risk areas.

Although the State of Oregon requires buildings to be designed to withstand seismic shaking, most of the buildings in Oregon were developed before this code requirement was adopted. Consequently, the majority of buildings in Oregon may not withstand the predicted magnitude nine Cascadia earthquake.

For example, the State of Oregon examined much of its public schools and public safety buildings and found them highly deficient when it comes to earthquake resilience: almost half of the 2,193 public school buildings examined had a high or very high potential for collapse; 982 of the 2,567 highway bridges in the Oregon Department of Transportation were built without seismic considerations, and of the rest, only 409 were designed specifically in consideration of the Cascadia subduction zone. The list of inadequate infrastructure in Oregon goes on.

Luckily, Oregonians takes the earthquake hazard seriously. The State developed the Oregon Resilience Plan, which Dr. Ashford worked on and will be discussing. The Oregon Resilience Plan was a comprehensive look at the state’s risk from a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. This included examining the State’s infrastructure and making recommendations to make Oregon more resilient when the next big one strikes. Much more work is needed in Oregon but other States should be encouraged to follow Oregon’s lead and examine the risk, the potential damage and develop and implement plans to address the issue.

Another way to save lives, reduce injuries, and minimize infrastructure damage is to invest in an earthquake early warning system. An early warning system can send alerts to trigger automatic shutdowns of trains, manufacturing lines, close bridges, and evacuate students from unsafe schools. It can help reduce the long-term economic losses that are often excluded from damage estimates. An earthquake early warning system worked during the 2011 Japan earthquake and it can work here.

Incredibly, in the richest and most powerful country in the world – with a very real risk of a costly, catastrophic earthquake – we don’t have such a system.  That’s not only embarrassing, it’s pathetic. This is just another example of the United States needlessly falling behind in infrastructure investments. In this case, the USGS has estimated that it would cost about $38 million dollars to install an earthquake early warning system on the West Coast with an additional annual maintenance and operations costs of $16.1 million.  This investment could save hundreds of thousands of lives and prevent innumerable injuries in the case of a massive earthquake.  Sixteen million dollars is a paltry sum compared to the billions of dollars in damage that is at stake.  But, we are only investing about $1 million per year in these systems.  Again, one word: pathetic. 

Last month, the Committee ordered H.R. 1471, the FEMA Disaster Assistance Reform Act of 2015, to be reported to the House. That bill includes a provision that I sponsored to encourage states to use their hazard mitigation funding in support of building a capability for an earthquake early warning system. FEMA needs to do its part to make sure states are aware that mitigation funds may be used for this purpose.

When it comes to earthquakes, FEMA plays a crucial role. FEMA has many statutory responsibilities under the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or the NEHRP (KNEE-HERP) program to assist States through guidance and implementation. But it does not appear that FEMA is prioritizing this program and its statutory duties.

NEHRP requires FEMA to operate a program of grants and assistance to enable states to conduct seismic safety inspections of critical structures and lifelines. Yet, in its April 2015 update on FEMA’s activities under the program, it states that FEMA is not performing critical infrastructure duties. The same update notes several staff vacancies.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget only requested $7.5 million for FEMA to carry out its NEHRP functions. This is $1 million less than FEMA spent in fiscal year 2014 and about the same as FEMA requested for fiscal year 2015. FEMA has the discretionary authority to determine how much to allocate to the NEHRP program yet it is not even allocating sufficient funds to carry out all of its duties. I hope FEMA intends to start prioritizing this program.

The Oregon Resilience Plan contains a sobering warning that applies to the country more broadly, and one that the Committee should take seriously: “Very large earthquakes will occur in Oregon’s future, and our state’s infrastructure will remain poorly prepared to meet the threat unless we take action now to start building the necessary resilience.”  I hope today’s hearing is the beginning of serious, thoughtful, and robust action by the federal government on earthquake preparedness and resilience.

Thank you.