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Highlights

What GAO Found

The four cities GAO visited (see figure) have taken various actions to assess and mitigate seismic risks, including identifying and assessing their high risk buildings, structurally retrofitting buildings, and requiring that furnishings and nonstructural components be secured, among other things.

Figure: Select Cities on 2014 Earthquake Shaking Map

Figure: Select Cities on 2014 Earthquake Shaking Map

Note: A 2 percent in 50 years probability equates to an earthquake recurring and exceeding a given MMI level about every 2,475 years.

About 40 percent of federally-owned and -leased buildings in the United States are located in areas where very strong to extreme shaking from earthquakes could occur. The Department of Defense (DOD) and General Services Administration (GSA), which are responsible for the majority of these buildings, have not fully identified their exceptionally high risk (EHR) buildings or prioritized and implemented comprehensive seismic safety measures. Federal agencies identified their EHR buildings as part of a government-wide effort in the 1990's, and GSA has begun taking initial steps to identify its current EHR buildings. In addition, while DOD and GSA have taken some steps to reduce the seismic risk of their buildings through seismic retrofits, disposals, and low-cost mitigation alternatives, GAO observed gaps in the extent to which these agencies have comprehensively implemented these mitigation measures, such as securing furniture. Until they fully identify their EHR buildings and prioritize and implement comprehensive safety measures, DOD and GSA will be unable to fully understand and address the vulnerabilities of their buildings.

U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) early warning system—ShakeAlert—is capable of broadcasting early warnings, and stakeholders, including state agencies and universities, have identified multiple benefits, such as enhanced public safety. However, implementation challenges exist that could inhibit efforts to expand the system throughout the western United States. For example, decisions on funding, public education, and user certification are needed to enable implementation of an integrated system across jurisdictions. Developing a program management plan, which helps establish management controls, could help address ShakeAlert implementation challenges.

Why GAO Did This Study

Earthquakes pose a significant threat to people and infrastructure because of their capacity to cause catastrophic casualties, property damage, and economic disruption. According to the USGS, 16 states have a relatively high likelihood of experiencing damaging ground shaking in the next 50 years, and nearly half of all Americans are exposed to potentially damaging earthquakes.

GAO was asked to review efforts to mitigate against earthquakes impacts in the United States. Specifically, this report address (1) actions select cities have taken to mitigate seismic risks, (2) the distribution of federal buildings relative to earthquake prone areas and actions to identify and mitigate seismic risks to these buildings, and (3) what is known about the benefits of USGS's earthquake early warning system, ShakeAlert, and the extent to which implementation challenges are being addressed. GAO reviewed key documents and federal authorities; collected federal building inventory information; conducted site visits to selected cities—Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Memphis; and interviewed, among others, federal, state, and local officials.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that DOD and GSA (1) fully identify their exceptionally high risk buildings; (2) prioritize and implement comprehensive seismic safety measures to mitigate earthquake risks; and (3) that USGS develop a program management plan to address, among other things, ShakeAlert implementation challenges. DOD, GSA, and USGS agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To strengthen efforts to mitigate earthquake risks to federal buildings, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator of GSA should (1) Define what constitutes an exceptionally high risk building, identify such buildings, and develop plans to mitigate those risks, including prioritizing associated funding requests as needed; and (2) To the extent practicable, prioritize and implement comprehensive seismic safety measures which could include earthquake drills, seismic safety inspections, and non-structural retrofits to decrease risks and reduce damage in federally-owned and -leased buildings in earthquake hazard areas.
Open
DOD concurred with our recommendation. In January 2021, DoD reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed a risk assessment tool which offers the potential to both define and assess exceptionally high risk buildings in a cost-effective manner. DoD is pursuing validation of this tool for DoD-wide use, and will offer the tool to the National Institute of Standards and Technology for consideration as a government-wide standard should it be suitable for DoD. Assessment of buildings and development of solutions to mitigate seismic risks will follow, subject to available funding. We will continue to monitor DoD's efforts to address this recommendation.
General Services Administration
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
To strengthen efforts to mitigate earthquake risks to federal buildings, the Secretary of Defense and the Administrator of GSA should (1) Define what constitutes an exceptionally high risk building, identify such buildings, and develop plans to mitigate those risks, including prioritizing associated funding requests as needed; and (2) To the extent practicable, prioritize and implement comprehensive seismic safety measures which could include earthquake drills, seismic safety inspections, and non-structural retrofits to decrease risks and reduce damage in federally-owned and -leased buildings in earthquake hazard areas.
Closed - Implemented
The General Services Administration (GSA) has completed its rating of buildings, and in September 2017, reported it had determined that 17 buildings were exceptionally high risk and that it was developing plans to address the seismic risk in these buildings. As related to funding needed for mitigation activities, GSA requested $40 million in its fiscal year 2018 budget justification for a new Seismic Mitigation Program to install, upgrade, and improve seismic performance in its federally-owned buildings. GSA has also implemented seismic safety measures, including annual earthquake drills, methods for identifying and mitigating non-structural retrofits to decrease damage in federally owned and leased buildings, and seismic safety inspections. More specifically, as part of emergency occupant plans, GSA instituted web-based training on earthquake safety and began conducting annual earthquake drills in high seismic areas. In addition, GSA developed guidance that identifies potential seismic hazards associated with nonstructural components of buildings and provides recommendations for mitigating those hazards. The guidance has been incorporated into GSA's existing Safety and Environmental Management building inspection and evaluation process. As such, GSA has taken the necessary steps to meet the intent of this recommendation.
Department of the Interior Following the expansion of the ShakeAlert governance structure to include key stakeholders, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior should direct the U.S. Geological Survey, working through the ShakeAlert governance structure, to establish a program management plan that addresses, among other things, the known implementation challenges.
Closed - Implemented
In November 2017, USGS formalized the expanded ShakeAlert governance structure within a program management plan for the USGS ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System. The program management plan defines performance goals for ShakeAlert, outlines stakeholder roles and responsibilities, and describes efforts to address implementation challenges such as those related to funding, public education and alerting, and user certification. As a result, GAO considers this recommendation closed as implemented.

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