Fast Facts

We reviewed the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program, which seeks to reduce the threats posed by earthquakes and related perils such as tsunamis.

A flat budget for most hazard reduction programs has meant vacancies and reduced USGS's ability, for example, to assess hazards and conduct research, stakeholders said

USGS lacks a strategic plan that spells out the resources needed to meet program goals

Its implementation of ShakeAlert, a system designed to warn about imminent strong shaking, could be improved with better activity tracking, timelines, goals, and more

Our 9 recommendations address these and other issues.

Damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California

Crumbling concrete supports along a road

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), through its Earthquake Hazards Program (EHP), has made several efforts to identify the dangers from earthquakes, such as tsunamis and landslides, to inform the public and help decision-makers ensure public safety and mitigate losses. For example, USGS publishes national seismic hazard maps, which are used to strengthen building codes throughout the nation. USGS officials, state geologists, and other stakeholders GAO interviewed stated that the program's capacity to meet its mission has been impeded by flat discretionary resources for its core capabilities, such as conducting applied science research or urban hazard assessments.

In response, USGS implemented cost-cutting and cost-saving actions to meet EHP's mission that are consistent with some but not all leading practices for strategic planning, performance measurement, and human capital planning identified in past GAO work. For example, USGS lacks a strategic plan that, among other things, identifies the resources needed to achieve the EHP's mission and goals for all major functions of the EHP, such as conducting applied earthquake science research or urban hazard assessments. Further, USGS has not conducted an analysis of staffing needs consistent with leading practices for effective strategic workforce planning principles, such an analysis could include succession planning and a data-driven assessment of its needs for critical skills and competencies. By developing a strategic plan that identifies the strategies, priorities, and resources needed to reach these goals and conducting a staffing gap analysis, USGS can better ensure it has well-thought-out strategies to achieve results-oriented goals with Congress understanding the tradeoffs USGS made in applying its resources toward its goals.

USGS has made progress implementing seismic stations; however, some challenges remain to fully implement the ShakeAlert system. GAO found that USGS had not followed best practices in establishing schedules, milestones, and timeframes for its ShakeAlert implementation, and has not completed its plan for coordinating outreach with stakeholders. By developing schedules and milestones, USGS will be able to track completion of key activities that impact the overall cost of ShakeAlert. By updating and completing its ShakeAlert outreach plan, USGS can better ensure all stakeholders have a shared understanding of how to communicate and educate the public on the ShakeAlert system.

Engineers Installing an Earthquake Early Warning Seismic Station on Mt. St. Helens

Engineers Installing an Earthquake Early Warning Seismic Station on Mt. St. Helens

Why GAO Did This Study

Earthquakes and related hazards are a significant threat to people and infrastructure in the U.S. For instance, magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes centered west of Searles Valley in California, struck in July 2019, causing over $5 billion in damage. USGS is the lead federal agency for providing earthquake monitoring and notification. USGS began implementing ShakeAlert, its earthquake early warning system, in California, Oregon, and Washington State in 2012. GAO was asked to assess, among other things, USGS efforts to identify earthquake hazards. This report addresses, among other things, (1) USGS actions to identify earthquake hazards, (2) the extent USGS actions to achieve its earthquake hazard mission meet leading practices; and (3) what progress USGS and its partners have made implementing ShakeAlert. GAO evaluated agency guidance and other planning documents, such as USGS's ShakeAlert implementation plans; assessed its ShakeAlert cost estimate; conducted site visits to selected cities; and interviewed federal and state officials, among others.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 7 recommendations, including that USGS develop a strategic plan, including measures, and conduct a staffing gap analysis for the EHP that identifies the resources needed to achieve its mission and goals; follow best practices for a comprehensive ShakeAlert cost estimate; and complete the stakeholder outreach plan for its earthquake early warning system. USGS generally concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should develop a strategic plan for the Earthquake Hazard Program that articulates the fundamental mission of the entire program, lays out its long-term goals for implementing the plan, and identifies the strategies and resources that are needed to reach these goals. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOI concurred that the Director of USGS should develop a strategic plan for the Earthquake Hazard Program (EHP) that articulates the fundamental mission of the entire program, lays out its long-term goals for implementing the plan, and identifies the strategies and resources that are needed to reach these goals. DOI stated that, it is important to distinguish Strategic Planning documents-which are created at the Agency level, and outline Agency responsibilities and progress towards those goals via tracking performance through established measures, in accordance with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) - from program-and project-level science planning documents (often also called strategic plans), which describe short- or long-term science goals. In October 2021, USGS officials reported that they were in the process of undertaking science planning efforts and planned to eventually publish a science plan for the whole of the Earthquake Hazards Program by June 2023. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should develop performance measures for the strategy to determine whether the Earthquake Hazard Program has achieved the strategy's goals after it has drafted the strategic plan. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOI concurred that the Director of USGS should develop performance measures for the strategy to determine whether the Earthquake Hazards Program has achieved the strategy's goals after it has drafted the strategic plan. in October 2021, USGS officials reported that they would work with the DOI during the development of its FY 2022 - 2026 Strategic Plan. USGS officials also reported they would ensure that the plan includes appropriate performance measures for the agency's programs, including the EHP by December 2022. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should consult with relevant Congressional committees when developing its strategic plan for EHP. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOI concurred that the Director of USGS should consult with relevant Congressional committees when developing its strategic plan for the Earthquake Hazards Program (EHP). In October 2021, DOI also stated that it will consult with Congress, as appropriate, when developing a strategic science plan for the EHP, according to the agency these actions will take place by December 2022. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should complete a staffing gap analysis for the Earthquake Hazard Program that is clearly linked to the mission and long-term goals of the Natural Hazards Mission Area and Earthquake Hazard Program's strategic plans. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOI concurred that the Director of USGS should complete a staffing gap analysis for the Earthquake Hazards Program that is clearly linked to the mission and long-term goals of the Natural Hazards Mission Area and the program's strategic plans. DOI stated that, as part of program's science planning efforts, the Program Office will combine science center staffing plans and identify program-wide needs and overlap of those needs with the strategic directions of the program. In October 2021, USGS officials stated that the EHP Program Office is to combine science center staffing plans and identify program-wide needs and overlap of those needs with the strategic directions of the program by June 2023. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should establish a Work Breakdown Structure with identified costs for ShakeAlert consistent with best practices in GAO's cost guide. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DOI stated that it partially concurred with this recommendation. DOI noted that the ShakeAlert Technical Implementation Plan was based on a detailed internal breakdown of costs in accordance with the Work Breakdown Structure approach. In its technical comments USGS provided additional details on the high-level cost categories. However, the plan did not include a dictionary of terms. in October 2021, DOI stated that Earthquake Hazards Program will develop such a dictionary to accompany the cost breakdown by June 2023. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should establish a schedule and milestones for ShakeAlert implementation consistent with best practices in GAO's schedule guide. (Recommendation 6)
Open
DOI concurred that the Director of USGS should establish a schedule and milestones for ShakeAlert implementation consistent with best practices in GAO's schedule guide. In October 2021, DOI stated that, the Earthquake Hazards Program will establish an estimate of schedule and milestones for the remainder of system implementation by June 2023. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Geological Survey The Director of USGS should update and complete the ShakeAlert Communication, Education, and Outreach Plan to clarify and define roles and responsibilities between USGS, the states, and other communication, education, and outreach stakeholders. (Recommendation 7)
Open
DOI concurred that the Director of USGS should update and complete the ShakeAlert Communication, Education, and Outreach Plan to clarify and define roles and responsibilities between USGS, the states, and other communication, education, and outreach stakeholders. in October 2021, DOI stated that the Earthquake Hazards Program will update and complete the draft Communication, Education and Outreach Plan for ShakeAlert by June 2022. We will continue to monitor USGS's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce, jointly with the Secretary of the Interior, should fully implement memorandum of understanding between USGS and NOAA by establishing the Interagency Committee for Program Coordination. (Recommendation 8).
Open
Commerce concurred with this recommendation. In September 2021, the Department of Commerce stated that NOAA's National Weather Service has been working with USGS to revise the existing MOU and implement an Interagency Committee for Program Coordination. According to these officials, the purpose of this committee is to coordinate related programs and research within the full range of interface between NOAA and USGS. After the MOU is finalized, NOAA and USGS will work to establish working groups to begin addressing issues for improved coordination. According to the Department of Commerce, they anticipate the groups will be established and begin meeting during the third quarter of fiscal year 2022. We will continue to monitor Commerce's efforts to implement our recommendation.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of Interior, jointly with the Secretary of the Commerce, should fully implement memorandum of understanding between USGS and NOAA by establishing the Interagency Committee for Program Coordination. (Recommendation 9).
Open
The Department of Interior (DOI) concurred with this recommendation. In October 2021, DOI stated that the USGS Office of the Director will work with NOAA to establish teams necessary to promote improved program coordination, as discussed in the USGS-NOAA MOU. DOI anticipates completing these actions by June 2022. We will continue to monitor DOI's efforts to implement our recommendation.

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