Earthquakes: Opportunities Exist to Further Assess Risk, Build Resilience, and Communicate Research

GAO-22-105016 Published: May 04, 2022. Publicly Released: May 04, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program helps U.S. communities strengthen their earthquake resilience. For example, the program educates the public on earthquake risks and helps communities update building codes and improve design and construction practices.

The program has started assessing progress, for example, by tracking building code adoption in 22,000 jurisdictions. But we found that a national assessment hasn't been done. Such an assessment could help the program more strategically address inconsistencies in how states, localities, territories, and tribes mitigate earthquake risks.

Our recommendations address this, and more.

Damage from the 2020 Southwest Puerto Rico Earthquake Sequence

3 people looking at a collapsed building

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Highlights

What GAO Found

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) said that a national risk assessment has not been done to identify improvements and remaining gaps in resilience. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initiated some efforts to identify improvements by collecting data on the adoption of building codes. The NEHRP agencies are currently working to update the Strategic Plan FY 2022-2029. 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.

Damage to Anchorage, Alaska Following a Magnitude 7.1 Earthquake in 2018

Damage to Anchorage, Alaska Following a Magnitude 7.1 Earthquake in 2018

Accomplishing NEHRP's strategic objectives requires developing and applying research in the geological, engineering, and social sciences areas. NEHRP identifies research priorities, and many of the NEHRP agencies award grants to entities such as universities or state and local agencies, to conduct research. While the communication mechanisms used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) include program solicitations, program descriptions, and letters issued to research entities, they do not communicate NEHRP's strategic research priorities. By developing strategies to better communicate its research priorities, NEHRP can help ensure that they are met.

NEHRP's Program Coordination Working Group is responsible for coordinating the implementation of NEHRP's strategic research priorities and has followed leading practices for leadership and outcomes. However, the working group did not follow two leading practices for accountability and resources. For example, the working group did not track and monitor progress, and did not identify and leverage resources needed to achieve outcomes for research priorities. Identifying resources would enable the interagency group to leverage all relevant resources across the NEHRP agencies, and better align them with research priorities. Further, the identification of resources would provide an opportunity for the working group to build programmatic partnerships aimed at strengthening earthquake resilience.

Why GAO Did This Study

Established in 1977, NEHRP aims to help reduce the risks to life and property from earthquakes. NEHRP's initiatives include strengthening community resilience through improved design and construction methods, conducting research to better understand the impacts from earthquakes, and providing outreach and education. NEHRP is comprised of four federal agencies (FEMA, NIST, NSF, and the U.S. Geological Survey) that promote and support NEHRP's initiatives for strengthening earthquake resilience.

The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2018 includes a provision for GAO to assess the program's efforts. This report examines, among other things, NEHRP's progress in identifying gaps and strengthening resilience to earthquakes, and its activities to identify and communicate about research priorities. GAO reviewed NEHRP's strategic plans, agency guidance, and external communications; compared procedures to leading practices for interagency collaboration; and interviewed federal and state officials, among others.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that NEHRP agencies conduct a national assessment to identify progress and remaining gaps in earthquake resilience; develop strategies to better communicate research priorities; and follow leading practices to identify and leverage resources. NIST, NSF, and FEMA concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should develop and implement a plan to increase awareness among tribes about earthquake risk reduction initiatives. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
National Science Foundation The Director of NSF should, in collaboration with NIST, develop strategies to better communicate NEHRP's priorities to research entities. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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