Hill backs earthquake systems

The House of Representatives last week passed a bill that allocates more than $200 million in fiscal 2000 for new computer projects to monitor and analyze earthquake activity, including systems that would provide early warnings to help save lives.

The Earthquake Hazards Reduction Authorization Act, which the House overwhelmingly approved 414-3, would earmark more than $170 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to modernize its existing earthquake-monitoring systems during the next five years.

The bill also authorizes the National Science Foundation to spend almost $82 million for a five-year project to build a computer network to connect earthquake research centers across the nation. If the bill becomes law, congressional appropriations committees will consider it in current and future funding deliberations.

"Earthquakes may be inevitable, but catastrophic losses in life and property can be avoided if we use science and technology to help communities prepare," Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), House Science Committee chairman, said in a prepared statement. "This legislation represents a sensible, long-term investment that will pay for itself many times over in saved lives and reduced property losses."

According to some estimates, earthquakes cost the U.S. economy about $4.4 billion each year. But costs can rise dramatically when strong earthquakes hit metropolitan areas, such as the 1994 Northridge, Calif., quake, which caused an estimated $40 billion in property damage.

The money authorized by the bill would help the USGS update its network of seismographs, which detect earthquakes, and strong-motion detectors, which monitor how buildings and other structures react to earthquakes. The agency now operates about 1,900 seismographs and about 840 strong-motion detectors.

When an earthquake occurs, the sensors - placed in fields, on bridges and in some buildings - pick up the tremors. Most of the devices send the information via radio or telecommunications lines to computer systems at USGS offices or select universities, which then analyze the strength of the earthquake. If a quake is strong, USGS informs federal and local emergency services of its location and magnitude. Computer systems also analyze other effects, and USGS uses this information to plan for future quakes, according to John Unger, a USGS seismologist.

But the seismographic system is aging, and USGS officials say they need additional money to fund a digital program, called the Advanced Seismic Research and Monitoring System, to replace devices in the field. The upgrade would enable digital devices to collect more detailed information. The analog devices now used detect only vertical motion and often do not detect slight movements, Unger said. USGS also would put the money toward more high-powered software applications to analyze earthquake information.

With more information, as well as more rapid access to that information, emergency management officials would be able to almost instantly pinpoint areas where the most violent shaking from an earthquake has occurred. This can allow officials to send help more quickly where it is needed most, Unger said. Typically, the epicenter of an earthquake is not the area that experiences the strongest shaking, Unger said. Sometimes the strongest effects are felt a few miles away.

"I'm very excited" about the additional funds, Unger said. "I'd be more excited if it were an appropriation. We've just pushed the limits as far as where we can go with the systems that we have."

Susan Tubbesing, executive director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, praised the passage of the bill, noting especially the bill's focus on giving the NSF money to create a network to connect earthquake research centers.

NSF's project, called the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), will upgrade hardware and software at earthquake engineering research centers nationwide and link those centers via one network. Researchers will be able to more easily share data such as computer-constructed designs for earthquake-resistant structures.

Building a network for researchers will allow greater participation in designing structures to withstand earthquakes, Tubbesing said.

However, more needs to be done to encourage all levels of government, academia and industry to put the more precise information to practical use, said Lisa Warnecke, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based geographic information consultant. For example, town zoning officials could use the information to pinpoint fault lines and to develop stricter building codes near those areas, she said. "Are we doing enough on the side of mitigating and taking advantage of that information?" Warnecke asked.

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