By Jay Landers

In April, the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program released its first strategic plan in 15 years. Covering fiscal years 2022-29, the plan details four strategic goals and their supporting objectives, which together will enhance the nation’s capabilities to withstand, respond to, and recover from earthquakes.

Intended to work in a cyclical manner, NEHRP’s four coordinated goals aim to boost scientific understanding of seismic events and their consequences, enhance the means for protecting against those consequences, better promote strategies for dealing with earthquakes, and foster learning from seismic events to improve overall community resilience.

Functional recovery

The new strategic plan places its emphasis on the functional recovery of buildings and lifeline infrastructure. This reflects the growing desire to design such facilities so that they not only ensure life safety during an earthquake, as has long been the goal of seismic design, but so that they also can be quickly repaired and returned to service. “That’s a big push right now,” says John “Jay” Harris III, Ph.D., S.E., P.E., F.SEI, M.ASCE, the acting NEHRP director and a research structural engineer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"Although life safety remains paramount and underscores all seismic risk-reduction efforts, addressing functional recovery in design and retrofit represents an enhanced approach in which an asset of the built environment can be designed to directly support the resiliency of a community," Harris says.

This shift toward functional recovery represents a “big difference in approach,” says Steven McCabe, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, a former director of NEHRP who now serves as the associate division chief for statutory programs in the Materials and Structural Systems Division within NIST’s Engineering Laboratory. “We're recognizing that there's a real need to be able to recover function relatively quickly,” McCabe says.

Unless required by an authority, buildings typically are not designed with post-earthquake functionality in mind, Harris explains. However, "we do have methods available today that we can use to design a building to consider this post-earthquake state," he says. Addressing functional recovery with these available methods or new ones offers a way "to begin to look beyond just the asset level and address how its performance influences the resiliency of a community after an earthquake," Harris says.

“The human side of (earthquake recovery) is extremely important and something that really needs to be addressed,” McCabe adds. “You can keep a building standing, but if the services that are housed in those buildings are unable to operate, you've got a problem.”

Harris gives the example of a community whose power distribution system requires repairs following an earthquake but is inaccessible because a bridge has sustained serious damage. “How do you respond or recover from an earthquake if your lifelines aren’t working?” he asks. “What we want to do is come up with a consistent guidance” for the different forms of lifeline infrastructure, he says.

Coordinating agency

Within the federal government, NEHRP serves as the coordinating agency for activities pertaining to earthquake monitoring, research, implementation, education, and outreach. The program’s mission is to “develop, disseminate, and promote knowledge, tools, and practices for earthquake risk reduction — through coordinated, multidisciplinary, interagency partnerships among the NEHRP agencies and their stakeholders — that improve the Nation’s earthquake resilience in public safety, economic strength, and national security,” according to NEHRP's website.

Established by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, NEHRP is conducted by four federal agencies: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NIST, which is the lead agency for the program. Ultimately, NEHRP’s activities are overseen by the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Earthquake Hazards Reduction, which comprises the principals of the four program agencies, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The four program agencies have complementary roles regarding NEHRP. For example, the NSF supports fundamental research regarding earthquakes and cooperates with the USGS on the Advanced National Seismic System, which monitors and reports on earthquake ground motions and related effects. The USGS also develops and maintains national seismic hazard maps. For its part, NIST engages in applied earthquake engineering research to provide the technical basis for building codes, standards, and practices, while FEMA participates in the process of translating those research findings into recommended design provisions for model building codes.

Focused efforts

The new strategic plan for NEHRP was developed by the Program Coordination Working Group, which consists of representatives from the four federal agencies that NEHRP comprises.

Although NEHRP’s mission is broadly defined by its congressional mandate, the program agencies use the strategic plan to “develop programmatic activities to ultimately support our mission,” says Harris.

In essence, the plan answers the question, “What is it that’s important that we really focus our efforts on?” Harris says.

As part of its new strategic plan, NEHRP has “chosen four goals to define our strategic direction for the program to support our mission,” Harris says. Taken together, the four goals address the “life cycle” of earthquake preparedness, he notes, covering steps to be taken before, during, and after a seismic event. The goals also seek to include a “feedback loop” that prompts NEHRP to continue to review and revise its practices based on experience gained from actual earthquakes, Harris says.

4 main goals

The strategic plan comprises four main goals.

  • Advance the understanding of earthquake processes and their consequences.
  • Enhance existing and develop new information, tools, and practices for protecting the nation from earthquake consequences.
  • Promote the dissemination of knowledge and implementation of tools, practices, and policies that enhance strategies to withstand, respond to, and recover from earthquakes.
  • Learn from post-earthquake investigations to enhance the effectiveness of available information, tools, practices, and policies to improve earthquake resilience.

The fourth provides the necessary feedback loop by which NEHRP can assess the extent to which it succeeded in helping reduce hazards associated with a particular earthquake, Harris says. “Are there lessons learned? Is there a new hazard, a new fault, a new way of thinking?” This allows for an “ever-improving program,” he says.

Focus areas

Besides the above goals and their corresponding objectives, the strategic plan identifies a number of focus areas, including:

  • Advance earthquake science for subduction zone regions.
  • Develop enhanced performance-based seismic design procedures and metrics for the functional recovery of new and existing buildings and lifeline infrastructure.
  • Advance performance-based seismic design and assessment methods to implement multisystem coordination.
  • Further expand earthquake early warning capabilities.
  • Develop consistent performance guidance for lifeline infrastructure.
  • Enhance guidance to ensure that information and tools effectively support the needs of those who implement mitigation, preparedness, and recovery measures.
  • Advance the science of earthquake sequence characterization.
  • Enhance risk-reduction strategies for federal agencies.

These focus areas “address issues with serious public need coupled with impactful opportunities for innovation and advancement toward seismic risk reduction,” according to the plan.

In the United States, the Pacific Northwest is at greatest risk of earthquakes associated with subduction zones, which are the points at which one tectonic plate is being forced beneath another. “We have less information about subduction zone earthquakes because they don’t happen that often,” Harris says. However, when they do occur, such earthquakes “can be devastating,” he notes. As a result, much more scientific study of earthquakes involving subduction zones and their consequences must be conducted, Harris says.

As for the need for consistent performance guidance for lifeline infrastructure, this focus area arises from concerns about the ability of communities to recover from earthquakes if certain key infrastructure components are designed to withstand different seismic hazards.