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Reducing the Risks of Natural Hazards: A Program for the Future

USGS Customer Listening Session

November 3, 2004

Final Report

Listening Session Themes

This report is organized around the themes that emerged through the day, rather than as a chronology of the proceedings. These themes were:

Participants also were given the opportunity to submit written comments at the end of each discussion session. The results of those submissions were compiled and are attached in Appendix 4.

Scope of a Natural Hazards Program Initiative

Participants offered numerous ideas about the potential scope of a natural hazards initiative, with respect both to which hazards to include and how to conceptualize what constitutes natural hazards. They also shared their thoughts about an initial focus or set of priorities.

Which Hazards, What Impacts?

Participants asked how USGS defined the term "natural hazard." Natural hazards are often defined as catastrophic (sudden onset) events with significant impacts on human life and property. Obvious examples of sudden onset events considered natural hazards include earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods, and wildfires. USGS invited comments on whether to use this definition for the hazards initiative or whether to consider broadening its conceptualization of natural hazards to incorporate other events of concern.

Input from participants suggested that there is indeed a desire to expand the classical concept of natural hazards as USGS shapes this new initiative. Some participants questioned whether an event must rapidly generate major impacts to be considered a catastrophic natural hazard. One participant noted that the temporal distinction between sudden and protracted onset is largely artificial. Some natural events such as drought develop over a long time period, but can most definitely result in catastrophic impacts. In fact, the paleo record demonstrates that drought can be a civilization-ending phenomenon. Overall, there was significant interest in including drought as a key piece of the new initiative. One participant stated "floods affect people in the floodplain, droughts affect everybody."

Participants also suggested that USGS might address biological phenomena as well and noted several ways to bring biology into the thinking about the program's scope. One addition could be to include the effect of natural hazards on ecosystems, in addition to human life and property, when examining the nature and magnitude of the impacts of a natural hazard. Some participants also favored the inclusion of biological hazards themselves, arguing that problems such as invasive species and/or certain wildlife diseases (e.g. West Nile, hantavirus, Chronic Wasting Disease) are natural hazards that have the potential for catastrophic impacts on both ecosystem functioning and human well-being. Other suggestions included the affect of hazards on endangered species and on ecosystem services, for example, the impact of flooding on water quality. It was also posited that biological processes can play an important role in mitigating impacts from natural hazards and that this is worth the USGS addressing.

Critical examination of use of the term "natural" was suggested because many of the impacts that occur from events are not "natural" per se as they are directly related to human decisions and policies, particularly about land use and development. In other words, ways in which human activities on the landscape increase vulnerability to hazards should be incorporated into how a hazards program should be conceived. This means recognition that natural hazards do not simply happen to people. How people position themselves relative to the potential impacts of hazards is an important consideration. Moreover, there are human-induced environmental hazards such as biological or chemical terrorism that USGS monitoring networks could be used to detect. Participants asked whether this is an area USGS would consider addressing with the new initiative.

A Risk-Based Framework

Participants proposed that a framework focused on the concept of risk may be more inclusive and productive than the notion of catastrophic events. Risk was defined as the product of probability and consequences. If the focus of a USGS natural hazards initiative were to reduce risk, links between science and society may be clearer. The agency could think strategically about how to reduce the probability or increase the predictability of certain controllable events (e.g. wildfire). For uncontrollable and currently unpredictable events (e.g. earthquakes, volcanoes) USGS could focus on science that helps mitigate the impacts or consequences. For example, where prediction of when an event would occur is not yet possible, tools could be developed for predicting the course of the event once it occurred to improve the ability to respond effectively and mitigate the impacts ("nowcasting" as opposed to "forecasting"). An Executive Leadership Team member agreed that risk could potentially serve as a unifying concept for the new USGS initiative -- an initiative that helps society "assess and manage" risk associated with natural hazards.

In addition to broadening the scope beyond catastrophic events, a risk-based framework could also allow USGS to address other areas of interest under the auspices of the new initiative. It could provide opportunities for the integration of multiple USGS disciplines as well as the development of many types of partnerships. It would allow the agency to address a range of hazards without exclusively focusing on any individual hazard. Perhaps most significantly, the concept of risk could be developed into an effective mode for outreach to and education of the public. For example, one participant suggested that the notion of risk could be tied to place and that that could serve as the basis for education of people in particular geographic areas about how hazards could affect their lives.

The American Lifelines Alliance developed a formula for risk as part of a series of guidelines it put together for assessing lifeline system performance. The risk formula demonstrates how natural hazards fit into it and is based on the state of the art for conducting vulnerability assessments. This formula was suggested as a possible model or starting point for USGS to use in developing a risk-based framework for a new hazards initiative.

Prioritizing Activities, Identifying Goals and Garnering Support

USGS leadership also will need to decide what the science goals should be for the program and where to begin. Should it start with a narrow focus on something that would have an evident impact more immediately, or should it have a broad scope that might have benefits to more people but to a less visible degree in the short term? Participants agreed that USGS is well-equipped to develop a hazards initiative and that the agency should start by building on its unique capabilities and core areas of expertise. Some, however, saw that expertise in terms such as predictive modeling that might be applicable to many hazards and urged a multi-hazard approach. Others recommended starting with specific types of hazards (e.g. seismology, landslides, and volcanic hazards). Participants generally agreed that scientific activities of the new initiative should be prioritized according to their potential societal benefits. Participants suggested that the scientific goals of the initiative emphasize potential benefits such as public safety, protecting property, protecting ecosystems and quality of life.

Participants accepted the idea that USGS should identify some readily achievable short-term goals (e.g. "low-hanging fruit") so that the initiative generates demonstrable results early in its existence. One participant suggested that USGS aim to establish a "stream of benefits" to illustrate the utility of the hazards initiative in an ongoing manner. Doing so would demonstrate a return on previous investment in USGS and offer promise of further results in the future. A few participants suggested pilot demonstration projects as an effective approach for demonstrating the value of a hazards initiative within a short time frame.

There are a number of goals which a new USGS hazards initiative could seek to achieve. Most significantly, USGS could strive to predict the occurrence of natural hazards and forecast the magnitude of their impacts. USGS would also provide science tools to mitigate the impacts of natural hazards as much as possible. USGS leadership and participants agreed that another key goal should be establishing the agency as the scientific authority on hazards in the minds of the public. Part of achieving this goal would involve the development of accessible information and useful products about hazards for the public. With respect to products, providing useful products for local-level decision makers would be of particular concern. A participant noted the disconnect between science and the people in local communities making policy decisions that affect where development happens, and suggested that one of the priorities be to provide local officials with best practices information and other tools to link zoning and capital infrastructure decisions to "the good science that you folks provide." "Ultimately," noted another participant, "it's putting science into the hands of local decision makers in a way that they can identify the appropriate threats and . . . then develop specific game plans. . ."

A challenge in making a strong connection with the public around the issue of natural hazards, however, is that the incidence and risk of hazards varies greatly across different regions of the country. Due to this fact, awareness of USGS, its science and the role it plays in society also varies. For example, people on the West coast are well aware of USGS earthquake expertise, but earthquakes do not necessarily concern people in the East. USGS must therefore find ways to apply its scientific expertise to a range of hazards so that the initiative and USGS are recognized as relevant in all areas of the nation.

The possibility of developing a cost-benefit analysis to justify the new initiative was suggested. Ultimately, the goals of a new natural hazards initiative must be broadly appealing and meaningful.

Predicting Hazards, Forecasting and Mitigating Impacts

USGS aims to develop integrated multi-disciplinary approaches to increasing scientific understanding of natural hazards. As noted by Director Groat in his opening remarks, USGS ultimately seeks to be able to increase society's ability to predict natural hazard events. Participants agreed that USGS has the potential to achieve this ambitious goal and should strive to push its science forward to develop predictive capabilities. To do so, USGS should build on existing strengths and continue to work on improving modeling capabilities as well as its basic knowledge. Multiple participants commented for example that USGS should expand its stream gage network, which could facilitate the development of models to forecast flash floods among a number of other scientific benefits.

In addition to predicting occurrence, some participants suggested that USGS work to forecast possible impacts. An ability to forecast impacts relates to educating the public and decision makers about the risk they face, which could in turn influence land use and other decisions that affect the magnitude of impacts. In other words, USGS could play a role in identifying actions that exacerbate or mitigate possible impacts of natural hazards on life, land and property. It was also recommended that USGS keep in mind the fact that the life cycles of some organisms depend on biological processes associated with natural hazards (e.g. fire) and that therefore there is a balance to be maintained when considering mitigation strategies.

One participant offered a general framework for thinking about potential USGS predictive capabilities, suggesting that USGS work to enhance predictive capabilities in both a strategic sense and a tactical sense. The strategic side has to do with monitoring the environment and providing advance warning of where and when natural hazard events will occur. For example, USGS has the capacity for seismic monitoring and to provide advance warning of volcanic activity. In a tactical sense, USGS could improve the capacity of public officials and responders to take actions that will mitigate the severity of impacts of natural hazards when they occur. It was noted that the tactical aspect is where USGS could make a very pragmatic societal contribution by meeting an outstanding societal need.

Enhancing Existing Partnerships and Building New Ones

USGS has unique capabilities to offer in the realm of natural hazards but also recognizes the value of strong partnerships, particularly for this hazards initiative. A key reason USGS chose to focus on natural hazards is because of the strong partnerships the agency already possesses in this arena. A participant stated that enhancing existing partnerships would require strong leadership on the part of USGS. In that participant's opinion, Director Chip Groat demonstrated such leadership by convening the listening sessions and by explicitly stating that USGS plans to involve partners -- universities, other federal agencies, professional associations, state organizations, non-governmental organizations and others -- in the development and implementation of a hazards initiative. One participant stated that for partnerships to work, USGS must foster a collaborative spirit among partners by establishing a clearly-defined common goal such as reducing risks of natural hazards. It is the vision of the USGS that by working together toward a common goal the agency and its partners will be more effective.

Partnership & External Grant Models

Participants were asked to discuss partnership models to potentially emulate and adapt to the hazards program and a number of models were suggested. The existing National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) was described as a good model. It is a partnership of four federal agencies -- National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which looks at the engineering of structures; National Science Foundation (NSF) for basic scientific research; Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) is responsible for mitigation measures; and USGS. USGS is responsible for the monitoring and applied science aspect of the program. The fact that NEHRP was established through legislation was noted, and a question was asked whether similar legislation might be an effective way to establish a multi-hazard approach for a new initiative. Moreover, FEMA's participation in NEHRP creates a link to the Department of Homeland Security, which several participants expressed interest in (see below).

A program called "Growing Smart" that was carried out by the American Planning Association in partnership with six Federal agencies was also suggested as a possible model. The two-year, 2.5 million dollar project resulted in a guidebook for state legislators on how to modernize the statutes that govern planning. One strength of this project was that it began with a scoping session, led by a representative 20-member directorate. This model supports the notion of involving local officials and others who might use the products of the hazards initiative early in the design process to ensure that the priorities and the products are of the intended value. "Growing Smart" was accomplished through interagency agreements as well as a cooperative agreement, which were helpful.

The Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) created new regional networks for information sharing on seismic events that overcame significant obstacles to collaboration. Common goals and mutual benefits, including access to the latest technology, were critical.

Public-private partnerships also were discussed. Some believe it would offer an opportunity for USGS to create relationships with the private sector (including the insurance industry) interested in mitigating risks associated with their investments, understand their needs for information, and benefit from resources provided by private industry. However, other participants expressed caution about the potential for conflicts of interest, particularly in the funding of research.

Director Groat also asked about what a possible external grant component to the natural hazards initiative might look like. The Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Research Grants Program organized by the Environmental Protection Agency's National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) was mentioned as an excellent example. As described on EPA's web site, "NCER's STAR program funds research grants and graduate fellowships in numerous environmental science and engineering disciplines through a competitive solicitation process and independent peer review." The program identifies well-qualified scientists and engineers through targeted requests for applications so that STAR research complements EPA's own intramural research program and those of its partners in other federal agencies. STAR received a favorable review by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2003 report entitled "The Measure of STAR." USGS invited further suggestions for ways to incorporate an external grants aspect to the natural hazards initiative.

Partners for Useful Science

Director Groat outlined two general types of partners that are likely to be interested in working with USGS on a hazards initiative.

Some may be interested because they see it providing information that will affect decisions they are responsible for making (i.e. planning decisions). USGS intends to provide useful products for decision making and therefore recognizes that an effective way to find out what products would be useful is to involve end users, especially local decision makers, in the process of scoping a new initiative. Other partners may contribute to a natural hazards initiative and support USGS by actually doing some of the scientific work.

Participants made many suggestions about hazard issues that need attention and organizations USGS could develop new partnerships with to address them. For example, multiple possible partnerships in the realm of floods were mentioned including the FEMA flood mapping program, the Army Corps of Engineers for real-time water data generation, and the National Weather Service (NWS) to develop predictive flash flooding models. Although USGS does not deal directly with hurricanes, the possibility of USGS playing a role in examining their effects on land through partnerships with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and/or the NWS was discussed. Partnering with FEMA and therefore the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen monitoring systems was a point raised several times throughout the listening session. It was suggested that USGS partner with the Centers for Disease Control to examine the public health impacts of certain biological hazards, particularly disease vectors that cross species. The possibility of partnering with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) project and/or other NSF-funded initiatives was mentioned. Lastly, working with land managers such as the National Park Service (NPS) was also suggested as a potential arena for partnering on science.

Partners for Outreach and Education

Improving education and outreach to the public was a key theme that repeatedly arose during the discussion about partnerships. Participants made several suggestions about partners for USGS to consider for assistance with spreading the hazards message. The existing Cooperative Water Program of the USGS was suggested as a starting point for enhancing existing partnerships with state and local agencies and Tribal governments to facilitate information dissemination about a new initiative. Another option, the National Institutes for Water Resources, is a network of 54 research institutes with expertise specific to each state or U.S. territory so that each institute is able to address issues specific to that geographic context. Most of the institutes have relationships with state and local agencies and in some cases are working together to solve regional problems. These institutes have significant educational components which could potentially support USGS efforts. A few participants posited developing curriculum to include in elementary education and suggested a partnership with the Department of Education to make that happen. The nation's approximately 3000 community colleges were also noted as potential partners for the initiative’s education and outreach component.

Science You Can Use -- Improving Decisions and Raising Awareness

Director Groat made it very clear throughout the listening session that USGS would like to make education and outreach a major aspect of a natural hazards initiative. While partnerships are crucial for helping disseminate information about natural hazards, the products that USGS generates also will be critical. The effectiveness of USGS efforts to connect their science with the everyday lives of people throughout the nation depends on whether the products USGS provides are relevant and truly useful to end users.

Participants agreed and stressed that USGS should provide products that inform and serve to improve local decision making about natural hazards. Of particular concern among participants were land use decisions (e.g. development, conservation, planning and zoning) as well as mitigation and response strategies for hazards likely to impact particular geographic areas.

Types of Products

If one of the general goals of a USGS natural hazards initiative would be to improve local decision making by providing useful products to decision makers, then USGS must involve local decision makers themselves in the process of figuring out what types of products would be most useful. If local-level people have the opportunity to describe a product they could use, USGS can work backward from that description to determine what science needs to be done to generate such a product. One general example offered is that communities need tools to identify potential benefits of alternative land use decisions. The discipline of geography and GIS technology could be tapped to generate understandable visual representation of hazards issues for lay people. Tools like this could be applied to zoning decisions and to develop incentives for capital improvement programs.

Suggestions of other possible entry points for determining useful products included community visioning processes and comprehensive plans. Many communities engage in visioning processes to determine their long-term plans, but in many places hazards are not on the table because they occur so infrequently. Similarly, USGS could develop scientific information that might be incorporated into community comprehensive plans. Perhaps if information on hazards were more accessible it could be incorporated better into these types of processes.

USGS could develop other products to connect with the public at large. Participants urged establishing a web-based gateway (e.g. "one-stop shop" site) to easily understandable information about natural hazards. They suggested that such a site not only provide information to the public, but include a feature where the public could report hazard events to USGS such as small earthquakes. Other suggested media options for disseminating USGS natural hazards science included easy-reference guidance and/or best practices documents, in-person conferences, audio conferences, journal articles, and establishing a phone number where the public can reach a real person to ask questions about natural hazards.

Internalizing Risk

Much of the discussion about science products during the listening session revolved around the notion that products should help raise people's awareness of the impact of human activities on the landscape and how those activities affect vulnerability to natural hazards. USGS could play a role in fostering understanding among the public of what risk is and how their choices affect the risks associated with natural hazards where they live and work. Internalization of knowledge and understanding of risk by the public will give public officials broader political support for more prudent land use decisions. Therefore USGS must not only provide useful products to local decision makers, but also raise the awareness of the general public about hazards so they will be more willing to support decisions made in the interest of reducing their risk to hazards. The use of demonstration projects and drawing on lessons from cognitive psychology about message conveyance were two suggestions for developing effective methods of communication for this purpose.

Other Valuable Ideas

USGS has an extensive infrastructure throughout the United States. Participants felt that USGS should build on those strengths and the relationships of its staff in local areas as they develop a natural hazards initiative.

Participants also made a few comments with respect to the possible development of economic incentives and/or deterrents for developers to take natural hazards into account when making plans for development in hazard-prone locations. Insurance costs drive many land use decisions, and USGS could potentially inform the process of drawing up insurance policies by developing maps that delineate risk and indicate appropriate areas for development. For example, if a developer wants to build in floodplain that is high risk, then insurance costs should clearly reflect that risk. This type of information could also be used to inform better design of structures.

Comments on USGS Core Programs

Participants noted that USGS is the world leader in science related to volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides and should strive to maintain its current level of excellence in those areas. It was also noted that USGS has perhaps the best infrastructure in the world for moving information and that this capability could be a great foundation for a new initiative. One participant encouraged USGS to continue in its leadership role on the, digital orthophotoquads, topographic maps and land cover data sets as the agency plays a crucial role in this work generating up to 80% of the data used.

A representative of the National Weather Service (NWS) read a statement explaining that USGS is a vital partner of NWS and is needed to help forecast river flows in the U.S. USGS has traditionally been a source of river flow and state observations which are critical to NWS's river forecast operations. USGS was encouraged to extend and expand its stream gage network so that monitoring coverage is improved and NWS can improve its ability to forecast floods and associated debris flows in high-risk areas around the nation.


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