Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

25th Anniversary of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program

Thank you, Dr. Slyves. Good morning to you all. It gives me great pleasure to speak to you on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

We are here today to celebrate the contributions of NEHRP (nee-herp) in reducing our nation's vulnerability to major earthquakes. As the director of one of the four primary federal agencies that comprise NEHRP, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the entire earthquake community and our three partners: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead agency; the National Science Foundation; and the U.S. Geological Survey.

NEHRP has been an extraordinary, and often exemplary, collaboration among federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector. During its first 25 years, NEHRP has contributed in very significant ways to reduce our nation's vulnerability to earthquakes and NIST is proud to have been a part of that record of accomplishment.

Earthquakes are among the most frightening and devastating natural disasters. They strike virtually without warning, last only seconds, but can leave death and destruction in their wake.

Seventy-five million Americans in 39 states face significant risk from earthquakes. Annually in the United States, earthquake losses amount to about $4 billion a year, while a single earthquake has a loss potential of $100 billion or more.

For example, the 1971 San Fernando earthquake in California killed 65 people and caused $500 million in damage.It was this earthquake that led Congress to establish the NEHRP in 1977 to "reduce the risks of life and property from future earthquakes in the United States through the establishment and maintenance of an effective earthquake hazards reduction program."

Today, earthquakes can inflict staggering economic losses. The 1994 Northridge earthquake caused losses in excess of $40 billion, with $15 billion in insured property losses alone.

NIST was a natural part of the NEHRP program because of our long-time role in providing measurements, standards, and technology to help federal, state, and local agencies and the private sector protect our country and its citizens from natural as well as manmade threats. As part of NEHRP, NIST took on three assignments:

  • First, to develop seismic design and construction standards for consideration and subsequent adoption in federal construction, and encourage the adoption of improved seismic provisions in state and local building codes;
  • Second, to assist and cooperate with federal, state and local agencies; research and professional organizations; model code groups and others that are involved in developing, testing, and improving seismic design and construction provisions to be incorporated into local codes, standards, and practices; and
  • Third, to conduct research on performance criteria and supporting measurement technology for earthquake resistant construction.

Through laboratory based problem-focused R&D, post-earthquake investigations, and leadership of the Interagency Committee on Seismic Safety in Construction, NIST has made important contributions to earthquake safety over the years. Examples include our work on:

  • bridge column reinforcing requirements,
  • seismic safety of new and existing federal buildings,
  • rehabilitation of welded steel moment frame connections,
  • test methods for passive and active seismic energy absorption systems, and
  • precast concrete frames.

Our work with industry and others on precast concrete frames is illustrative.

While construction with precast concrete frames has not been extensive in high seismic regions of the United States, it has enormous benefits in construction speed and quality control.

In 1987, NIST initiated research to develop a precast beam-to-column connection that was economical, easy to construct, and capable of resisting earthquake loads. A few years later, Pankow Builders, a California general contracting firm specializing in quake-resistant construction, provided funding through the American Concrete Institute (ACI) to further develop the concept. Close collaboration between NIST, Pankow, and the University of Washington resulted in a hybrid connection that combined the use of low strength reinforcing steel for energy absorption with high-strength pre-stressing steel.

Tests at NIST and on a 5-story precast building at the University of California at San Diego demonstrated that the concept worked.

Subsequently, the system received approval of a code evaluation service, the American Concrete Institute issued standards, and the International Building Code has adopted provisions that allow use of this system.

Recently, Pankow Builders used the hybrid connection to build a $128-million, 39-story building in San Francisco. Completed in June 2001, it is the tallest concrete frame building in an earthquake-prone region. Several other structures using the hybrid connection have been built, are underway, or on the drawing board.

We are very proud of our collaboration with Pankow Builders, the University of Washington and others and are gratified that this design innovation and the contributions of its developers have been widely recognized. This work has received numerous awards, most recently the Harry H. Edwards Industry Advancement Award of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute.

Tragically, we learn many lessons following an earthquake about what type of design and construction works and what does not.

Our researchers have traveled not only to earthquake sites in the United States, but also to those in places around the world including Japan, Romania, Mexico, Armenia, and - most recently -- Turkey.

Our goal is to investigate and document building performance and the adequacy of codes and practices as well as to identify research needed to mitigate the impact of future earthquakes.

Just as we strive for better ways to improve the performance of construction during an earthquake, NIST and its three NEHRP partners are continually looking for better ways to carry out our mission.

Early in 2001, a NEHRP Strategic Plan was approved by each of the four participating agencies. This plan, developed in partnership with stakeholders, has identified the emergence of a technology transfer gap that limits the adaptation of basic research knowledge into practice. The plan recommends a much-expanded problem-focused research and guidelines development effort:

  • to develop future design, construction, evaluation, and upgrade guidelines and standards of practice, and
  • to facilitate the development of new mitigation technologies.

It further recommends that NIST, in partnership with FEMA and other NEHRP agencies, should develop a coordinated plan to support this effort.

NIST looks forward to working with its NEHRP agency partners and with industry, academia, and the broader stakeholder community to address this gap.

As a first step, NIST requested the Applied Technology Council, a non-profit corporation to advance engineering applications for natural hazard mitigation, in July of 2002 to convene a workshop of national leaders in earthquake design, practice, regulation, and construction.

The purpose of the meeting was to assess the state of knowledge and practice and to suggest a roadmap to address the gap between basic research and practice.

Nearing completion, the roadmap identifies industry priorities in two areas:

  • support for the seismic code development process through technical assistance and development of the technical basis for performance standards; and
  • improved seismic design productivity through the development of tools and guidance and evaluation of advanced technologies and practices.

NIST now looks forward to working with the stakeholder community to explore ways to best meet those needs via a public-private partnership. We expect this effort will build on NSF-funded basic academic research, including that conducted as part of the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) Consortium.

We all know that technology has played a key role in reducing the hazards of earthquakes. As the director of the largest U.S. government laboratory with "technology" in its name, I am proud to say that a strong technology base is playing a key role in helping safeguard our nation from the hazards of terrorism and also improving our nation's economic growth and global competitiveness.

I am not the only one with that belief. President Bush and the entire Administration, including the Department of Commerce are committed to strengthening American leadership in science and technology and hastening the flow of new knowledge, new capabilities, and new products. Commerce Secretary Don Evans said, "President Bush recognizes how important technology is, has been, and will be to our nation's long-term economic and national security and prosperity."

I would like to take just a few minutes to talk about NIST's role in homeland security as well as our work in some high tech areas that will have a broad impact on our nation's economy and ability to compete. For more than 100 years, the Nation has relied upon NIST for scientific and technical expertise, not only to enhance our national security, but also to promote economic growth, commerce, and trade.

NIST has a long history of responding to national needs. In times of war or other national emergencies, NIST scientists and engineers have stepped forward with a vast array of expertise and knowledge in areas as diverse as radio transmission and forensic DNA typing.

In the 1930s, NIST forensic experts used their two decades of experience solving crimes to help establish the FBI's laboratory. During World War II, NIST provided technical advice on everything from the atom bomb to the paper used in war maps.

Today, NIST is playing a key role in enhancing the nation's ability to prevent and respond to terrorism. Through approximately 120 ongoing and newly initiated research and standards development projects, NIST is helping law enforcement, the military, emergency services, information technology, airport and building security, and other areas protect the American public from terrorist threats.

Much like it is in earthquake hazard reduction, an essential tool in responding to extreme events in general is a solidly built and protected infrastructure. NIST is contributing to this goal on a number of fronts aimed at strengthening the safety and security of buildings and the physical infrastructure.

For example, NIST has launched a $16 million, 24-month federal building and fire safety investigation of the World Trade Center disaster. The study of World Trade Center Buildings 1 and 2 - commonly called the Twin Towers - and World Trade Center Building 7 will focus on the building construction, the materials used, and all of the technical conditions that contributed to the outcome of the World Trade Center disaster.

Like most of NIST's work, this project will be a partnership with many organizations and world-class experts. The broader NIST Response Plan to the World Trade Center disaster has three main elements:

  • A building and fire safety investigation into the probable technical causes of the World Trade Center disaster;
  • A concurrent, multi-year R&D program to provide the technical basis for improved building and fire codes, standards, and practices; and
  • An industry-led program to disseminate practical guidance and tools to help the building and construction industry - including facility owners, contractors, and designers - as well as emergency responders and regulatory authorities better respond to future disasters.

As part of the investigation phase we are examining:

  • Why and how the World Trade Center buildings collapsed following the aircrafts' impacts;
  • Why the number of injuries and fatalities were so low or high depending on location, including all technical aspects of fire protection, occupant behavior, evacuation, and emergency response;
  • What procedures and practices were used in the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the World Trade Center buildings; and
  • Which building and fire codes, standards, and practices warrant revision and are still in use.

From this three-pronged response plan we expect to learn — and pass on — many, many lessons in several different areas, including structural fire protection, life safety, and engineering practice.

Congress last week appropriated an increase of three million dollars to support NIST's World Trade Center response plan in FY 2003. This funding will allow us to begin addressing key R&D and dissemination and technical assistance issues with active participation of the private sector.

The President's 2004 budget request, released just a few weeks ago, includes an additional increase of four million dollars to support the World Trade Center response plan.

These broader R&D and dissemination efforts will focus on using the results of the World Trade Center investigation to develop cost-effective solutions to improve the safety of existing and future buildings against extreme events such as fires, attacks, and natural disasters, including earthquakes.

Our work on fire safety design and retrofit of structures and on mitigation of progressive structural collapse are illustrative of the many spin-off benefits from our response to the World Trade Center disaster.

For example, last July, NIST sponsored a workshop to develop a national R&D plan to provide the basis for national codes and standards for design to mitigate progressive collapse. The proceedings of the workshop, attended by nearly 70 industry leaders, are in the process of being finalized and will become available in the near future. Dr. Shyam Sunder will share additional details of this work with you later this afternoon.

These NIST efforts also will help provide a better understanding of how emergency responders and building occupants behave in a crisis - and to use the lessons learned to help occupants survive future disasters and enable emergency responders to do their jobs more safely and effectively.

We expect to engage leaders of the construction and building community in the implementation of proposed changes to practices, standards, and codes. Guidance and practices based on this study will be disseminated broadly to standards and code-developing organizations and to state and local agencies.

We believe the resulting code reforms will further protect property and save lives as well as provide better emergency response capabilities and procedures in future disasters.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, Congress and the White House has given NIST the authority to investigate major building failures in the United States, including those caused by earthquakes.

The National Construction Safety Team Act gives NIST authority to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours following a major building disaster. We are developing agreements for future investigations with other federal agencies, including our NEHRP partners, and with the private-sector so that we can quickly and effectively deploy investigation teams and so that we can share the results of those investigations and related research.

I've talked about a number of different challenges our nation is facing - including protecting American citizens and property from natural disasters like earthquakes as well as from terrorism and revitalizing our economy through leading-edge technology.

We will succeed in overcoming all of these challenges only by combining our talents, expertise, and energy, as we are doing through NEHRP. America's strength is our passion for individualism and freedom; America's greatness is our ability to work together to overcome all obstacles.

As we look to the future, I believe NEHRP will continue to play a critical role by making the performance of our buildings and lifelines highly measurable and predictable. This measurement and prediction ability will provide the critical foundation upon which to achieve specified levels of performance and seismic risk reduction via workable and practicable solutions. Our nation will be safer and more secure for it.

We at NIST look forward to contributing our part to address the challenges that lie ahead.

Thank you.

Created October 7, 2009, Updated October 22, 2016