The Little Program that Could — If Funded

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The House Science Committee was quick to take notice of the tragedy that took place in Oklahoma and responded by calling a hearing on less than a week’s notice to review federal efforts to reduce the impacts of windstorms. In addition to the tornado outbreak, the hearing focused on a small government program, the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program or NWIRP. Created with the support of ASCE in 2004, the multi-agency program is designed to coordinate the wind hazards research and mitigation efforts of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The general consensus of the members of the Science Committee and the witnesses  was the program could have a major impact in reducing the loss, both terms of human life and economic, from sever windstorms. None of the members of the Committee present, nor any of the three witnesses, opposed the program. However, since its creation in 2004, there has been no appropriated funding for the program and in September of 2009 authorization for the program expired.

Efforts to reauthorize NWIRP and its larger, more established, better funded sister program, the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), have been ongoing since 2009. Spanning five years and three Congresses, we are once again facing an uphill battle to reauthorize the two programs and, in the case of NWIRP, fund a program that everyone seems to support.

The question seems to be, why? This is the kind of program Congress used to routinely reauthorize on schedule. However, the program, like many others, has become a victim of competing priorities, and a more partisan Congress. There is a long list of reason these two programs have not been reauthorized, most having nothing to do with their merits. The simple fact is, the Federal government annually spends billions on disaster relief, and seemingly baulks at spending millions in an effort to reduce the need to spend the billions.

Meanwhile, as efforts get underway to rebuild in More, Oklahoma, if recent history is any indication, it will be rebuilt to the same building codes which existed before the recent tornado, just as was done in 1999 and 2003, with just as predictable of results.  As David Prevatt, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, stated during the hearing, “this is not that complicated, windstorms are possibly the only natural disasters whose impact on humans could be mostly resolved by proper research.”

A full webcast of the hearing is available here.

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