EMForum Virtual Forum Presentation — May 25, 2011

Talking Hazards Group Discussion
Planning the Future of the USGS Natural Hazards Mission Area

Christina Neal
Geologist, Alaska Volcano Observatory
U.S. Geological Survey

Anne M. Wein, Ph. D.
Operations Research Analyst, Western Region Geographic Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following has been prepared from a transcription of the recording. The accompanying slide set (Adobe PDF) may be downloaded from http://www.emforum.org/vforum/usgs/TalkingHazards.pdf

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone and welcome once again to EMForum.org. I am Amy Sebring and will serve as your Moderator today. We are very glad you could join us. This is a group discussion today, so we encourage you to take this opportunity to provide your input.

The USGS is in the process of refining its 10-year strategy in several mission areas. The one we are focused on today of course is natural hazards. We are pleased to have two members of the USGS Science Strategy Planning Team with us today and I will introduce the in just a moment.

We will begin with an overview presentation, and then we will proceed to our discussion questions. In addition to the four major questions we previously posted, we will also include a mix of viewer polls and more specific questions to stimulate the discussion.

[Slide 1]

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today’s guests:

Christina Neal is a geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory at the Volcano Science Center in Anchorage. She is an expert on volcanic ash and aviation safety and interagency coordination during volcanic eruption response. Previously she served as the first Geoscience Advisor to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA).

Anne Wein is an Operations Research Analyst employed by the Western Region Geographic Science Center, Menlo Park CA. She has analyzed agricultural, manufacturing, computer, environmental, geologic, and economic systems from positions in industry, academia, and government. Her current activities include coordination of economic consequences for natural hazard scenarios.

Please see today’s Background Page for further information and related links.

Welcome to you both, and thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. I now turn the floor over to Anne to start us off please.


Anne Wein: Hello everyone and thanks for joining us. We are soliciting your input this morning. We have been talking to scientists within USGS. We’ve been speaking to our partners such as NOAA and it is most important that we also hear from our stakeholders, such as yourselves, in emergency management, who are the ultimate users of our information.

We are developing a science strategic plan for the next decade of the USGS and this runs into natural hazards science.

[Slide 2]

This past October our new director, Marcia McNutt, is realigning our management from a discipline based structure, such as hydrology, geology, biology, geography, into one that is major science directions and mission areas, such as ecosystems services, and natural hazards, which is what we are responsible for and speaking about today.

For each of these mission areas, we have a team of USGS scientists who are coming up with a strategic science plan for that area, and for how those areas relate to each other.

[Slide 3]

The newly established USGS Hazards Mission Area has direct responsibilities for six programs that were formerly in the geologic discipline. These include coastal and marine geology, earthquake hazards, geomagnetism, global seismographic network, landslide hazards, and volcano hazards.

In addition to the mission areas, they are also responsible for coordinating and supporting broader hazard visions of USGS, which includes activities related to floods, hurricanes and severe storms, tsunamis and wildfires. It pretty much has everything there except drought, which we are going to address in some way.

Many of these activities and these hazard areas are funded through programs in other mission areas. The mission area will take on responsibility for coordinating USGS response activities following disasters as well.

[Slide 4]

The Hazards Science Strategy Planning Team for natural hazards mission is charged with reporting to the USGS director on near and longer term science goals. When you give us feedback today, if you have bigger ideas for longer term horizons, those are also welcome.

The report that we will produce will guide future investments in USGS hazard related activities including future budget initiatives. A planning team, here on the screen, is made up of USGS scientists who study a wide range of hazards and are experts in these areas. They are drawn from across the nation. They represent a variety of specialties across multiple disciplines.

Our team is chaired by Bob Holmes, who is a USGS Flood Response Coordinator, and Lucy Jones who is Chief Scientist in the Multi Hazard Demonstration Project running in southern California. Some of you might have heard about the Shake Out earthquake scenario and the ARkStorm Scenario—these are some of the big ideas she has been leading. You can see the rest of us listed here under each of the hazard areas.

[Slide 5]

There are Hazards USGS scientists across the globe and across the U.S. We try to collaborate with several state and academic partners. We support monitoring networks, generate hazard assessments, and study the natural processes and relate to societal factors that shape the risks we face from hazardous events. The millions of people worldwide look to USGS for rapid and reliable hazard information directly or through our partners.

[Slide 6]

Not all hazards are created equal within the USGS in terms of our delegated responsibility. We have responsibility to provide notifications and warnings for geological cases such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.

For some of the other hazards, our monitoring case ability support the statutory risk responsibility for their partners—for example, for NOAA we provide information from our seismic networks. We provide stream gauge data and geomagnetic observatory information.

The USGS geospatial information supports also responses for wildfires and many other parts of disasters providing crucial coordination and remote sensing and other aspects.

[Slide 7]

The natural hazards chapter in facing tomorrow’s challenges which is the existing USGS science strategy and identifies the key components of our mission area. Here they are—advance fundamental understanding of the hazards processes, that is hardcore science, develop and support robust monitoring of communications and infrastructure—I mentioned a few with our seismic networks and stream gages—characterize hazards, assess vulnerabilities, and communicate risk.

This is where we try to translate science information into information that stakeholders can use for emergency planning—and also to improve forecasting capability for volcanic eruptions and flooding. We can’t do this alone. Partnerships are integral and understanding how stakeholders receive and use our information is essential.

We have a number of questions to start our conversation. Amy is there where you would like to start moderating or should we start going over these questions?

Amy Sebring: Let’s first take a look at the questions to remind folks of the general questions that we have and perhaps you can give us a little bit of background on each one of those questions if you don’t mind.

[Slide 8]

Ann Wein: Our first question: "For those hazards in which USGS has a role, what are the priority issues?"

We have shown you which hazards are particularly our responsibility and we’ve explained that we have more responsibility for some hazards than others. From your perspective as emergency managers, what are the biggest priority issues you see in getting your job done, which may relate back to the kind of information that USGS needs to be providing, or the format the information needs to be provided in?

Second question: "What future USGS investments in hazards science will have the greatest return?" This would depend on how you view returns. Some people will say the greatest return is saving people’s lives. It’s a very open question on what you think is important and what we should be giving out of USGS science.

Third question: "How can we improve the access and usability of its natural hazards science information to make the greatest positive societal impact?" We have some questions coming up about how we are currently using information, and why aren’t you using it, and we’d like to hear from you what would help you make use of the information—how it needs to be provided.

Fourth question: "What partnerships will be essential to inform policy and actions?" Who do you think we should be working alongside with to increase resilience to natural hazards in the nation? Who do you think we should be working alongside with to increase resilience to natural hazards in the nation?

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Anne. Now, to proceed to our discussion.


The first thing we would like to do is gather a little bit of information about who is in our audience today. I will display a series of three poll questions and you can just make your selection as we go along, then I will display the results.

Background Poll Question 1: To which sector do you belong?

  • Academic/University = 1 (5%)
  • Business/Private Sector = 2 (11%)
  • Government = 9 (52%)
  • Non-Profit = 3 (17%)
  • Other = 2 (11%)

Background Poll Question 2: Where are you located?

  • Northeast U.S. = 5 (31%)
  • Southeast U.S. = 4 (25%)
  • Midwest U.S. = 2 (12%)
  • Southwest U.S. = 2 (12%)
  • Northwest U.S. = 2 (12%)
  • Non-U.S. = 1 (6%)

Background Poll Question 3: How often do you use USGS hazard information?

  • Occasionally = 10 (66%)
  • Frequently = 3 (20%)
  • Never = 2 (13%)

Very good. Thank you. Now let’s go back to our four discussion questions. Our first discussion question is: For those hazards in which USGS has a role, what are the priority issues?

You may go ahead and respond to this question but to help you get a handle on this, we have two more poll questions.

Poll Question 1.1: What type of USGS hazard information is most important to you?

  • Volcano = 0 (0%)
  • Earthquake = 4 (26%)
  • Wildfire = 1 (6%)
  • Landslide = 0 (0%)
  • Tsunami = 0 (0%)
  • Flood = 9 (60%)
  • Coastal processes = 1 (6%)

Poll Question 1.2: What kind of USGS hazard information is most valuable to you?

  • Hazard assessments = 3 (18%)
  • Monitoring data = 1 (6%)
  • Warnings = 3 (18%)
  • Fundamental science = 0 (0%)
  • Other = 1 (6%)
  • All of the above = 8 (50%)

Amy Sebring: Tina, let’s bring you in on this. Can you give us an idea if the responses you’ve been getting are reflecting what the polls have been showing thus far?

Christina Neal: Yes, I’d say so. As "all of the above" choice indicates, there’s a wide suite of contributions USGS makes in the emergency management realm. What we’re doing in this science planning process is trying to find out which ones need attention or tweaking. It’s important to know that all those elements will continue—the assessments, the monitoring, the warnings and the fundamental science. What we’re looking to this community for is some guidance about which need attention, and in particular, what specific advances in those particular areas would help emergency managers do their jobs.

For example, how could our hazard assessments be differently presented? How could our monitoring data be differently shared? Are our warning products working well, or are there changes that need to be made? In terms of fundamental science, are there issues you think we should be focusing on? We are trying to get a handle on how to tweak our attention to each of those elements in the coming decade.

Anne Wein: I’d be interested to know what the "other" was in the poll, if that person doesn’t mind sharing that.

Amy Sebring: Whoever put in "other" please let us know what you’ve got in mind. If there is some other format that is more helpful to you, I’m sure they’d be happy to hear about it.

Kenny Ratliff: From the NLE (national level exercise) we discovered the need for real-time delivery of information to be used within our COP (common operating picture) map environment. USGS does great with paper and static electronic products. However, the data needs to be consumable within GIS environments such as REST and GeoRSS services for actionable, on-the-fly analytics. A lot is there, but not published or advertised very well.

Anne Wein: That is a great comment. Thank you.

Christina McCullough: ArcGIS Rest Services for data sharing; Floods - inundation mapping; Tornados - tornado path swath; Earthquake - Shakemap polygon; Hurricane - tracking Flash widgets with analysis capability (operational science); Inundation mapping with Report by Exception; widget GeoRSS for information sharing.

Amy Sebring: Let’s go on to Discussion Question 2: What future USGS investments in hazards science will have the greatest return?

One of the things that occurred to me on this question is obviously, all these federal agencies are facing potential budget cuts and presumably there is some concern that we will have to make do with less and get more out of it. I can see how this question is—how can we get more bang for the buck?

Again we have a related poll question.

Poll Question 2.1: To which emergency management phase is USGS hazard information relevant?

  • Mitigation = 0 (0%)
  • Preparedness = 2 (13%)
  • Response = 0 (0%)
  • Recovery = 1 (6%)
  • All of the above = 12 (80%)

Anne Wein: It’s great to see recovery get some attention there. I’d be interested on further details on that.

Amy Sebring: Let’s move on to Discussion Question 3: How can the USGS improve the access and usability of its natural hazards science information to make the greatest positive societal impact?

One of the first things our guests would like to know is if you do not use USGS information, why not? We also have a related poll question:

Poll Question 3.2: What format for USGS hazard information is most useful to you?

  • Data = 4 (26%)
  • Maps = 1 (6%)
  • GIS data = 2 (13%)
  • Reports = 2 (13%)
  • Technical assistance = 0 (0%)
  • Other = 0 (0%)
  • All of the above = 6 (40%)

Amy Sebring: What kind of technical assistance is currently available from USGS?

Anne Wein: Sometimes people call us up once there is a network in place. If you’ve worked on a collaborative project in an area, then people get to know you, and then emails and phone calls happen.

Christina Neal: From my world in volcano hazards, I think an important role as volcano hazard experts we will often work with emergency management to educate them about how volcanoes impact the built environment and people and how to prepare response plans, and what likely scenarios are and things like that.

It is basically value-add information that goes beyond our products, maps and reports. A lot of it is the one-on-one personal relationship and being at the end of the phone, or going to meetings and elaborating on hazards and potential impacts.

Amy Sebring: If there is not a formal structure, there are certainly informal channels for that.

Christina Neal: I think so far, based on some of the comments you’ve read, a really important take-away for us is the theme we have been hearing from other sectors that our information needs to be digital in such ways that people can rapidly digest it in their GIS—not just written reports and published maps, but digital layers that they can integrate into their own systems for their own analyses and responses.

Amy Sebring: We also have a number of sub-questions in this area:

Discussion question 3.3: During a hazardous event, are you finding the critical information you need from the USGS? Is it hard to find or do you have suggestions for how it might be better formatted or pushed?

Discussion question 3.4: Frequently we have heard stakeholders in the EM and situational awareness niches ask for better understanding of the 'hot spots' - in other words, where hazards are greatest and where hazardous and potentially damaging events are likely to occur. Is this something you require and are you getting this information?

Going back to that technical assistance I believe USGS has folks in all the regions, do they not? Can you tell us about regional efforts?

Christina Neal: We do have folks scattered about the country. We are now all connected via the internet. If experts are not located in your region, we can find the folks who have the expertise who can talk to you. Although we may not have resident capacity in all regions, the hazards mission area is intended to be national so we can call on people from everywhere.

One sub-message in this question that would be get to get feedback is we realize that many emergency managers also have relationships with state geological surveys that have their own hazards science component and expertise. One of the things we are trying to get a handle on is how to not duplicate that capacity, but to support that capacity. In this case, if you getting good support information from your state hazard scientists, that would be interesting to know in itself—or if you don’t have that capacity and need it from USGS.

Amy Sebring: While we wait for audience responses, I wanted to ask about the outreach mission in terms of educating either emergency managers or other related professions about what information you do have, and how to use it. Is there an ongoing effort to do that with USGS?

Anne Wein: Many things which probably have regional differences—but one thing we have been doing in southern California are scenarios where we collaborate with partners and stakeholders and we try to build the whole story together. It leads to various exercises, workshops, product development, movies, and all kinds of media are used.

In general we show up at any event, any emergency management event—we usually have a table there. We have materials to distribute at these events—a school group comes through and that sort of thing.

Amy Sebring: Let me turn that around and ask the audience—could you use some additional help in learning more about what information is there, how to access it, and how it relates to what you do?

We also have a number of related questions:

During a hazardous event, are you finding the critical information you need from the USGS? Is it hard to find or do you have suggestions for how it might be better formatted or pushed?

Frequently we have heard stakeholders in the EM and situational awareness niches ask for better understanding of the 'hot spots' - in other words, where hazards are greatest and where hazardous and potentially damaging events are likely to occur. Is this something you require and are you getting this information?

Christina McCullough: Understanding the science behind the 'hot spots' is vital for the Emergency Management environment. The information needs to be explained with simplistic terminology. We are required in turn to explain the info to our commanders. NWS has a COMET program where classes are offered on a variety of topics. Can a similar program be done with USGS?

Christina Neal: That is a great comment. We have, in the volcano world, just begun working with the COMET program to integrate some of the USGS information in their training program. That is a really good suggestion. I’m thinking a more efficient way to approach this might be to take advantage of the COMET infrastructure and add modules that focus on geo hazards. The weather folks, NOAA, seem to be willing to do that. That kind of formal training is a good suggestion.

Amy Sebring: One last poll question today...

Poll Question 3.5: Do you prefer hazard analyses by hazard or by combined multi-hazard portrayals?

  • Single hazard analysis = 5 (33%)
  • Multi-hazard analysis = 9 (60%)
  • Not sure = 1 (6%)

Anne Wein: Typically, we produce our assessments one hazard at a time—earthquakes or volcanoes or floods. It is an ongoing challenge to put multiple hazards on one map. There are two aspects to multi-hazards. One is that in an area you could be exposed to flood and earthquake hazards, for example, but any one event has multiple hazard components.

Quite often, if we run a scenario—you might run the earthquake, but you may not necessarily get the information for all the other trigger hazards associated with it, like liquefaction and natural spread, and the landslides. There are two aspects to multi-hazards—one that is within a single event, but also those which could occur within your region and be important for your planning; the interdependencies.

Amy Sebring: Now for our last discussion question: Discussion Question 4: What partnerships will be essential to inform policy and actions?

What partners do you rely on for hazard risk information including event probability and vulnerability at the federal, state, or local levels? Again you may have state geological agency or others. We do not have a multiple choice question because there are so many possibilities.

Christina Neal: Amy, if I could just elaborate a little on what I was hoping to get out of this question. We at USGS across the different hazards have different capacities and track records in doing vulnerability and risk analyses. Many of the programs stop at the end of hazard assessment—that is we assess the spatial and temporal likelihood of different damaging processes and leave it at that.

One of the things we are exploring as a group is how systematic and how much further we should across the hazards move into actual vulnerability and risk work. This is an area that parts of USGS have no experience in, and is also an area that our state partners and consulting community has more experience in across the board.

My question is getting at where you get that information. Are you already getting it? Do you think this is a place for USGS to improve its delivery?

Amy Sebring: You are talking about relating the natural hazard itself to the exposure and vulnerability. I know this is part of mitigation planning and local hazard analysis. It is typically required.

Christina Neal: What I’m asking is this a critical role for USGS, or are there other folks suited to do this? Looking at the exposure and vulnerability of a certain community to volcano or earthquake hazards and getting into the specific economic and social analyses—what do folks think of that role and niche as something USGS should pursue?

Christina McCullough: I rely on my USGS Liaisons, Brenda Jones (USGS), Silver Jackets, NWS, Local involvement and Volunteer pool.

Kenny Ratliff: Our KYEM works with the Kentucky Geological Survey for studies around things like liquefaction of soils as related to vulnerabilities/mitigation. There are some other agencies such as KY Division of Water for DFIRMS/inundation info, as well as others specific to KY.


[Slide 9]

Amy Sebring: Here is an email address that you can use to submit further comments at [email protected]. Also, I am going to show a USGS Web Page where you can use an online form for the same purpose. http://www.usgs.gov/start_with_science/ Just click on "Natural Hazards" to launch the feedback form. These links are available from our background page also.

Amy Sebring: As far as the input that you are taking right now, is there a timeframe for that or is it ongoing? What are the next steps?

Anne Wein: This is probably going to be one of the last listening sessions that we hold. We’re getting seriously into writing now.

Christina Neal: A draft report is due to our senior management at the end of July. We have just a short time for additional public comment and input. We really consider the emergency management community one of our primary stakeholders that we are trying to serve well. We value your input. If there are colleagues of yours who weren’t able to be here today that you think might have some good input, please beat the bushes for us.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Anne and Tina. We o appreciate your taking the time to be with us today and we hope the feedback will be useful to you. On behalf of all of us, we appreciate what you do and how important it is to our work.

Our next program will take place Wednesday, June 8th. Please watch for our announcement and plan to be with us then. Until then, thanks to everyone for participating today and have a great afternoon. We are adjourned.