In-Depth: Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to help local communities prepare for and respond to landslides and other natural hazards by targeting key gaps in current science and mapping that are critical to understanding landslide hazards and risks. This bill was originally drafted in the aftermath of a massive landslide near Oso, Washington on March 22, 2014, that killed 43 people, engulfed 42 homes and severely damaged public infrastructure and private property. Rep. DelBene cited that disaster when she reintroduced this bill:
“I remember vividly the horrors of that tragic scene near Oso which took 43 precious lives and left countless families and a community shattered. This legislation is born out of that experience and would help our region and others around the country be better prepared for the possibility of a landslide. With a commitment to using state-of-the-art technology to target vulnerable terrain, we can take important steps toward saving lives all across the country.”
In a separate statement, Rep. DelBene noted that the Pacific Northwest — where her home region of Washington is located — has been “hit incredibly hard” by landslides. She argued that this bill is needed to make sure tragedies like Oso don’t happen again. Additionally, she noted that this bill could help coordinate work being done at the federal and state levels to everyone’s benefit.
Original House cosponsor Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) adds:
“What happened in Oso was a tragedy that no community should have to experience. I’m proud to cosponsor this legislation to ensure communities in our region -- and around the nation -- are better prepared to mitigate the risks of hazardous landslides. These investments will support efforts to identify risks, protect key infrastructure, and give our communities the critical time and resources they need to save lives and prevent future tragedy.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who is sponsoring this bill’s Senate companion, also cited the Oso landslide when she introduced the Senate bill:
“Five years ago, we saw how devastating landslides can be, when the Oso landslide tragically killed 43 people and caused millions of dollars in damage. This bill will help keep communities and infrastructure safe by improving preparedness for landslides and other natural hazards.”
The American Geophysical Union (AGU) expressed its support for this bill last Congress. In a letter to Rep. DelBene, the AGU’s CEO and Executive Director, Christine McEntee, wrote:
“As an organization whose mission is to promote discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity, AGU applauds the bill’s overall goals of identifying landslide hazards, increasing preparedness, and reducing losses. Events such as the 2014 landslide in Oso, Washington, which resulted in the deaths of 43 people and destroyed 42 homes, highlight the critical need for further research and mitigation of landslide hazards. AGU also very much supports the Act’s commitment to research, especially the development of priorities for identifying, mapping, and assessing landslide hazards and the creation of a national database that can aid scientists and others in their work. Many of our members are very actively involved in related research, and I am sure they would want to be of service to these efforts as the bill progresses. I feel confident that the National Landslide Preparedness Act will not only protect many lives, but also help reduce the effects landslides have on health, safety, the economy, and the environment.”
This bill unanimously passed the House Natural Resources Committee with the support of five Democratic House cosponsors. Its Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), has five bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including three Republicans and two Democrats.
Last Congress, the House version of this bill passed the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology with the support of 11 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 10 Democrats and one Republican. Its Senate companion bill had four bipartisan cosponsors, including three Democrats and one Republican, and didn’t receive a committee vote.
Of Note: The USGS established a Landslides Hazard Program in the seventies to monitor potential landslide risks and produce landslide hazard maps through a dedicated research program. The program continues to operate today, but the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) reports that current funding levels are insufficient for the program to harness new technologies that could substantially improve its maps. In Alaska, an ongoing federal-state partnership has collected high-resolution imagery for about 75% of the state, and some lawmakers — including Rep. DelBene — see the Alaska model as an example for the rest of the U.S. According to an assessment conducted by the USGS and partners, a nationwide high-resolution elevation data mapping program could generate $1.2-13 billion in annual new benefits.
Landslide-prone states, such as Washington and Arizona, have invested in their own landslide research and monitoring programs. In Arizona, the Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS) works closely with the Arizona Dept. of Emergency Management & Military Affairs to manage the Arizona Statewide Landslide Inventory Database (AzSLID), comprising over 8,000 landscape features compile from AZGS, the USGS, and others, as well as landslides identified via Google Earth’s aerial imagery. In Washington, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has mapped and analyzed data about the landscape in the upper half of the state and requested more money from the state legislature for the coming years.
According to the USGS and National Research Council, landslide hazards claim 25-50 lives each year and cause $1.6-3.2 billion in damages each year in the U.S.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / gece33)