Bipartisan, Bicameral Group Introduces Bill to Protect Communities from Landslides

Legislation Will Improve Science and Coordination Needed to Help Communities Prepare for and Respond to Natural Hazards

March 22, 2017

Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Representative Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.-01), Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced bipartisan legislation to help local communities prepare for and respond to landslides and other natural hazards.

The legislation, titled the National Landslide Preparedness Act, will help protect communities and property, save lives and improve emergency preparedness and planning by targeting key gaps in current science and mapping critical to understanding landslide hazards and risks.

According to the USGS and National Research Council, landslide hazards claim 25-50 lives each year and cause between $1.6 and $3.2 billion in damages in the United States. Globally, landslides cause tens of billions of dollars in damages and thousands of deaths and injuries each year.

“In 2014, we saw how devastating landslides can be with the Oso landslide in Washington state, tragically claiming 43 lives and causing millions of dollars in damages. This bill will help communities prepare and respond to landslides and other natural hazards, which is critical to protecting lives and keeping communities and infrastructure safe,” Sen. Cantwell said.

“In the wake of the tragic Oso landslide, we learned many lessons, including that lawmakers need to do more to ensure we fund resources and research efforts to prevent future natural disasters from becoming national tragedies,” Rep. DelBene said. “Every state in the country faces some amount of landslide risk. Substantial work needs to be done to gain better knowledge of landslides and their potential impacts in order to reduce losses of life and property. It is time that landslide hazards are addressed properly and in a collaborative fashion. Our bill will boost significant scientific progress and help communities better prepare for when landslides do occur.”

"The 2015 landslide in Sitka, which tragically claimed three lives and caused millions of dollars in damage, is just one example of the many natural hazards that Alaskans face on a daily basis," Sen. Murkowski said. "I'm hopeful that this bill will help reduce landslide hazard risks and will speed up the collection of IfSAR data for the state to better prepare and protect our communities moving forward."

“No community should have to experience the heartbreak and devastation of what the families of Oso, Washington, went through in 2014, especially when we have the technology to better map and defend against landslide risks,” Sen. Murray said. “I’m proud to support this legislation so we can better equip communities with the resources they need to save lives, protect property and prevent tragedy.”

“The recent storms in California left us with dangerous landslides that threatened lives, destroyed homes and damaged our roads and infrastructure,” Sen. Feinstein said. “Our bill creates a better system for mapping, assessing and improving emergency responses to landslides, mudslides and flash floods. Early detection of these traumatic events will make our communities safer and ultimately save lives.”

Specifically, the legislation would establish a National Landslide Hazards Reduction Program through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to better identify and understand landslide risks, protect communities, save lives and property, and help improve emergency preparedness.

In addition, the bill would also direct the USGS to implement a 3D Elevation Program to update and coordinate the collection of elevation data across the country, using enhanced, high-resolution data. Enhanced elevation data are critical for numerous reasons—to help communities plan for and respond to natural hazards; to update the nation’s topographical maps; and to inform a myriad of uses including public safety, national security, planning, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture and natural resource management.

High-resolution elevation data has been collected for only about a quarter of the United States. Much of the country relies on data collected more than 30 years ago using older techniques that do not provide the same resolution and benefits. An ongoing federal-state partnership has collected such data for about three-quarters of Alaska—an accomplishment that is an example for the rest of the country. According to an assessment conducted in partnership with the USGS, the creation of a nationwide program, as outlined in this bill, has the potential to generate $1.2 billion to $13 billion annually in new benefits.

On March 22, 2014, a massive landslide near Oso, Washington killed 43 people, engulfed 42 homes, and severely damaged public infrastructure and private property. This tragedy highlighted the need to close the gaps in science and mapping needed to better understand and prepare for landslide hazards. This bill establishes a program to address these needs and help keep communities safe.

Sen. Cantwell has pushed for improving landslide preparedness and improving the information, technology and coordination needed to better protect communities from such natural disasters. During a committee hearing last year, Sen. Cantwell called for improving natural disaster science and preparedness and for adequate funding for the research needed to better understand risks, including funding for the collection of enhanced LiDAR (light detection and ranging) elevation data, “Better understanding these hazards, their impacts and potential to help save lives and protect property is important,” Sen. Cantwell said.