In Memoriam: J. Carl Stepp, 1932—2021

Contributors: Robin McGuire, Ivan Wong, Gabriel Toro, William Lettis, Robert Kassawara

carl stepp for newsCarl Stepp was born in Loco, Oklahoma at the family farm on July 5, 1932 as the sixth child of the late Russell and Ollie Sullivan Stepp. After graduating from high school, he worked as a surveyor’s assistant for an oil exploration company in west Texas and New Mexico, working his way up to the position of Field Surveyor and conducting work in the early 1950s in Colombia, South America, and in Cuba. His interest led him to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in geology from Oklahoma State University in the late 1950s, during which time his studies were interrupted while he spent two years as a Surveyor with the US Army Corps of Engineers, stationed in Korea.

Upon graduation from Oklahoma State University in 1959, Carl received a scholarship to attend the University of Utah to study geophysics and was awarded his Master’s degree in geophysics in 1961. Carl then joined the US Coast and Geodetic Survey working in Washington DC and Boulder Colorado. He was given a year off to attend Pennsylvania State University, receiving his Ph.D. degree in Geophysics in 1973. In 1974 he accepted a leadership position with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as Chief of the Seismology and Geology Group, in Washington DC.

Carl moved to California in 1979 to join Fugro, an international engineering company that assembled 15 eminent engineering geologists and geophysicists in Long Beach and where Carl was known as “their best marketer.” Two years later he moved to San Francisco, where Carl joined Woodward Clyde Consultants. In 1982 he accepted a position to head a new seismic program at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, CA. His main focus at EPRI was on pursuing probability-based design and evaluation criteria for nuclear power plants, and he oversaw a major study on earthquake hazard for the existing fleet of US nuclear plants. Carl is remembered at EPRI as the “guiding light” for this seismic hazard evaluation, which was then used to reevaluate plant seismic safety. Carl moved to Austin, Texas in 1993, where he continued to work for EPRI for 6 months. He then retired from EPRI and formed Earthquake Hazards Solutions, his own consulting company, where he enjoyed over 25 years working with colleagues in the US and overseas, especially with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria.

Carl became a member of EERI in 1973 and had a long history of contributions to the Institute, including:

  • Serving as EERI President from 1991 - 1992
  • Serving as an EERI Board Director from 1982 - 1984
  • Election as an EERI Honorary Member in 2004
  • Lead author of a 2001 paper that won the Outstanding Earthquake Spectra Paper Award, “Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analyses for Fault Displacement and Ground Motions at Yucca Mountain, Nevada,” Earthquake Spectra, 17 (1).

Throughout his career, Carl supported seismology, geology, geophysics, and engineering studies that promoted better decisions regarding seismic design and analysis, to improve safety from earthquake risk. As an example, Carl participated in a workshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1993 that developed the mission statement of the US Strong Motion Program. He then organized a workshop in Monterey, California in 1997 that resulted in formation of the Consortium of Organizations for Strong Motion Observation (COSMOS), a non-profit consortium of organizations that expanded and modernized the acquisition and application of strong-motion data to increase public safety from earthquakes. Carl served as the initial COSMOS interim Executive Director.

Carl directed development of a probabilistic seismic hazard analysis of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, high-level nuclear waste site, the largest assessment of its kind. He also chaired the development of Pre-Closure Seismic Design Methodology for a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, and was an advocate and consultant for the Yucca Mountain seismic hazard study (3rd bullet above). He chaired the Seismic Review Panel for development of the Yucca Mountain license application and co-chaired the Participatory Peer Review Panel for the CEUS-SSC source characterization study.

The frequent phrase expressed by Carl’s colleagues was that he was a “real gentleman,” with a big heart and a great sense of humor. He loved to laugh. Those traits were undoubtedly a result of his country upbringing. His genuine interest in everyone he met resulted in tremendous respect from all who interacted with him. Carl enjoyed telling stories about his many life experiences, such as his adventures leading an oil exploration crew along the Magdalena River valley in Colombia, and when he innocently tried to bring a few fine Cuban cigars into the US after a work trip to Cuba.

During his career, Carl mentored and assisted many aspiring seismologists and geologists in the field of probabilistic seismic hazard analysis and risk assessment, taking personal interest in the career development of others. He provided invaluable insights and “common sense” recommendations in assessing the seismic hazards of a wide range of critical and important infrastructure.

Carl passed away on July 30, 2021, in Kerrville, Texas, after a brief illness. His genuine, non-confrontational approach to reaching technical solutions will be sorely missed, from both a personal and management perspective. He is survived by his wife Paulette, son Mark Stepp (Mountain View, California), son Derrill Stepp and wife Mary (Los Gatos, California), and daughter Laura Stepp (Flagstaff, Arizona).