White House rallies public, private efforts to prepare for devastating earthquakes
Private foundation grants will fund new research at universities in California and Washington state, the Forest Service will streamline the placement of seismic monitoring stations and a presidential order will tighten standards for new federal buildings.
“While no one can predict earthquakes, the study of natural hazards and their causes and impacts has put us on the path to creating more effective tools to prevent these hazards from becoming disasters,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.
Dubbed the “Earthquake Resiliency Summit,” the program convened some of the nation’s leading seismologists, as well as executives from public agencies ranging from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
Timely warnings of an earthquake could provide several seconds, and in some cases up to a minute or two, before the arrival of damaging shaking. U.S. Geological Survey Director Suzette Kimball
For several hours, the participants swapped information in a live-streamed format that exemplified the use of the bully pulpit to urge further state, private and congressional action.
“We have the real opportunity to mitigate damage and save lives if we act now on an early warning system,” said summit participant Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, adding that “the federal government cannot, and will not, fund the system in its entirety.”
Coincident with the summit, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced $3.6 million in grants to advance the so-called ShakeAlert system that’s being developed on the West Coast. The system has been sending live seismic alerts to test users since January 2012.
In theory, early warnings of even a few seconds could help slow trains, shut pipelines, alert first responders, reroute power and protect public safety in other ways during an emergency that experts consider inevitable.
California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone under the Pacific Ocean, a catastrophe whose consequences were vividly portrayed in a 2015 New Yorker article that captured officials’ attention.
This week, the USGS announced that there were 14,588 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or greater throughout the world in 2015. California alone had hundreds of earthquakes in just the last week, though many were small and not felt by people, a USGS database shows.
“When you have earthquake early warning, and better buildings, you have better preparedness,” said former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Alice Hill, now senior adviser for preparedness and resilience at the National Security Council.