People cannot prevent earthquakes, but they can take steps to minimize the deaths and damage. Many more might have died in Mexico City this week had the country not invested in an early warning system that rang alarms just before the catastrophic earthquake struck. The United States, which has been slow to finish a similar system on the West Coast, can learn from Mexico’s example.
Scientists say that one of the most important things countries can do, besides improving building standards, is to install a system of sensors and computers that detects and analyzes tremors and issues warnings. Thanks to modern software and telecommunications, such systems can alert people to an earthquake seconds or minutes before the shaking starts, depending on where they are in relation to the epicenter — those further away get a longer heads-up. The warnings, which can be issued through sirens or text messages, may give people just enough time to move away from windows, drop to the ground and take cover. And they allow officials to halt trains, shut off valves in chemical plants, halt delicate medical procedures and take other protective actions.
The United States Geological Survey is building a warning system called ShakeAlert for California, Oregon and Washington. A prototype is up and running. But Congress has not appropriated the money to finish it. Officials say just 40 percent of the necessary field stations have been built so far. The Geological Survey says that it would cost $38 million to finish the system and $16 million a year to operate it. Congress appropriated just $10.2 million in the current fiscal year. (California and private foundations have also contributed money to the project over the years.)Continue reading the main story
Worse still, President Trump’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which is inhospitable to a broad range of science-based projects, proposed eliminating the program entirely. This makes no sense, particularly when you consider that the annual federal budget is about $4 trillion and that the price tag of just one F-35 fighter jet is nearly $100 million. The United States can afford to spend a few million dollars to provide earthquake warnings to states that are home to 50 million people, or nearly one in six Americans.
The program appears to be safe from the ax, at least for now. A House Appropriations subcommittee voted this summer to continue funding in 2018. But if Congress were truly doing its job, it would increase investment in disaster preparedness, as other countries have done. Mexico installed its system after a devastating earthquake in 1985 killed about 10,000 people. Japan began building one in the 1960s for its Shinkansen bullet trains. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, that system was expanded nationally, and officials started issuing public alerts in 2007. Several other countries, including China, Taiwan and Turkey, have warning systems with varying degrees of sophistication.
Most people have a hard time understanding and preparing for rare but catastrophic events, and politicians are no exception. After all, it has been more than 100 years since the great San Francisco earthquake killed an estimated 3,000 people and destroyed much of the city. But the subsequent 1989 earthquake illustrates that the threat remains. The country needs protection against what many on the West Coast nervously refer to as “the big one.”