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Image: Earthquake simulation
A computer simulation shows how a tsunami wave is thought to have spread across the Pacific two and a half hours after a magnitude-9.2 earthquake that occurred in the Cascadia subduction zone in the year 1700. (Credit: NOAA / NWS / Pacific Tsunami Warning Center)

A public-private campaign to improve America’s resilience to future earthquakes, like the “Really Big One” that’s expected to hit the Pacific Northwest someday, received a multimillion-dollar boost today.

The new initiatives are aimed at minimizing the multibillion-dollar impact of large-scale seismic shocks: They range from a White House drive to upgrade federal facilities throughout the country, to a $100,000 grant from Puget Sound Energy Foundation to install seismometers throughout Washington state.

“We do need to make sure, for the next ‘Big One,’ no matter what it is … that a natural phenomenon doesn’t become a human tragedy,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who grew up in Seattle, said during today’s webcast of the White House Earthquake Resilience Summit.

White House science adviser John Holdren noted that more than 74 million Americans in 39 states are at risk from the effects of seismic shaking. However, three-quarters of the risk is concentrated on the West Coast, primarily in California, Washington and Oregon, he said.

Californians are familiar with the quake risk, thanks to temblors ranging from San Francisco’s “Big One” in 1906 to the 2014 South Napa earthquake. The Pacific Northwest risk came into the spotlight last July when The New Yorker published a scary article about the potential for a mega-quake in the Cascadia subduction zone.

Earthquake experts say there’s a 7 to 14 percent chance that the Cascadia fault could set off a catastrophic magnitude-8 to 9 quake sometime in the next 50 years.

Referring to the New Yorker article, Jewell said her house in Seattle was “in that part of land west of I-5 that could be ‘toast.'” (She said the house was built to withstand a 9.0 quake, but admitted that “I may need a higher-designed house based on some of the materials that have come out.”)

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., was also on hand for the summit. “I represent an area that would be underwater if the Really Big One hit, and we would see tremendous loss of life and extraordinary devastation,” he said.

In conjunction with the summit, President Barack Obama signed an executive order stating that all new or renovated federal buildings should incorporate the earthquake-resistant design provisions laid out in current building codes.

The White House also unveiled more than a dozen actions to move ahead with an earthquake early-warning system for the West Coast, known as ShakeAlert. Such a system has been in the works for years, modeled on similar efforts being implemented in Japan, China, Mexico and elsewhere.

“When it’s fully functional, it will put preparedness within everybody’s reach,” Jewell said.

The ShakeAlert effort is spearheaded by the U.S. Geological Survey and a plethora of partners, including the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

ShakeAlert is designed to pick up the early seismic signs of a major earthquake, analyze them, and then distribute warnings via smartphones and computers, TV and radio. Depending on the quake’s strength and the location of the epicenter, the system could provide seconds or minutes of advance warning.

Experts say even a 20-second alert would provide enough time for affected residents to take cover, for trains and elevators to be stopped safely, and for vital infrastructure systems to be protected.

In December, an omnibus spending bill provided $8.2 million to push ShakeAlert along, and the White House said the system went into beta testing this week. But millions of dollars more are required for full implementation. “We are halfway there,” said John Vidale, a UW seismologist who heads the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Here are some of the actions that were announced today with the aim of upgrading the system and improving earthquake resilience on the West Coast:

  • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is providing $3.6 million in grants to the UW and two other universities involved in the ShakeAlert consortium. UW scientists will look into using a network of sensors on the Pacific Ocean floor to watch for signs of a Cascadia quake. Berkeley researchers will work on a plan to use smartphone motion sensors as seismic detectors. And Caltech scientists will develop an automated system that uses a humanlike decision-making process to issue rapid seismic alerts.
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the state will spend $4.6 million to identify and anticipate geological hazards. He also called for seismic improvements in state building standards, and called attention to the tsunami safe haven project that’s due to open in June at Ocosta Elementary School in Westport.
  • Puget Sound Energy Foundation is providing a $100,000 grant to PNSN for the purchase of eight strong-motion seismometers that will be installed throughout Washington State over the next four years.
  • Amazon Catalyst is making a research grant to the UW to integrate GPS capabilities into the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service are working together on a plan to expedite the installation of seismic monitoring stations.
  • The Federal Communications Commission is working on new rules to streamline the delivery of seismic alerts – and facilitate community feedback from such alerts.
  • In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown, the city of Eugene, the Eugene Water and Electric Board and Intel Corp. have pledged to support deployment of the ShakeAlert system.
  • In California, Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to join the ShakeAlert beta system and work with Berkeley to identify potential applications.
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