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Image: ShakeAlert earthquake simulation
A simulation shows the kind of alert that would be generated by an 8.0 quake. (PNSN via YouTube)

The Trump administration wants to eliminate federal support for the West Coast’s ShakeAlert earthquake warning system, but its backers in Congress won’t let it go without a fight.

“Defunding the earthquake early warning system isn’t just irresponsible – it’s dangerous,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., told GeekWire in an emailed statement.

“This is about giving people a warning of an earthquake or a tsunami.  A few precious seconds of warning can be the difference between life and death for a child in a school on the coast or a physician doing surgery in a local hospital,” Kilmer said. “This cut to public safety is just plain wrong, so we’re going to fight for a budget that doesn’t put people at risk.”

ShakeAlert was pioneered in California, but in April the monitoring and alert system was extended to Oregon and Washington state, where seismologists say there’s the potential for a catastrophic magnitude-9 quake nicknamed the Really Big One.

The system relies on the fact that different types of seismic waves travel at different speeds: By picking up on the fast-traveling P-waves, ShakeAlert can provide as much as two minutes of advance warning that more damaging S-waves are on their way.

Practically speaking, the warning time is more likely to be on the order of a few seconds. Nevertheless, that’s enough time for utilities to shut off valves, for rail carriers to stop trains, and for businesses to take other steps to minimize the potential damage.

Bothell, Wash.-based RH2 Engineering is working with water providers and other municipal utilities to integrate ShakeAlert into disaster preparedness systems, as part of the current pilot program. Other entities, ranging from Bay Area Rapid Transit in California to the Eugene Water and Electric Board in Oregon, have signed on as well.

The system isn’t yet available to the general public. Vidale said the ShakeAlert team still has to work through the challenges of developing a fast-acting smartphone app as well as teaching the public to interpret the alerts sensibly (rather than flying into a panic).

“If we have full funding, we think in a year we could provide alert signals,” he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey has said it would cost $38.3 million to build out the system for reliable public alerts, and another $16.1 million per year to operate and maintain it. But the White House’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, starting in September, calls for cutting off USGS funding for ShakeAlert.

University of Washington seismologist John Vidale. director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, said losing that funding would almost certainly kill the ShakeAlert program, which is being conducted in collaboration with the UW and other West Coast universities.

“The universities would probably back away,” Vidale told GeekWire.

He said the seismic sensor network is about half-completed, and about half of the anticipated 45-person staff has been hired. However, because of the current limits on federal hiring, he said he hasn’t gotten the go-ahead to add eight or nine staffers who are waiting to join the team.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal cuts back on other seismic monitoring programs in Alaska and the central and eastern United States, and suspends the expansion of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s buoy-based tsunami monitoring network.

Seismic warning systems such as ShakeAlert have attracted strong support from Washington state’s members of Congress, including both senators as well as Kilmer and Suzan DelBene, all Democrats.

“Instead of making smart investments that help grow the economy and protect our communities, President Trump’s budget would eliminate vital funding for earthquake warning systems, like ShakeAlert,” DelBene told GeekWire in an emailed statement. “This is just one of the many examples of how his budget is as irresponsible as it is dangerous.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who represents a quake-prone region of Southern California, rates as one of the system’s most outspoken advocates.

“We cannot stop now, just as monitoring stations are being built out and the system is expanding its reach,” Schiff said in a statement. “Support for the early warning system in Congress is sustained, growing and bipartisan, and we will not accept this attempt by the president to cut a vital funding stream for a program that will protect life, property and critical infrastructure.”

The program is likely to languish in limbo until Congress hammers out a budget. “We’re fairly optimistic that Congress will put the money back in, and we’ll go on as before,” Vidale said.

He pointed out that economic losses from strong earthquakes would easily dwarf the $16 million annual operating cost of the ShakeAlert program. For example, one study estimated the loss caused by 1994’s magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake in Southern California at more than $41 billion. And the Really Big One would be much worse, in terms of lives lost as well as the economic toll.

“You could make the case that ShakeAlert will be cost-effective in the long run,” Vidale said.

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