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Amid heightened attention on alarming Pacific Northwest disaster scenarios, the White House has been touting the promise of an earthquake early-warning system that's under development. But there's a lot more work to do to prepare.
SEATTLE — The Pacific Northwest’s next megaquake originating from the Cascadia Subduction Zone , whenever it happens, is likely to be the United States’ most destructive and disruptive natural disaster to date. That’s pretty much unavoidable when you’re dealing with a magnitude 9.0 earthquake scenario.
A future Cascadia megaquake could strike tomorrow or it could be decades away.
If the latter is the case, that offers a bit of good news. Why?
“There’s a lot that can get done in 50 years.”
That’s what award-winning Seattle Times science journalist Sandi Doughton said during a discussion last month at the University of Washington Libraries in Seattle. Doughton, who has been writing about earthquakes for two decades, is one of the region’s authorities on seismic risks and the efforts to prepare and respond by state and local governments.
Before the next large-scale rupture along the Pacific Northwest’s offshore subduction zone, a geologic boundary where the Juan du Fuca tectonic plate dives under the North American continent, there’s a roadmap for improved preparedness.
Residents and businesses can establish emergency plans, first responder communities can be trained and retrained, intergovernmental stakeholders can figure out ways to better coordinate their response.
Vulnerable buildings and infrastructure can be strengthened or rebuilt. State and local governments can set higher seismic standards and improve their resiliency efforts, not just to protect important transportation infrastructure but also water, sewer and energy-distribution systems, along with digital and communications networks.
It’s just a matter of having the political will, Doughton said, to make earthquake resiliency a top priority. And amid the terrifying Cascadia earthquake disaster scenarios, there’s a bit more political muscle to help mitigate the impacts and improve disaster response capabilities.
On Tuesday, the White House hosted an Earthquake Resilience Summit in conjunction with the release of an executive order mandating higher seismic standards for federal buildings and renewed calls for additional appropriations to fully fund an earthquake early-warning system for West Coast states that’s currently under development .
“There’s no reason why we can’t do this,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at the White House summit, referring to the earthquake early-warning technology, which is already in use in quake-prone countries like Japan, Mexico, Romania and Turkey.
“This isn’t a pipe dream,” Richard Allen, the director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Seismology Laboratory , said at the White House summit. “This is a technology that exists.”
Unfortunately, the United States has been lagging in seismic preparations and resiliency, especially compared to Japan.
So the attention from the White House is certainly welcome, especially in the emergency management and seismology communities, because when it comes to earthquake resiliency, U.S. government response isn’t usually proactive in nature.
As the Seismo Blog at the UC-Berkeley Seismology Lab wrote last week :
Politically, this is an unusual move indeed. When we look at the history of earthquakes in this country, we find that politicians and administrations mostly act retroactively: Only after a big temblor has caused major damage, are funds made available to strengthen buildings and structures, educate the public about earthquake risks, improve seismic networks or upgrade earthquake research facilities. In contrast, Tuesday's gathering is a proactive step.
It took an attention-grabbing article in The New Yorker last summer to make the risk of a Cascadia megaquake a higher priority for the White House, according to recent reporting by Doughton .
In that article, “ The Really Big One ,” Kathryn Schultz painted a doom-and-gloom portrait of the region’s severe seismic risk, level of preparedness and long-term recovery from a future magnitude 9.0 megaquake event along the entirety of the Cascadia Subduction Zone .
Doughton said during the University of Washington discussion that with the risk from the next regional megaquake or other large seismic events, “it’s important to be straight with people” and when the risks are fully understood, that can “galvanize collective action.”
The New Yorker article served as an important reminder about earthquake preparedness. Sales of earthquake survival kits spiked after its publication as did public discussion about the risk.
Schultz’s article covered much of the same ground that Doughton did in her book, “ Full Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake Pacific Northwest ,” which detailed fascinating stories of the region’s paleoseismology and the woeful levels of preparedness for the next megaquake.
While memory of previous catastrophic quakes were preserved in Native American stories , the region has never experienced such a massive seismic event since the United States’ 19th century territorial expansion. But the geologic record shows that a full rupture along the Cascadia Subduction Zone happens every few centuries, with slightly smaller events along the southern portion of the subduction zone along the Oregon coast.
The Cascadia’s last full rupture was in 1700, generating a massive earthquake with a magnitude somewhere around 9.0. It sent a massive tsunami crashing in the North American coast and across the Pacific Ocean to Japan.
The subduction zone earthquakes that happen off the Pacific Northwest coastline driven by the same types of tectonics that generated the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
When the next such event happens, the Pacific Northwest’s coast will experience the most intense shaking and destruction from the tsunami. But the heavily populated inland corridor along Interstate 5—which includes Vancouver in British Columbia, Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region in Washington state and Portland, Oregon—will experience significant shaking for four or five minutes.
Upwards of 10,000 people will be killed—many of those will be on the Washington and Oregon coasts—older buildings, especially those constructed with unreinforced brick and masonry construction, will collapse. Low-lying coastal towns will be inundated and many places wiped off the map. Important infrastructure will be destroyed or damaged, including port facilities in Seattle and Tacoma, which will disrupt regional economic activity.
Public services, including electricity, water and sewage will take many months, if not years, to repair and restore, as detailed in Doughton’s book and Schultz’s article.
One of the best tools help limit the loss of life, injuries and destruction will be the earthquake early-warning system, once it is fully built out and widely available to the public.
“Earthquake early-warning is well on its way to protecting lives and property along the West Coast,” University of Washington seismologist John Vidale, who is the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network , said at Tuesday’s White House event. New research grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Puget Sound Gas were announced on Tuesday, plus additional partnerships with Pacific Gas and Electric, Intel Corp. and Amazon Catalyst.
The warning system works because the most destructive earthquake waves travel more slowly than the speed of digital communication. So when a sensor network detects the initial, less destructive seismic waves, it can quickly relay alerts to recipients farther away, estimating the severity of the shaking and time of arrival.
Such early-warning systems are widely used in Japan and Mexico City, where residents are accustomed to getting warnings on their smartphones and over loudspeakers of incoming seismic waves from quakes originating along the Pacific coast, hundreds of miles away.
In the case of the U.S. West Coast, cities like Seattle and Portland could have several minutes of warning before destructive seismic waves from the next Cascadia megaquake strike. For a future quake along the southern San Andreas Fault, the early warning system could give Los Angeles up to a minute warning of the incoming seismic waves.
The closer an alert recipient is to a quake’s epicenter, the less time there is to take action.
But even a few seconds can be enough time for people to get under a sturdy table, slow trains to speeds where they are less likely to derail in a quake, send elevators to the nearest floor and open the doors, turn off gas lines and halt hospital surgeries in operation rooms.
The early-warning technology, called ShakeAlert , has been under development by leading West Coast universities, including Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, where the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network is located.
A recent magnitude 4.8 quake near Victoria, British Columbia—the largest in the Pacific Northwest since the 2001 magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake near Olympia, Washington, demonstrated the effectiveness of the technology .
In August 2014, the ShakeAlert system successfully sent advance warning of magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Napa County, California, to user testers in the San Francisco area, including the Bay Area Rapid Transit system .
Since that quake struck overnight, BART trains were not running passenger service, but if that same Napa County quake hit during operating hours, the system would have received 10 seconds warning, enough time to slow faster-moving trains or stop slower-moving trains.
“When it is fully functional, it will put preparedness within everyone’s reach,” Jewell said on Tuesday, noting that the alerts will be relayed to smartphones by an array of apps.
But first, a built-out ShakeAlert system for the West Coast needs more federal appropriations. That’s a first step on the road to being far better prepared for the next quake. (Jewell said she’d like to see the network expanded to include other states that face major earthquake risk, like Alaska and Nevada.)
That technology can’t predict quakes, but when precious seconds count to take decisive action that could mean the difference between life and death, earthquake early-warning will be a life-saving technology when fully accessible to the public. Soon enough, the public will have that available as an emergency preparedness tool, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to get ready for the next big quake.
The White House’s fact sheet on the Obama Administration’s steps to increase the nation’s earthquake resiliency follows:
The Obama Administration remains committed to improving the resilience of our communities, States, and the Nation to important hazards, such as earthquakes. A 2015 scientific assessment from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that more than 143 million Americans in the continental United States could experience potentially damaging earthquakes. This estimate is nearly double the previous 2006 estimate because populations have grown in earthquake-prone areas and there are now better methods for estimating earthquake risks. Improving warning systems, better building protections, and informed citizens can help mitigate losses, injuries, and deaths, and also can help communities recover faster.
Today, the White House is hosting an Earthquake Resilience Summit to highlight how a whole-community approach—including scientists, engineers, public officials, nonprofit entities, and private companies—is the best approach for improving resilience to earthquakes and other hazards; and to explore how science and technology can improve our ability to detect and respond to earthquakes in the future.
At the summit, the Administration and stakeholders will announce new commitments toward a future with greater earthquake safety based on next-generation approaches to earthquake-resilient building and warning technologies, including:
Executive Order for Enhanced Seismic Safety
President Obama today signed an Executive Order: Establishing a Federal Earthquake Risk Management Standard , which will improve the capability of federal buildings to function after an earthquake, reducing risks to people, lowering post-quake recovery costs, and making it easier for communities to recover swiftly. The Executive Order requires that Federal agencies responsible for the design and construction of a new building, or an alteration to an existing building, ensure that the building is constructed or altered using the earthquake-resistant design provisions in the most current building codes. The latest building codes, which encompass the current understanding of the earthquake hazard potential, are one of the best ways to achieve earthquake safety and preserve the lives of the people who live in a building. This Executive Order will also help ensure that federal assets are available to support recovery efforts.
Federal Actions to Advance Earthquake Early Warning
- On February 1, 2016, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) , along with partners from state government, universities, and private foundations deployed a beta operational phase of ShakeAlert , the West Coast earthquake early warning test system. This next-generation production prototype will allow beta users to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions based on the USGS ShakeAlert warnings in areas with sufficient station coverage.
- USGS and the United States Forest Service are announcing that they have begun working together to explore streamlined and expedited permitting for siting of seismic monitoring stations with an initial emphasis on sites important for earthquake early warning and other locations supporting life and safety.
- The independent Federal Communications Commission recently issued one set of new proposed rules, which is out for public comment, and another, released January 28, 2016, which is not yet out for comment, that pertain to earthquake early warning and other next-generation warning systems. The proposed rules would:
- facilitate the delivery of narrowly geo-targeted alerts, such that warnings can be targeted to receivers’ locations and everyone in a location can receive a warning;
- reduce alert delivery delays throughout the IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) and other alerting systems;
- integrate Emergency Alert System tests, including actual alert signals and text, into community public safety exercises;
- ensure that alerts will be consistent across different technology platforms, including those that use the internet; and
- facilitate community feedback to alerts using 911 and social media so that alert initiators can know that the alerts are effective and allow them to efficiently direct resources to areas in need.
State and Local Commitments to Advance Earthquake Early Warning
- State of Oregon: Governor Kate Brown is committed to increasing Oregon’s seismic readiness. Having just hired a State Resilience Officer, the Governor is directing the officer to prominently feature earthquake early warning in the state resilience planning efforts as the officer’s first order of business. Oregon also took a significant step in 2015 by acquiring 15 seismometers for nearly $700,000. The Governor wants the State to build on that investment in collaboration with universities and other stakeholders interested in saving lives and capacity through early warning. A crucial component of Oregon’s effort is the integration of a robust public-education program giving businesses, schools, critical facilities, and the public actionable information on how to respond to earthquake alerts.
- The City of Eugene, Oregon: The City of Eugene, Oregon, will host public forums to further explain earthquake preparedness, answer questions the community may have, and empower the community with knowledge and resources.
- The Eugene Water and Electric Board : Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) and the University of Oregon will place four earthquake early warning sensors on EWEB property, which will contribute to the Pacific Seismic Northwest Network, a USGS facility maintained by the University of Washington and the University of Oregon. The sensors will improve the coverage and reliability of the Pacific Seismic Northwest Network.
- State of Washington: Today, Governor Jay Inslee is announcing commitments that the State of Washington is making in earthquake and tsunami preparedness and resilience, in order to protect lives and speed the recovery of communities in the aftermath of a large-scale seismic event. Washington has experienced approximately 15 major destructive earthquakes in the last 150 years, and its proximity to the Cascadia Subduction Zone—a major fault line off the Pacific Coast of North America—presents the dangers of significant earthquakes and tsunamis in the region. The new commitments include seismic improvements for state building standards; investing $4.6 million to map, identify, and better anticipate geologic hazards; and a tsunami safe haven project that will open in June 2016 at Ocosta Elementary School in Westport, Washington.
Additional Commitments to Advance Earthquake Early Warning
- The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is announcing $3.6 million in grants to advance the ShakeAlert system. The funding to California Institute of Technology; University of California, Berkeley; University of Washington; and the U.S. Geological Survey supports the research behind the technology to detect earthquakes, determine likely magnitude, and provide a warning before shaking begins, potentially saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars in damage. This new funding will take advantage of the particular strengths of each research group to advance three important areas of early warning:
- UC Berkeley scientists will pursue a novel plan to detect the shaking caused by earthquakes, harnessing the same sensors used in smart phones to count your daily steps;
- Caltech scientists will work to develop a humanlike decision-making process to gather information from seismic networks to issue prompt and reliable alerts; and
- University of Washington scientists will study implementation of a network of sensors on the ocean floor to provide early warning for earthquakes from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the largest threat for a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest.
- Puget Sound Energy is announcing a $100,000 grant to the University of Washington Pacific Northwest Seismic Network for the purchase of eight strong-motion seismometers that will be installed throughout Washington during the next four years. These modern, low-delay instruments will significantly improve earthquake early warning capability.
- Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has recently agreed to join the ShakeAlert beta system and is beginning to work with UC Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory to identify potential applications. This will allow both automated and human actions in the seconds before an earthquake, which will protect lives, lessen property damage and ensure rapid service restoration. PG&E values the potential for early earthquake warnings for their customers and employees. PG&E will continue its participation in the test phase and system build out for California and the West Coast.
- Intel Corporation has committed to help lead an effort to ensure private sector businesses play an appropriate role in building and sustaining the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning. Initial meetings are being held this week.As Oregon’s largest private sector employer and largest capital investor, Intel designs and builds its latest generations of microprocessors and other computing innovations at four major campuses in the Portland Metro area. Intel views ShakeAlert as a key part of its Crisis Management program, and has pledged to lead efforts to bring the high-technology community to the table to support it. The business impacts from a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake would be extreme. Having advance notice of an event will allow Intel and other private sector companies to safely react to an earthquake before it occurs, saving millions of dollars per hour in potential downtime. Businesses such as Intel will be able to advise staff to take protective actions, such as Drop, Cover and Hold, as well as automatically shut down elevators and production. Intel’s leadership role will catalyze their suppliers and customers, as well as other businesses, to support the ShakeAlert system.
Amazon Catalyst is announcing a research grant to the University of Washington to integrate GPS capabilities into the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network in order to better discriminate the size of large earthquakes, a problem that current earthquake warning systems cannot solve well.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty, founding co-editor of DCist and previously worked at Roll Call, The Washington Post’s Express, The New York Observer’s Politicker, Washington City Paper, The Huffington Post. In 2002, he served as a communications consultant with the Federal Transit Administration on a national emergency preparedness program that aimed to bring transit, intergovernmental, emergency management and first responder agencies.
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