White House rallies public, private efforts to prepare for devastating earthquakes

WASHINGTON -- Spurred by renewed fears of the fabled "Big One" shattering the West Coast, the Obama administration Tuesday promoted stronger earthquake-preparedness efforts as part of a first-of-its-kind White House summit.

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.

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-Calif., 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.

Using the additional foundation grant funding, University of California, Berkeley, scientists will monitor earth-shaking using the same technology that smartphones use to count exercise steps, while University of Washington experts will experiment with sensors on the Pacific Ocean floor.

California's Pacific Gas & Electric has recently joined the ShakeAlert system now undergoing beta testing, while executives with the giant chip maker Intel Corp. committed this week to working with other companies to play a role in developing the early warning network.

All told, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates it will cost $38.3 million in capital funding to complete the ShakeAlert system on the West Coast to the point of issuing public alerts and $16.1 million each year to operate and maintain it.

"We cannot predict the time of the next earthquake," said USGS seismologist Lucy Jones, who has served as a science adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "However, we can tell you what will happen."

Congress could play a greater role if lawmakers choose.

One bill introduced last year by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., would require a federal plan for installing an earthquake early warning system for the Cascadia subduction zone. A separate bill by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would fortify warnings against tsunamis, the hugely destructive wave surges triggered by earthquakes.

So far, neither bill has advanced.

Congress has already established the multiagency National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, but it has not updated the authorization since 2004.