A group of lawmakers is hoping the recent string of Southern California temblors will jolt Congress into funding an earthquake warning system.
The lawmakers are seeking some of the $38.3 million needed to build the system on the West Coast and the $16.1 million a year needed to operate and maintain it.
“Even a few seconds of warning before the next Big One will allow people to seek cover, automatically slow or stop trains, pause surgeries and more – and the benefits of this small investment now will be paid back many times over after the first damaging quake,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif.
But securing the funding could be difficult at a time when congressional Republicans are determined to reduce Washington’s red ink.
No California Republican signed a letter circulated by Schiff’s office asking the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee to provide $16.1 million next year for the system. The letter was signed by Democrats from California, Oregon and Washington state.
Efforts to secure money also could face resistance from lawmakers from outside California unwilling to spend money on what they view as largely a California problem.
“Even in California, we’ve been through this long period where things have been pretty quiet,'” said professor Thomas Heaton, of Caltech’s Earthquake Engineering Research Lab. “We sort of collectively forgot how this is a big problem.”
Still, the issue could become one of the first tests of California’s clout since Rep. Ken Calvert’s recent ascension to the chairmanship of the Interior Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake programs.
Calvert, a Republican, said he would consider the funding if he could be convinced the warning system works.
“I felt that earthquake as much as anybody,” he said, referring to the magnitude 5.1 La Habra quake that struck last week.
Calvert said in an interview that he wanted more information. “Sometimes we fund things, and we found out later that it doesn’t work,” he said.
William Leith, senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards at the Geological Survey, noted that the system is used in Japan and Mexico City. “This is a proven technology,” he said.
The Geological Survey and its university partners are testing a prototype system in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas; the system delivers warnings to about 75 people, including researchers and personnel in emergency management and at a few private companies, Leith said.
“The current test system is still in the development phase, and considerable additional investment must be made to create a robust and reliable operational warning system,” Leith said at a recent congressional hearing on advances in earthquake science on the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Alaska earthquake.
Deploying a full system of sensors along the West Coast is expected to take about five years. It would detect waves radiating from the epicenter of a quake and notify people through phones, radio and TV.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., recently scoffed at the relatively small amount of money spent to develop the warning system.
“We’ve spent $10 million – wow! – since 1999,” he said at the earthquake science hearing.
The White House’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year provided $850,000 for continuing research of the system.
Schiff said he can’t understand why the funding has been so hard to secure.
“You only need one really bad earthquake to have the system pay for itself,” he said in an interview. “It’s surprising that we haven’t moved more swiftly. If we wait too long, we'll certainly be kicking ourselves that we didn’t.”