Tuesday, August 22, 2017

State takes major step toward quake preparedness

The following editorial appeared in The Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.
According to at least one estimate, more than 143 million Americans across 39 states live in areas of significant seismic risk.
Seeing as how we live in the Pacific Northwest, this is pertinent to our interests. So, too, is an announcement that the U.S. Geological Survey has awarded $4.9 million toward development of an earthquake warning system known as ShakeAlert. The money will support a two-year cooperative agreement with several universities along the West Coast — including the University of Washington and Central Washington University.
The money represents a wise expenditure as a form of preventive medicine. As EurekeAlert.org explained in announcing the award: “An earthquake early warning system can give people a precious few seconds to stop what they are doing and take protective actions before the severe shaking waves from an earthquake arrive.”
Once it is fully developed, ShakeAlert can provide almost real-time warnings that an earthquake is taking place. Using hundreds of seismic stations, it can quickly detect the size and location of a temblor and decide whether to send out an alert. The U.S. Geological Survey has been working on the system for more than a decade. “This is just a small step along the way, one of many milestones,” Doug Given of the USGS said about the boost in funding.
The dangers of earthquakes along the West Coast are well-documented. In addition to a history of temblors throughout the region, scientists believe that a major quake is inevitable; a 2015 article by Kathryn Schulz of The New Yorker painted a post-apocalyptic portrait of “The Big One” along the West Coast, saying that federal estimates point to 13,000 fatalities and more than 1 million people requiring shelter. Kenneth Murphy of the Federal Emergency Management System was quoted as saying, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” The possibility of a major quake calls for vast upgrades to buildings, roads and bridges throughout the Northwest.
While development of an early warning system cannot mitigate the devastation of a major quake that might or might not arrive during our lifetimes, it can help prepare the area for the small earthquakes that are a certainty. Equally important, it could lead to the advancement of technology that one day could help predict a large quake.
In a proposed budget earlier this year, President Trump recommended halting funding for a warning system. Congressional members — including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground — rallied to express bipartisan support for the system, recognizing that it presents an efficient, low-cost method for saving lives. In addition, an effective warning system could eventually lead to gas lines and the electrical grid automatically shutting down, limiting the collateral damage caused by a quake. A bill moved forward by the House Appropriations Committee included $10.2 million in funding for ShakeAlert.
While the money represents a relatively minor expenditure, it is an important acknowledgement of the need to fund infrastructure and technological development. As University of Washington professor John Vidale said: “Earthquakes pose tremendous risk to our communities. ShakeAlert’s benefits are clear: It will save lives and reduce the costs of major earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest.”
Nothing known to humans can prevent earthquakes. But the ShakeAlert system represents one way to become better prepared for them.

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