Trump wants to slash funding for the West Coast’s earthquake warning system

By Gary Walker

ShakeAlert, which tracks seismic “P waves” that travel faster than damaging “S waves,” could warn Los Angeles up to a minute ahead of shaking from a major quake on the San Andreas Fault

The Trump administration is playing politics with people’s lives by threatening to slash federal funding for the West Coast’s earthquake warning system before its initial public rollout, local leaders say.

With current funding levels, the U.S. Geological Service’s nascent ShakeAlert system could begin functioning in a limited capacity before the end of the year. ShakeAlert uses a network of ground sensors to track seismic “P waves,” which travel like sound waves ahead of the larger-amplitude “S waves” that cause damage during a quake, in order to predict the occurrence and intensity of a quake several seconds before shaking begins. A similar system warned Mexico City residents 30 seconds ahead of a Feb. 16 quake.

“An effective earthquake early warning system would save lives. With that extra time, Californians could have critical moments to take cover and brace themselves for an earthquake. In those valuable seconds, conductors can slow down trains, doctors can pause surgeries, drivers can stop their cars, and people can take the necessary steps to protect themselves. This could be a matter of life or death,” reads a statement by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a vocal Trump critic who represents Westside neighborhoods.

Trump’s proposed budget would cut $10.2 million earmarked for the earthquake warning system and 15 workers who operate the program. Last year Congress blocked a similar request, and Lieu pledges that he and other West Coast representatives will fight for it again, initially by lobbying members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Funding a ShakeAlert rollout similar to child abduction Amber Alerts “will significantly contribute to the resilience of the citizens in California, Oregon and Washington during an earthquake,” said USGS scientist Robert de Groot, who is based at Caltech.

“Ten or $15 million is a very small investment for a very large payoff,” he said.

In January the California Geological Survey released revised fault zone maps that show the Santa Monica Fault — capable of producing a magnitude 7 quake — stretching along Santa Monica Boulevard from Beverley Hills to Santa Monica, then jutting up to Pacific Palisades.

“The bottom line is that the early detection system is a critical tool in ensuring our citizens, workforce and visitors can take the necessary steps to protect themselves in the event of an earthquake. Minutes and seconds of notice can absolutely save lives,” said Santa Monica City Hall spokeswoman Constance Farrell.

“Essentially it buys us extra time to make sure everyone can try to get to a safe place,” said Jill Barnes, head of LAUSD’s emergency services unit, who hopes to deploy ShakeAlert throughout the district.

Josh Bashioum, founder of the Santa Monica startup Early Warning Labs, has been working with the USGS to develop an app that would broadcast ShakeAlert warnings from users’ smartphones.

He plans to roll out a beta test this summer, but isn’t worried that budget posturing will destroy the program, which has received additional funding from state agencies, universities and foundations.

“The federal dollars are very important to us. It would be good to have that funding. But the program has always been underfunded, so that’s why it’s not of tremendous concern for us. The system has always been funded by a variety of sources,” Bashioum said.