In the past 150 years, Washington has experienced 15 major earthquakes, and scientists say it is just a matter of time before the next one strikes.
To get ready, President Barack Obama’s budget proposal includes $8 million to help bring an early earthquake warning system online.
It is an idea that has strong backing from many members of the state congressional delegation, who argue that people would be much safer if they could download a mobile app on their smartphones and get a warning before the shaking begins.
“It could happen now. It could happen 100 years from now. Who knows?” said state Democratic Rep. Adam Smith. “But there’s no question, just like the Southeast is at risk of hurricanes and the Midwest is at risk of tornadoes, we are unquestionably at risk of earthquakes and should do all we can to be prepared for it.”
The Obama administration is advancing the plan, hosting the first-ever White House summit on earthquake resilience last week and highlighting the plan again this week in the president’s budget for 2017.
While the warning system has been in the works since 2005, the heightened concern comes after The New Yorker magazine attracted national attention in July by publishing a story titled “The Really Big One.”
The story quoted a Federal Emergency Management Agency director who said the government’s assumption was “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast” if a large earthquake and tsunami hit the Pacific Northwest in a worst-case scenario.
“It was not bedtime reading. ... I represent an area that would be underwater if the really big one hit, and we’d see a tremendous loss of life and extraordinary devastation,” said state Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, a featured speaker at the earthquake summit.
Kilmer, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said that even a few seconds of warning could make a big difference.
“Just imagine what that means to a longshoreman at the Port of Tacoma moving heavy containers or a surgeon in a hospital in Tacoma. Just having some time can save lives,” he said.
Scientists at the University of Washington are working on the project, studying how a network of sensors on the ocean floor could provide early warnings for earthquakes from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the place off the Northwest coast where two of the Earth’s plates collide, posing the largest threat for catastrophic earthquakes in the region.
Others involved in research on the “ShakeAlert” system include the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Oregon and the U.S. Geological Survey.
In pitching the plan, the White House said Japan, China, Turkey and Mexico already had early warning systems in place and the U.S. should keep pace.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a Seattle native who owns a home west of I-5, said Congress should approve the president’s plan and make “21st century tools available to all Americans in harm’s way.” The White House said more than 143 million Americans in the continental United States could experience a potentially damaging earthquake.
In a statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state was a leader in earthquake preparedness and that it was proud to join with the Obama administration on the project.
“Being prepared makes all the difference between lives lost and lives saved,” he said.
Kilmer and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said they’d try to include the money for the warning system as the 2017 budget moves through Congress this year. They joined forces to get $8 million for the project in the 2016 omnibus spending bill approved in December.
Overall, the system is expected to cost $38 million for the West Coast, with another $16 million per year for operating and maintenance once it’s up and running.
While the plan has plenty of support among lawmakers in Washington state, California and Oregon, Smith said it could still be a tough sell to other members of Congress.
“Yeah, I think people are more focused on tornadoes and the hurricanes,” he said. “But we have to really make them aware that this is a very real danger for us here on the West Coast.”