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House panel backs earthquake early warning system, defying Trump’s plan to kill it

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), speaking on June 8, said California is counting on the federal government to make an earthquake early warning system operational.

With bipartisan support, a congressional panel voted Wednesday to keep funding a West Coast earthquake early warning system that could have been shut down under President Trump’s proposed budget.

A House of Representatives subcommittee said that the U.S. Geological Survey program should be allowed to continue and receive the same $10.2 million the network received in the last budget.

The system is expected to begin limited public operation by next year if the network continues to receive stable funding.

The House appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of the Interior, which includes the USGS, and the Environmental Protection Agency, approved the proposal on a voice vote Wednesday.

After Wednesday’s vote by the 11-member subcommittee, the budget proposal still will need to be voted on by the full House Appropriations Committee, which is expected to be taken up next week. Eventually, the full House of Representatives and Senate must also sign off on the legislation before it can be sent to President Trump’s desk. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), chairman of the subcommittee, said Tuesday he has been a big supporter of the earthquake early warning system and was the architect behind the decision to allocate $10.2 million to the system in the last budget year.

Congressional funding for earthquake early warning

  • 2015: $5 million
  • 2016: $8.2 million
  • 2017: $10.2 million
  • 2018 (proposed Wednesday): $10.2 million

“I was the one that put it in the first place,” Calvert said. “We have made too much progress on the earthquake warning system to stop now. And it’s certainly important to my state.”

Calvert said the funding has backing from both parties. He said he would oppose any effort to cut the program as the budget bill moves through Congress.

“We’ve got good momentum on the legislative side. We plan to keep it in, and I want to make sure that nothing puts a stop to it,” Calvert said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said Calvert “deserves a great deal of credit” for protecting the system and the deal represents “a rare sign of bipartisanship in Washington.”

“This investment has the potential to save lives,” Schiff said in an earlier statement. “In rebuffing the president’s request to eliminate funding for the system, Congress is showing its strong support for the system will not wane.”

Overall, the House appropriations subcommittee penciled in $1 billion for the USGS — $46 million below what the agency received in the last budget. The Trump administration called for a $137.8-million cut.

Further details about the USGS budget are expected to be made public when the full Appropriations Committee is set to hold a vote.

The text of an earthquake early warning, received on an iPhone in Tokyo in 2014. The Japanese text says: "This is an earthquake early warning. An earthquake occurred off the Fukushima coast, prepare for strong tremors." Shaking arrived after the alert sounded on the phone.
The text of an earthquake early warning, received on an iPhone in Tokyo in 2014. The Japanese text says: "This is an earthquake early warning. An earthquake occurred off the Fukushima coast, prepare for strong tremors." Shaking arrived after the alert sounded on the phone. (Rong-Gong Lin II / Los Angeles Times)

Under development for years

A seismic early warning system for the West Coast has been under development for years by the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation’s lead earthquake monitoring agency. President Trump’s budget would have ended the system before it launched. Officials were looking for “sensible and rational reductions and making hard choices to reach a balanced budget by 2027,” according to the administration’s proposal.

But the proposal to end the funding raised bipartisan complaints across the West Coast. Twenty-eight lawmakers in the California Legislature, including leaders from both parties, urged Calvert to protect the earthquake early warning system. Members of Congress from Southern California to the Canadian border say the system is crucial to public safety.

Already, technology is being designed to allow early warnings to cause elevators to open at the next floor, sparing occupants from being trapped; alert surgeons to remove scalpels from patients; and halt the flow of natural gas through major pipelines, preventing catastrophic fires.

“We always wanted to make sure that it’s the real thing; we don’t want to have any false alarms. So we’ve gone a long ways now, which we now think it’s to the point where it’s a functional system and it will work,” Calvert said.

The system works on a simple principle: The shaking from an earthquake travels at the speed of sound through rock — slower than the speed of today’s communications systems. That means it would take more than a minute for, say, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that starts at the Salton Sea to shake up Los Angeles, 150 miles away, traveling on the state’s longest fault, the San Andreas.

Watch an earthquake early warning pop up on a computer screen before shaking from a magnitude 9 earthquake arrives in Japan

Metro has started to use early warnings

Countries around the world have implemented earthquake early warning systems, such as Mexico and Japan. During the 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake in Japan, viewers in Tokyo watching an NHK television channel that blared the early warning had more than a minute of notice before the strongest shaking arrived.

At 39 seconds into this NHK television broadcast of a Japanese parliamentary hearing, an automated earthquake early warning pops up. More than a minute later, heavy shaking arrives at the NHK TV studios in Tokyo.

Along the West Coast, facilities of all types are already testing the earthquake early warning system, including airports, hospitals, oil refineries, pipelines, schools and universities.

In Los Angeles County, Metro rail drivers are now trained to stop trains when they hear word of an earthquake early warning from the control center. Slowing and stopping subway cars and light rail trains reduces the threat of derailment.

Limited public rollout of early warning system expected by next year

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said by the end of 2018, there would be a deployment of “an earthquake early warning system to every corner of this city — in schools, at businesses, even on your smartphone. It will give you a head start when an earthquake is coming — precious seconds that save lives.”

Experts have said it would make sense for officials to begin a limited public rollout of the early warning system in Los Angeles. Along the West Coast, Southern California has the densest network of seismic sensors needed to operate it.

Japan earthquake early warning on TV in 2016.

The system needs $38.3 million to be fully built out and $16.5 million a year to be operated and maintained across the West Coast, according to estimates.

The federal government has already invested $23 million in the system; California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown last year approved $10 million. Los Angeles has also directed money for the installation of seismic sensors in Southern California.

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