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Democrats ask Obama to fund earthquake early warning system

Democrats ask Obama to fund earthquake early warning system

A woman eyees a red-tagged home near downtown Napa after a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in August 2014. An early alert system gave a 10-second warning before the quake hit.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Thirty-six members of Congress from Western states asked President Obama on Wednesday for $16.1 million to complete an earthquake early warning system being developed by scientists in Southern California and along the West Coast.

Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) led the members in a letter to Obama asking him to include the funding in the U.S. Geological Survey’s fiscal 2017 budget.

“Bottom line is, we want to get this done before we have a major quake. We don’t want to be kicking ourselves afterward because we could have saved lives and a lot of property if we had been able to get people some advance notice of the earthquake,” Schiff said.

Only Democrats signed the letter, including 27 of the 39 Democrats in the California delegation. Staff for Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said they weren’t asked to sign the letter. Schiff’s office said the letter was offered to all members of Congress.

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The funds would continue research that the USGS already is doing with Caltech, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the University of Oregon. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) network has put the system in place to slow down trains when the warning is triggered to lower the chances of a derailment.

“Even with just seconds of warning before shaking begins, automated steps can be taken to prevent casualties and mitigate destruction, including slowing or stopping trains; turning off oil and natural gas pipelines; shutting down large manufacturing equipment; stopping elevators and opening their doors; and securing sensitive computer data,” the letter states.

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The early warning system has been in development since 2006. Congress already has approved $10 million to begin rolling it out.

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In 2014, the system gave a 10-second warning before a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit Napa. Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles began testing the system last week.

A recent study by a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge calculated a 99.9% chance of a large earthquake in the Los Angeles area in the next three years. The USGS has questioned that conclusion.

“Regardless if you accept the conclusions of that report, it’s undeniable: We are going to have a massive earthquake, it is just a question of when and whether we’ll be ready,” Schiff said. “I think it’s really negligent of us not to move forward.”

Kilmer said in a statement the members want the warning system to be a top priority.

“We need an updated and operational earthquake early warning system to serve as eyes and ears and give folks more time if a large quake strikes,” he said.

Schiff said it’s expected to cost around another $38 million to finish building the system and about $16 million annually to run and maintain it.

Schiff said West Coast states that would benefit from the warning system need to help foot the bill.

“This can’t be a federal government-only effort. The primary beneficiaries are going to be the Western states. They really need to step up to the plate and make their own investments as well,” Schiff said. 

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