America is not prepared for the next big earthquake

DENNIS RICHARDSON, Oregon’s secretary of state, brought his children up to be ready. “When a crisis arises, the time for preparation has passed,” he would tell them. Today Mr Richardson worries his state is less prepared than it should be. There is a 10% chance that in the next 30 years an earthquake between 8.0 and 9.0 in magnitude will rupture the Cascadia subduction zone that runs along the coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. If the quake hit, it would trigger a tsunami that could raze coastal houses and infrastructure.

On January 25th Mr Richardson’s office published a report describing how vulnerable the state is to a Cascadia quake. To begin with, it points out that the building which houses Oregon’s emergency co-ordination centre has not been retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. It estimates that a big tremor combined with a tsunami could claim 10,000 lives and cost $32bn in damage and lost output in Oregon alone. Calculations made in 2013 suggest that it would take between one and three years to restore drinking water and sewerage in coastal areas. The wreckage left behind would be enough to fill 1m refuse trucks.

The Pacific north-west is not the only region with a problem. The United States Geological Survey (USGS), a scientific agency of the federal government, says there is a 99.7% chance that California will suffer a quake larger than magnitude 6.7 in the next 30 years. The Southern San Andreas Fault line, which runs close to Los Angeles, is the most likely place for a large quake. The Los Angeles metropolitan area has taken steps to brace itself for shaking. In 2015 the city council passed a law requiring around 13,500 apartment buildings to be retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. It gave the owners of wood-framed apartment buildings seven years to reinforce them, while the owners of concrete structures got 25. In 2017 Santa Monica and West Hollywood, two municipalities next to Los Angeles, also adopted mandatory retrofit measures. Implementing the laws will not be straightforward. Property owners have to find a way to meet the costs upfront, which range from $60,000 to $130,00 for wood buildings to millions of dollars for concrete towers.

There is one glaring way in which Los Angeles, the west coast and America as a whole lag behind other quake-prone nations: it has no early-warning system. Mexico, Japan, Turkey, Romania, China, Italy, and Taiwan all boast systems to warn residents of imminent earthquakes. In Mexico, alerts allowed residents to rush out of buildings that were likely to collapse, and to seek cover, before an 8.2-magnitude quake shook the country’s southern coast in September 2017. In Japan, every resident with a mobile phone receives a text message warning of imminent quakes. Even a few seconds’ notice can mean “a doctor taking his scalpel out of a patient, a dentist removing his drill and manufacturers shutting off equipment that leads to fires or spills”, says Lucy Jones, a seismologist.

Later this year, after 12 years of research and development, Shake Alert, an earthquake early-warning system designed eventually to work up and down America’s west coast, will be turned on. But at least for now it will only be available on a limited basis. Douglas Given, the earthquake early-warning co-ordinator at USGS, says about half the necessary stations have been completed. USGS has said it will cost $38.3m to complete the system and $16m a year to operate it.

“Virtually everybody who hears about it says ‘Gee! That seems awfully cheap, why don’t we just do it?’” Mr Given adds. But securing even that much funding has been difficult. The budget proposed by the president last summer sought to eliminate all federal money for Shake Alert. A congressional committee later blocked the cuts, allowing construction to continue. California’s budget for the next fiscal year proposes contributing $15m to the system, but more financing is needed. “Unlike in Japan, where earthquakes are a national priority, in America earthquakes are viewed as a west-coast problem,” laments Mr Given. Adam Schiff, a congressman from the Los Angeles area who has pushed for the alert system, agrees. “Were we to have a devastating earthquake in California tomorrow,” he muses, “there would be the will for relief efforts. But we shouldn’t wait for that.”

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