Blaring sirens from a public warning system for incoming earthquakes in Mexico City may have helped save lives this month but the U.S. West Coast lacks a similar system and funding has been a challenge.
President Donald Trump didn't provide funding for the seismic warning system known as ShakeAlert in his 2018 budget proposal. But a bipartisan effort is underway in Congress to restore funding the West Coast earthquake early warning system, and it is now in the Senate's hands.
"We're really behind here in the U.S.," said Richard Allen, director of University of California-Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory. He notes that Mexico's quake warning system was installed in the 1990s and Japan's been running one since 2007.
Work on the earthquake early warning system started a decade ago as a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and several universities on the West Coast that run the seismic sensor networks.
Today, the ShakeAlert system remains in the testing stage, although California is making preparations for a "limited public roll out" in 2018, according to Ryan Arba, branch chief of the earthquake and tsunami program at the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
Yet a wider roll out to the general public is still years away since current public alert infrastructure networks for things such as flash floods and hurricane weather alerts are considered too slow for effective warning on earthquakes. Existing cellular towers could be used to send alerts to smartphones, but consumers might need new handsets to support the added capabilities.
"There are challenges doing a full public roll out, such as the ability to link up with people's mobile phones in a way that doesn't compromise the system," said Arba. "So much data has to go through at one time in order to deliver this alert. It ends up becoming a bandwidth issue."
According to the California official, the state is working with cell communication providers and the handset developers to overcome the technology hurdles.
Depending on the location of a tremor, the earthquake warning time can range from seconds to minutes. It would send alerts to give people time to shelter under a desk or table, or hold onto something to potentially avoid injuries during the shaking.
Scientists estimate the public in L.A. could get about a minute warning if a major earthquake were to occur along the southern end of the 800-mile San Andreas fault. Similarly, if it starts in the northern end of the feared fault, the San Francisco Bay area would get about a minute's time of warning.
When the rupture starts closer to the city, though, that means there would be less warning.
In the case of Mexico City, the magnitude 7.1 quake on Sept. 19 that killed more than 220 people was centered about 76 miles from the capital city and the warning sirens gave people about 15 to 20 seconds advance notice before the shaking started — enough time for some to flee buildings and get to safer spots. Some credit the warning sirens with saving lives.
"There's video of people evacuating with the sirens going and then the buildings collapsing, clearly demonstrating the utility of the warning system," said Allen.
The Berkeley seismologist pointed out he's traveling to Mexico City next week as part of a fact-finding team to talk with both the operators and the users of the early warning system. "We want to learn how it performed and how people used it so that we can hopefully learn some lessons that we can apply here in California," he said.
At present, about 200 beta testers in California receive earthquake early warning alerts from the prototype system, including researchers, scientists, key agencies, and companies such as Disneyland in Anaheim. Bay Area Rapid Transit, the commuter rail system in the San Francisco Bay area, uses the alerts to automatically slow or stop the trains prior to the shaking.
California has a goal of about 1,000 seismic sensors statewide for a complete build-out of its early warning system. The state is at the halfway point in terms of reaching that goal.
In April, the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which operates from the University of Washington, announced it joined ShakeAlert and would be issuing warnings of incoming earthquakes to pilot users in Oregon and Washington. The list of participants invited for the Pacific Northwest testing includes large corporations such as Boeing, Microsoft, Intel as well as hospitals, utilities, transit agencies and emergency managers.
Funding for the early warning system has come from the federal government, the state of California, as well as other sources. The federal government has spent more than $23 million already to improve ShakeAlert. The USGS estimates it will cost another $38 million to completely build out the system on the West Coast, and roughly $16 million annually to run it and maintain it.
In May, the Trump administration submitted a fiscal 2018 budget request that targeted the USGS with cuts. And it didn't include $10.2 million, the amount provided by Congress in fiscal 2017, to support development of the agency's quake warning system.
However, Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, who chairs a subcommittee determining the spending levels for the USGS, led an effort in the House to restore funding. A bill that funds the USGS and other agencies was included in a package of spending measures that was approved by the House on Sept. 14. That bill is now pending in the Senate.
"Nothing is more important than the safety of our families and communities, and making strong investments in the right technology to detect natural disasters today could save countless lives and help prevent massive economic losses in the future," Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said in a statement to CNBC. "That's why I've long supported robust funding for Washington state's early warning system and fought back against President Trump's deep cuts to our disaster preparedness infrastructure."
Meantime, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) along with the senators from California and Oregon all signed a letter earlier this year to urge the subcommittee overseeing Interior Department appropriations to increase the USGS's earthquake-related programs. Specifically, they urged the panel include at least $16.1 million for development, operation and maintenance of the West Coast ShakeAlert system.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet debated its version of the bill that funds the earthquake early warning system. But one insider expressed confidence the committee would reject the president's proposed cut to the USGS quake warning program.