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Feds Give $5 Million For Earthquake Early Warning System But Future Dollars In Limbo

Ashley Gross
Senator Patty Murray (middle) and Congressman Derek Kilmer (right) get a tour of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington

You’re in downtown Seattle getting ready to drive onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Then, an alert comes over the radio or shows up on your phone saying an earthquake is about to strike, allowing you to pull over and avoid being on the elevated highway when it could collapse.

That’s an example of how getting even just a few seconds’ warning before a big earthquake hits could save lives. Such an alert system for the Pacific Northwest is being tested right now.

“We’ve been running it in a test mode for about two years now, adding new pieces every few months, and we’re probably about a year away from having the system fully working, but then we have to evaluate how well it’s working before we let it out to the public,” said John Vidale, Washington state seismologist and head of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, which is one of the groups developing the alert system.

Vidale said it could be ready for the public in one to two years. That hinges on continued funding for the project, which just received an infusion of about $5 million in federal dollars. But Democratic U.S. Senator Patty Murray says future funds are in jeopardy if Congress can’t reach a budget deal by October 1st to avert automatic sequestration cuts set to kick in.

The warning system can’t predict earthquakes before they happen, but sensors can pick up the initial shaking and trigger alerts to the entire region.

Vidale said the warnings could give people anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes to prepare. Alerts would go out a number of ways – to people’s phones, over television and radio, and even loudspeakers in areas at risk of great damage such as Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

That could give people enough time to take cover, or even send automatic signals to turn off gas lines, slow or stop trains or keep airplanes from landing.

Democratic Congressman Derek Kilmer, who worked to secure the money for the system, imagined another example of how alerts could help protect people.

“A surgeon operating at the Naval Hospital and having the room sway back and forth while they’re holding a scalpel,” he said. “You can imagine the kind of impact a warning would have.”

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