Republican Walkout Quashes Plans To Expand Earthquake Warning System
A proposal to dramatically expand an earthquake early warning system in Oregon has been stymied by the turmoil over an unrelated bill at the state capitol. For our latest story in our series on Oregon’s Natural Resources and Resilience funded by the University of Oregon Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, we took at look at how the political stalemate in Salem will delay the rollout of the ShakeAlert system.
ShakeAlert won’t predict an earthquake. But if it works right, it could warn you that one is on the way. In his office in the University of Oregon's Cascade Hall, geophysics professor Douglas Toomey demonstrated what the alert would sound like if it popped up on your computer.
A series of loud "beeps" are followed by a computerized voice that says "Earthquake, earthquake…strong shaking expected in 21 seconds." The voice continues counting down until, presumably, the shaking begins.
Toomey said the system works because a series of remote sensors can calculate the strength and direction of the waves emanating from the quake's epicenter. That data is pushed out to computers and smart phone apps in the area of potential impact.
“The amount of advanced notice you receive depends on your distance to the earthquake," he said. "So for example, you and I here, if the earthquake occurs right beneath our chair, we don’t get any notice.”
But if the temblor was, say, somewhere off the coast, people in the Willamette Valley could get up to a minute to prepare. People on the coast, but north or south of the quake's center, could get 30 seconds or more. That might not seem like a lot of time, but it could be enough for people to seek shelter.
The alert can also be programmed to automatically turn off key infrastructure systems at utilities to avoid damage during a strong quake. It would help in a medical setting too, said Lesley Ogden. She’s the CEO of two Lincoln County hospitals, and she testified before a legislative committee in February.
“It would give us enough time to activate emergency power and water sources, smoothly switch over our sensitive medical equipment without experiencing power blips that can incapacitate some devices, but most importantly, it would allow us to safely stop surgeries in progress, get patients, families, employees and visitors into safe areas in order to survive an earthquake,” Ogden told the Senate's Committee on General Government and Emergency Preparedness.
The ShakeAlert system is already being used in parts of California. The state of Washington has built an extensive network of seismic sensors. But in Oregon, “we don’t have enough sites,” said Toomey.
Toomey says the state is about halfway to installing enough sensors to provide an accurate, reliable earthquake warning system. Oregon lawmakers considered a measure this year that would have funded the buildout. Toomey says the $7.5 million that was included in Senate Bill 1537 would have been enough to complete the ShakeAlert network over the next three years.
At a hearing during the first week of the session, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown testified in support of the bill. "This would give Oregonians precious seconds to duck, cover and hold," she said.
The funding was part of a disaster preparedness package that had bipartisan support. That was made clear when Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, a frequent adversary of the governor, was the first lawmaker to speak up after she finished her testimony.
“Governor, I thank you for making this a priority," said Boquist. "We’ve attempted this before in the legislature and I hope it goes through this time.”
But the prospect of the measure going anywhere diminished when less than three weeks later, Boquist, along with more than 30 of his Republican colleagues, walked out of the legislative session. Their absence left majority Democrats without the quorum needed to conduct business. The protest was over an unrelated climate change bill.
Douglas Toomey says it’s the second legislative session in a row in which the ShakeAlert expansion has faltered due to a political standoff that has nothing to do with disaster preparedness. “It’s frustrating to say the least," he said.
And while federal funds have helped the state build part of the seismic warning system, an influx of state money would speed things up dramatically.
“The sooner we get the array built out, the better it performs. If it performs poorly, people lose trust in the system and that’s a concern for us," said Toomey. "And if we’re to rely only upon federal funding to build it out, it’s going to be many, many years before that system is complete. And I think that that would be a travesty.”
The bill died on March 5th along with dozens of other measures in the legislative pipeline. It means Oregon’s participation in the seismic warning network will likely be pushed back until at least 2024.