We already know that earthquakes are scary; that a big earthquake here in Cascadia is really, really scary; and that if two people are having sex on Capitol Hill when the big one strikes, it's at least recommended that those people continue to have sex.
But there is one thing we can do outside of staying put on Capitol Hill and finding a partner willing to persevere amid a 9.0 earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone (that is, the fault between two tectonic plates running parallel to the Pacific Northwest coastline). We can also keep up the pressure on the Feds to fund an earthquake early warning (EEW) system for the West Coast, which could give us just enough warning to shut down surgeries, airplane landings, and fragile infrastructure in time for impact. And the good news is that our Congressional delegation is working on it.
Earthquake scientists are asking the US Geological Survey for $16 or $17 million a year to fund an EEW system for the West Coast. (An additional $40 million up front could get that system running within a mere two or three years.) And in the fall of 2014, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) cosigned a letter to President Obama asking for $16.1 million that the scientists want for the 2016 fiscal year.
"As far as Senator Murray's concerned, she would say it's a matter of when, not if, a major earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest," Murray spokesperson Kerry Arndt told The Stranger. Murray's been advocating for an EEW system despite dealing with Republican-led sequestration caps into the next decade, she added.
The bad news is that we're not going to get $16.1 million this coming year. Instead, President Obama asked for $5 million to fund the EEW system, $1.5 million less than last year. Washington's congresspeople on the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee lobbied for increased funding for EEW, however, and they did have some success. The Department of the Interior funding bill that passed out of committee this summer actually opposed the president's suggested $1.5 million cut to the EEW from last year's $6.5 million. And the new bill sets aside another $6.5 million for the EEW in fiscal year 2016.
"Further, the Committee continues to be concerned about the lack of knowledge and onshore, real-time instrumentation available for the Cascadia subduction zone," the bill reads. "Scientific understanding of earthquakes and the ocean environment will benefit from collecting offshore data. Therefore, the Committee encourages the Survey to plan for offshore monitoring of the Cascadia subduction zone in future budget requests to ensure maximum effectiveness of the earthquake early warning system."
If the $6.5 million the committee approved makes it through the federal budget-writing process, it still adds up to less than half of the $16 or $17 million the scientists want for an early warning system. "As a member of the House Appropriations Committee I'm fighting to ensure that we're investing in the tools and resources we need to protect public safety," Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, wrote in a statement to The Stranger. "I'm proud that we were able to fight back against efforts to cut funding from the early earthquake warning system program. I will continue to push for the United States Geological Survey to have in place an effective monitoring system dedicated to the Cascadia Subduction Zone," he added.
But what happens next is mostly a question mark. In a highly functional, platonic-ideal Congress, the appropriations bill with the EEW provision would go to the House floor for a full vote, and then a version of that bill would go to the Senate for changes. A conference committee of House and Senate members would work out the kinks in the Senate legislation, and then the bill would go to the president to sign.
And yet what will likely happen with this appropriation comes down to months of haggling, delays, and power-plays. All of that's supposed to wrap up when the next fiscal year starts on October 1. "Supposed to" is the operative phrase; last year Congress ended up passing a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown by October, then passed another "cromnibus" bill in December to fund federal agencies into September of 2015.
We'll be keeping an eye on EEW funding as it moves through our messed-up Congress. And if you're feeling inspired by that New Yorker earthquake story or science reporter Sandi Doughton's book on the subject, write to Murray, Cantwell, Kilmer, and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (who also sits on the House Appropriations Committee). You can say something like "Thank you, Team Congress, for keeping the money flowing. Now please, sirs and madams, may we have some more?"