The San Andreas fault. (Photo: Doc Searles / Flickr)
The West Coast of the United States is long overdue for a catastrophic earthquake. This, unfortunately, is fact — not opinion or fake news.
In Southern California, the Pacific Plate is grinding relentlessly against the North American Plate along the San Andreas fault, building up an incredible amount of tension that will be released suddenly and without warning in the form of “The Big One.” Historically, this fault has ruptured every century or so. But the section near the Salton Sea hasn’t budged since 1690. The section around San Bernardino hasn’t slipped since 1812. The last big quake anywhere along the southern San Andreas fault was in 1857. That’s 160 years ago. As scientists have warned, the fault is “locked, loaded and ready to roll.”
An even worse disaster awaits the Pacific Northwest, where the Cascadia subduction zone is poised to produce a mega-earthquake and tsunami that would devastate Seattle, Portland and much of the Washington and Oregon coasts west of Interstate 5. The Cascadia fault ruptures every 260 years on average. The last earthquake there was in 1700, more than 315 years ago. The odds of a big trembler in the next 50 years are one in three.
When one these faults finally slips and releases centuries of pent-up energy, it will likely be the worst natural disaster in modern history. In LA, for example, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake would kill 1,800 people, injure 50,000, cause $200 billion in damage and debilitate the city’s infrastructure, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. A major Cascadia event would be far deadlier, killing 13,000 people by conservative estimates. Basic services, like water and power, would take months or even years to restore.
Scientists can’t yet predict earthquakes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for them and mitigate their effects. And we do, by building up to code, retrofitting older buildings, creating public emergency plans and by keeping earthquake kits in our closets and educating ourselves about what to do in the event of The Big One.
But there’s a more technologically advanced tool available to combat these unpredictable disasters, and that would be an early-warning system.
While countries like Japan, Mexico, Taiwan and Turkey have already implemented such systems, the U.S. is behind the curve. But researchers, with the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, have been working furiously to build one here in America, on the West Coast.
In addition to sending warnings to phones via an app shortly after an earthquake begins hundreds of miles away, the system can also be integrated into buildings, like airports, hospitals and offices. This means warnings can be automatically blared over intercoms, elevators can be stopped, pipelines can be shut down and doctors in the midst of open-heart surgery can be warned. After years of hard work, the system is finally set to go online next year.
At least it was — until Trump’s proposed budget cut the program’s funding entirely.
So just how much dough is needed to operate a system that will protect lives, infrastructure and vital economic centers? Something this complex and sophisticated must cost, what, a billion or two per year to run smoothly?
Try a measly $16.5 million.
Apparently, though, that’s too pricey for President Trump, who has proposed spending $1 billion to build 62 miles of wall along the Mexican border. That comes out to roughly $16.1 million per mile. If we really need a wall (and we don’t), can’t we just make it 61 miles and have an early-warning system, too?
Congressmen and Congresswomen are understandably pissed. The communities poised to lose the most — like LA, Portland and Seattle — are bastions of progressive liberalism, which may have made Trump’s decision to ditch this project an easy one. But plenty of earthquake faults threaten the lives and livelihoods of Republicans, too. And it shows. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have lambasted the proposed cut, vowing to reject the President’s budget if he doesn’t reverse course and fund the project.
But that’s not why I take the time to bring all this up. One way or another, Congress is going to find the money to fund this early-warning system, especially since they’ve already sunk millions into it, including $10.2 million for the current budget year.
The lesson here is that President Trump doesn’t care. And that’s an important lesson, because President Trump spends most of his time trying to convince you that he cares. But the decision to strip a relatively piddly amount of funding from a project so vital to so much of the U.S. proves he doesn’t care. Not even a little bit.
Pressed for a response on why funding for an early-warning system was eliminated, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has a geology degree from the University of Oregon, told legislators that there were more important priorities, though he admitted the backlash had been significant, and that the final word was up to Congress.
So that’s the Trump administration’s response? There are more important things. Like what? A border wall and tax cuts for the wealthy in the guise of a health care bill?
Furthermore, the President’s ineptitude has once again put America’s economy at risk. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach receive 40 percent of the country’s imports that arrive via shipping container. Without an early warning system to protect infrastructure, these ports, not to mention much of the LA Basin, could be devastated and choked off from the rest of the country. California’s economy — which is the world’s sixth largest — could crumble, bringing down America’s economy with it.
The bottom line is that by cutting the funding for an early-warning system, President Trump turned his back on millions of Americans. He turned his back not just on LA, Portland and Seattle, but on the entire West Coast. He turned his back on all those people because an early-warning system does nothing for him or his cronies; because protecting those lives, communities and local economies isn’t a priority for him or his administration.
And that’s because President Trump doesn’t care about you, and he doesn’t care if you die in an earthquake. As he proves time and again, President Trump only cares about himself.
Too bad his selfishness must come at such a great cost.