Expect Napa quake to rattle D.C. efforts on seismic alerts

Workers move fallen wine barrels at Saintsbury Winery following a large earthquake in Napa, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group/MCT)
Workers move fallen wine barrels at Saintsbury Winery following a large earthquake in Napa, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group/MCT) MCT

The Napa County earthquake will have political aftershocks on Capitol Hill. The big question is how long they’ll last.

Prompted by California’s weekend temblor, lawmakers are renewing their push for earthquake warning programs. The most recent quake could spur support for a long-debated early warning system. It also could reveal some partisan fault lines.

“What we need is the political resolve to deploy such a system,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said this week.

In April, underscoring the role of politics in earthquake matters, 25 House Democrats from California, Oregon and Washington endorsed a proposal to provide $16.1 million for an earthquake early warning system. No Republican signed the letter requesting the funds.

But it was the White House, in turn, that proposed earlier this year to reduce funding for geodetic monitoring and seismic profiling. The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee restored funding; not coincidentally, the chairman of the relevant subcommittee, Rep. Ken Calvert, represents an earthquake-prone stretch of Southern California.

Fiscal 2015 Interior Department funding bills approved by both House and Senate appropriations committees currently include $5 million for earthquake early warning. The money would upgrade a West Coast demonstration project, the first time Congress has specifically allocated funds to such a warning system.

“I continue to be encouraged by the advancements in the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) earthquake early warning system,” Calvert said in a statement Tuesday, adding he will be collaborating with “colleagues, especially those from areas affected by the Napa earthquake, to ensure we implement the early warning system in an effective manner.”

The congressman who represents Napa, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., is currently “focused on recovery efforts” but has “always been supportive of research into early warning systems,” spokesman Austin Vevurka said Tuesday.

A separate Senate funding bill urges the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give grant priorities to projects for early warning systems.

The California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California both paid the same Washington, D.C., lobbying firm in part to seek support for earthquake research funding, lobbying records show. This year as well, records show, Bay Area Rapid Transit added support for an earthquake early warning system to the tasks assigned its own D.C. lobbyists.

All of the annual appropriations bills, though, are bogged down in the general congressional morass, and their fate remains uncertain.

Congress could respond with other kinds of bills, as well, in addition to oversight hearings and pressure on federal agencies. Big earthquakes reliably stir such action or, at least, second-guessing.

The devastating San Fernando Valley earthquake of 1971, for instance, was followed by a critical 1972 assessment by what was then called the General Accounting Office. The GAO auditors cited a “fragmentation” of federal efforts and called for a national earthquake research program.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused an estimated $6 billion in property damage, in turn helped prompt passage of a 1990 law that authorized the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor seismic activity.

The geologists now operate the Advanced National Seismic System, a network of about 2,500 sensors. When fully built out, the system is envisioned to include more than 7,000 sensors nationwide.

“I think everybody would be very happy if the federal government were to play a significant part in funding,” Peggy Hellweg, operations manager of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t think that’s unreasonable, given the role of the Geological Survey.”

Dubbed ShakeAlert, the early warning system send alerts through social media and radio, television and cellular networks, as well as to automated control systems that can stop trains and isolate utilities.

ShakeAlert has operated in California as a demonstration project for the past two years, connected to volunteer participants including BART, Google and Southern California Edison.

The seismic sensor network grew in part with some $20 million from the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus package, which was passed over unanimous Republican opposition in the House and with just three GOP votes in the Senate.

“If there was an earthquake today,” Richard M. Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, told a House subcommittee at a June 10 hearing, “we would build this system tomorrow.”

Allen told the lawmakers that building out the early warning system for the West Coast would cost $120 million over five years, and an additional $16 million a year to operate.

Last September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that directs the state’s Office of Emergency Services to work with the California Seismic Safety Commission and others in developing a comprehensive early warning system. Officials must identify funding sources by January 2016.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Republican congressional support for the 2009 stimulus bill.