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California Focus: Trump cuts earthquake warning system from budget

Donald Trump’s company owns a golf club and other properties in California, but a look at his proposed budget for the fiscal year ending in September 2018 indicates the President may never have experienced one of this state’s frequent earthquakes.

If he had, he might not have chopped from his version of the federal budget the paltry $10.2 million which Congress agreed this spring to contribute toward building a system giving Californians and denizens of other Western states a few seconds to a few minutes notice when a significant shock is coming.

No one who has been at or near the epicenter of a major quake would ever doubt the power of the earth’s sudden movements, which have knocked down hospitals and freeway bridges, shopping malls and apartment complexes. One sign of that power near the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta upheaval: a three-foot-deep crevice suddenly appeared running up the middle of the driveway beside a home in a woodsy area of Aptos, while inside, a 3-ton Franklin stove was sliced from its steel chimney and plunked down 20 feet across the living room, with no tracks in between. The convulsion’s force simply tossed this behemoth object through the air.

No one also doubts that large numbers of lives could be saved if many people get even 30 seconds warning of a major jolt. They could duck under desks, move away from plate glass windows, close natural gas lines, drive to the side of roads and get out of elevators, among other things.

Of course, the money might actually be restored before the budget becomes final. That’s what Republican Rep. Kenneth Calvert of Corona wants. Calvert, chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, called a warning system a potential “lifesaving tool for the millions of Californians and other Americans…in earthquake-prone areas.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers partially backed by Gov. Jerry Brown are moving for California to go it alone if needed. Democratic state Sens. Robert Hertzberg of Van Nuys and Jerry Hill of San Mateo proposed providing $23 million in state money for the early warning system. Before Trump proposed his cut, Brown had already included $10 million for it in his May budget revision.

The irony of the planned Trump cut is that it comes while the U.S. Geological Service and universities up and down the West Coast – including the likes of Caltech, UC Berkeley and the universities of Oregon, Nevada (Reno) and Washington – have nearly completed a system that would provide warnings not just in California, but also in Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.

Tentatively dubbed ShakeAlert, this equipment detects quakes at their first quivers through a network of sensors. It could, for one example, provide about a minute’s warning to schools, buildings and airports in Los Angeles if a major shock on the San Andreas Fault began in the Salton Sea area, but less time if the epicenter were closer to the urban core. In one test, it provided researchers in Los Angeles 30 seconds notice of shaking from a magnitude 4.4 quake in the Riverside County city of Banning.

A widespread system like this already operates in Japan, so the technology has been tested and it works.

Already, legislators in Washington state and Oregon propose to join California in continuing the early-warning project even if federal funding evaporates. But it would certainly be slowed.

One Washington legislator pointed out that the total of $38 million needed to finish work on ShakeAlert is less than half the price of the cruise missile barrage Trump ordered against Syria last spring while dining with China’s president.

Some advocates of ShakeAlert suggest if it’s not finished, Trump should be held personally liable for any injuries or deaths that occur which that system might have prevented. But direct connections would be difficult to prove.

Trump has traveled much of the nation pushing his efforts to improve infrastructure; yet he wants to cut this project, which could actually save lives.

It sets up a test not only for state legislators who need to approve the Hill-Hertzberg bill for state funds, but also for California Republicans in Congress who have the power to put money for this project and others back into the upcoming budget.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.