Benjamin Franklin, in a 1789 letter to the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Leroy, famously wrote that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Here in California, it’s safe to add one more thing to the list — earthquakes.
By midday Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded 12 quakes of magnitude 2.5 to 2.9 in the Golden State, one of them centered in Sonoma County.
There will be larger quakes. No one credibly disputes that. The only unknowns are where, when, how much larger — and how well will we be prepared.
Most of us probably don’t think much about earthquakes, at least not before the dishes start rattling and the ground beneath us starts shaking. Fortunately, painful experience and human ingenuity have produced safer buildings and made power grids and other vital infrastructure more resilient.
Earthquake warnings could be the next major breakthrough. California is riddled with active faults, and even a single minute of advance notice would save lives when a major quake strikes.
An early-warning system created by scientists at Caltech, UC Berkeley and the universities of Oregon and Washington has shown great promise, and earthquake scientists are ready to roll it out along the West Coast — if the Trump administration doesn’t kill federal funding for the program dubbed ShakeAlert.
This isn’t a major undertaking: $38 million to install a network of seismic sensors and $16 million a year in operating costs. The federal government already has invested $23 million in the system, and California earmarked $10 million for the project in the 2016 state budget.
The Trump administration’s rationale for eliminating federal support: Washington needs to make tough choices to balance the budget.
Abandoning the early-warning system would be, at best, shortsighted — trimming $10.2 million from a $3.5 trillion budget while virtually assuring much larger outlays for disaster relief programs in the future.
Consider the quake that struck the Napa Valley on Aug. 24, 2014. The magnitude 6.0 quake, which caused about $800 million in damage, triggered an early-warning sensor in the UC Berkeley seismology lab 10 seconds before the shaking started in Napa.
An early-warning won’t prevent all of the damage wrought by an earthquake, but 10 seconds is enough time to halt elevators at the next floor, stop trains, close valves on natural gas lines, notify surgeons, dentists and crews working on high-voltage lines and to automatically open bay doors at fire stations, ensuring that emergency response vehicles didn’t get trapped inside. Warnings eventually may be sent directly to individual cellphones.
It isn’t unreasonable to suggest that such a system could produce $10 million in savings from a single strong earthquake, especially a quake centered in a more densely populated part of the Bay Area or in greater Los Angeles, where a gas fire or train derailment could be catastrophic.
This week, a House subcommittee restored funding for the early warning system, but the 2017-18 budget still must be approved by the appropriations committee, the full House and the Senate.
China, Japan, Mexico and Turkey already have early-warning systems, and ShakeAlert is in limited use in California. For a relatively small investment of public money, it could extend to the entire West Coast by the end of next year. The opportunity brings to mind another quote often attributed, though not accurately, to Franklin: By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.