We were camping up in the mountains by Lake Piru in Ventura County, about 150 miles away from the epicenter. My 11-year-old son and I were brushing our teeth when the quake hit. The bathroom stall doors began flipping back and forth. Water in the sinks sloshed. The floor felt rubbery and unsteady, like a boat rocking in a squall. When we rushed outside, cars were jolting forward and back on their wheels, and the trees were swaying without breeze.
My son grabbed me tightly around the waist and squeezed his eyes shut. “Tell me when it’s over!” he shrieked. Right as he said that, the shaking stopped.
Nothing had been harmed or even fallen over. But as we surveyed the camp, full of people gathering among tents nervously chattering, there were signs of things that could’ve gone catastrophically wrong if the quake had hit closer: A power line stretched over our tents and linked to a pole that was on a rise right behind where we were camped. An RV trailer that was at the edge of a hillside could’ve tumbled over. We were in an open area, miles away from any city, but a major quake nearby could still have caused mayhem.
Fortunately, there were no deaths from the Ridgecrest quake and just a handful of minor injuries; the lightly inhabited area around the epicenter suffered some power outage and a few gas main ruptures, but had no major infrastructure to be shaken apart. It was a huge contrast to the damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake — at 6.7 on the Richter scale, about 40% as big and a quarter as powerful as the one this weekend, but centered just 30 or so miles away from Los Angeles’s major urban center. That quake killed at least 57 people and injured over 8,700, 1,600 of them significantly enough to require hospitalization, while causing $20 billion in damage and $49 billion in economic loss, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in US history.
It’s terrifying to think what a real “Big One” would be like, centered in an urban megalopolis like Los Angeles. Back in 2008, the US Geological Society released a report called “The ShakeOut Scenario,” estimating the impact of a 7.8 magnitude temblor on the southern San Andreas fault, which runs alongside LA and cuts directly through San Bernardino County, the fifth-largest county in California, and Palmdale, the 33rd biggest city in California.
The report’s tally of devastation: Deaths in the multiple thousands, 50,000 or more injuries requiring emergency care, about $213 billion in economic losses, impassable roads and highways, shattered water lines that might take up to six months to repair and at least 1,600 fire outbreaks, of which 1,200 will be too large to contain by a single fire engine company. (There are only about 1,200 fire stations in all of Southern California.)
The lead author of the report, Dr. Lucile Jones, noted to NPR that “[The Northridge Earthquake] was an event that disrupted the lives of people in the San Fernando Valley extensively…for a year or two. The big San Andreas earthquake is going to disrupt the lives of everybody in Southern California, and it could take us decades to recover what we lose.”
She didn’t say “might disrupt” — she said “is going to.” Because the Big One is inevitable, and quite likely in our lifetime. According to the US Geological Society, there’s about a 50-50 chance of an earthquake of 7+ magnitude occurring in the Los Angeles area in the next 30 years, and a 31% chance of one that’s 7.5+ in magnitude.
But we can at least get a warning right before it hits.
Los Angeles now has an alert function designed to provide a warning about 30 to 60 seconds before a major earthquake hits, built into an app called ShakeAlertLA. The system uses data from a network of sensors managed by the USGS across the West Coast.
Unfortunately, this system has been a major target for elimination by President Trump, who has zeroed out funding for the USGS’s earthquake early warning in his last two budget proposals he’s put forth since his election. The savings from the cut: Just $10.2 million. The elimination of the earthquake hazard program was explained as redirecting the funds to “address higher priorities.”
What higher priorities might there be than preventing thousands of deaths and up to a quarter trillion in financial losses in the most populous state in the union — a state that regularly votes Democratic in presidential elections?
Well, ironically, this Fourth of July weekend — while Ridgecrest was experiencing the 6.7 magnitude “foreshock” quake that preceded the 7.1 quake of the fifth — Donald Trump was celebrating himself on the National Mall, with a grotesquely narcissistic display of military pageantry at a cost of millions.
While the White House refused to provide an estimate of the total, the Washington Post revealed that the Department of Interior — the parent agency of the USGS — would be spending over $3 million of its “Capitol Concerts” budget on the event, while also diverting $2.5 million from the National Park Service to add to the kitty.
The costs of Trump’s aerial flyovers and tank displays have been estimated at “well over a million” to the Department of Defense. Throw in the costs of security and crowd management, cleanup, fire safety for the fireworks, and you’re getting pretty close to the $10.2 million Trump keeps slashing to preserve our earthquake early warning system.
Sounds like Trump’s “higher priorities” are clear.
Californians are resilient. My friend Andrew says he was watching a movie in LA westside when the quake hit. “Half the theater left,” he laughs. “Only the native Californians stayed.” But when the Big One hits, the cost to California — the most populous and economically important state in America — will be astronomical, in life and dollars. And the only way to diminish the disaster is by investing in science, infrastructure and basic preparedness. As Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti told NPR, “We’re better prepared for the big one than any big city in America, which is to say, we’re woefully unprepared.”
Someone should tell the dealmaker in chief that millions to save billions is a pretty good bargain.