July 27, 2015

DeFazio Introduces Bill to Fund Earthquake Early Warning System for Pacific Northwest

Washington, D.C. -- Today, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to fund an earthquake early warning system that could save lives, reduce injuries, and mitigate infrastructure damage from the devastating effects of a major quake off the Oregon Coast. 

“A catastrophic earthquake is not hypothetical.  It is a not a question of if an earthquake will happen.  It is a question of when. My legislation is pretty simple. It would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide critical funding for an earthquake early warning system that could save thousands of lives, countless injuries, and billions of dollars of damage.  The federal government needs to start taking this threat seriously and this bill is a needed first step,” said DeFazio.  

An early warning system can send alerts to trigger automatic shutdowns of trains, manufacturing lines, close bridges, and evacuate students from unsafe schools. It can help reduce the long-term economic losses that are often excluded from damage estimates. An earthquake early warning system worked during the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Most of the deaths in the 2011 event were caused by the tsunami. A few minutes extra warning could give coastal residents time to seek higher ground, saving thousands of lives. The low death and injury rate from the 2011 earthquake is attributed to the extensive early warning system in place in Japan. A warning of just a few seconds can have significant impact by alerting citizens of the need to take appropriate action when an earthquake occurs. 

DeFazio’s legislation would require FEMA to develop a plan, and identify the necessary funding for purchase and installation of an earthquake early warning system for the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Watch video of DeFazio discussing his legislation here.


Oregon’s greatest risk is from the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The Cascadia Subduction Zone, which stretches from northern California up into British Columbia, is the mirror image of the subduction zone off the coast of Japan that caused the magnitude nine earthquake and resulting tsunami in 2011. Historically, the Cascadia subduction zone “slips” every 300 years or so causing major earthquakes. The last quake was in 1700 and evidence suggests it was a magnitude 8.7 to a 9.2.  January of this year marks the 315th anniversary of the last major Cascadia earthquake.

The State of Oregon predicts thousands of deaths and injuries plus approximately $32 billion in infrastructure and economic damages in Oregon alone. Utility restoration may take years to fully restore service. State and local economies will be decimated.


Last month, the Committee passed H.R. 1471, the FEMA Disaster Assistance Reform Act of 2015. That bill includes a provision that DeFazio sponsored to encourage states to use their hazard mitigation funding in support of building a capability for an earthquake early warning system. FEMA needs to do its part to make sure states are aware that mitigation funds may be used for this purpose.

Earlier this year, the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on earthquake hazard preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation with a focus on the Pacific Northwest. At the request of DeFazio, Dr. Scott Ashford, Dean of the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, testified at the hearing.  Dr. Ashford indicated in his testimony that a magnitude 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake would shut down all of U.S. Highway 101, all access routes from the Willamette Valley or Portland metro area to the coast, and only leave parts of Interstate 5 open.

The State developed the Oregon Resilience Plan, which Dr. Ashford worked on and discussed in the hearing. The Oregon Resilience Plan was a comprehensive look at the state’s risk from a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. This included examining the State’s infrastructure and making recommendations to make Oregon more resilient when the next big one strikes. Much more work is needed in Oregon but other States should be encouraged to follow Oregon’s lead and examine the risk, the potential damage, and develop and implement plans to address the issue.

Another way to save lives, reduce injuries, and minimize infrastructure damage is to invest in an earthquake early warning system.