DeFazio passes early earthquake, tsunami warning legislation for Pacific Northwest

Pacific Northwest Earthquake Preparedness Act to develop a strategy to better protect and prepare for major earthquakes

Feb. 9, 2019 — The prospect of a major seismic disaster occurring along the Oregon Coast is undeniable.

In an attempt to face the inevitable, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, as one of his first official acts as Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, introduced and passed legislation in the House to create an early earthquake warning system for the coastline of the Northwestern United States.

“It’s not a question of if a major earthquake will affect Oregon, but when,” DeFazio said. “When a major earthquake does hit, it is estimated that thousands of Oregonians will be killed or injured, and the state will suffer $32 billion in economic damages. My legislation directs FEMA to identify critical funding to purchase and install an earthquake early warning system that could save thousands of lives, countless injuries, and billions of dollars of damage.”

DeFazio’s bill, H.R. 876, The Pacific Northwest Earthquake Preparedness Act of 2019, also directs the president to establish an Earthquake and Tsunami Task Force that will develop a strategy to better protect and prepare for major earthquakes and tsunamis on the Cascadia Subduction Zone. H.R. 876 was cosponsored by representatives Suzanne Bonamici from Oregon District 1, and Harley Rouda from California’s 48th District.

The benefits of an early warning system are numerous. The warning can alert students in seismically unsafe schools, like those in the Siuslaw School District, to exit the building before a quake occurs. The warning could also alert and shutdown trains in affected areas, warn drivers on coastal highways and close bridges that would be jeopardized.

These actions can help reduce the long-term economic losses that follow a large-scale event.

Most importantly, a warning can have significant impact by alerting citizens of the need to take appropriate action when an earthquake occurs. 

The legislation also requires the task force to enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to develop procedures for a federal research strategy to advance scientific understanding of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and resulting tsunami preparedness.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is known in earth science circles as a convergent plate boundary. This particular area of convergence stretches nearly 1,000 miles from Vancouver Island in Canada to Cape Mendocino in Northern California, and is situated approximately 80 miles off of the Oregon coastline. These massive tectonic plates are in the midst of a millennia-long process of moving over one another. Because of the length of the fault, movement along the rift can cause very large earthquakes.

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management warns on its website that Oregon has a high potential for a 9.0+ magnitude earthquake caused by the Cascadia Subduction Zone and a resulting tsunami of up to 100 feet in height which will impact the coastal area.

Eight million people live along the Cascadia Fault.

FEMA has estimated that a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami along the Cascadia could kill 13,000 people, while injuring another 27,000; displace 1 million people and leave another 2.5 million in need of food and water.

The last earthquake that occurred in this fault was on January 26, 1700, with an estimated 9.0 magnitude. The earthquake of 1700 caused the coastline to drop several feet and a tsunami to form and crash into the land. 

The details of this earlier quake were unknown until recently. Geological information gathered in Japan after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami was critical to this determination.

The composition of the soil along Japan’s coast contained identifiable elements from the Oregon coast, allowing for accurate dating of the earlier event.

The correct dating of the 1700 quake has assisted geologists with the construction of a timeline for the prediction of future seismic events. It also proves the long-range impact a serious seismic event can have.

Due to its size, the Cascadia fault is comparable to the fault off of the Japanese coast that caused the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster.

“Cascadia poses a unique threat,” said University of Oregon Earth Sciences Professor Doug Toomey. “Congressman DeFazio’s legislation recognizes that the ‘Sleeping Giant’ requires an offshore/onshore monitoring system like the one Japan has developed. It would give scientists and the public necessary information that will make us safer and more resilient.”

DeFazio’s bill will now move to the Senate and, if passed, will require the president to sign the bill.

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