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How Trump’s 2019 budget would leave us vulnerable to natural disasters

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‘This admin’s approach to science is ass-backwards.’

August 5, 1969: Mauna Ulu in Hawaii sent lava flowing into ‘Alae crater.
August 5, 1969: Mauna Ulu in Hawaii sent lava flowing into ‘Alae crater.
Photo by the USGS

When a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit Mexico City in September 2017, residents knew it was coming minutes before the ground started shaking — and they could take cover. That’s thanks to Mexico’s earthquake early warning system, which has been alerting Mexico City residents of imminent quakes since 1993. The US doesn’t have an early warning system yet — and if President Donald Trump’s budget cuts go through, the development of this life-saving project could be put on hold.

The White House’s new budget proposal, released on Monday, calls for massive cuts to the US Geological Survey or USGS, a scientific agency that studies natural resources and potential natural disasters, including earthquakes. While Congress technically holds the federal purse strings, the Trump administration wants to cut the USGS budget by 20 percent, to $859.7 million in 2019 from $1.08 billion in 2017. That would eliminate roughly 1,200 full-time jobs at the USGS. It would slash funding by 19 percent for programs that help prepare the nation for disasters. And it would completely stop ongoing funding for the Earthquake Early Warning System.

“So, cutting the budget for that is saying, ‘Here, be blind — don’t know what’s going on with the natural hazards around you,’” says volcanologist Jess Phoenix, who’s running for Congress in California. USGS scientists track flood risks during storms, investigate triggers for tsunamis, map where landslides might sweep away homes, and keep watch for potential earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. So the budget request got the attention of scientists on Twitter. “This is shockingly regressive for a country with the 3rd highest number of active #volcanoes in the world,” tweeted volcanologist Simon Carn at Michigan Technological University.

These programs to study natural hazards do cost money. For example, the USGS is working to develop an Earthquake Early Warning System that would give people on the West Coast of the US a few seconds to minutes of warning before the ground starts shaking. Those precious seconds could give train conductors time to slow down, warn surgeons to hold tightly to their scalpels, and get people out of elevators and into shelter. The system, which is still in development, is anticipated to cost $38.3 million up front, and $16.1 million for maintenance and operation each year.

“That is a drop in the bucket of what we should be spending on making sure that people are protected and ready for these things,” Phoenix says. Especially if you compare that to the estimated $1 billion in damage from Napa’s 2014 earthquake. Or the $44 billion in damage, 60 deaths, and 7,000 injuries from the 1994 Northridge quake in southern California. While the USGS would be able to keep up its existing earthquake monitoring capabilities with the proposed funding cuts, it wouldn’t be able to update them.

“The budget request doesn’t include the funding to augment our existing network capabilities, so it would delay the implementation of earthquake early warning,” explains Dave Applegate, a geologist and associate director for natural hazards at the USGS.

Trump’s budget would also slash the funding for the the National Volcano Early Warning System, a plan to step up monitoring of volcanoes that could be especially dangerous should they erupt. “People don’t think of the US as being a volcanically rich place, but it really is,” Phoenix says. There are 169 active volcanoes in the US, and 55 of them could endanger people or property. Parts of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, for example, are built on the hardened remains of mud that flowed off of Mt. Rainier during earlier eruptions. And it could erupt again. “A lot of volcanoes give warning about what they’re going to do,” agrees Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University. “But what good is a warning, if we don’t catch it?”

That the president would propose these cuts on the same day he pledged to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure is “extremely ironic and actually very puzzling,” says Christine McEntee, the executive director of the American Geophysical Union, a non-profit scientific organization. After all, natural disasters cost the US more than $306 billion in 2017, which is why these cuts make so little financial sense, McEntee says. “We need to make sure that we have the scientific infrastructure in addition to the physical infrastructure to be able to have a safe, secure, environment to live in.”