Budget woes stall quake early warning system

Budget spending on Earthquake prevention dropped
CBS/AP Graphics Bank

LOS ANGELES - Cannon Beach Elementary takes earthquake drills really seriously.

"Make sure that you are going as fast as you can down the road," Principal Doug Dougherty told the students during a recent drill there.

CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy reports the school is just 80 miles from the Cascadia subduction zone, a major fault offshore that unleashed a Sendai-sized earthquake 311 years ago. Seismologists say it could rupture again - any day.

Complete coverage: Disaster in Japan

"The buildings themselves will start to collapse; we know from engineers that our schools will collapse," Dougherty said.

Cannon Beach is one of 804 Oregon schools in danger of collapse in an earthquake, putting 380,000 students at risk.

SoCal nuclear plant's safety questioned

"Because we've only known for about the last 20 years that we've had the potential for one of these great earthquakes," said James Roddey of the Oregon Dept. of Geology and Mineral Industries. "We're not as prepared as we should be."

That worries the mom of first-grader Lilly Truax. "I would like the school to be in a safer location and a stronger structure for sure," Kelli Truax said.

But faced with a $1.8 billion deficit, Oregon legislators slashed the school retrofitting budget and it will be at least 20 years before all the schools are fixed.

Experts say the U.S. lags far behind Japan when it comes to earthquake preparedness.

Eight seconds after the Sendai earthquake began, Japan's new early warning system was sending out an emergency alert across the country. Despite the substantial earthquake risk along the entire West Coast here, the U.S. does not have a similar system - something experts say could cost us dearly.

There is a prototype, however. Seismologists are testing a network of seismic detectors like they have in Japan that would give people vital seconds of warning time.

"You could have a surgeon stop operating on a patient, you could bring an elevator to the nearest floor, said CalTech's Egill Hauksson.

But it would cost $150 million to install along the West Coast, and federal funding for all earthquake research - including this program - could be cut by 10 percent next year. NASA recently cancelled a satellite-based earthquake monitoring system, while Japan already has one. And engineers say Japan uses higher quality concrete and does more extensive stress testing on building materials than the U.S. It's all a question of money.

In Cannon Beach, residents know the risks of living in an earthquake zone. Dougherty said, "It's a beautiful location - but it's very dangerous."

The question is - how much are we willing to spend on a danger we cannot accurately predict?