Earthquakes and hand grenades
When you pull the pin on a hand grenade, you have four seconds from the time you release the spoon — the aluminum lever that holds down the fuse trigger — until it explodes.
Four seconds can be a very long time.
I speak from the experience of throwing far more grenades than the average, well-trained U.S. soldier. After meeting my platoon in Panama during operation “Just Cause,” I served in a battalion that was at its peak in terms of training and readiness; this is where I became ridiculously familiar with hand grenades. My company commander, among the best of the best at the time, requested, and was given, an entire brigade’s quarterly allowance of ammunition to train at a higher level.
Subsequently, we held demonstrations for the division’s leadership that included intense live-fire maneuvers, for which we used everything at our disposal: Bangalore torpedoes, Dragon anti-armor missiles, LAW rockets, 60mm mortars, claymore mines, C-4 improvised demolitions, all available small arms and, of course, lots and lots of hand grenades.
Now let me zoom out for a moment.
During my service, the definition of a foxhole was a hole in the ground excavated with small entrenching tools and measuring two rifles long, one rifle wide and armpit deep. Unfortunately, no one ever finished digging a foxhole: A defensive position, by definition, is never finished, and should be improved as long as the area is held.
After a day or two the basic form of the foxhole was there, and overhead cover, concealment and camouflage ensued. One of the final touches of any foxhole is the grenade sump — a secondary hole dug at the bottom of either end where you would hope to kick an enemy grenade during an attack, then grab your buddy and dive to the other end of the foxhole to survive the explosion.
How does one fight an earthquake?
For those readers who have never dug a hole, let alone a foxhole, let me just say that digging is hard work. Rain, fatigue, hunger and excessive heat or cold are often part of the experience. The only blessing is that digging doesn’t take much brainpower, which gives you a lot of time to think about other things, like what exactly you’d do during those seconds when that grenade lands next to you.
The point of all this is simply to illustrate that, as a society, we dedicate incredible time, resources and effort to things that might happen.
We might go to war and need to protect an area, the enemy might attack that area, they might throw a grenade that might land in your foxhole. You might be able to kick that grenade into a sump, grab your buddy and survive the explosion.
And I support these efforts. Duty. Honor. Country. I have been, am and always will be all in.
But human nature is a funny thing. We have no problem as a species spending vast sums for our tribe or country to maintain security against or advantage over opposing tribes. We expect that we can prepare and fight back. And we can. And do.
The funny part is how this mindset fails to extend to other threats. For example, we subscribe to a deeply engrained and fatalistic notion that we are powerless against Mother Nature. How does one fight an earthquake? You don’t… but that doesn’t mean you are powerless.
As I was saying, four seconds can be a long time.
UC Berkeley, Caltech, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a coalition of research partners have teamed up with the United States Geological Survey to develop an earthquake early-warning system called ShakeAlert. As a beta tester, I can attest that the system works. It doesn’t predict earthquakes, but it does provide early warning. I have the program installed and running on the laptop I am using to write this now.
When there is an earthquake in California, I get advanced warning. If the epicenter is on the border with Mexico, the system might provide two minutes of warning. If the epicenter is on the section of the San Andreas Fault that runs five miles south of my home, I may get four seconds.
Unlike the military scenario of a grenade attack that might happen, it is a statistical certainty that there will be a major earthquake in California. The greatest threat to life is not just the San Andreas Fault, however. In my region, the Hayward Fault is also overdue for a large rupture. There is a 31 percent chance that the Hayward Fault will generate a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years, and a 33 percent chance for the northern section of the San Andreas, according to the most current Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF3).
There is a greater than 99 percent probability of a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake in the next 30 years in the state as a whole.
This is infinitely more likely than the scenarios for needing grenade sumps, but we don’t seem willing to address it with the same tenacity.
Imagine the earthquake that WILL strike California in your lifetime. You are at home or work, and you are with someone you care about. Your buddy. What would you give for four seconds of warning to ensure that person is not about to be fatally wounded by a falling object or a shattering window?
You can have that time. Right now, there is a bill moving through the California state legislature. Senate Bill 438, “Earthquake Safety: Statewide Earthquake Early Warning System Funding,” would provide the means to complete systems that will save lives, protect property and help communities during earthquakes. This bill removes the prohibition set forth in the original “Earthquake Early Warning” bill, SB 153, against using the general fund to support the one-time capital costs.
Fighting Mother Nature is a losing proposition.
Dr. Richard Allen of UC Berkeley and the ShakeAlert team puts the price tag of the system, which includes station installation and upgrades for the entire West Coast, as well as ongoing operation and maintenance costs, at a one-time build-out cost of $38 million, with an ongoing cost of $16 million per year above current funding levels for the seismic networks. The numbers for just the California portion of the project are $23 million in one-time costs and $12 million annually.
When you consider that the estimated economic impact of a major seismic event on the Hayward Fault is as high as $1.5 trillion (that’s a T!), let alone the cost in terms of lives and livelihoods, it seems a little ridiculous we don’t have the political will to pass this critical law.
$23 million? Really? California, with our world-class economy and the critical resources we provide for our country, is deserving of federal funds for this effort. But until that happens, who should finance this truly worthy effort? How about those who would benefit most? Apple, Google, Facebook… why not step up and fulfill your social contract with those who made you? After all, it is your greatest resource — your people — you will be protecting.
I have said many times during presentations and interviews that the solutions we work on for addressing the constant threat of natural disasters come from a different approach. Fighting Mother Nature is a losing proposition. Stronger buildings help, but they are not the only answer. We need to learn to better build in harmony with our environs, to continually improve our defensive position — and we need to use all the tools at our disposal in that endeavor. This requires a fundamental shift in how our built environment is designed with regard to the forces of natural disasters, and in how we think about and prepare for our capacity to manage catastrophe.
Right now, you can text, IM, call, tweet or otherwise reach out to @nameyourleader, @apple, @Facebook, @google, @JerryBrown and @POTUS. Let them know you support ShakeAlert. Let them know you want your four seconds.