What happens if a big earthquake hits during the government shutdown?

Two minor earthquakes hit the San Fransisco Bay Area this week.

A sign is posted warning of earthquake damage to the road from seismic activity at the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on May 17, 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A sign is posted warning of earthquake damage to the road from seismic activity at the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on May 17, 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Two minor earthquakes hit the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday and Thursday, measuring 3.4 and 3.5 on the Richter scale respectively. While neither caused much damage, it prompts the larger question: What happens if a really big one hits while the government is shut down?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shutdown contingency plan, a total of 75 employees are “excepted,” meaning they will remain on the job without pay because their work is required “for the protection of life and property.” This includes staff at the National Earthquake Information Center, where less than one-half of employees are excepted.

“Additional employees are on call as necessary to respond in the event of a natural disaster,” the contingency plan adds. There are roughly 450 employees on call in case of a natural hazard or other emergency — most of these are personnel from volcano observatories, geologic hazard science centers, and water science centers.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is currently working with USGS to develop an earthquake early warning system, including ShakeAlert, but doesn’t have a system in place yet. Los Angeles rolled out a new earthquake warning app this month, but it’s limited to residents of Los Angeles County. So, for many concerned citizens searching for information during the shutdown, little can be found beyond the basic measurements of the earthquake’s magnitude and depth.


The USGS homepage currently displays a red banner which reads: “Due to a lapse in appropriations, the majority of USGS websites may not be up to date and may not reflect current conditions. Websites displaying real-time data, such as Earthquake and Water and information needed for public health and safety will be updated with limited support. Additionally, USGS will not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.”

Searching for more information on the Department of Homeland Security’s earthquake emergency website yields the same result. A red banner at the top simply states that “Due to the lapse in federal funding, this website will not be actively managed.”

Phone calls and emails to USGS staff and media contacts went largely unanswered Thursday, with the requisite automatic reply stating: “Due to the lapse in appropriations, I am prohibited from conducting work as a Federal employee, including returning phone calls and emails, until further notice.”

The USGS Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park — located an hour south of where this week’s earthquakes hit — also appears to be closed. According to KPIX CBS San Francisco Bay Area, a seismologist is “almost always available to discuss the seismic event.” But this week, calls and emails have gone unanswered.

Per the contingency plan, the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado, however, remains open and is answering calls. “I guess we’re just functioning as we normally would here,” a seismologist told ThinkProgress. “We’re still updating, providing information… and of course, we’re not getting paid.”


They explained that earthquake information will still be updated on the USGS website, and that during major events — such as a deadly earthquake — automatic notifications are sent to “important people” to ensure they’re notified and response efforts are coordinated. The two earthquakes in the Bay Area this week, however, were not major events.

When pressed for more details, the seismologist simply said, “we’re not being told a whole lot here.”

Emergency response efforts typically involve multiple arms of government. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) earthquake preparedness guide, while there is no advance notice given for an earthquake, “emergency information will be provided immediately after through radio and TV broadcasts and via Wireless Emergency Alerts text to cell phones.”

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also broadcasts radio alerts for all hazards to the National Weather Service.

FEMA’s website, however, is not being actively managed during the shutdown. NOAA websites and social media channels “necessary to protect lives and property” are being maintained.

In a statement to ThinkProgress, a FEMA spokesperson said: “FEMA programs and services currently operating, including emergency work as well as public infrastructure and mitigation projects, will not be impacted if the shutdown continues throughout this week. There are no disaster projects on hold presently and we are not aware of any that will have to be put on hold in the near future.”


“FEMA is not processing new disaster declaration requests unless it would likely compromise the safety of life or protection of property,” they added. “However, if a Governor is able to demonstrate assistance is needed to address a threat to the safety of life or the protection of property, FEMA will process the declaration request, despite the funding lapse.”

Outside of the federal government, there are additional experts responsible for helping with the initial data tracking for earthquakes during a shutdown. The UC Berkeley Seismology Lab has a standing agreement with the federal government that it will conduct the initial review of any earthquake that happens.

As Peggy Hellweg, operations manager for the siesmology lab, explained to ThinkProgress, under normal circumstances UC Berkeley and USGS Menlo Park collaborate to monitor earthquakes in the northern California region. “At any given time, each of us has a complete view of what’s going on,” Hellweg said.

Each office has an earthquake information computer system which gathers data that is shared with the other, and they take turns being the “master,” or the lead system. This allows the other computer system to undergo upgrades as needed, for example. During the shutdown, with Menlo Park closed, UC Berkeley is the master computer system (data is still being automatically collected at Menlo Park). UC Berkeley is therefore responsible for verifying the data and confirming the earthquake.

Meanwhile, the Colorado-based National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) monitors things to ensure no big earthquake goes unnoticed, and that the public website remains up to date. Should a big earthquake happen in northern California, UC Berkeley would coordinate response efforts with NEIC.

The USGS’s Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (EROS), another department in which staff are excepted, is also collecting data. For earthquakes, this includes the magnitude and depth, as well as details such as which tectonic plates were involved and the type of motion. According to the contingency plan, the center is operating at the “minimal necessary contingent to ensure 24-7 Mission Operation Center coverage to sustain computer support, antenna operations, and command and control of the LandSat satellites.”

This will allow the collection and storage of data to continue so that when the government reopens, or in the event of an emergency such as an earthquake, flood, fire, or landslide, the data can be processed and analyzed.

But for now, said Hellweg, the data for all earthquakes that have occurred since the shutdown began on December 22 is not being re-evaluated and improved — typically there are multiple stages of analyzing to ensure location data, for instance, is as precise as possible.

Now in it’s 27th day, the partial government shutdown is the longest in U.S. history. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees continue to go without pay, and the longer the shutdown drags on, the more challenging it becomes to maintain essential services.

And for Hellweg and her team at UC Berkeley, concerns over funding are mounting. Their work is funded in part by USGS on an annual basis, which restarts on February 1. Usually by now Hellweg knows whether they received all their requested funding or if their budget proposal to USGS for the new year needs to be revised.

“All of these people pushing the paperwork are also furloughed,” she said, “and it’s not clear to me that there will be time between whenever the government returns and February 1st to get the paperwork in place [for that start date].”

This means that if their budget isn’t confirmed soon, come February 1, they will need to find an alternative plan. “We are not allowed to bill the USGS for work that we have done in an interval when they have not authorized for spending the money,” Hellweg said. “If they finally come back on February 1st and it takes them until March 1st to get the money in place for us, then we have to find other ways to pay everybody between February through March 1st.”

Hellweg hopes that perhaps she can reshuffle funds to cover the cost of their earthquake monitoring if this happens, adding, “our intention is to continue to monitor.”

“But we also hope that the USGS will come back before [this happens],” she said, “their pockets are way bigger than our pockets.”

This article has been updated to include a comment from FEMA.