Why didn’t people get a phone alert for western Washington’s earthquake Sunday night?

Residents throughout western Washington are scratching their heads on why they didn’t receive a phone alert after an earthquake struck the region Sunday night.

A 4.3 magnitude earthquake was recorded Sunday at about 7:21 p.m. near Marrowstone Island.

Tess Teel, who lives in Port Townsend, said she felt the quake while she was making a pot of coffee.

“At first, it felt like there was a big truck coming down the hill.” She added, “I heard a boom. A buh buh buh boom.”

Teel told us that she had moved to Washington from California in part to get away from the earthquakes.

16 years later, she felt a tremor that reminded her of her childhood.

“Then I felt the house kind of rock, like side-to-side motion. Then my wine glasses in the little bar, where I have them hanging, started banging and clinking at each other. That’s when I hollered at my husband over my shoulder, earthquake!” she said. “My heart just jumped up in my throat because coming from California, especially living up here for 16 years, I thought I left all of that behind.”

Teel told us that she did not receive a ShakeAlert notification, but was later informed by her county’s alert system.

“The ShakeAlert is so important because if there is any possibility for a tsunami, we want to get the heck out of Dodge,” she said.

The United States Geological Survey tweeted Sunday night about a 4.5 magnitude earthquake. The tweet also mentioned the ShakeAlert system was activated.

However, no one received a phone alert, and many people on social media are asking why.

We looked into this all Monday afternoon.

We reached out to USGS ShakeAlert and spoke with Robert de Groot, who helps run the system.

The ShakeAlert system is funded by tax dollars and supports California, Oregon, and Washington.

When an earthquake strikes an area, the system is notified and sends out information and details to third-party vendors, who then notify people through their cell phones.

The ShakeAlert system has three processing centers near Pasadena, the Bay Area, and Seattle, each hosts a set of computers and detection algorithms to automatically process information about any and all earthquakes.

It cost taxpayers $40 million to start the program in 2018, with an additional $30 million a year to maintain it.

Robert de Groot said Sunday’s earthquake was 35 miles deep and took about 9.5 seconds to reach the surface.

When it reaches the surface, the system is able to detect it, he shared.

De Groot told us the ShakeAlert system had estimated the earthquake at 4.2, while members of the USGS made their initial estimate at 4.5 while using other data. However, the earthquake’s official measurement was recorded at 4.3, he said.

In order for a phone alert to be sent out to people, an earthquake must meet the threshold of 4.5, he said.

“It was just below the level where we would begin telling our third parties to start distributing alerts to cell phones,” he said.

We asked De Groot why the threshold was set at 4.5.

“You may have felt a heavy truck pass by your house, and the house may have vibrated a little bit. You felt a little bit of shaking. That’s what ‘Intensity Three’ feels like. It’s for earthquakes 4.5 or bigger, and feeling that level of shaking or bigger, that alerts would be delivered to cell phones,” he said. “At that level, magnitude of 4.5, that shaking level begins to get to the point where damage can be done. There could be harm.”

“Potentially things could fall off the shelves. Things can hit people,” he said.

He also said if an alert was sent out for every earthquake, that could also threaten the lives of millions of people through alert fatigue.

“We wouldn’t want to alert people too frequently because eventually people would get tired of it. There’s a fatigue factor. There’s also this thing, ‘Oh I’m getting an alert, nothing happened last time so maybe I don’t need to do anything.’ We really want people to take protective action if they feel shaking or if they get that alert on their phone,” he said.

He said many parts of California see 20 to 30 earthquakes every day, while Washington sees an average of about 1,000 earthquakes a year – roughly two to three per day.

Now is a great time to download the free MyShake app, which is available for iPhones and Androids.

The ShakeAlert system will send out test alerts to third-party vendors to notify people’s cell phones.

The test alerts – also known as the “Great Shake” -- will happen on October 19 at 10:19 a.m.

Again, this is only a test.

“Knowing what you would do in those locations. If you’re driving on I-5, knowing what to do when you’re driving so it’s really understanding what to do and how to stay safe,” De Groot said.


According to the United States Geological Survey, the best safety practices during an earthquake are below:

  • If you are indoors – STAY THERE. Get under a desk or table and hang on to it (Drop, Cover, and Hold on!), or move into a hallway or against an inside wall. STAY CLEAR of windows, fireplaces, and heavy furniture or appliances. GET OUT of the kitchen, which is a dangerous place (things can fall on you). DON’T run downstairs or rush outside while the building is shaking or while there is danger of falling and hurting yourself or being hit by falling glass or debris.
  • If you are OUTSIDE -- get into the OPEN, away from buildings, power lines, chimneys, and anything else that might fall on you.
  • If you are DRIVING -- stop, but carefully. Move your car as far out of traffic as possible. DO NOT stop on or under a bridge or overpass or under trees, light posts, power lines, or signs. STAY INSIDE your car until the shaking stops. When you RESUME driving, watch for breaks in the pavement, fallen rocks, and bumps in the road.
  • If you are in a MOUNTAINOUS AREA -- watch out for falling rocks, landslides, trees, and other debris that could be loosened by quakes.
  • If you are near the OCEAN - see these safety rules from NOAA’s Tsunami Warning Center.
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