Bill would create California quake warning system - ( J44P44NN )

Saturday, September 14, 2013

California could join Japan, Mexico and other earthquake-prone countries that alert residents to the approach of powerful shaking under a bill awaiting approval from the governor.

The California Legislature advanced the legislation to create a quake warning system during the last hours of its session Thursday. Gov. Jerry Brown has until Oct. 13 to decide.

The U.S. lags behind other nations in developing a public alert system, which provides several seconds of warning after a fault ruptures — enough time for trains to brake, utilities to shut off gas lines or people to take cover until the shaking stops.

For the past several years, the U.S. Geological Survey and universities have tested a prototype that fires off messages to about two dozen groups in the state, mostly scientists and first responders.

The biggest challenge is finding steady funding to support and maintain a statewide network. The bill does not address where funding to create the alert system would come from, but it can’t be built using general fund revenues. State emergency managers would have until 2016 to hash out the funding, estimated at $ 80 million for the first five years of operation.

Seismic early warning systems are designed to detect the first shock waves from a large jolt, calculate the strength and alert people before the slower but more damaging waves spread.

The systems can’t predict quakes and are most useful during big events, when it would be meaningful to warn people far away to expect strong shaking, scientists said.

During Japan’s March 2011 disaster, millions of people received five to 40 seconds of warning via notices that were broadcast over the airwaves and sent to cellphones.

“This is doable” in California, said USGS seismologist Doug Given, who heads the testing.

Scientists have spent about $ 15 million since 2002 developing the test system.

Before launching a quake alert system, scientists would need to upgrade old monitoring stations and add an extra 440 seismic sensors in vulnerable regions such as the northern tip of the San Andreas Fault near San Francisco and Southern California’s San Jacinto Fault.

Sen. Alex Padilla, the bill’s sponsor, said the warning system could be developed using federal grants, partnerships with the private sector or surcharges levied by the state.