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Sounding the Alarm

An early warning system would save thousands of lives when the next major earthquake hits. But will California find the money to implement it?

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In California, a wall-to-wall super quake could rip from one end of the state to the other. The San Andreas Fault, which stretches from Mendocino County to the Salton Sea in Southern California, was long thought to be divided by a similar "stable" zone in the Central Valley. According to the new model, however, it is technically possible for a super quake to rip through the four hundred miles separating two of America's most populous areas. "They're arguing that it's not impossible," said Allen. "What it really means is that you can have the Big One in Southern California and the Big One in Northern California at the same time."

"I think the temperature in the room is that while it's a possibility, it's probably a fairly low possibility," stressed Given. "But, that said, we have seen other low-possibility events occur — like Tohoku itself. And we saw the impact of an event that some of the best earthquake scientists in the world thought was a very low-probability event."


State Senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley whose district includes Northridge, which was devastated by a 6.7-magnitude temblor in 1994, introduced Senate Bill 135 in January. The bill calls for the creation of a statewide early warning system. To date, SB 135 has passed through all its committee hearings without opposition. But in order to make it to the governor's desk in September, it's going to need to overcome a major hurdle: finding the $80 million to build it.

Padilla, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and just announced his candidacy for California Secretary of State in 2014, said that he has no plans to dip into the state's general fund to pay for the system, despite the obvious benefits it will provide. Padilla has yet to fully explain his decision, but it's likely because of politics. Getting the legislature and the governor to sign off on spending scarce state funds on yet another new program would probably be a tough sell. Padilla has hinted instead that he will apply for federal grants, but his chances of success remain unclear.

Meanwhile, one private company in Southern California is already selling a similar technology to interested clients. Seismic Warning Systems, which includes a small team of six staffers operating more than eighty seismometers in Southern California, has implemented a sort of private-public model in Riverside and Imperial counties. The company sells its technology to other private companies in earthquake-prone regions, and then cycles some of the proceeds to pay for earthquake early warning in dozens of schools and fire stations in those counties.

Seismic Warning Systems is arguing that a similar model could work for the state. But it remains to be seen whether the company's technology, which is proprietary, is really as accurate as it claims, and whether it has the capability to expand in a way that could be useful on such a big scale. To date, the company has yet to share its technology with public agencies so it can be verified. And there have been reports of some tensions between Seismic Warning Systems and the public institutions vying to work with the state, although no one seems to be ruling out a public-private model at this point.

Still, there is no clear path forward right now for a statewide system. At a state Senate committee hearing last month in Sacramento, Republican Senator Jim Nielsen expressed concerns that reflect what many think when they hear about the potential of earthquake early warning system. "Seems like this is a no-brainer; they should've been working together for decades," Nielsen said, in his country-tinged drawl, addressing Padilla. "They should have been working on a plan. It's too bad that you have to thump them on the head to get them to do so."

Padilla responded quickly and firmly. "In their defense, sir, they've been thumping on us for attention and funding. They've been thumping on our Congressional delegation, and our federal agencies, for attention and funding. So, I know you don't want to be sitting with me after the next Big One if we haven't deployed an early warning system."

Here's what ShakeAlert — the warning system that Cal, Caltech, and USGS are working on — would look like.
Credit Richard Allen, University of California, Berkeley.

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