California Should Help Pay for Quake Early Warnings, State Lawmakers Say

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

Hours after a magnitude-6.4 earthquake struck Taiwan, four state lawmakers said they want California to help pay for an earthquake early warning system, which has been stalled by a lack of funding.

“There’s no valid reason not to make this relatively small investment in an early warning system that has the potential to save the lives of Californians,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, also a Democrat, and a former speaker of the state Assembly, said, “It’s crucial that we fund a statewide earthquake early warning system and get it in place right away.”

The voices of support for the warning system mark a change in tone at the State Capitol, where there had been few supporters of the system in recent years. On Wednesday, H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the state Department of Finance, said California’s policy is to not use money from the general fund for the early warning system.

The cost of building the system across the West Coast would be $38 million, plus $16 million a year to operate it. For California alone, the cost is $23 million to build the network, and $12 million annually to maintain it.

Congress and President Barack Obama have already kicked in about half of the annual cost to operate the program, but federal elected officials have said California, Oregon and Washington should contribute substantial amounts of money for the network.

The prototype early warning system has shown promising results in its test phase, giving 30 seconds of warning to downtown L.A. before the ground shook from a magnitude-4.4 earthquake last month. In 2014, the system gave researchers in San Francisco eight seconds of notice before the shaking arrived from a magnitude-6.0 earthquake that began in Napa.

But the system doesn’t yet have enough seismic sensor stations – 1,000 more need to be built or upgraded across the West Coast, added to the existing network of 650 facilities, which have been largely focused on the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

Other countries have developed earthquake early warning systems after earthquakes killed thousands of people. Mexico City has had a system since 1991, built after a 1985 earthquake killed at least 9,500 people.

Japan built a nationwide early warning system after the 1995 Kobe earthquake killed more than 5,000 people. When the magnitude-9 earthquake hit east of Japan in 2011, many people in Tokyo, 200 miles away from the epicenter, had 30 seconds of warning that the shaking was coming.

The warnings would allow elevators to automatically open at the next floor before shaking arrives, tell surgeons to halt surgery, and slow down trains to decrease the risk of derailment.

The early warning system works on a simple principle: The shaking from an earthquake travels at about the speed of sound through rock — slower than the speed of today’s telecommunications systems. That means it would take more than a minute for, say, a 7.8 earthquake that starts at the Salton Sea to shake up Los Angeles 150 miles away.