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Earthquake early warning system could save lives in California

August 6, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
Earthquakes, unlike other natural disasters, often hit without warning. But some countries have systems to give residents a heads-up before one strikes. Despite a history of deadly quakes in California, the U.S. has no widespread warning system. The NewsHour’s Cat Wise reports on ShakeAlert, a project in development in Southern California that measures initial waves before a strong shaking.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next, we turn to a science report on a major new effort to give California communities more warning about an impending earthquake.

The quake in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province earlier this week provided a sobering reminder of the deadly toll. Unlike most natural disasters, earthquakes usually hit without warning.

The NewsHour’s Cat Wise has a story on plans to give residents in Southern California a heads-up.

CAT WISE: In Mexico, when an earthquake is about to hit, many people hear this.

(SIREN BLARING)

CAT WISE: And in Japan, where thousands of seismic sensors are installed around the country, this is what some TV viewers saw in 2011 right before their large quake hit.

But, in Long Beach, California, residents have had no warning system, even though the area, home to the second busiest container port in the country, oil refineries and a major airport, sits on top of one of the most seismically active regions in the world. In 1933, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit Long Beach, causing widespread destruction and killing 115 people.

Since then, laws have been passed to improved building standards. And residents are better educated about earthquake risks. So why hasn’t a system been rolled out in the U.S. yet?

Lucy Jones is a science adviser for risk reduction in the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS.

LUCY JONES, Seismologist, United States Geological Survey: Japan voted for the money after 6,000 died in Kobe. Mexico voted for it after 10,000 died in Michoacan. China had 80,000 die in the Sichuan earthquake and then started early warning.

What we’re hoping to be is the first country that brings it in without killing 1,000 people first.

(SIREN BLARING)

COMPUTER VOICE: Earthquake.

CAT WISE: The system she is talking about called ShakeAlert is being tested in a handful of sites around California, including Long Beach.

MAN: OK. It looks like there’s an earthquake at 142.

CAT WISE: On a recent afternoon, a loud warning and a countdown sounded in the city’s emergency command center when a small quake hit to the north.

REGGIE HARRISON, Long Beach, California, Deputy City Manager: How many seconds of warning did we get?

MAN: We have 67 seconds of total warning.

CAT WISE: Reggie Harrison is Long Beach’s deputy city manager in charge of disaster preparedness.

REGGIE HARRISON: If we get a warning, seconds or tens of seconds of warning, we like to give information to the gas department, where they may take an opportunity to turn off gas, give the public an opportunity to drop cover and hold, or giving a crane operator at the port an opportunity to get down from that crane.

CAT WISE: ShakeAlert is being developed by a team of scientists from the USGS and several West Coast universities, including here at the California Institute of Technology.

ELIZABETH COCHRAN, Seismologist, United States Geological Survey: So what we have here is the — what we typically have installed in the field.

CAT WISE: Elizabeth Cochran, a seismologist with USGS and Cal Tech, is one of those working on the new system.

ELIZABETH COCHRAN: For the current early warning system, we have about 500 sensors throughout the state which are contributing data. And that number continues to grow as we install new sensors or upgrade sensors.

CAT WISE: The sensors send back data in real time to servers on campus, which use sophisticated algorithms to analyze the information in less than a second and send out alerts.

Those alerts, which will range from a few seconds to a minute or more, depending on distance from the epicenter, will eventually go out over cell phones, radios, TVs, and other emergency communications. The system depends on something about earthquakes most people probably don’t know.

They actually send out two different seismic waves, P waves, or primary waves, come first. They travel faster, but are generally small and harder to feel. S waves, or secondary waves, are slower, but cause more damage. That lag time is important, says Cochran.

ELIZABETH COCHRAN: We can actually measure those P waves, which aren’t very damaging, and then predict how big the earthquake is going to be, and hopefully get that warning out to people before the S waves come in.

CAT WISE: She showed us how the warning system would work during a hypothetical 7.8 earthquake in Southern California.

ELIZABETH COCHRAN: Our sensors would rapidly detect that earthquake. You can see here the yellow or are the P waves, and the second wave here is the S wave. And that’s where we get our strong shaking.

Los Angeles would get about 60 seconds of warning.

CAT WISE: Russ Oliver is one of the dozen or so seismic engineers around the state who install and maintain the large network of sensors. On the afternoon we caught up with Oliver, he was checking on sensors 10 feet underground in a concrete bunker near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The sophisticated equipment in this location costs about $30,000.

RUSS OLIVER, California Institute of Technology: The sensors are very sensitive. Imagine a football field, and you lift it up on one end, slide a human hair underneath it, and the sensors could detect that lift.

CAT WISE: While the public early warning system will be new for most residents once it’s rolled out, some private companies like one called Seismic Warning Systems already use different proprietary technology to provide earthquake alerts for paying clients.

Sensors installed directly on their buildings reduce alert times. The costs range from $1,200 to $2,500 per client a year. But USGS’ Lucy Jones feels it’s important also for the government to make investments to the public system being created.

LUCY JONES: The reality is, this is a benefit for all of us. Something like 40 states have some earthquake risk. We’re going to figure out how to do it here because so much more is at stake, but once we do it it’s something that we can give to everyone.

CAT WISE: So far, the system’s only been partially funded by Congress. And in California, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill supporting development of the system, but stipulated that no general state funds could be used.

Mark Ghilarducci is the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

MARK GHILARDUCCI, Director, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services: Government will continue to provide a funding stream, but not all of the funding. We’re looking at it in a little bit more innovative ways, a little outside-the-box thinking to be able to incorporate our partners in the private sector.

CAT WISE: Back in Long Beach, Deputy City Manager Reggie Harrison doesn’t care how the system is funded. He’s just anxious to get it implemented in his community.

REGGIE HARRISON: It can literally save lives, this technology. Seconds really do count in this industry, and especially with an earthquake.

CAT WISE: Officials say, even if funding is coming through soon, it will be several years before California residents are likely to hear this…

(ALARM BLARING)

CAT WISE: … before an earthquake.