An earthquake early warning system for California was finalized two years ago and passed into law last year, but it has not yet been implemented pending funding. Given that estimates of the cost of last weekend’s Napa Valley quake are reaching $1 billion, why has the system not been implemented when the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates early warning coverage for California, Washington and Oregon would cost a comparably cheaper $38 million to build?
The proposed system gives about 10 seconds’ warning that the effects of an earthquake are on their way. This gives enough time to begin slowing down commuter transport and trains, for elevators to stop at the next floor and open their doors, and for electronic doors to open in places such as fire stations so emergency vehicles aren’t trapped inside if there is a power failure. A trial version of the system in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles did indeed give researchers, local governments and state emergency services officials 10 seconds warning before the weekend’s Napa quake hit. Bay Area Rapid Transit also received a warning from a similar trial system provided by the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. Unfortunately, the system can’t help those who are near the epicenter of a quake as the effects arrive too quickly.
Similar systems to the one proposed exist in Mexico and Japan. The Californian system would build on the existing network of 400 earthquake monitoring sensors, increasing that to 800 sensors and sending alerts to residents and public utilities amongst others. Together with the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, USGS scientists have been working on a system for California, Oregon and Washington for many years. In a recent USGS report, the three-state system was estimated at $38 million in infrastructure costs, plus $16 million per year in operating costs. A California-only system would cost $23 million to construct.
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the law directing state emergency services officials to develop an early warning system for the state, but using outside funding. The source of this funding has still not been identified. California state senator Alex Padilla noted, “It wasn’t my preference but given what the state has been through for the past decade and the impact on the state’s budget, a lot of leaders were wary (of using state funds),” On Monday, California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein called for federal funding for the system. She stated, “An integrated early warning system is essential to save lives and property. What we need is the political resolve to deploy such a system.”