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Lawmaker wants $80 million for earthquake warning system

January 28, 2013 |  5:10 pm

A group of California’s top earthquake experts announced an $80-million plan to build what would be the nation’s first earthquake early warning system. State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) is proposing a bill that would search for funding to pay for the installation and upgrade of underground sensors and other equipment to create the network.

The system would give the public crucial seconds of warning before a major temblor hit metropolitan areas.

The sensors would detect the first signs of a quake and send text alerts to nearby areas that would feel shaking seconds later. California already has hundreds of sensors in the ground, but the state needs significantly more in order to create the network, experts said. The existing sensors would also need improvement.

Several countries, including Japan, Mexico and Romania, are well ahead of the United States in building such systems. When the massive 2011 Japan quake hit, the early warning system sent text messages to roughly 50 million people, telling them the shaking was about to start. Warning alerts went off in Tokyo seconds before the shaking, and all trains had time to slow or stop. Not a single train derailed. Last year, residents in Mexico City were warned shortly before a magnitude 7.4 quake near Acapulco.

Padilla said it’s time for California to build its own system, adding that $80 million is a relatively small price to pay, given the potential savings. The fully functioning system could be operational within two years.

"What would happen if people had 30 to 60 seconds before the shaking started?" Padilla said. "It means you could save a child. Teachers to tell their students to take cover. Operators can stop a train. On and on and on. With a little additional warning, we can mitigate a lot of the damage and injuries, and even deaths, that we associate with big earthquakes."

Experts said the warning system would be particularly helpful for quakes on the San Andreas Fault, which in Southern California is located some distance from major population centers. A quake that hits at the Salton Sea, for example, would offer metropolitan Los Angeles a minute of warning before shaking is felt in the city.

It remains unclear how much support the bill will receive in the Legislature. California’s budget picture has improved significantly since voters approved the Proposition 30 tax increases last year.

Padilla did not identify a specific source of funding Monday but said he hoped to locate sources of funding by August. He said he wanted to help educate Sacramento and Washington lawmakers about the merits of this early warning system.

“It’s going to be a challenge. If it was easy, it would’ve already been done,” Padilla said. “When you put the $80-million figure side by side compared to the billions upon billions of damage that we suffer after every big earthquake, I think the investment is a no-brainer,” Padilla said.

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-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Pasadena and Rosanna Xia in Los Angeles

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