MEXICO CITY -- The local government is giving away an app for BlackBerrys that will send out an alert when a major earthquake is about to hit this capital city of 20 million people.
BlackBerry users with the application will receive a warning up to 50 seconds in advance, depending on where the epicenter is located, before the quake reaches Mexico City, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said as he unveiled the new alert system (link in Spanish).
Those are critical seconds, Ebrard said, that will allow "both individuals and the government to take actions to protect people."
Until now, the only advance-alert system available here had been developed by Mexico's National Autonomous University and was provided to a limited number of subscribers, including several government agencies. Employees at some of those agencies reported having enough time to escape their buildings ahead of the March 20 magnitude 7.4 quake that badly rocked the city but caused only minor damage.
In that shaker, as in many that Mexico gets, the epicenter was in the southern state of Guerrero, allowing time for the alert to be raised.
Ebrard said his government's goal is to install in the coming weeks up to 6,800 alarms in public streets that will convey the warning to a broader public.
"We want to have the most complete seismic-alert system that there is," Ebrard said.
"We did not have this in 1985," he added, alluding to the catastrophic jolt that destroyed parts of the capital and killed more than 10,000 people. "If we had, then surely thousands of lives would have been saved."
Mexico City, with its sprawling and often haphazard construction, is especially vulnerable to severe damage because parts of it sit on soft soil or landfill that acts like jelly when a tremor hits.
City officials say the app is available free of charge on this website: www.caepccm.df.gob.mx/appalertasismica. They also said the system, for moderate and strong quakes, will emit a sound and a vibration, even when the BlackBerry is in silent or standby mode.
-- Tracy WilkinsonPhoto: Workers repair subway lines after the March 20 earthquake rattled Mexico City. Credit: Associated Press