Over the Hill

Feeling rattled over pricey plan for a five-second earthquake warning

Special to The TribuneApril 10, 2014 

Seismologists hope to create a statewide California earthquake alarm system. It would warn us four or five seconds before the shaking hits.

I read that in Sunday’s Tribune and thought, “What good is that? I can’t make up my mind about anything in five seconds.”

Congressman Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, was quoted as saying, “Even a few seconds of warning before the next big one will allow people to seek cover, automatically slow or stop trains, pause surgeries and more.”

A government seismologist has said the statewide alarm system would cost about $80 million. Congressman Schiff is trying to get Congress to appropriate some of that.

But I can’t do anything in just a few seconds. It took several minutes to Google “quake alarm” and find a related article from the March 29 Los Angeles Times. It said the proposed alarm system “could give downtown Los Angeles 40 to 50 seconds of warning” of a “Big One” on the San Andreas Fault.

That’s a little better. In 40 to 50 seconds Mamie and I could probably duck and cover under the dining room table.

But there are still questions. How would the warning reach us? Suppose our TV is off. Telephoning would use valuable seconds. Would a siren be audible through double-pane windows?

But the Times article did explain Schiff’s “pause surgeries” comment. It meant a surgeon would have time to take his scalpel out of me. And 40 to 50 seconds might give elevators time to stop at a floor and open doors. And firefighters could open doors for fire engines.

The proposed alarm system already seems to work. On March 28, a prototype of the system sent out a warning from a 5.1 quake near La Habra. It reached Pasadena four seconds before the shaking got there. When the system’s sensors detect shaking on an earthquake fault, they send electronic warnings, which travel faster than the ground shaking movements.

Seismologists once tried to predict an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault in Parkfield north of Shandon. Parkfield had endured six moderate quakes between 1857 and 1966. They were about 22 years apart, so seismologists expected the next quake to hit around 1988 or certainly by 1993.

Scientists came from universities, foreign governments and the U.S. Geological Survey. Tiny Parkfield became the earthquake capital of the world, a magnet for TV news crews. The scientists installed instruments and promised to give 72 hours notice before the earthquake. But the San Andreas Fault didn’t cooperate. It did nothing until 2004, when it produced an unpredicted 6.0 quake.

Seismologists seem to have learned something since then. They no longer speak of a 72-hour warning, just a 50-second one.


Phil Dirkx's column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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