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California Earthquake Warning System Getting Funding Boost

(KPIX 5) -- An earthquake early warning system is getting a financial shot in the arm from the state of California.

The idea is to give people some kind of warning, perhaps just a few seconds, that the world is about to start rocking. The program began clear back in 2006 but, now, Gov. Gavin Newsom's first budget includes $16.3 million to finish building California's part of the project.

A warning horn and a voice crying, "Earthquake! Earthquake!" were part of an actual alert put out after the Napa earthquake in 2014. It came from "ShakeAlert" a West Coast quake warning system developed, in part, at the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It's not prediction. We can't tell you there's going to be an earthquake in a week," said seismologist and ShakeAlert project scientist, Dr. Angela Chung. "But what we can tell you is that an earthquake has occurred and you're about to feel shaking."

The project, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, uses hundreds of seismic sensing stations placed strategically throughout California, Oregon and Washington.

Seismology Lab Operations Manager, Dr. Peggy Hellweg said, "The thing that actually makes earthquake early warning possible now, which it wouldn't have been, say, 30 or 40 years ago, was that we're getting data in real time from those stations."

Transit agencies like BART are already tied into the system but the technical challenge now is figuring a way to push the alerts out quickly enough to the cellphones of people in the public.

"When you're talking about early warning, you want to do things really fast. A few seconds make a big difference," said Dr. Chung. "And it's not currently possible to send an alert to all people in the Bay Area within a second or two."

But that would be where the greatest benefit lies, giving everyone a chance to dive for cover and hang on, if and when the Big One strikes.

The Berkeley scientists say it's possible a magnitude-9 quake could come from the Cascadia Fault running through Washington and Oregon. An earthquake that powerful could cause damage in the Bay Area and clear down to Southern California. But the ShakeAlert system would also give several minutes of warning before it struck.

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