|U.S. Geological Survey|
|The Cypress Street Viaduct in Oakland collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Another big temblor could hit at anytime.|
When the next significant earthquake strikes California, seconds may mean the difference between life and death.
Five, perhaps 10 seconds is just enough time to dive under a desk or move away from a window. It's time enough for a commuter train to brake, a car to pull over, a utility to start shutting off gas lines.
The state of California last month took a step toward giving residents that precious bit of time, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 135, which mandates creation of a statewide earthquake early warning system.
UC Berkeley's Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, was a major proponent of the bill.
He and others have urged California and others to move quickly with implementation of a system that can detect the initial, fast-moving shock wave from a large tremor, calculate its strength and alert people before the slower but more damaging waves arrive.
The question now is how to fund it — Brown has not earmarked any resources for its creation.
"We need to develop this system without delay," said bill sponsor Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, in a statement. "California is going to have an earthquake early warning system, the question is whether we have one before or after the next big quake."
That next big quake could be years from now — or it could be today. On Oct. 17, 1989, Northern California was rocked by the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake; nearly 20 years ago, Southern California was hit by the 6.7 Northridge quake. Statewide, the probability of a similar 6.7 temblor or larger sometime in the next 30 years is nearly 100 percent.
The state should act quickly, Allen said, "rather than waiting until the next big quake galvanizes political action" because of loss of life and property.
"Now that we have the law on the books, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services must coordinate construction and identify funding for the project," Allen said.
It won't come cheap. Allen and his colleagues estimate the project will cost $80 million over five years to perfect the system and deploy seismic sensors around the state, and another $12 million each year to operate. But the benefits — in potential damage prevention and lives saved — loom large.
"Politicians, business leaders and agency administrators need to recognize the significance and urgency of seismic risk," and institute a nationwide early warning system now, Allen said.
UC Berkeley News Center contributed to this report.