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Why Does California Still Not Have An Earthquake Early Warning System?

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Despite its ever-present warnings about how we California residents should be prepared for “The Big One,” our state government has no desire to pay for an earthquake early-warning system that could potentially save thousands of lives. According to the L.A. Times, it is not “policy” to use money from the state’s general fund to build a early-warning system.

A trio of state legislators believes this is nonsense, arguing that the state has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its residents. Coming just hours after a M. 6.4 Earthquake killed at least 14 people in Taiwan, State Senators Jerry Hill, from San Mateo, and Bob Hertzberg, of Van Nuys, along with Assemblymember Adam Gray, released a statement saying that California needs to act sooner than later to build such a system using money from the state’s general fund.

A 2013 law prohibits the state from building a system using general fund money, instead requiring the state to rely on public-private partnerships. Those partnerships have stalled, according to the L.A. Times, but the Big One is still coming.

Building an early warning system is entirely possible. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, China, Turkey, and Mexico all have them in place, giving people crucial seconds to duck under a table or evacuate before an earthquake’s shockwaves hit. When a M 9.0 Earthquake struck Japan in 2011, Tokyo residents had almost 70 seconds of warning before the shockwaves hit.

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A system in California is proposed to cost $23 million, with an additional annual upkeep of $12 million. Figuring in the $16 million already supplied from the federal government to build an early warning system, that cost falls further.

$23 million dollars is a paltry sum for the state, especially when contrasted with the tens of billions (68 precisely) of dollars the state has no problem spending on a high-speed rail corridor through California. Yet for reasons unknown, the state has been reluctant to commit to building a system that warns people about an impending earthquake.

The state legislative analyst predicts California will end the next fiscal year with a reserve of $11.5 billion.

“We should use a small fraction of that money to make a smart, one-time investment in a system that can improve public safety and save lives,” the legislators said in a statement. “We share Gov. Brown’s commitment to fiscal restraint. However, to not invest a small fraction of the overall state budget to implement the earthquake early warning system would be fiscally irresponsible.”

In terms of particulars, an early warning system for California works by blanketing the system with sensors that transmit a warning signal if they detect shaking. Seismic waves move at approximately the speed of sound, significantly slower than the speed modern communications technology functions.

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The end goal is to have a system that can warn people almost instantly when an earthquake starts nearby through their smartphones, computers, and televisions. Ideally, people could use the time between receiving a warning signal to drop and cover or evacuate. At the same time, this signal could be used to alert emergency services, stop trains and motion, and open elevator doors to prevent people getting trapped inside.