MERCURY NEWS: California needs earthquake warning system

By Jerry Hill, Bob Hertzberg and Adam Gray, Special to the Mercury News

April 1, 2016

To live in California is to live in earthquake country. It is also to live in one of the most modern economies in the world — a place where advancing science and innovation are breeding technological wonders of all kind, from self-driving automobiles to the next generation of spacecraft.

So it makes no sense that California is behind the curve in developing an early warning system for earthquakes that is already used in other countries, such as Japan. That is why we have introduced legislation to speed the process along by providing $23 million in start-up funds and by removing the existing prohibition against using state general fund dollars for the project.

Frankly, it can't happen soon enough. Earthquakes are to California what tornadoes are to the Midwest and hurricanes are to the Southeast -- as inevitable and never-ending as nightfall.

Governing responsibly means taking immediate action when danger is imminent, and that's what our legislation does. (SB 438, by Sens. Jerry Hill and Bob Hertzberg, and AB 1346, by Assemblymember Adam Gray)

The mandate to create the statewide warning system has been on the books since Sen. Alex Padilla authored legislation in 2013, with the intent of funding it through public-private partnerships. But unfortunately, those partnerships have failed to materialize.

As always, when it comes to state budgeting, the question comes down to priorities. Improving public safety — and better protecting Californians from earthquakes — should be a top priority.

And time is of the essence. The most recent Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast, published in March 2015, says there is a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake occurring in California within the next 30 years.

Forecasts aside, we already know California is prone to earthquakes, and we know it is only a matter of time until we are hit by another major one, like the earthquakes that struck Northridge in 1994 and Loma Prieta in 1989. California is the second most seismically active state in the nation after Alaska, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and it is responsible for 66 percent of country's annual monetary losses due to earthquakes.

An earthquake warning system can warn of a coming temblor up to 60 seconds before the shaking occurs. That could save many lives.

Trains could slow down or stop, preventing derailment. Surgeries could be halted, protecting patients. Elevators could automatically stop at the nearest floor, allowing for quick exits.

Residents everywhere could find a safe place to drop and cover.

The federal government has stepped up and provided $8.2 million for earthquake early warning to be split among California, Oregon and Washington. Now it's time for California do to its part and help launch the system as soon as possible.

The funding from our legislation will, among other things, help pay for installing 440 new and upgraded seismic sensors throughout the state, connecting 840 existing seismic sensors with communications equipment so they can be hooked up into the system, and developing a system to send alerts to the public.

This will allow California to finish constructing its network of sensors and get the system up and running. That is the first step. We will still need to find a way to pay for the ongoing operational and maintenance costs.

The prototype for this system has already demonstrated its value. In 2014, it gave 8 seconds warning before a magnitude-6.0 earthquake struck Napa, and in January, it gave downtown Los Angeles a 30-second warning of shaking coming from 4.4-magnitude earthquake centered in Banning.

It's time to take the next step forward in earthquake country and put the latest technology to work protecting California residents.

Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, represents the 13th District, and Bob Hertzberg, D Van Nuys, represents the 18th District in the California Senate. Adam Gray, D-Merced, represents the 21st District in the California Assembly. They wrote this for the Mercury News.

This op-ed was published in the Mercury News on April 1, 2016.

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