Is Earthquake Early Warning A Reality?

POSTED: 04:05 PM PST Nov 28, 2012 
PALM DESERT, Calif. -

Death and taxes, the only sure things in life the saying goes.  Sadly for our area, there is probably one other sure thing, a big earthquake, long overdue.  Our valley could soon have a complete early warning system for a big shaker.  Not a lot of warning, but some could help.

Natural disasters....hurricanes....tornadoes...earthquakes, the results are similar, death, destruction, but there are huge differences.  One of those is advance warning times.  

Hurricanes, can be detected by satellites, carefully observed and plotted.  The National Hurricane Center  can give people in the path of a hurricane days of advanced warning, to batten down the hatches, or get out.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns when tornadoes are coming.  These violent events are relatively predictable nowadays. National Weather Service meteorologists can see severe weather coming as far as 6 days in advance.  

Here in the valley, the boogeyman is the earthquake.  The San Andreas Fault,  just North of the 1-10 is an 810 mile sub-surface fissure that runs the length of California.  This fault is capable of producing an 8.1 magnitude earthquake...it would kill thousands, and cause hundred of billions of dollars in damage.  As for a warning ...well, we won't get days, or hours, or probably even minutes of warning.  But we could get several seconds, very valuable seconds.  

"You never know when an earthquake is going to happen you can't predict it, but we know its going to happen" says Blake Goetz is the former Fire Chief of Palm Springs.  He is a strong advocate of CREWS, Coachella Valley Regional Earthquake Warning System.  It is already in place, make that partially in place.

Fire stations in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and La Quinta, as well as Sunline Transit Agency have the CREWS system already.  Sensor technology that detect the very first shock waves emanating from an earthquake epicenter.    

Heres why some limited warning time is possible with big quakes.  Earthquakes are composed of three different types of waves... the so called "P" waves come first they travel much faster than the devastating, heavy shake causing  "S" and "R" waves that follow.

An example from an earthquake in Japan shows slight shaking as the less volatile "P" waves roll through.  Allowing time for a person to duck and cover.  The actual scene some 35 seconds later, the stronger waves have arrived .

There are more than 30 earthquakes every day in California, most are small, almost undetectable.  But Seismologists make it clear we are long overdue for a major quake.  In fact, a recent study by scientists at U.C. San Diego concluded:

"The risk of a large quake may be increasing more rapidly than researchers previously believed. "

And that is why the clock may be ticking on getting a valley wide, maybe even county wide early warning system in place.

Gary Rosenblum was for years, risk manager for the City of Palm Desert.  He says an early warning system for the entire valley has been available for four years, cost, no more than three million dollars.

"It's not really that much money in the scope of things, so what's slowing it up? I don't know what's slowing it up... bureaucracy?  It may be bureaucracy, maybe will of public hasn't been heard yet."  

But there is some good news on an expanded earthquake warning system for the valley.  Under the auspices of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) we are reportedly close to obtaining a million and a half dollar FEMA grant.  That would go a long way towards establishing 138 warning sites.  Far surpassing the 15 now in place.  Included would be warning systems for 87 valley schools.

"It definitely can help for those who know what to do when warning comes, they can protect themselves from injury."

The warning systems would be calibrated to go off when they detect an earthquake of 5.0 or higher.  All fire stations would be equipped, their systems have an added feature.  When the warning is tripped, it automatically raises the doors at fire stations, allowing first responders to get out into  the community and begin saving lives and property.

Just two years ago in the Mexicali quake, they were trapped inside fire stations for 15 minutes and had to use extraction tools to get out of the building, meantime there were gas leaks and fires happening in the communities.   

This system is truly a work in progress.  Backers hope to add valley businesses to the schools and fire stations that have the system.  You may be wondering about yourself, at home, maybe driving in your car when a big quake hits.  Fast changing technology could help.  

"I can envision a time when people in homes who have internet connectivity will just have a box on the wall that maybe they bought at Costco or Wal Mart that possibly triggers it in their homes. "

So in some ways we are playing with time here in our earthquake prone region. The big one, Seismologists insist , will come one day, it is long overdue.  And even if a valley wide early warning system becomes reality,  the warning will give you only a very short time to brace yourself for hard shaking.  The aftermath, injuries in need of medical attention, fires, fallen structures, impassable roads, could go on for some time, days, weeks, more...as always, those who are best prepared, will fare the best.  

"Water, food, emergency plan, drop , cover, hold...none of that goes away with earthquake warnings, this is just another tool in the tool box"

The earthquake prone island nation of Japan is the leader in early earthquake warning.  All of Japan's major mobile phone carriers have developed a simultaneous broadcast system to receive early warnings.  It is now mandatory on all phones made in Japan.