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Southern California gets $5 million for earthquake warning system

Emergency response chiefs announce $5 million federal grant to build an earthquake early warning system. Photo credit: Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Southern California regional emergency response leaders announced Friday they'd received $5 million in federal grant money to help build an earthquake early warning system.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Institute of Technology are working on a prototype that can detect a quake on a major fault, and flash a warning to distant communities that shaking is about to arrive.

The system is being tested by the LAPD and LA Metro, with the goal is to make it available to the public soon.

The $5 million will be used to install another 100 seismic stations along regional fault lines over the next two years. Some of the grant will also pay for computer processing space.

“Our system in Southern California will be more capable of providing fast, easily understood and actionable warnings that could save lives when the big one hits,” said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaragiosa.

Mexico, Turkey, Japan and China have created earthquake early warning systems.

Japan has one of the most comprehensive systems in the world, according to scientists. When a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck near Sendai two years ago, 50 million Japanese residents had between 10 and 30 seconds of warning before the shockwaves arrived.

Earthquake early warning takes advantage of the fact that the earthquake waves travel at the speed of sound to reach someone, explained USGS scientist Dr. Lucy Jones. A warning can travel at the speed of light—providing anyone miles away a handful of seconds to find a safe spot to ride out the soon-to-arrive quake.

How much warning you get depends on where you from the earthquake.

Take the "Big One"—the giant quake anticipated to strike someday on the southern end of the San Andreas fault. Jones said downtown L.A. residents might get up to 50 seconds of warning that strong shockwaves are on their way.

“This is the time when good science and a modest investment can really save many lives,” Jones said.

USGS and the Los Angeles/Long Beach Urban Areas Security Initiative had estimated $23 million would be needed to expand the system to all of California.

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