California’s Earthquake Raises Awareness, Highlights Room for Improvement

September 23rd, 2014

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By CHHS Research Assistant Laura Merkey

California’s 6.0 magnitude earthquake, which rocked the Napa Valley region last August, has created economic losses of up to $1 billion. It was the strongest earthquake that the region has experienced in over 25 years. Destruction included ruptured gas and water mains, demolished homes and businesses, sparked fires, and injured more than 100 people. The spokesman for California’s Emergency Management Agency emphasized that the recent quake was a reminder that the entire state, not just earthquake-prone cities such as San Francisco, are vulnerable to the threat of earthquakes.

The earthquake exposed the weaknesses in California’s emergency preparedness. One major issue is the lack of advance warning. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill which gave California’s Office of Emergency Services two years to find sources of funding for such an early-warning system and to begin to install the underground sensors for the system. Part of the challenge in designing and installing such a system is California’s geography and high population density.

One suggested solution was raised by an astrophysics professor at UC Berkeley, Josh Bloom, in the form of a prototype device that warns individuals of potential earthquakes. The device cost only $110 in parts to build and ideally would be installed in individual homes located in earthquake-prone regions like smoke detectors.

The device gathers information from the ShakeAlert system, a nationwide early-earthquake-warning (EEW) prototype developed for California, which detects the beginnings of an earthquake, estimates the level of ground shaking that will result, and issues a warning. The device would be minutes faster than the current tweets and emails that relay warnings for prospective quakes.
While the device is still a work in progress, the potential is great – its creator imagines the device connecting wirelessly to local networks and providing enough warning to slow down trains, control elevators and factory lines, place sensitive equipment in safe mode, or even warn individuals to move away from windows or bookshelves. There is the potential for the device to initiate social media blasts to further warn individuals of an impending quake.

The new level of awareness prompted by the California earthquake is timely; September is National Preparedness Month. The nationwide initiative is aimed at making sure the public is aware of the potential for disasters, is informed about what protective measures to take before, during, and after an emergency, and has a plan in place for any type of disaster.

Suggestions for preparedness planning include building a disaster kit for you and your family, and designating a meeting spot. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, recommends that individuals be ready to be self-reliant for at least three days, which includes coping with no electricity, water service, fuel, access to a supermarket, or police and fire rescue. Additional emphasis is placed on plans for the workplace, infants and young children, senior citizens, access and functional needs individuals, and even family pets.

While clearly no plan is fool-proof and not every disaster foreseeable, as the recent California earthquake has shown, a little preparedness could go a long way in mitigation and saving lives. A carefully considered and implemented preparedness plan, such as the one suggested by the National Preparedness Month website, on the individual and family levels, as well as the installation and implementation of early-warning technology could have made a world of difference to the individuals injured and the property lost in the California earthquake. Hopefully, as we continue to learn from and adjust our response to these disasters, the physical and economic impacts will become less devastating.

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