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House panel decides it doesn't want Californians to fall into the sea

House proposes funding for earthquake warning system that state lawmakers wouldn't finance
State still working out details of public-private partnership in earthquake warning system

As much as Republicans might yearn for deep-blue California to fall into the deep blue ocean, the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee agreed this week to provide $5 million to support the development of an earthquake early warning system that could help reduce the injuries and damage caused by a big quake.

The funding was only about a third of the amount sought by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and two dozen other Western state representatives. But it will enable the U.S. Geological Survey and its partners, including the California Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley, to start the transition from a test system to a fully operational one.

Lucy Jones, a USGS seismologist working on earthquake warnings, said Southern California already has the sensors and other equipment needed for the system, thanks in large part to $5 million in federal dollars previously channeled from an anti-terrorism program known as the Urban Areas Security Initiative. The agency also used money from the 2009 economic stimulus package to improve the computers at seismic sensing stations, Jones said, enabling them to transmit alerts faster.

"Southern California is much closer to the final objective than anywhere else in the United States," she said.

Nevertheless, the project still needs a significant amount of money to cover its estimated $16 million annual operating cost and to deploy the equipment needed to cover the rest of California, Oregon and Washington state. That total dwarfs the amount proposed by the House Appropriations Committee.

Nevertheless, it's significant that appropriators would be willing to invest in the project before California lawmakers put up any money for it. Schiff, a member of the appropriations committee, said a federal-state partnership on the project would be ideal, but he added, "Earthquakes don’t stop at any state’s boundaries."

As my colleague Richard Simon in Washington noted, it also helped that the appropriator who chairs the Interior and Environment subcommittee, Republican Ken Calvert of Corona, is from California's earthquake-prone Inland Empire.

Besides, the federal government has a stake in minimizing losses from earthquakes, considering how much it spends rebuilding infrastructure and providing emergency aid to victims. Earthquakes cost the country an average of $5 billion a year, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's reckoning.

The grant for the warning system was included in the amended version of the Interior and Environment appropriations bill for fiscal 2015, which still has to be approved by the full House and the Senate. And the Senate has allocated almost $800 million less for the bill than the House did, which could prove problematic.

If the grant makes it into law, Schiff said he hopes the federal investment will spur Western states, local governments and the private sector to make their own contributions to a system that ultimately will serve Oregon and Washington as well. "My sense is that, once it proves its effectiveness, the resources will come," Schiff said, adding, "You just don’t want to wait until after the Big One."

Similar to the ones used in Japan and Mexico, the system is designed to detect the initial vibrations from an earthquake and send out alerts before the more powerful waves start rippling through the ground. The alerts would be used to shut down industrial equipment, trains and other automated machinery while also warning the public to move to safety.

A test version of the system demonstrated its capabilities this year, providing an alert several seconds ahead of moderate-sized quakes near La Habra and Westwood. But some critics say the technology takes too long to confirm the start of a quake and send out a warning, resulting in a large "blind spot" — the area around the epicenter where the more powerful waves hit before the alert goes out.

USGS officials improving technology and more sensors will reduce the size of the blind spot over time. Meanwhile, state officials continue to work with various stakeholders on how to incorporate private companies, such as Seismic Warning Systems of Scotts Valley and Glendale-based Everbridge, into the system the Legislature approved in September.

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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