U.S. Quake Warning System Could Save Lives When Seconds Count Before it does damage, an earthquake sends out a "P wave" that scientists use to find location and size. The U.S. quake warning system under development on the West Coast is built around the P wave.

U.S. Quake Warning System Could Save Lives When Seconds Count

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Today in Washington, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described a new earthquake warning system that's in the works for the U.S. She said it will have something current warnings do not.


SALLY JEWELL: The ability to provide notice to people before that earthquake strikes.

MCEVERS: But NPR's Christopher Joyce reports the system is still a long way from where it should be.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Seismologist Peggy Hellweg works at the University of California, Berkeley, the heart of quake country. She says you can't predict a quake, but you can build a system that alerts people almost instantly when one does hit.

PEGGY HELLWEG: We know that our system is not good enough to do the job for all of the earthquakes that we expect in California and the Pacific Northwest.

JOYCE: The current system is too slow. When a quake hits, the first of many seismic waves rockets through the earth. Seismic sensors pick it up and relay information to computers. The computers calculate where the quake hit and how big it is, then they send out warnings. All this can take dozens of seconds, losing valuable time for people to duck, cover and hold on, shut down gas lines and elevators.

HELLWEG: We want to be able to tell people there's this big earthquake, it's happening, it's going to affect your area.

JOYCE: That's what ShakeAlert is all about. Officials in Washington today said this new system, with more sensors and computers, should cut that processing time to just a few seconds. That's how Japan's system works. I saw it in action after the quake in 2011 near Fukushima. I was doing an interview in Tokyo and suddenly, my translator grabbed his cell phone.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think this is an earthquake - earthquake in Fukushima.

JOYCE: I feel it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I guess it's shaking, yeah.

JOYCE: But even though we were warned, we didn't react the way we should have.

HELLWEG: Did you all drop, cover and hold on?

JOYCE: Frankly, we did not.

ShakeAlert will eventually link to smart phones, but the warnings won't work unless people react the way they're supposed to, and that requires faith that the warnings are accurate. John Vidale of the University of Washington is helping create ShakeAlert. He says it needs another two years of work to build reliability.

JOHN VIDALE: We don't really want to send it out until we have enough confidence it won't misfire so much to undermine people's confidence.

JOYCE: Japan recently warned of a big quake that did not happen. Officials had to go on TV and apologize. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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