New earthquake warning program helps speed up tsunami warnings

Unlike a hurricane or most tsunamis, earthquakes hit with little if any advance notice.  But new technology is changing that.

Scientists at UC Berkeley are developing the “ShakeAlert” program, which gives people at least a ten second warning that an earthquake is about to hit.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is also helping UC Berkeley beta test its earthquake early warning system.

While “ShakeAlert” is still in its early stages, Sunday morning, a handful of test users got a blaring alert seconds before the ground started shaking in Northern California.

And about five seconds after the quake hit, the alarm started ringing at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach.

“And normally we wouldn’t have that information for another minute or two,” said Geophysicist Barry Hirshorn at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.  “By tapping into their results in real time and using that one or two minute heads up to get a faster warning out.”

That is, in the case of a tsunami.  So, they can issue a tsunami warning in two to three minutes, instead of five.

“The hope there is one day Hawaii will have a true earthquake early warning system, where we can alert people on this island after a magnitude 8 hits the Big Island before they get shaking for example,” Hirshorn said.

“I do think it’s a good idea, it’s a great idea,” said Moiliili resident Frosty Christ.

KHON2 asked Christ: “What would you do if you had a 10 second warning that an earthquake was about to happen?”
She replied: “I would grab my purse and run like mad because I live in a condo up on the 29th floor.”
KHON2 asked: “And you’d be able to get out in 10 seconds?”
She replied: “I don’t know but I’m going to practice though!”

What the experts at FEMA say you should do is drop, take cover, then hold on till the shaking stops.  Don’t use a doorway except if you know it’s strongly supported, and it’s close to you.  And if you’re already outside, stay outside but just make sure you’re far away from light poles, power lines, and buildings.

Hirshorn says places like Japan and Mexico already have an earthquake early warning system in place, but Hawaii is still a ways away from getting one of our own.

“Because the infrastructure to do it isn’t as update.  We don’t have enough instrumentation, seismometers don’t deliver the information quickly enough to us,” Hirshorn said.

And it would costs tens of millions of dollars, but you can’t put a price on people’s lives.  When it comes to natural disasters, minutes and even seconds can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Coincidentally, Hirshorn leaves for Berkeley next week to attend a previously scheduled meeting to discuss the early warning system.

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