The earthquake that jolted California's wine capital may have caused at least $1 billion in property damage, but it also added impetus to the state's effort to develop an early warning system that might offer a few precious seconds for residents to duck under desks, trains to slow down and utility lines to be powered down before the seismic waves reach them.
California's senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, joined a chorus of renewed calls on Monday for the quick deployment of a quake activity alert system such as the ones already in operation in Mexico and Japan.
"Officials in Washington and along the West Coast should partner with the private sector to make an interoperable earthquake early-warning system a reality, and we should do so as soon as possible before a much larger earthquake strikes," Feinstein said.
Such a system may be closer to reality than most Californians realize, though it's still years away. A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year ordered his Office of Emergency Services to develop a comprehensive statewide system and by 2016, identify sources of funding for it. An early-warning system would cost an estimated $80 million.
The office's director, Mark Ghiladucci said Monday that he pictures a network, financed with both private and public money, made up of a government "backbone" and supplemented with data from private sources in more remote areas.
"This is sort of the last mile out of the 20-year effort for scientists that have been working on this for us to pull it all together," Ghiladucci said. "California is unique. It is a long, complicated, highly populated state, and we have to have a system that is 100 percent reliable so that people can count on it."
Richard Allen, director of the University of California, Berkeley, Seismological Lab, said his lab received a 10-second advance warning of light shaking when the seismic waves from Sunday's quake arrived there. Allen is among the researchers testing the earthquake warning system that is not yet available for public use, but is envisioned as the basis for the state's system.
The magnitude-6.0 temblor was centered near the city of Napa and caused several injuries, left four mobile homes destroyed by gas-fed fires and damaged wineries, historic buildings and hotels. The area has experienced dozens of aftershocks since, the largest of which was a 3.9-magnitude quake that struck at 5:33 a.m. Tuesday about 7 miles south of the city of Napa.
There were no calls reporting damage or injuries, but the quake did rattle already frayed nerves.
Allen, of the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab, said though Berkeley is about 40 miles from the quake's epicenter and did not experience any damage during Sunday's quake, in a more violent temblor, 10 seconds could have made a big difference.
"A few seconds means that you can move to your safe zone, that you can get under that sturdy table; that way you are not going to be injured by falling fireplaces and ceiling lights. We see a large number of injuries resulting from these kinds of incidents."
The systems can't predict quakes, and are not effective at the epicenter, where the tremors go out almost simultaneously. The warning people receive - a few seconds to tens of seconds - depends on the distance from the epicenter.
Napa would have received at most a second of warning if California already had a system in place, said Thomas Heaton, a professor of engineering seismology at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
"It's important for people to keep this in perspective," he said. "It's a new kind of tool, but it's not a panacea."