As Napa Cleans Up From Earthquake, Bigger Shake Could Be Ahead

Big quakes have caused hundreds of deaths and billions in damage over the decades in California. University researchers are testing an early warning system, but putting it into place would cost at least $16 million a year.

As Napa Valley residents and business owners assess damage from Sunday's 6.0-magnitude earthquake, Californians are still holding their breath: The Big One could still be coming.

With fault lines running up and down the state, earthquakes in the Golden State are not a matter of if, but when. Forecasters in 2007 estimated with 99% certainty that a 6.7-magnitude quake would occur sometime in the next 30 years. A massive 7.5 earthquake has a 45% chance of occurring in the coming decades, most likely in the southern half of the state.

Preparation for the inevitable can be difficult. The Los Angeles Times reported that among historic buildings in downtown Napa, even seismic retrofitting didn't completely prevent damage.

The 3:20 a.m. earthquake struck without warning — to everyone except researchers at UC Berkeley, that is.

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An automated ShakeAlert came 10 seconds before the actual earthquake — which proved to be a larger magnitude-6.0 instead of the projected 5.7. Still, the alert came as members of the California Integrated Science Network hoped: a few seconds of warning that could one day be part of a system shutting off gas lines, closing bridges as well as warning residents to take cover.

Partners in the project, which include Berkeley, Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey, are testing the system now for accuracy. Eventually, their goal is for the system to automatically put out earthquake alerts electronically, to radio and TV stations as well as to airports, train systems, hospitals and factories.

Fully building the system along the West Coast would take $38 million, however, and a group of local lawmakers is asking the state for another $16 million a year to keep it operating.

It's not clear if legislators will find the money to keep the project running. A FEMA report estimated that earthquakes in California, Oregon and Washington account for about $4 billion in losses each year on average.

California cities, in particular, have seen large-scale destruction in earthquakes throughout its history.

1906: The San Francisco Earthquake lasted less than a minute, but with a 7.8 magnitude, it started fires that burned for three days. Much of the city was destroyed, leaving about 200,000 people homeless. More than 3,000 died.

1933: Though of a milder magnitude - 6.4 - more than 100 people died in the Long Beach Earthquake as masonry buildings crumpled.

1989: The Loma Prieta Earthquake rocked the Bay Area with a magnitude of 6.9. Damage was estimated at about $6 billion, and 67 people died.

1994: The Northridge Earthquake left 60 people dead and damaged more than 40,000 buildings in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. About 20,000 were homeless following the quake.

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