Sunday’s quake: UC Berkeley scientists gave 10-second warning; a wake-up call for emergency preparedness

Unbeknownst to some, the magnitude 6 Napa County earthquake that woke many people up in Berkeley at 3:20 a.m. on Sunday morning was “predicted” by scientists in our very city with a 10-second warning about the trembler.

The alert was issued by the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory’s ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning project. The demonstration warning system provided 10 seconds warning (as shown in the video above) at laboratories in Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. It preceded a quake that was the largest to hit the San Francisco Bay Area since the devastating 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake 25 years ago in 1989.

ShakeAlert is not a predictive tool — predicting quakes is still beyond the expertise of even the most eminent seismologists; rather it is being developed to act as an early-warning system to help minimize quake damage. For example, with even a little warning, BART trains could slow down to avoid derailment, utilities companies could shut off gas vales to prevent fires, elevators could be stopped and their doors opened at a floor, and surgeons could stop operating. 

ShakeAlert works by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. (Learn more.)


There is a question mark over whether the system can continue to be developed, however. Despite the California State Legislature passing a law in 2013 mandating that the state should complete the ShakeAlert program to provide warning to the public, funding for the system has not yet been found.

According to KQED, it would cost $80 million over five years to test and deploy the system and another $12 million a year for operational costs. Funds to test ShakeAlert are currently provided by BART, Google, the City of San Francisco and The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. But the lab needs a long-term financial commitment in order to keep the system running. Currently there is no early warning system anywhere in the country.

Sunday’s earthquake was not just a literal wake-up call — not least for Cal freshmen from out of state who might never have experienced a quake before moving into their dorms this weekend. For many, the rumbler –whose epicenter was American Canyon about 28 miles north of Berkeley and which had the highest impact in South Napa — prompted people to consider how well prepared — or not — they were for a major trembler.

Below, we provide some guidance on what do to as soon as one feels a quake (it doesn’t involve doorways, by the way), and how to ensure you are prepared for the next one.

What do do when an earthquake strikes

Emergency teams who are dispatched to the scene of earthquakes and other disasters around the world continue to advocate use of the internationally recognized “Drop, Cover and Hold On” protocol to protect lives during earthquakes:

  • DROP to the ground (before the earthquake drops you),
  • Take COVER by getting under a sturdy desk or table, and
  • HOLD ON to it until the shaking stops.

If there isn’t a table or desk near you, drop to the ground in an inside corner of the building and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Do not try to run to another room just to get under a table.

Prepare for an earthquake

The following section is reproduced with thanks to KQED:


Create an Earthquake Kit

Unlike hurricanes and other severe storms, earthquakes come without any notice, so it’s imperative to have a supply kit that will keep you and your family safe and comfortable if disaster strikes. You should have supplies for up to three days.

Necessary items:

  • first aid kit,
  • one gallon of water per person, per day,
  • flashlight (and extra batteries),
  • enough non-perishable food to feed each person for three days,
  • a manual can opener for all that food,
  • fire extinguisher.

Good to haves:

  • warm clothes and sturdy shoes,
  • sleeping bags or blankets,
  • cash,
  • tools,
  • heavy-duty plastic bags and tarps,
  • cellphone chargers,
  • list of emergency contact numbers,
  • battery operated or hand crank radio.

Personal items:

  • prescriptions,
  • personal hygiene items,
  • personal documents,
  • items for children and pets.

Download the full list from 72hours.org, you can also read it in Español漢語русский and Việt.


The USGS recommends that you split those items up into personal kits that can be easily carried and are easy to reach. In a strong earthquake debris could be strewn throughout the floor. To keep your feet safe after nighttime disasters, the USGS recommends keeping a drawstring bag with a pair of sturdy shoes and a flashlight tied to the foot of your bed. The bigger items can go into a household kit that is easily movable and watertight.

Once you’ve assembled your kits it’s important to make sure that you regularly check them. Has the food expired? Has the water evaporated? How old are those painkillers? If you are someone who needs to regularly take medications, experts recommend swapping out the drugs with fresh ones every month.

Make a Plan

Now that you have the basics in hand to survive for three days, it’s time to make sure everyone in your household knows what to do in an emergency.

  1. Identify who are the people you’ll need to get in touch with if something happens.
  2. Identify an out of town contact who can serve as a hub for information if you can’t reach others in your area.
  3. Establish a meeting place. Do you know where to go if everyone is spread throughout the area at work and school? SF72 recommends picking a central park or landmark. Don’t choose a house in case it’s inaccessible.
  4. Know the locations of utility shutoffs in your home and keep needed tools nearby. Know how to turn off the gas, water and electricity; only turn off the gas if you smell or hear leaking gas.

Prepare Your Home

Most damage in earthquakes is caused by shaking. You can do simple and inexpensive things now to help reduce injuries and protect your belongings.

Start by moving heavy furniture, such as bookcases, away from beds, couches and other places where people sit or sleep.

Next examine where art and heavy objects hung on the wall would fall, and possibly shatter. Keep heavy art away from beds or sofas. Make sure you’re using closed hooks to keep everything on the wall.

Store heavy items and breakables, like wine glasses, on lower shelves. You can also useearthquake puttymuseum wax or quake gel on the bottoms of collectibles, pottery and lamps to keep them from falling.

Secure the top corners of tall furniture into a wall stud, not just drywall. You can use flexible-mount fasteners, such as nylon straps, to allow furniture to sway independently from the wall, reducing the strain on studs.

Learn more

If you’re a home owner, you can take the USGS’ quiz to see what kind of retrofits your home may need. Houses and apartments that are older and taller are more prone to damage. Find out the kind of earth you’re on as well, liquefaction and land slide zones can pose their own types of problems.

The USGS Learn and Prepare website pages have a wealth of information on preparedness.

Find specific resources for Alameda County.

Read about emergency preparedness on Berkeleyside.

Get organized with emergency classes and neighborhood preparedness

The City of Berkeley and its Fire Department oversee a comprehensive preparedness program, including pre fairs, Berkeley Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, and incentives and support for neighborhoods who form groups to get ready — including providing emergency caches once groups have met certain criteria.

In April last year an estimated 2,000 people took part in a city-wi2d earthquake drill, which was organized by CERT. Watch the slideshow below for an overview of what is involved.

The next CERT class is scheduled for Aug. 30. A city-wide emergency exercise is planned for October 18, 2014, a day short of the 25th anniversary of the Loma Pietra quakeCommunity members can register to participate by visiting the registration webpage.

A good first step to being prepared for emergencies is getting to know your neighbors and then, potentially, working with them to be prepared to look after each other in the event of a disaster. Good tools for setting up online neighborhood groups to share information, tips, advice, etc, include Nextdoor, Google Groups, and Yahoo Groups.

Related:
Are you prepared to help kids, pets when disaster strikes? (04.21.14)
Berkeley uses free dumpsters to boost disaster prep zeal (03.07.14)
Berkeley CERT volunteer academy takes off this weekend (08.02.13)
Berkeley unites for earthquake safety (04.29.13)
Join the Berkeley-wide emergency drill April 27 (04.10.13)
Berkeley targets underserved for disaster preparedness (10.04.12)
Gear up for the Big One with help from friends (06.17.10)

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