In the midst of a global pandemic, the County of San Diego is bracing itself against disaster of all kinds.

A $6.4 billion budget recommended for fiscal year 2020-21 had $100 million dedicated to testing, medical supplies, food distribution and other needs related to the COVID-19 health crisis, and  also called for $21 million that included implementation of an earthquake early warning system pilot program.

The system, as noted in the Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer’s report, would alert affected populations when shaking from an earthquake is imminent. And, it would be integrated into the existing SD Emergency mobile application. (Sign up for the alert at ReadySanDiego.org.)

Last year, the county conducted a test of the California Earthquake Early Warning System, also known as ShakeAlert. All residents were asked to log into ShakeAlertSD.org to verify whether they received the notification, and when.  That helped provide important information in developing the system so that all cell phones might receive the alert.

There are 45 ground sensors in San Diego County that will detect movement and send the information to an alert center for notification.

“Having a big earthquake here is a realistic possibility that all San Diegans should be prepared for,” County Supervisor Greg Cox said in a County news post. “If we could notify you to duck, to cover, and to hold on before the shaking starts, that could protect a lot of people.”

The system will allow time to stop elevators, slow mass transit and avoid activities that could pose problems in an earthquake.

Good Leadership

Some of society’s smartest safety innovations have come from leaders who had the foresight and courage to assess risks with open eyes, and do what they could to eliminate them.

We now benefit from traffic controls that reduce accidents; regulatory oversight to prevent harmful pollution and ensure safety of food and medications; and building codes to keep our communities safe.

But structures built decades ago – under the codes existing at that time – are not as likely to withstand an earthquake as modern construction is. That’s because, over the years, scientists and engineers have learned a lot about ground movements during earthquakes and their impact on different types of construction. (I’ve written about the shake table experiments at UCSD, which simulate the affects of earthquakes on life-size buildings. You can check them out at nheri.ucsd.edu.)

Risks for San Diego

County officials are clearly aware of San Diego’s risk of a major earthquake. That’s why they are taking steps to establish an early warning system.

Seismologists agree that San Diego’s Rose Canyon Fault, while relatively inactive, has the capacity for a 7.0-magnitude quake similar to those experienced last year in Ridgecrest.  And when it does strike, the damage caused could be colossal: at between $124 million and $13 billion.

In fact, the California Geological Survey ranks San Diego as one of the state’s top 10 areas for projected loss from an earthquake

That’s because the San Diego is more heavily populated than Ridgecrest – and a large portion of its buildings were constructed based on outdated and less effective codes.

The Rose Canyon Fault runs right through the middle of the city — from the Silver Strand to La Jolla — snaking its way under lofty high-rises, commercial districts and apartment buildings that draw tens of thousands of people each day.

The risk of an earthquake disaster in San Diego is real. The County’s early warning system may help to save lives, but it will do nothing to protect buildings and infrastructure from damage from a quake.

Only seismic retrofits can do that.

If your apartment building is the type at risk of failure in an earthquake, have it evaluated to know precisely what risks and liabilities you are facing. Only then can you be assured that your assets are protected, along with the lives of those who live in your building.