Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
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The great earthquake-warning trial run in downtown Oakland on Wednesday wasn’t exactly earth shaking, but it did cause some tremors among the 40,000 people whose cell phones honked and beeped just as they were settling into their work day.
At exactly 11 a.m., three of the 12 people sipping coffee at Awaken Cafe, near 15th and Broadway, glanced at their phones when the first residential deployment of California’s highly sophisticated earthquake-warning system went into action.
They quickly silenced their phones and went back to their conversations or stuffed their phones back into their coat pockets.
Pluto Sheth, 25, the cashier at Awaken, was unperturbed by the fact that he didn’t get an alert, text or even a greeting from the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s not super concerning,” he said before turning nonchalantly back toward the espresso machines.
Thus went the largest public demonstration of the early-warning system known as ShakeAlert. There were no reported casualties.
The messages, which stated “THIS IS A TEST,” were sent to every cell phone within a 60-square-block radius on the west side of Lake Merritt using the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which is commonly used to deliver messages like Amber Alerts and notices of severe weather.
The alert system, which will be one of the most sophisticated in the world when it’s completed, is designed so that millions of people in California, Oregon and Washington will be warned about impending earthquakes, giving them just enough time to avoid flying off roadways, being crushed by falling bricks or sliced to ribbons by breaking glass.
Despite their general indifference, most people in downtown Oakland liked the idea of being warned beforehand about the prospect of being flattened by falling debris.
“Knowing the alert was coming, it reminded me of how high risk the East Bay is because of the Hayward Fault,” said Suneel Ratan, 54, who was in the middle of a meeting when both his smart watch and cell phone buzzed.
Tom Wright, 49, of Oakland, also got two alerts, one each on his work and private cell phones.
“Depending how much advance time a person can be given, it can be extremely helpful and lifesaving,” Wright said. “We are a little bit asleep at the switch, I think, because we haven’t had a massive quake — God forbid we have one — in a long time. The more of this we can do, the better we are all for it.”
Some people were nevertheless annoyed by the earthquake warning even as they ignored it.
“Why do you send these alerts when you don’t even know when it’s gonna happen?” said Elizabeth Sanchez, the owner at Cybelle’s Pizza across from City Hall. “It should be longer when it’s real. This one was just a couple of seconds.”
She said she and her staff just went about their business while the alert beeped forlornly in the background.
ShakeAlert is a warning system that has been under development for seven years by the U.S. Geological Survey, UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, and the universities of Washington and Oregon.
The system will eventually include a network of 1,675 sensors in the three states to tap into seismic waves and pinpoint underground shaking before it reaches the surface. The technology will instantly create a computer map of the likely distribution of ground shaking, giving seismologists the information they need to alert regions where the most shaking is expected.
The plan is to have alerts sent to every smartphone, business, public agency, utility and home in California, Oregon and Washington. Studies of earthquake early warning methods in those states have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to tens of seconds, according to the ShakeAlert website.
The system is designed so that the alerts will automatically brake trains, cause firehouse doors to open, close valves in fuel pipelines, halt elevators at the nearest floor, stop amusement park rides and alert people in time for them to dive under a desk or find safe ground before the shaking begins.
The problem is that only about half of the seismic stations needed to complete the system and provide adequate coverage are in place, Geological Survey officials said.
There are enough stations now to provide coverage in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, but the alerts are weak or too slow outside of urban areas. The current plan is to have all 1,675 stations built by the early 2020s.
Early-warning systems like this one have come in handy in Mexico and Japan, which built similar systems in response to devastating earthquakes that killed thousands of people.
Early-warning test followup
Those who got the alerts Wednesday are being asked to take the following survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/WEATESTSHAKEALERT.
For information about the test and survey: www.caloes.ca.gov/eew
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Earthquake-alert-in-Oakland-jangles-no-one-s-13720993.php.