Many scientists are working on early-warning systems throughout the state. The problem is that none of the sensors is connected to each other. Nor are there enough to make one big, usable system statewide.
An early earthquake warning system for California has been in beta testing for five years. But given the state's financial crisis, no one can say when it'll be ready for use statewide. Estimates peg the costs at $150 million to build and $5 million a year to operate.
"Unfortunately, because of the budget times, we're having to take a percentage cut from that, and that's where we are looking to other institutions, whether it be the schools, the federal government or private entities, to fill the gap to continue to the work," said Kelly Huston, assistant secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency.
Countries like Japan and Mexico and even Romania have warning systems in place. But because of California's size, topography and other factors, it's actually harder to create one here.
"Because we live on top of faults, it's a much more complicated endeavor than say in Mexico and Japan that have these early-warning systems," said UC Davis Geology Professor Michael Oskin. "The earthquakes tend to happen offshore."
And living on top of faults means any early warning will be just a few seconds, if any.
For instance, on the state's beta system mimicking the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the early detection would have been able to give downtown Los Angeles 11 seconds' warning, enough to shut down critical infrastructure like public transportation or a nearby nuclear power plant.
"It could even potentially give the public a few seconds' heads up so they can drop, cover and hold on," said FEMA's Kelly.
But eventually someone has to pay to connect the sensors to a central system that can send warnings across cellphone networks and TV and radio airwaves.
"The ability to save lives alone is sort of incalculable," said Prof. Oskin.
One researcher at CalTech, which received a private grant last year, says that with adequate funding, a system could be in place within three years. But that's sounding optimistic.