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Earth-shaking news on Web

Now, when an earthquake hits, people have a source for information other than their radios.

When the earth shook, rattled, and rolled last night--well, at least shook--thousands of frightened Bay Area residents rushed to their radios to find out if they had indeed experienced an earthquake and, if so, how big it was.

Everyone always wants to know how big.

But the few smart ones also turned on their computers. They knew something that many don't: The U.S. Geological Survey hosts a Web site that features instantaneous earthquake results.

Within minutes of the double quake, a savvy radio reporter was reporting the magnitude and the epicenter, information that it used to take hours to release.

It used to be that reporters had to queue up on the often-overloaded quake hotlines to reach someone who would give them some bit of information that they could then feed to the public.

But these days, the public has the same access to the information as the geologists through real-time, automated reporting of geological activity on the Web, said Gerry Lebing, Webmaster for the comprehensive site.

For instance, while the Bay Area claimed only tiny quakes, hitting 3.6 and 3.7 on the Richter scale last night, the Philippines experienced much larger quakes at 5.9 and 6.7 on the Richter scale in the last few days. Plenty of places over the globe had quakes in the 5s. All that's on the Web page.

And if a quake takes out one of the reporting stations, others will fill in.

But people who go to the Web page usually aren't just looking for quake information. As Lebing said, in the grand scope of things, quakes are fairly rare.

Instead, the site has been popular with people looking for water resource information, whether they're seeking real-time data on how quickly a flood is approaching their homes or assessing whether the river they plan to raft will have enough water to carry them.

"We're a huge resource," Lebing said, adding that he and his small staff are looking for ways to make their site's 100,000-plus pages more navigable.

But as it is, people seem to be finding information. And that's the way it should be.

"The ultimate goal is to keep the public informed of any Earth science or biological science changes," he said.