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Government shutdown can't shake earthquake updates

Those in earthquake country visit USGS.gov to find out the magnitude of the latest temblor. But thanks to Capitol Hill gridlock, the site initially had no data after a 3.0 quake Sunday night.

Thanks to the government shutdown, no information about a Sunday night earthquake was available on the USGS Web site, usually the most reliable and credible source of data about temblors. Screen shot by CNET

Despite a government shutdown that should mean no information on earthquakes, the US Geological Survey Web site pulled a little apparently unauthorized overtime Sunday by providing information on a Bay Area quake.

If you live in earthquake country, you know that the first place to go for information on how big a temblor was, or where it was centered, is the USGS Web site.

Tonight, when a magnitude 3.0 shock hit the San Francisco Bay Area, many people rushed to the site to find out what happened. At first, they were foiled, as the site offered nothing but a stark reminder of the gridlock on Capitol Hill. "Due to the Federal government shutdown, usgs.gov and most associated web sites are unavailable," the site read. "Only Web sites necessary to protect lives and property will be maintained."

But within the hour, the site had been updated and was displaying basic information about the temblor, including its magnitude, when it hit, and where.

Still, that update came only after a flood of people who had struck out on the USGS site began discussing this new, unexpected, effect of the shutdown on Twitter.

Of course, there were other places to get information about the size of a quake. On Twitter, users were reporting the 3.0 number thanks to data provided by Earthquake Track.

But if the quake had been much more significant -- the 1989 earthquake that killed dozens and knocked down freeways and buildings in and around San Francisco registered 7.1 on the Richter Scale -- it's fair to ask whether that initial lack of information from the USGS might not have been a much bigger deal. After all, when one of the most credible of all sources of information about something as important as earthquakes is no longer available, or doesn't work as well as it should, it does drive home that the shutdown of the federal government is more than just an exercise in political shouting.

In the end, though, the USGS found a way to post the relevant information. Whether those who did so did it while being furloughed is an interesting question.

Update (Sunday, 10:30 p.m. PT): This story was modified after the USGS posted information about tonight's quake.