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Quake early warning offers headstart but lacks funding

The biggest earthquake to rock the San Francisco Bay Area in 25 years hit early Sunday, and technology -- including a project in part backed by Google -- could put us into a better position than ever to react.

Data from Jawbone, maker of the Up fitness band, which shows how a California earthquake on Sunday affected the sleep of users. Jawbone

When a 6.0 earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area early Sunday -- the region's largest temblor in the past quarter century -- a small number of people were given a ten-second warning to try to prepare.

Moments before the strong quake jolted awake sleeping Californians as far as 200 miles away, an early warning system administered by UC Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory sent an alert out to a small pool of about a 150 test users. The alert --a video of which was released by the lab Sunday -- also went to the operators of the Bay Area's BART commuter train system, though no trains were running when the quake hit at around 3:20 a.m.

The quake, the largest in the Bay Area since 1989's Loma Prieta shaker, did severe damage to Napa region, famous worldwide for its wine industry. As many as 200 people were injured, tens of thousands had power knocked out, and at least 100 buildings were heavily damaged, according to a report by the San Jose Mercury News.

The early warning system, though not publicly available to the masses yet for budgetary reasons, underscores how technology has affected the way we experience an earthquake and its aftermath in the digital age. Tech has had its stamp on all of the world's most recent natural disasters -- from Twitter serving as a way to disseminate emergency information, to power outlets being a precious resource to charge dying smartphones.

The warning system works by using sensors to read the first waves of activity during a quake, which typically don't do harm, before a secondary set of waves does damage. A few seconds notice, though fleeting, could prevent a lot of harm inflicted by a quake, the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab said. That includes stopping planes from taking off, slowing down trains already in motion, or automatically turning on hospital generators so they don't lose power.

But for now, the alert system is in need of wider distribution. An effort to turn it into a statewide network would cost around $80 million, the UC Berkeley lab said. In 2013, the California legislature passed a measure to open up the alert system to the rest of the state, but it has yet to be funded. That money would go into staffing and operations, and into building out the technical infrastructure for running the system, said Peggy Hellweg, operations manager for the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab.

UC Berkeley's development of the early warning system, called ShakeAlert, is funded in part by Google, which is also one of the system's beta testers, said Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer at UC Berkeley Seismological Lab. Other funding partners include BART and the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. Strauss declined to say how much money Google has put into the project, but said it's "far less than the $80 million needed."

"It's not even in the ball park," she said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

On Sunday, California Lt. Gov. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom urged the state to find funding for the warning system's statewide implementation. "We got to get to it," he told NBC Bay Area. "Why we're not funding it is beyond me."

But technology doesn't only alter the way we can prepare for a quake, it also help provide insight. One lighter example: The device maker Jawbone also on Sunday released data culled from users of its Up fitness band. The company examined how the quake affected the sleep of Up users in the vicinity. Results are as you'd expect: 93 percent of people in areas within 15 miles of the epicenter -- like Napa, Sonoma, and Vallejo -- were awakened by the jolt. Forty-five percent of those people stayed up through the rest of the night. As you get further away from the center of impact, fewer people were disturbed. A little over half of Up wearers in San Francisco and Oakland woke up from the shake.