The odds are good that earthquake-predicting software is coming soon

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In 1994, when I was 24 and living in Los Angeles, there was a serious earthquake. I'd been a resident for two years by then, so it wasn't exactly my first quake. But at 6.7 on the Richter Scale, it was definitely my most serious.

Known now as the Northridge quake, 57 people died, 12,000 residents were injured, buildings collapsed, cars were crushed, the electricity died across the city, and there was, quite literally, panic in the rubble-filled streets. Many businesses shut down for a day or two, and when it was all said and done, there was an estimated $12.5 billion in damage. The whole thing lasted approximately 20 seconds.

So it's wonderful to hear about an earthquake-sensing project that's in the making, that many people with a personal computer -- at least a new one -- will eventually be able to participate in. Elizabeth Cochran, a seismologist at University of California Riverside, came up with the idea in 2006, but according to a recent press release just issued by the University of California, the "Quake-Catcher Network" will be publicly released, tentatively this summer.

A free software that the public will be able to download is being developed by Cochran and two colleagues, which is going to take advantage of inexpensive motion sensors called accelerometers, which are already in place as safety devices in most new laptops.

According to Cochran's statement, "We're turning the laptops' accelerometers into earthquake monitors. With a dense grid of detectors in place, an early warning can be sent through the Internet to neighboring cities should an earthquake strike, giving people up to ten to 20 seconds to prepare themselves before the seismic waves reach them."

Sure, ten to 20 seconds doesn't sound like much time to prepare, and I'm not sure how it would have helped many of the people in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, so named for the community where the epicenter of the quake was located. After all, it was at 4:31 a.m., PST, when the quake began. Most people were in bed. I sure was, in my one room studio apartment in Studio City, 10 miles from Northridge. One minute I was asleep and in the middle of a peaceful dream, and the next minute I was awake in a noisy nightmare.

The refrigerator flew open, dumping everything onto the kitchen floor. My bed, which was one of those that come out of of the wall, was shaking wildly, clearly seeing more action than it had since I had been a resident; for a half a moment, I was worried the bed was going to bounce off the floor and slam shut into the wall with me in it. The lights were out, but I dimly recall seeing my 20-gallon aquarium explode, shards of glass and tiny fish sailing across the room. I dashed for the bathroom several feet away and stood in the doorway, where I had always heard you should go in an earthquake -- the archway in the wall is one of stronger parts of the structure--and I waited for it to end.

Twenty seconds, ten seconds -- it isn't much time -- and it's hard telling how everyone would be alerted. Sirens in the city? An emergency bulletin on every medium available? Probably so. Many people wouldn't get the message, I'm sure, but many would, and whether it's a doorway or getting under a sturdy table, any sort of warning for an earthquake is better than none.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale)
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