Page last updated at 18:57 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 19:57 UK

California prepares for 'the Big One'

By Matt Wells
BBC News, California

The warning on the gate of Terry Cornet's home is not encouraging.

The project team prepare to bury their measuring instruments
Instruments will measure activity at the San Andreas fault

"Snake habitat", reads the hand-painted sign.

Living right on top of California's notorious San Andreas Fault, there are more things to worry about than just the shifting tectonic plates.

"When an event happens - like some small quake - and it hits you, boom! It hits, and it's done," said the jovial father-of-five.

One minute warning

As far as he is concerned, it is the coastal dwellers of Los Angeles that suffer the most.

"It gets real wavy-gravy down there," he adds, looking approvingly towards his own simple stone farmhouse, which has stood intact since 1890.

He is philosophical about his chances if "the big one" - a large quake registering more than 7.5 on the Richter scale - comes.

Scott Lydeen
The only way to overcome the fear of it is to be prepared for it
Scott Lydeen
Field technician

"If the big one hits, I'm on the beach," he says with a shrug.

Terry, who is caretaker for the property, is policing the perimeter of a small construction site with a wooden staff, watching out for rattlesnakes.

A three-man team from the US Geological Survey is digging a large hole for a new batch of measuring instruments that will soon become part of America's first earthquake early warning system.

The southern San Andreas is being wired by government scientists and technicians from the USGS staff, so that cities like Los Angeles can have up to a minute's warning of a major quake.

Despite living a life in the wilderness without electricity, Terry is well aware of the wider benefits of the high-tech equipment about to be housed in his backyard.

"Imagine you're in a hospital doing surgery and you get even 30 seconds' warning - don't be cutting that guy right now."

The USGS is hoping to have its system operational within a few years. Scott Lydeen is one of the electronic field technicians in charge of making it all work.

He lives less than two miles from the San Andreas, and spends most of his working day on it.

"[My family] get a little tired of hearing about earthquakes but that's my job," he said.

Speed of light

"The only way to overcome the fear of it is to be prepared for it... I keep my travel-trailer totally stocked. It's next to my house, and it's ready."

Although the snakes mercifully stay away while the BBC is on site, Terry coshed one of his slithery neighbours who strayed too close to the team a few hours earlier.

He was planning to put it on that night's menu. "Rattlesnake for dinner... I'd hate to kill it and not use it," he said.

Doug Given
You could use advance warning to duck, cover and hold, stop elevators at the next floor - you can imagine all sorts of applications
Doug Given
Project manager

There are more than 300 earthquake faults across California but the southern section of the San Andreas is judged to be the most likely to crack.

USGS data shows that it is 99.7% likely the state will suffer a major earthquake some time in the next 30 years, with a 46% likelihood of it being the Big One.

Watching the team digging their instrumentation hole and lining up the solar power equipment, it is hard to imagine it surviving the trauma of a huge quake.

"The strongest shaking moves at about 2 miles per second - sounds fast, and it is," said Doug Given, project chief for earthquake monitoring in Southern California.

"But we can send warning messages at the speed of light over the internet," he adds, explaining how even a massive quake would still give the instrumentation time to trasmit vital messages.

The USGS quake headquarters are in the elegant Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, inside an old family house.

Mr Given is quick to note that he gets out into the field from time to time but a bank of desk computers is where most of his work gets done.

"I'm not sure exactly how many lives we might save [with an early warning system] but certainly you could use advance warning to duck, cover and hold, stop elevators at the next floor - you can imagine all sorts of applications," he said.

"It's kind of like the spare tyre in your car, you may never use it," he adds. "So keeping people educated, and aware of an early warning system, is going to be a challenge."

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