Vulnerable Oregon town installs earthquake sensors

Albany, Oregon is implementing an extensive sensor network to warn residents of impending earthquakes. Here, an engineer installs a sensor at a municipal wastewater treatment plant. (City of Albany)

The town of Albany, Oregon, lies in the Cascadia subduction zone, which stretches off the West Coast from Vancouver Island to Northern California. With this region predicted to produce a 9.0-magnitude earthquake sometime in the future, the city of Albany hopes to give its residents additional time to prepare.

According to an online article in the Albany Democrat Herald, the city is part of a pilot program for the ShakeAlert system, a network of sensors meant to serve as an early warning system for earthquake events. A warning could come anywhere from mere seconds to two minutes prior to shaking, depending on where the earthquake originates, according to Albany Operations Director Chris Bailey.

“Our plan is to start small,” Bailey was quoted as saying.

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The first sensor, which cost approximately $6,000, was installed recently into the city’s central systems server, where employees can already remotely close reservoir valves. The sensor would alert the system to a coming earthquake and trigger the reservoirs' automatic closure.

“The reason we’re starting there is, there is no danger in the reservoir valves being shut off in the case of a false alarm,” Bailey was quoted as saying.

If the system did trigger a false alarm, city personnel could simply open those valves again.

In the article, Bailey emphasized that closing the reservoir was important to preserving the city’s water supply should an earthquake strike. “In most of these instances, cities lose their ability to make water. We want to keep the water we have.”

That water could be turned back on once the city overcomes any power outage issues. Also, the water would be available to the city’s Fire Department should any blazes occur after the initial shaking.

The article noted that for Oregon to have a fully functioning early alert system, it needs to have 75% of 238 sensors statewide installed and operational, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which funds the program with federal grants. By this month, 59% of the sensors are expected to be installed.

Bailey said that eventually, the sensor could be used to warn the public of an impending earthquake but that residents should be prepared with earthquake kits and the understanding that they could be on their own for several days in terms of supplies.

When the sensor does transition to a public warning system, it’s expected to give residents up to two minutes in the case of the Cascadia Quake. If a quake were to originate in Salem, said Bailey, that warning would diminish to just seconds.

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