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Editorial: Wine and temblors, all part of life in California

Earthquakes are an inescapable fact of California life. So are calls for vigilance once the shaking stops.

People cleaned up bricks and wine barrels that tumbled down in the south Napa earthquake on Sunday morning, and again recognized that the big one can strike at any minute. Many of us vowed to make preparations, again.

The temblor, which registered 6.0 magnitude, was the worst in Northern California since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which registered 6.9 and caused 63 deaths.

Perhaps now, the state and federal governments will invest in an early warning system.

The San Jose Mercury News reported that an early warning alarm sounded early Sunday morning 10 seconds before the temblor was felt. It was the “biggest test yet in the Bay Area for a type of earthquake early-warning system that’s not yet available to the public in the U.S. but already is providing precious seconds of notice before quakes hit in Mexico and Japan,” the paper reported.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 135 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, which requires the Seismic Safety Commission to create such a system. The bill analysis estimated the cost would be $80 million spread over five years and funded by the state and federal governments and private parties.

There can be no doubt that such a system is needed. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that a 7.8-magnitude earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault would cause 2,000 deaths and $200 billion in damage.

Warning systems are in place, or being developed in Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, Italy, China and Romania. Japan was able to sound warnings before the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake in 2011, reaching 52 million people via their smartphones, the bill analysis says.

The Napa earthquake hit shortly before 3:30 a.m. If it had struck 12 hours later or earlier, winery workers could have been crushed under the weight of 55-gallon wine barrels, which tumbled from their racks.

Barrels are stacked four, five and six high and weigh 500 pounds when they are full. Steel racks aren’t stable enough to withstand a magnitude-6.0 earthquake, let alone a stronger one. It’s not as if people haven’t thought of the danger.

“Tanks are a special concern. Barrels stacked high with nothing to keep the stacks from swaying are a glaring concern. Correcting these issues is not rocket science but simple engineering,” the industry magazine Wines & Vines wrote in September 2010.

At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, engineering professor Charles Chadwell designed a tray and ball bearing system that would sit beneath wine racks and roll as the earth shifts. Chadwell worked with Western Square Industries of Stockton to produce them at a cost of $400 to $500.

Then the recession hit, and, as often is the case, earthquake safety slid down on the list of worries. There is, after all, drought, salinity, heat rules for workers, diesel rules for harvesters, and the light brown apple moth, to name a few. Quakes simply don’t happen often enough, except that they do.

A California Occupational Safety and Health spokesman said there are worker safety regulations related to barrel racks, but no provision related to earthquake safety for the racks. There ought to be.

Napa and fine wine are among California’s many allures. But as became apparent again on Sunday morning, we always are vulnerable to shifting tectonic plates. The big one might not hit this year. But it surely will hit. We must prepare for it.