Eighty years ago today, a loud rumble through the hills of Chinatown announced one of the great disasters of the century: the great San Francisco earthquake.

Today, a similar noise is echoing through the offices of California's most distinguished earthquake engineers at the news that Illinois, Michigan or even New York might soon snatch a $50 million research project they thought was right under their seismically sensitive noses.

When the National Science Foundation last year announced a major matching grant for the establishment of a new center for earthquake engineering, California's chance seemed as certain as slippage on the San Andreas Fault. The NSF would put up $25 million over five years, and the winner would match that.

As Haresh Shah, chairman of Stanford University's civil engineering department, put it, "The world's greatest engineers are located here, the world's finest facilities are located here." He did not need to mention that California faces an earthquake threat greater than in any state east of the Sierras.

But California also has some of the country's most tenacious opponents of government spending. One of them, former U.S. Senate candidate Paul Gann, had managed to pass a statewide initiative limiting yearly increases in state spending. The earthquake engineers needed a relatively modest $5 million a year for five years to match the grant, but the Gann initiative jeopardizes all proposed new programs.

Joined by engineers and scientists from the four major universities involved -- the University of California at Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California and Stanford -- Shah is trying to set off a political temblor of his own.

New York, where earthquakes are as common as quiet lunch hours on Fifth Avenue, has authorized $10 million in matching funds to back its grant application. The California scientists tremble in rage at their state's seeming nonchalance.

"After the Mexican earthquake, they were all jumping up and down saying 'Are we prepared?' The next big one here is going to make Mexico look like a Sunday afternoon tea party," Shah said. "It would take five years just to bring New York to half the level of research facilities we already have in California."

In a statement issued Thursday, earthquake engineers from the four California universities noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has forecast the strong chance of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that could cause 23,000 deaths, 91,000 injuries and $69 billion in property loss in the Long Beach-Los Angeles area. Appropriate earthquake engineering research could reduce these potential losses by 75 percent in the next decade, the statement said, but loss of the grant would mean that about 30 percent of federal funding for this work would go elsewhere.

"It would be a tragic misuse of scarce state and national funds to have the center go anywhere but California," the joint statement said.

This argument has inspired few tears at the State University of New York at Buffalo, leader of an effort by several northeastern universities to share in the federal grant. George Lee, dean of engineering and applied sciences, said, "If we are talking about past accomplishments, Berkeley has been the leader."

But he added that his school's proposal should be judged on merit. Figuring how to make buildings withstand quakes requires good minds and laboratories, but does not require "living in an earthquake zone," he said.

University of Michigan civil engineering professor Robert Hanson agreed. He has university and private financial support for a proposal he said he thinks matches anything in the field. W.J. Hall, professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois, said his proposal includes cooperation from universities as far away as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Informed of the anguished rumblings from California, the NSF's earthquake hazards mitigation program director, A.J. Eggenberger, declined to comment. He said the foundation hoped that a center pooling the efforts of many researchers would yield faster, better results than individual projects. Eggenberger said he has six applications and hopes to announce a winner by this summer.

The California Senate education committee passed a bill Thursday authorizing the $5 million for the program's first year, but committee consultant Linda Bond noted that the state budget appears to be $200 million above the Gann limits and must be cut back. Under the Gann formula, there is little room for new programs in a low-inflation year.

The earthquake engineers are lobbying hard, and Shah noted that one important actor in California politics has yet to be heard from. "If there is a major earthquake in the Bay Area or Los Angeles in the next month or two," he said, "we will have absolutely no trouble getting the money."