Seismologist Lucy Jones. Illustrations by Kyle Hilton.
a sweltering day in Pasadena, California, geologist Lucy Jones stands
above a steep, dry riverbed overlooking Los Angeles County. To the
southwest, LA sprawls out to the Hollywood Hills. Jones, whose demeanor
is as sunny as the sky, sees an abundance of disaster.
your Southern California issue,” she says, pacing the trailhead that
leads to a quarry below. “You’ve got earthquakes that push up the
mountains. That traps the rain, but then erosion brings [the mountains]
back down.” In other words, the quakes build them up and the rains wash
them away. Jones points to what looks like a healthy bush in the ravine.
It’s actually a willow tree, nearly up to its leafy crown in 6 feet of
dirt. Rubble and soil slid there after a 2009 wildfire burned 160,000
acres, destroyed more than 200 buildings, displaced more than 10,000
people, and denuded these slopes. With nothing to hold back the earth,
storms sent slurries of rock and mud downhill, further ravaging the
earthquakes, and landslides are interconnected forces that shape this
topography. They are as intertwined as the web of geological faults that
lie beneath LA County. The biggest of those, the San Andreas, is never
far from Jones' mind. No one knows when it will move, but this tectonic
boundary one day will—and shake all of Southern California to its
foundation. Experts predict it will kill 1,800 people; rupture 966
roads, 21 railroads, and 32 aqueducts; down 141 power lines; damage
300,000 buildings; and leave millions of survivors cut off from
wants people to understand that it doesn't have to be a complete
disaster, not if we listen to her and her experts. Through her namesake
Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, she tries to persuade
officials and community organizers to prepare for the worst.
Her fixes range from the simple, such as attaching furniture to walls,
to the complex, including retrofitting homes with wall braces, bolting
office buildings to their foundations, and even installing shock
absorbers, called base isolators, that will keep a structure from
shaking too much.
adaptations can be expensive but will add up to more-resilient
communities. “We have to accept that it’s going to cost some money for a
common good,” Jones says.
is not new to this line of work. For 30 years, she toiled as an
LA-based seismologist with the United States Geological Survey.
There, she served as a calming voice to her fellow Angelenos. Each time
the city quaked, TV crews showed up at her office to have her explain
what had happened. Strangers stopped her at the grocery store with
questions. An AC repairman sent to her office was elated to meet her.
“What makes her different from other technocrats is she can understand
what people outside her discipline are telling her very quickly, and she
can extract the stuff that you really need to know,” says Keith Porter,
a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“I can’t think of five people who have the ability to distill
information the way she does. She’s up there with Stephen Jay Gould and
Neil deGrasse Tyson.”
We are in this together.
the skill of helping different communities understand each other early
in her career. She was one of the first geologists allowed into China
during the 1970s to study the dynamics of temblors there. Later, she
began advising groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and
municipal authorities in California on earthquake preparation. That
requires navigating what in her mind is a demilitarized zone between
politics and science. She must shuttle facts to politicians, avoiding
her own opinions in order to help others shape policy. “You have to get
right up to the edge to help,” she says. “As a citizen, I look at the
information, and I know what I want my elected officials to do. But I’m
not elected to do that.”
2008, after city and emergency planners told her they needed help
convincing people of the danger underfoot, she released the Great
Southern California ShakeOut report. Drawing on computer models and the
expertise of more than 300 scientists in engineering, seismology,
public health, and economics, the 300-page account simulated the effects
of a magnitude 7.8 quake. Using animations, diagrams, and graphs, it
depicted a Hollywood-worthy scenario: Buildings fall, highways buckle,
gas lines erupt, power lines tumble, 1,600 fires burn, 1,800 people die,
and 50,000 more are injured.
vivid account galvanized the public and convinced 5.5 million people in
Southern California to take part in a massive earthquake practice run.
Her drills taught people to drop, cover, and hold on. (Last year,
18 million people around the world participated.) In her last years at
the USGS (she retired in 2016), Jones worked with the LA mayor’s office
as it spearheaded landmark legislation requiring owners of vulnerable
wood and concrete buildings to retrofit them so the people inside would
be able to make it out of a seismic shake alive. More than a dozen other
California cities have done the same or are trying to.
But escaping a
building with your life, says Jones, is not enough. If our homes and
offices stand, but we can’t go back in because of dangerous cracks,
where do you live and how do you work? It’s a situation that could
devastate lives as well as LA’s economy. “Why is that acceptable?”
Jones asks, incredulous.
in 2018, testifying at the State Capitol, Jones successfully
encouraged California lawmakers to pass legislation that would lay out
strict standards for the habitability of all new construction. A
state-appointed committee would draft the requirements. The group would
have until 2022 to figure out a number of key factors: What level of
damage is acceptable for a building to remain functional after a quake?
And should such standards be mandatory or voluntary?
Jones has since busied herself promoting The Big Ones,
a book she published this year about the lessons of past disasters,
from Pompeii's volcanic eruptions to Hurricane Katrina's wind and rain.
As she travels from LA to places such as the U.K. and New
Zealand—advising communities on how to get ready for hurricanes,
tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes—Jones is determined to change one
piece of infrastructure that requires no political action: human
preparedness messaging tends to be very isolating,” Jones says. “It
says: ‘You’re going to be on your own; nobody’s going to be there to
help you. You need to take care of your family.’” There’s an implicit
message that your neighbor might become your enemy. Jones says just the
opposite is true, and you should start planning with others. “You have
networks with parents at your child’s school,” she says. “There are
faith communities and social organizations. There’s your network.
They’re a forgotten target on getting ready for an earthquake.”
other words, we’re all in this together, which is why making sure
schools, churches, city halls, and homes are strong is so vitally
important now, while we still have time.