Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

lucy jones

los angeles
earthquake
lucy jones

interview by EMILIEN CRESPO

Seismic studies agree that major earthquakes occur on the San Andreas fault in California about every 100 or 150 years, and the Big One is overdue. No one, including the public administration, seems to really take this threat so seriously. But Lucy Jones does… She’s the voice of earthquakes and safety in Los Angeles. We met her in her Pasadena office.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What drew you to the study of disasters and, in particular, earthquakes?
LUCY JONES — It was a combination of factors: I liked the science better, it solved problems, and I could play in the mountains! When I first talked to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] about grad school, they said, “Do you want to go to Afghanistan this summer?” “Sounds good!” So, I spent a summer in the mountains of Afghanistan recording earthquakes in 1976. It’s the ability to both be outside and to study the mountains and understand them.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What’s the famous San Andreas Fault?
LUCY JONES — The boundary between two extremely large sections of the earth’s crust: the North American Plate runs from San Francisco to Iceland, and the Pacific Plate runs from Los Angeles to Japan. Those two pieces of the earth’s crust are moving with respect to each other — on a geologic timescale, they move five centimeters a year, about the rate at which your fingernails grow. But if you don’t cut your fingernails for 200 years, you end up with a pretty long offset! And there’s a kink in the fault, the Big Bend, which causes compression, pushes up mountains, creates secondary faults. In Southern California, we actually have about 300 faults large enough to produce at least a magnitude 6.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Los Angeles and San Francisco are getting inexorably closer.
LUCY JONES — Yes. In about five million years, San Francisco will be a suburb of LA — or vice versa, depending on your point of view. [Laughs] We probably aren’t going to be around to see it. Five million years is a long time, with what we’re doing to the planet.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What’s the Big One?
LUCY JONES — For most of my career, I’d have answered that very technically: it’s a magnitude 7.8 or greater on the San Andreas Fault — because that’s going to be an earthquake that’s really devastating to the region, and it’s the largest magnitude that’s likely. The more I spent time looking at it, I’d actually give a more philosophical definition of the Big One, which is: a natural disaster that causes so much damage that it fundamentally changes the nature of your society. Pompeii’s eruption completely wiped out that society. In Iceland, in the Laki eruption in the 18th century, they came close to abandoning the country … that they pulled it back is actually pretty amazing. And in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina, they permanently lost a third of their population. So, those are what I think a Big One was. Our estimate for a big southern San Andreas earthquake is 1,800 dead. Which, out of a population of 20 million people, is a 99.99% chance that you’re not dying in this event. So, it’s not about dying — it’s about what living will be like afterward. And because we have buildings that are designed not to kill you, but not to be usable afterward, we’re basically creating disposable buildings. And when we have to dispose of 10% of our new buildings — even a larger percentage of our older buildings — how do we keep people in place and functioning? Especially when, in addition, we’re likely to have so damaged our water system that it’s going to take up to six months to get water back in all of the properties. And then, we’re going to be triggering a lot of fires. You put those three things together — I think we could have an event that fundamentally changes the nature of Los Angeles, with a significant percentage of our population giving up and going somewhere else. A lot of businesses will become bankrupt. If we look back, the only really great earthquake we’ve had in California was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. San Francisco was five times larger than LA before the earthquake, and now LA is five times larger than San Francisco. There are constraints on the physical expansion of San Francisco, but you can argue that they never regained what they had. That’s a real possibility for Southern California. Imagine America without LA. I was quite sure when I started working here, 35 years ago, that I’d see the San Andreas earthquake in my career. I didn’t. I still hope I’ll see it before I die because I spent too much time studying it to not want to know what happens. Ideally, I’d be out of the San Andreas Fault, in a big empty area with no landslides and no buildings to follow me, and just go for the ride. I’ve made a lot of predictions about what the earthquake’s going to be like geophysically, engineering-wise, and socially. And I’d like to know if we’re right.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You say in your book, The Big Ones, that disasters shape us. What do you mean by that?
LUCY JONES — There’s a deep, instinctual response to disasters. We evolved into human beings in a dangerous environment — we had to fight for our lives. And we had weaker muscles and smaller teeth than a lot of our competitors. We had a brain. Faced with danger, we use our intelligence: we try to figure out the pattern and use that to make ourselves safe. It’s been an incredibly important part of human evolution — it’s deeply wired into us. There are two problems with it: first, evolutionarily you’d better worry about the immediate hazard and not the long-term one — if you worry about the flood instead of the wolf that’s about to eat your children, you don’t pass on your DNA. So, we’re wired to normalize the risks, and whatever we’ve experienced is our definition of what we respond to. Second, we’re very good at finding patterns, even when they don’t exist. Faced with something that actually has no pattern, we’ll perceive one anyway. And that’s where the problem comes in with natural disasters — because the timing of them, compared with human timescales, is very random. Why does the river flood this year, and not next year? That’s a pretty random distribution: there actually isn’t a pattern. If we watched Lisbon burn to the ground after a horrible earthquake — an 8.7, the biggest earthquake Europe’s ever seen — why’d that generation get hit and not some others? We’re desperate to find a pattern. If you were Catholic, in that very Catholic country, you’d say: “We haven’t persecuted enough Protestants! Let’s burn a few more of them at the stake.”

EMILIEN CRESPO — You say it also happened in the 8.3 Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake in 1923 — they started to torture Koreans as revenge.
LUCY JONES — Right. There’s a very strong cultural tradition in both Japan and China that earthquakes result because of failures from the government. What ended up happening was that, instead of turning on the government, they turned on Koreans and actually slaughtered 6,000 of them four days after the earthquake. Which is a particularly grim response… It was a really horrible outpouring by very terrified people. Human beings respond to stress with real ugliness to our fellow human beings sometimes.

EMILIEN CRESPO — In Southern California, earthquakes are the norm. California can’t stop having disasters. What are the cultural reasons for the population’s blindness toward them?
LUCY JONES — Earthquakes happen all the time, but mostly they’re little. That’s true of every other disaster. It’s also partly human time scales. As an individual, I can gamble that the event won’t happen. I may be dead for other reasons before the big earthquake happens — and if it doesn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen, right? The problem is for societies that are going to be around — that live beyond human time frames. And the city can’t afford to do it. Unfortunately, people making decisions for the city have all of these drives to not look beyond their own time frame. But that’s the impressive thing about Eric Garcetti [mayor of Los Angeles since 2013]: his willingness to do what’s right for the city, on a time scale much longer than political — and with the expectation that it wasn’t going to be a good thing for him. Of course, it turned out people were impressed that he could have the vision.

EMILIEN CRESPO — There seems to be a link between the attractiveness of California and the danger.
LUCY JONES — Very much so. I’m saying this as a geologist: California is beautiful because of earthquakes. Our mountains are incredibly steep because of earthquakes. We aren’t just a desert, like Las Vegas, because of those mountains trapping the rain. The fault at the base of them also attracts groundwater. And springs form along faults. Here in Southern California, 17% of Los Angeles Basin is an active oil field. Those oil fields are here because the faults trapped the oil, and LA is here because we discovered that oil, at the turn of the 20th century. And it grew dramatically because of that. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach represent 40% of the imports to the US, and they’re there because the Palos Verdes fault has shaped the coastline and created the cove — all the things that make human life more accessible are here because of the fault.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How to survive an earthquake?
LUCY JONES — You’re almost certain to survive an earthquake. You’re far more likely to die on the freeway in California. And you’re an order of magnitude more likely to be murdered than to die in an earthquake. So, stop worrying so much about dying. That said, there are places I’d rather not be. There are buildings, such as unreinforced masonry buildings, that we know are very deadly in earthquakes, so don’t buy one of those buildings, and don’t rent. Don’t spend a lot of time in them. Once the earthquake actually happens: drop, cover, and hold on. Don’t try to run in an earthquake — that’s the single largest preventable injury that we get in earthquakes. People sprain their ankles and break their legs because they’re trying to run when the earth is moving so much that it literally throws them to the ground. The other thing that kills a lot of people is flying objects. That’s one of the reasons we say, “Drop, cover, and hold on.” If you’re in a building that’s going to end up collapsing, we’ve seen spindly little school desks holding up big concrete floors. It really is the safest place to be. It’s not emotionally what we want to do — the idea of being trapped inside is terrifying. But it’s really dangerous to get out. It’s not about dying — it’s about living afterward. And what can you do about that? Storing lots of water because we’re most likely going to lose our water supply, having a generator. There’s a lot to be said for having a swimming pool because at least you’ll be able to bathe after the earthquake. [Laughs] The other thing, though, is this idea that society comes apart. The most important thing you can do is to think about who matters to you. Why do you stay here? What’s your interaction? Is it your job? Your school? Your faith — your church or synagogue or mosque? And if that’s an important place to you, get it ready so that that organization is functioning after the event and able to help others. Many of those organizations are how we as a society help each other. That’s where people express their goodness. It’s inspiring people who pull things together.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Is there anything one should have in an earthquake kit?
LUCY JONES — I have some stuff in the car: a first-aid kit with water, a Mylar blanket, running shoes, some cash.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You’ve said never to drive around LA with less than 25% gas.
LUCY JONES — I definitely try to do that. Whenever I think about earthquakes, I go and fill up. A woman I’ve become friends with lived in Japan for the 2011 earthquake. She was there with an infant, and it was snowing. And all the power was gone. She realized she couldn’t keep her baby safe there. She was able to leave because she had gas.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How does California compare with Japan, in terms of preparedness? What are the Japanese doing better than us?
LUCY JONES — A lot. If we had magnitude 8s in our capital, we’d also have more preparation. In the US, there’s a real issue that earthquakes are seen as a “California problem” and tend to not get support out of Washington. Also, Japan is about the same size as California and has about three times as many earthquakes. It’s a more active place. With the combination of people crowded into the earthquake area, and the higher rate of earthquakes, there definitely has been more social focus on it. They use the international building code, but they build stronger than we do. They also spend a lot more on research. Here, it’s about $60 million a year — and in Japan, it’s about a billion dollars for the same type of work.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How long can aftershocks last?
LUCY JONES — Decades. When one earthquake happens, it makes others more likely.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Let’s talk about symbols and earthquakes in California. There seems to be a disaster culture, especially in LA, with literature, cinema…
LUCY JONES — Yeah. It’s a very complicated thing, and it’s frustrating because we don’t educate. There are a lot of basic facts about earthquakes that most people don’t get. That’s one of my goals, before I’m dead: I want to help somebody write the earthquake movie that’s actually realistic.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Is there something hidden in our mindset that, although we don’t admit it, we know there’s something under us that might destroy everything?
LUCY JONES — I think there is. People talk about the transience of California. Is that part of our creative culture? The feeling that it all could fall apart at any moment helps influence that feeling of transience. And that’s the part I’m fighting against. I’m trying to say, “Let’s make sure it doesn’t fall apart.”

EMILIEN CRESPO — What do disasters tell us as a metaphor for Western society?
LUCY JONES — I was surprised at how many moral questions got raised by looking at disasters. This is a fundamental Western characteristic: we don’t like free will — the idea that we’re responsible for our own choices. And a lot of the religious side will say, “It’s all in God’s hands.” And God gave us free will. If you actually look at the Christian tradition, it doesn’t say, “Hand over everything to God.” It says, “You’re responsible for your choices.” I found it really interesting to look at St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. They took the concept of natural evils because they didn’t know how to deal with the fact that here was an evil that happened that wasn’t a result of human choices. And St. Augustine went for the corruption of nature by the devil — Adam’s fall corrupted nature.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And Rousseau also talks about how urban life destroyed nature.
LUCY JONES — Yes, but you didn’t have the knowledge then or 2,000 years ago. Bad things happen because of the natural world. But we’re reaching a point where it’s personal short-term gain versus long-term social benefit. And that’s where it’s a challenge in Western society: it’s a particularly American problem. We’re all — with the exception of Native Americans — descended from people who, at some point, chose to put their own personal benefit over their family, their clan, their nation … left to create their own new world. It’s double in California. You see this in American culture. Compared with others, we value individualism much more, and personal freedom. At the extreme, of course, choosing the personal right to a gun over protecting our children. As a society, we seem to have lost the concept of the common good. I put earthquake resilience in that common-good thing — you’re choosing to forgo some personal benefit right now to preserve the long term. And you could argue that we don’t do that as a sign of just how selfish and shortsighted we are. You could also argue that scientists haven’t sufficiently helped people understand the implications of their decisions. And if you look at what happened in Los Angeles — I see that as an example where I put in extra effort.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You’ve fought hard for that…
LUCY JONES — Yeah, I worked with the city council for a year. And for an introvert like me, it was actually a very difficult year. Making sure people understood the implications of their decisions… And then they came together and made a decision for the common good … and the city council’s actions were unanimous — there was no organized opposition. The Building Owners and Managers Association stood in support of the mayor in calling for this, even though it’s going to cost their members billions to retrofit those buildings.

EMILIEN CRESPO — So, there’s still hope!
LUCY JONES — We chose the common good when we understood it. So, it’s both aspects: we need to acknowledge the concept of a common good, but also make sure scientists do their part to help people understand what those decisions are.

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Los Angeles issue #30

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