Sci-Tech

California’s celeb quake expert says preventing damage is key to quick recovery

When not being crushed isn’t enough: Lucy Jones, who calmed the public after California tremors, now works to help cities reduce damage by upgrading buildings and infrastructure.

For three decades, seismologist Lucy Jones soothed the nerves of quake-rattled Californians with her calm explanations and common-sense preparedness tips. Her frequent media appearances, including some with her toddler cradled on her hip, earned her a level of celebrity unprecedented among earthquake scientists since Charles Richter lent his name to the first earthquake scale.

“She’s been called the Beyoncé of earthquakes, the Meryl Streep of government service, a woman breaking barriers in a man’s world,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2016 when Jones retired from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Now director of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, the pioneering researcher and communicator’s latest mission is helping cities boost their ability to bounce back from natural disasters by applying science in a way that makes a difference.

Lucy Jones: ‘Life Safety in the City: When There is More to Life Than Not Being Crushed’

4:30 p.m. Monday, Alder Hall Auditorium, 1315 N.E. Campus Parkway, University of Washington, Seattle. Sponsored by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute Washington chapter and the UW Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The event is free, but online registration is required at: http://bit.ly/2Gzvp7d

Jones got a taste of what it takes to spark political action during a temporary stint as Los Angeles’ earthquake “czar.” She helped create a gripping earthquake scenario to spell out what’s at stake and worked with politicians, building owners and affordable-housing advocates to push through the nation’s most aggressive seismic regulations requiring upgrades to dangerous buildings and other infrastructure.

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On Monday, Jones will make her pitch for better quake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest at a free, public lecture at the University of Washington. In a Q&A with The Seattle Times (edited for clarity and brevity), she discussed topics ranging from our dread of earthquakes to why modern building codes aren’t as great as most people think, and how scientists have bungled explanations of earthquake risk.

Question: California has the country’s highest earthquake risk, but Washington is second. What’s your message for us?

Answer: You in many ways have a more challenging problem because you have fewer everyday earthquakes to bring the issue to public attention.

The concept of normalization bias (which causes people to underestimate the likelihood of a disaster and its effects) is a very strong thing in the human psyche. We’re clearly evolved to focus on more immediate threats and we need stories, we need emotional connections to understand why we need to take action.

Earthquakes are very difficult to plan for because of those reasons, especially if you don’t remember the last time you had one. In very quiet times, it’s very hard to get people engaged.

For a policymaker to decide it’s worthwhile spending money on this when you have competing claims of homelessness and other problems, you need an emotional reason to connect and relate to your constituents and scientists don’t understand that.

Q: What’s wrong with the way scientists communicate earthquake risk?

A: As scientists, we explicitly refuse to use stories. One of the favorite lines is: The plural of anecdote is not data.

When we did the ShakeOut scenario in California, we worked to make it a story, we made a movie out of it, the public fact sheet was written as a narrative.

We did not focus on probability. Talking about the probability of an earthquake in some time frame focuses on the part of the problem we don’t know the answer to. When you talk about the uncertainty, people can find a reason to think it won’t happen.

When I’m asked about the probability of an earthquake, I say “It’s 100 percent. Just give me enough time.”

Q: How can you overcome denial and fatalism? The prospect of a magnitude 9 Cascadia megaquake and tsunami seems so overwhelming many folks just shrug and say: “There’s nothing we can do.”

A: I think that’s one of the most dangerous things that happens.

Earthquakes are random, you don’t know when it’s coming and that makes it much more frightening. When you have too much fear, you don’t do anything. That’s been a mistake in how we sometimes message. We think we’ve got to scare people. But that doesn’t get them to act. They just want to hide from it.

The Cascadia 9 sounds much worse than the 8 in California, but the reality is it doesn’t mean the shaking is going to be stronger. Your fault is offshore, so nobody is sitting on top of the fault.

It’s not going to be any worse than what happened in Japan in 2011, and 150 people died in that earthquake. You can build to withstand earthquakes, period.

About 18,000 people died in the tsunami, but they have way more people living in the tsunami zone than Oregon and Washington. If the Japan tsunami had been anything like a normal tsunami — it was about three times bigger than anyone thought was possible — they really would have had very few deaths.

But you cannot get only 150 dead here and keep your unreinforced masonry buildings.

Q: Seattle doesn’t require seismic retrofits for old brick buildings, also called unreinforced masonry. Los Angeles did it 30 years ago, and now is requiring upgrades to old concrete and soft-story buildings with weak ground floors. What does it take to get political action on seismic safety?

A: The tradition is that it takes killing a lot of people. Most California laws were created because an earthquake killed people and that created the impetus. What’s been so impressive about what’s happening in Southern California now is the willingness to pass legislation without killing people first.

A very large part of that is political leadership from (Los Angeles) Mayor (Eric) Garcetti. He recognized that we have a huge problem of affordable housing, and when the earthquake happens we’re going to lose a huge amount of those older apartment buildings. Unless we want to make the problem 10 times worse, we have to prevent those apartments from being destroyed.

We also held lots of meetings with lots of stakeholders and laid out the consequences if we do nothing.

The arguments that brought people along were mainly economic, not lifesaving.

Q: A lot of earthquake planning focuses on emergency response and personal preparedness. Why isn’t that enough?

A: Because that accepts damage is inevitable. When people ask me about earthquake prediction, I say: Do you want two hours to get out of a building, or do you want a building that doesn’t fall down in the first place?

Why figure out how to survive not having water instead of fixing your water pipes so they don’t break?

In L.A., we came up with a high-priority list, and the process is continuing.

We mandated that building owners had to pay for retrofitting their buildings, but the city is going to take on fixing the water system.

At the time, the only company in the world making seismically resilient pipes was in Japan. The city of L.A. went to American manufacturers and said: “We are only buying resilient pipe,” and now there are cost-effective options out there.

Q: Seattle is in the midst of a building boom. Won’t all those new high-rises be fine after an earthquake?

A: No. The current building code is a life-safety code. The goal is to not kill people. If you chose to have a building that’s a total financial loss after the earthquake, that’s your choice to make.

I have a problem with that. The reality of an earthquake is that the failure of a building impacts the whole community.

Look at what happened in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011. No new buildings collapsed, but they had to tear down 1,800 buildings and they lost their downtown.

I’ve been working with state assemblymen to move California’s building code up to a function recovery standard, so buildings could be repaired in a reasonable amount of time.

Who knows if it will happen? This is a real introduction to politics for me.


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