Preparedness & Recovery

‘Earthquake Lady’ Relates Her Decades of Understanding Science and Disasters

Her new book explains evolutionary pressure and how it can prevent preparedness.

by Jim McKay / April 20, 2018

She’s been called the “Earthquake Lady,” and she has spent her career sharing her vast knowledge and providing expert guidance about seismology, and the imminent “Big One in California.”

Jones, a science advisor for risk reduction for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for 33 years until 2015, developed the country’s first major earthquake drill, the Great Shakeout, and helped create the national science strategy for the USGS to reduce risk from natural disasters that occur nationally.

Now, Lucy Jones has written a book, appropriately titled, Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).

Jones said the book is really a summation of the things she’s learned in her career about how disasters, and impending ones, affect humans and how she learned to express her scientific knowledge in a way that most of us could understand and in a way that would motivate people to act.

She said that in her years talking to public officials and emergency management officials, it became clear to her that she sees disasters differently than most people, who are usually obsessed about the “when,” which she said has gotten in the way of preparing for the threat.

She explained by talking about our fear of death and the evolutionary pressure that keeps us alive. When faced with danger, she says, we use our brain, we make patterns to figure out what is going on to make ourselves safe — we eat a bad meal, we get indigestion.

“We’re deeply wired when faced with danger to make patterns, and it’s mostly a good thing,” she said. “The problem is when it’s fundamentally random, like the timing of a disaster and you still try to make patterns anyway.”

She said that leads to a focus on how to respond, “Like the desperate need for earthquake warning systems. In some situations, they do a lot of good, but they are limited. I really do think they are a help, but the way people want them, it’s as if they are a solution, which they are not.”

Jones said that most of us view the problem in terms of immediate need and not with a long-term mindset because of our evolutionary pressure. When somebody asks me, ‘How do I get ready for an earthquake, do I store water, have a kit, a plan, I’m like, how about have a house that doesn’t fall down in the first place?”

She said it’s just not the way we think, we think about the immediate future. “And yet do you want 10 seconds to get out of a bad building [which is what a warning system will give us] or a building that doesn’t fall down? I’d rather have money invested in strong building codes and enforcement.”

She said when you compare earthquake preparedness — experts from the Pacific Northwest admit they are behind California — it equates to the frequency of quakes. “There is more of an immediate threat [in California] and we have just been politically able to do more. [The Pacific Northwest] is struggling to get their [Unreinforced Masonry Buildings] retrofitted. Los Angeles did that in 1981.”

But, Jones said, California is not nearly as prepared as Japan, which has three times as many earthquakes. “The last magnitude 9 in Japan killed 150 people. We’re going to kill a lot more than that in the Pacific Northwest when we have the same earthquake.”

She said there are things that need to move forward in California. One is retrofitting bad buildings. “We know which buildings are going to kill us.”

She said Los Angeles took a big step in 2015 in this area and named a few other, nearby cities that have moved forward with retrofitting. “This is exciting and important, but I named a half-dozen cities, and there are 192 in Southern California.”

Another area is recovery, including infrastructure, especially water infrastructure. “We know pipes are going to break.” She said a big part of Los Angeles’ plan is dealing with water. “That’s potentially the most important thing going on.”

She said the majority of water is in the hands of private companies, which makes it hard for the cities to develop mitigation plans. She said some of the cities are “just now having that discussion,” with water companies.

In the face of all this, Jones said she’s optimistic and she cites the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a reason. “There were people from 57 different countries killed in that tsunami.”

She said that although disasters are rare in individual regions, they happen all the time around the world and that with the combination of globalization and telecommunications, we feel a connectivity. She said that connectivity has spawned concern in communities about disasters and resilience.
“But we still have to go out and do this stuff.”