Jones, a renowned seismologist, has been explaining earthquakes to Californians for decades. Dubbed “the Earthquake Lady,” she’s worked to make earthquake science more accessible to policymakers and the public. In 2014, she led a task force that recommended ways for Los Angeles to address its greatest earthquake vulnerabilities.
No one died this week after the magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes — as well as thousands of smaller aftershocks — struck near the city of Ridgecrest, a desert community about 150 miles from Los Angeles.
CNN spoke to her about what the region still needs to do to get ready for the Big One, what we can learn from other countries on earthquakes, and the emergency supplies she personally keeps on hand.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity throughout.
You’ve talked in the past about the psychology that contributes to people being unprepared. Can you tell us more about “earthquake amnesia,” and why it’s dangerous?
Actually, I might change my story on that a bit. The last five years have been one of the quietest times in California history for earthquakes — we went 20 years without a magnitude 6 — yet we were also seeing more moves toward seismic safety at the local government level than we have at any other time.
We seem to have been able to break through the belief that if we haven’t had an earthquake recently, we won’t have another one, at least at the policy level.
Seismic safety measures were passed in Los Angeles in 2015, for the water system, and mandating retrofit of poor buildings. The building retrofit has then been picked up in half a dozen other cities. …
Seeing that other cities are following suit, the last five years has been one of the most important times in terms of local government acting on this issue, and we did it without an earthquake, and that is rare.
You talk about earthquake amnesia, there’s a lot of individuals who have forgotten (a big earthquake) really is our future … but there are people in government who are trying to do what’s best for the place.
What are the greatest vulnerabilities in terms of being prepared on a community level?
The city of Los Angeles is really moving forward on water — that’s one that hasn’t been picked up by a lot of other places.
It’s usually a very challenging problem because it falls to water companies, and their boundaries don’t correspond with the boundaries of cities, so it’s difficult for cities to act on it. … If you live in the city of Los Angeles, great, there’s a lot of good stuff going on. For all the rest of us, it’s a really big challenge. We haven’t found a way to address that all the imported water has to come across the San Andreas fault, and all those systems will break in a big earthquake.
Water continues to be the biggest regional challenge.
(When it comes to retrofitting), one of the problems is that it’s a local jurisdictional issue, so it’s very difficult to say what’s happening. Basically there are four types of older buildings that are problematic:
Brick unreinforced masonry — that’s the worst, very dangerous. Almost every city in Los Angeles County has mandated retrofitting those, but in, say, San Bernardino, only (a few) cities have mandated retrofit. Those are really the buildings that will kill you. Building them hasn’t been allowed since 1935.
In Ridgecrest, there weren’t any, because the city is new.
There’s softer-story buildings — they were quicker to be retrofitted because it’s cheap, doesn’t cost much to fix and there’s a big benefit.
Then there’s concrete buildings — pre-1976 building code — and those are some of the deadliest buildings when they collapse because concrete is so heavy. Santa Monica and Los Angeles have acted on those, but they’re (also) the ones that will kill you.
And steel frame high rises … we saw it in the 1994 (Northridge) earthquake and in Japan in ’95, they saw the same issue with the welding of the buildings: the weld changed the chemical properties of the seal and the cracks formed in the welds in the corners, and then propagated into the main beam. We’re not building with that problem anymore, but we still have a lot of buildings that are potentially susceptible.
If I could really get moving on one thing, in all of our work in earthquake preparedness, we sort of ignored community organizations. We have a lot of messages targeted at individuals: go get water, have a plan, you’re going to be alone, you have to take care of your family. Those messages are also isolating — it says you’re going to be alone and under attack, and it’s not a message you really want.
Then there’s all the stuff at the government level that’s actually really encouraging, and in between are all those organizations through which people connect with each other: schools, churches, mosques, libraries, any place you get together with other people … places where people help each other.
Research is quite clear that one of the best predictors of a community being able to recover from a natural disaster is the degree of social capital they hold. I’ve been really interested in trying to move toward developing a program … to reach out to community organizations and help them connect to each other.
Then you get a stronger web — a church that helps its members get ready that’s already coordinated with the synagogue and the school across the street. Each know the resources they have and how to help each other after an earthquake. Now you really have a community that’s pulled together.
Los Angeles is rather famous for us not knowing our neighbors, for not doing community well, and that might be our downfall.
What can we learn from other countries that might be ahead of the curve, compared to the US, in terms of earthquake readiness?
The two countries with the highest rate of earthquakes in the world, probably, are Japan and Chile. They have a different approach to building codes and to what we ask of our community.
In Chile, if you build a building that’s damaged in an earthquake in the next 10 years, you’re liable, even if you already sold the building. If you can prove you’ve already done what the building code requires, that’s a mediation, but it’s hard to prove that.
Here, if you build a building, once you’re past the building department you’re home free, all your liability’s gone, and it means they take a different attitude.
Engineers there would offer a design to the building owner and say, this is allowed by code, and they’d say, yeah, I don’t think I want to take the risk, let’s make it stronger. …
In Japan, it’s culturally somewhat different. The name of the company is associated with the building, their reputation is associated with it going well, and they build to a stronger standard. Whereas our principle is the role of government is to make sure your building doesn’t kill you, but if the building is a total financial loss after that, the choice is yours to make.
Think of the condos going up in downtown Los Angeles, people putting so much money into those. Those are built to not kill you, but they could be a total financial loss. Most people aren’t aware that’s the choice they’re making.
You became one of the first US scientists to enter China after Westerners were let in in the ’70s. Can you tell us a bit about what impact that experience had on you?
It actually had a really major impact on the way I see things. I was a physics major and was studying Chinese because my grandparents had been missionaries there. I hadn’t decided yet if I was going to be a scientist or foreign service.
Once I started getting interested in geophysics, they said, wow there was just this earthquake in China with over 500 foreshocks.
I was the very first scientist to go in — I was a grad student and the professors had to finish teaching their classes. It was February of 1979, it was a very important thing. We’d heard that it looked like China predicted this earthquake, (the 1975 Haicheng earthquake).
You had a big swarm of earthquakes, like what happened in Ridgecrest … and one thing I did after that experience in China, I asked what is the background, how often (an earthquake) is a foreshock. It was the first paper I wrote after I came to California.
It’s about 5% of the time. Every time we have an earthquake now, we say that.
In Ridgecrest, the distribution of aftershocks was such that there was actually a higher risk, about a 10% chance there will be a bigger earthquake afterward, which in fact happened. But a 10% chance is still a 90% chance it won’t happen.
Because of my experience in China, I decided to create these numbers. My work in the 80s was how to turn it into probabilities, so we could actually release numbers. A 10% chance of a magnitude 7 on a given day is still a high risk … but in absolute terms it’s still small.
What do you do at that level? China evacuated, and there’s several reasons they could do that and we can’t. Politically, they could order people out, and tell them, OK, never mind, go back in — and then order them back out again. We can never do that. …
Nobody died in the Searles Valley earthquake. If people had evacuated, they might have been killed trying to run away. If all the buildings were falling down like they were after the Haicheng earthquake, you have something to be gained by it, and it’s worthwhile doing it at a lower probability level.
This was February in Manchuria, and getting people outside when it’s minus 40 degrees was a feat in itself. But they didn’t have an economy to disrupt because it’s an agricultural region in the depth of winter. Telling people to move outside didn’t disrupt the economy, whereas … for Los Angeles that could be devastating. They had a lot to gain and little to lose. We have a lot to lose and little to gain.
What came out of being in China was an understanding that this decision wasn’t just a scientific decision, the social aspects were just as big as anything from the science.
And that’s when I decided to work on creating probabilities, and we create the probability and hand it to the policymakers, the elected officials who understand all those other things, and they can use that information.
What are some of the most persistent earthquake myths you’d like to dispel?
That they’re significant — it feels like half the people ask, does this make the Big One more likely? And the others ask, does it release pressure and make the Big One less likely? The answer to both is no. (One quake) doesn’t have much significance … it’s not easy to say.
When one earthquake triggers another, that’s an earthquake we can expect — we know those happen, we can define where and when, and where is close to the fault that produces the main shock. You don’t have to get very far away from that fault for the signal to completely disappear.
People feel like earthquakes can trigger other earthquakes a long way away. But no … (with the latest earthquake,) the ability to trigger others is confined to an area about 50 miles around Ridgecrest.
Just because you felt it doesn’t mean it’s changed your earthquake risk.
The other one that frustrates me — and this falls on the scientists as well — is how poorly understood magnitude is.
“Well it was a magnitude 7.1 in Ridgecrest, what is it here?” You can’t actually answer it, it’s a 7.1 everywhere, 7.1 doesn’t have a location type. That is the number representing the total amount of energy released by the earthquake.
It’s like saying, I can see that house across the street. It’s 20 feet tall over there. How tall is it over here? It has a certain size and it is what it is.
What you feel is a different quantity called seismic intensity, and the intensity depends on location. The Japanese maybe do this in a better way, when they talk to the public they only talk about intensity. It was intensity VII over here and intensity V in Tokyo, for example. In this one, we would say it had a maximum intensity of IX and in Los Angeles it was a III.
Because both measures have numbers between 1 and 10, they are always getting confused. Intensity is always written with a roman numeral, and there are no subdivisions. Intensity is defined by the impact — intensity III means it’s felt by people sitting inside and often missed by people who are walking. …
If I could start things over, I would wipe out magnitude and only use intensity and just do it this way.
Why is it so important to have an earthquake kit?
It’s very important to have earthquake supplies because structures of our society are going to be disrupted. You aren’t going to be able to go out there and buy food or water. Your tap water will either disappear or be contaminated. You aren’t going to have electricity, so if you don’t have a radio source, you probably won’t have information. The internet probably won’t be working. Cell towers will go down. A lot of what you depend on for modern life is going to disappear.
I don’t put it in a kit to pull it out and go — where are you going to go? We’re not predicting the earthquake. You’re probably staying in your house.
I do keep supplies in my car. … It might take you a day to get across town, back to where you want to be. I know some people in San Francisco who lived in Los Gatos and were over in Oakland when an earthquake happened, and it took them 12 hours to get home.
So I have in my car some First Aid supplies, some water, comfortable shoes — because sometimes I get talked into wearing shoes I really don’t want to walk home in. If the traffic’s too bad, maybe you give up on the car and walk home.
We have a mylar blanket in there. Basically: what are you going to need if it takes 12 hours to get home. Some water, some walking shoes, and something to keep warm if it’s in winter.
I also keep food supplies, and I actually didn’t used to — one change in the economy over the past 25 years is that we don’t have food warehouses in the Los Angeles area anymore, we have a just-in-time economy, grocery stores can bring in the food they need the same day and don’t have to stockpile supplies as they used to. That means we don’t have a stockpile of food on this side of the San Andreas fault.
In the kitchen I have some food I know I’d be fine to eat: tuna fish, peanut butter, canned fruit because it contains both water and sugar.
They’re all foods a food bank would really like to have — so what I try to do is once a year, I donate to the food bank and then immediately buy supplies. That way I feel I’ve done a bit of good, and I’ve got supplies just in case.