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'Earthquake Lady' Says We Need Better Buildings


Dr. Lucy Jones is the earthquake lady. She's a seismologist with a Ph.D. from MIT. She worked at U.S. Geological Survey for three decades, but Californians call her the earthquake lady who appears on television when the earth shakes and calmly explains what's going on below the ground. Now, the earthquake lady is moving on to other ventures. Today is the first day of Dr. Lucy Jones' new career. She joins us from studios at Caltech. Thanks so much for being with us.

LUCY JONES: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are you going to do now?

JONES: I'm going to start with a few months of downtime, and I hope the Earth leaves it that way (laughter) during this time. I've got a book I want to write, and that's my first priority. And then I'm going to be exploring with colleagues, both on the scientific side and on the policy side, 'cause I've been working both sides of the street for a while now. How to further the communication between science and policy - we need real data in our decision-making.

SIMON: What are some of the changes you've seen over the 30 years you've been talking about earthquakes and maybe even you were able to help bring them about?

JONES: Changes in science or changes in society?

SIMON: All of that. I was thinking of earthquake preparedness.

JONES: On the society side, we've gotten people to the point where they recognize that the earthquake is inevitable. The other thing that's happened has been helping people understand what that means because most people when they think of earthquakes are terrified of dying. The reality is we've done a lot in our building codes to keep buildings from collapsing, but we have not been willing spend that, like, extra 1 or 2 percent to go from not collapsing to being usable. So the likelihood is that you're going to live through the earthquake and face potentially bankruptcy, regional depression for decades.

Maybe you're working at Google and Google says you don't have to stay in Silicon Beach. Come to a Chicago office, come up to the Bay Area. And you leave and then the dry cleaners and restaurants that were depending on you, they've lost their business. And we have seen in some of these really big disasters loss of a significant percentage of the population and then just a depression that comes with it. The damage to the economy can dwarf what happens in the event itself.

SIMON: Is what they call in California the big one along the San Andreas fault just a matter of time as we've heard?

JONES: It's absolutely a matter of time. Plate tectonics is real. We've really figured out why the San Andreas moves and the rate at which it moves and the rate at which big earthquakes happen, and they average 150 years between earthquakes. It's been 300 since the last one. That doesn't mean it has to happen this second. It means long intervals sometimes happen, but at some point, our luck runs out. The bigger problem is getting people to understand that doesn't mean we're all going to die. It means we have to invest in better buildings.

SIMON: Dr. Jones, how good or not so accomplished have we gotten at being able to predict earthquakes?

JONES: I think we've come very close to proving that prediction will - is theoretically impossible. You don't want me to predict every earthquake. You want a prediction of which one is going to be large enough to do damage. There will be 50 earthquakes in California today

SIMON: I'm sorry, today?

JONES: Today...

SIMON: I didn't know that.

JONES: ...Because you didn't - we specify magnitude. Maybe one or two will be large enough to be felt. We have a felt earthquake in California several times a week. We have a potentially damaging earthquake if people were nearby magnitude five a couple times a year, and the really damaging earthquakes every decade or two. That's the long-term average. We can do that rate very well.

Essentially, if you compare it to what goes on in weather phenomenon, you have your climate. It's April in Los Angeles. It's probably going to be sunny, and you have your weather prediction. In fact, we see a storm front arriving and you've got a 50 percent chance of rain tomorrow. We've got radar systems. We can see the storm arriving. In earthquakes, we can tell you the climate very well, but there is nothing that has to happen before one earthquake can begin. That is what's keeping us from being able to say the earthquake's going to happen tomorrow. Instead, we just say we average so many per year.

SIMON: Can I ask about your retirement cake?

JONES: (Laughter).

SIMON: Photos have been tweeted out.

JONES: Yes. This came from my colleagues here at the USGS. We've - we're a small group, about 30 people, and we traditionally have barbecues in our backyard - we're literally in an old house - several times a year. So they put on a barbecue for me. They made the cake. They got a copy of a beautiful photo that has just been done by the LA Times, and then they put a great big strike-slip fault through it.


SIMON: And what flavor of fault?

JONES: Oh, it was chocolate, the best (laughter).

SIMON: Dr. Lucy Jones, the earthquake lady, she's now retired from the U.S. Geological Survey. Thanks for all your years of service.

JONES: Thank you. It's been a good career. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.